On Immigrant Fiction: An Interview with Amitava Kumar

by    /  June 26, 2019  / Comments Off on On Immigrant Fiction: An Interview with Amitava Kumar

Photo by COA


As I walked up to get my copy of his book signed, Amitava Kumar shifted in his chair, turned to face me and asked: “Have we met before?” We hadn’t, but this is Kumar’s charm — a familiarity and candor with his readers.

Kumar, a writer, journalist, and most recently, the author of the novel Immigrant, Montana, visited City of Asylum on March 20th. Sipping wine — I’ll just put my water here, he said as he set his glass on the stage podium, drawing laughs — Kumar spoke frankly, often capping his sentences with a ‘you know?’ as if divulging a secret to his audience.

His latest novel traces immigration through the lens of desire as its narrator, Kailash, an Indian immigrant to New York City, navigates romantic and sexual relationships with three women: Jennifer, Nina, and Cai Yan.

Kumar’s talk, which circled from his blurring of fiction and nonfiction to grappling with imposter syndrome as an immigrant, left a lasting impression. In a break from our normal Q&A format, Sampsonia Way has included excerpts from Kumar’s talk below, along with our follow-up questions, and Kumar’s answers from an email interview.

On Fact & Fiction: An Inch from Life:

You are drawing on your life. That it was all true. Of course, you’re drawing on your life. But I love the fact that you’re drawing so close to life that you’re carving out this little inch-wide space where you’re inventing everything. – Amitava Kumar, spoken at City of Asylum

Sampsonia Way: In the author’s note in Immigrant, Montana, you describe your novel as “fiction as well as nonfiction.” Your narrator’s name, Kailash, is cleverly shortened to A.K. in the novel— which we realize are also your own initials. How do you decide how much of your own life to insert into your writing, particularly when writing about topics as intimate and personal as love and sex?

Amitava Kumar: The English writer Geoff Dyer is a friend of mine and there’s a quote of his that I love: “I like writing stuff that is only an inch from life, but all of the art is in that inch.” I don’t stray too far from the personal, and I do this because then it feels awfully real to me, but the real challenge and delight is to invent reality that is as fictional as life itself. Everything is autobiographical and yet nothing is. Working with that assumption frees me.

On the Collision of Different Worlds:  

I always bristled when I thought of, particularly of Indian writers who wrote about monkeys. And mangos. And arranged marriages. I thought, ‘Come on! Get rid of the cliches.’ Now, in falling for the cliche, I thought, how was I going to rescue myself? -A.K.

SW: Your writing is interdisciplinary — at one point, for instance, you juxtapose Kailash’s description of a monkey committing suicide with a description of the export of monkeys from India to America for NASA space tests, contextualizing monkeys within migration (and avoiding a cliche). At the reading, you were asked about your ability to “bridge different paradigms,” and bring various writers, artists, and theorists into the conversation. How do you approach collecting knowledge from various sources and crafting them into a narrative?

Amitava Kumar: Edward Said used to say that the people who are in exile can only produce fragments because their existence isn’t whole. I’m not living in exile. But I am an immigrant and, as an immigrant, I carry different worlds in me. This is a general reality under globalization, the collision of different worlds. We inhabit startling juxtapositions. In my writing I try to track that reality. I also see myself as a kind of resident alien inside the academy. I keep making the journey back to other worlds, the world of art or creative writing. And there, too, I see myself as speaking in tongues, engaged in code-switching.

On Love and Immigration:

Close your eyes, and imagine, remember the time you were falling in love. … In the same way, as an immigrant, you’re inventing an identity. You’re telling a story about yourself — who you are, where you’re coming from, where you’re going. That’s what you’re doing in love, too. You’re translating yourself as someone, to another person. And you stumble through it. –A.K.

SW: During your reading, you drew a parallel between love and migration — both are experiences in which people are ‘immigrants’ and find themselves translating themselves and inventing identities. Can you elaborate on why you chose to explore immigration through the lens of love and desire?

Amitava Kumar: Yes, I do think that when we are falling in love, we are like immigrants in a new country. Especially if you are falling in love for the first time. You are learning a new language, new customs. You are creating a persona to present to your lover — almost in the same way as you were doing with the officer at the border. But the reason why I thought I’d write a novel about desire was because I thought it hadn’t been done in this way before. Immigrant nostalgia. Done. Immigrant loss. Done. Immigrant pain. Done. Immigrant struggle. Done. Done. Done. I thought it was a provocative question that my narrator came with: am I not human because I want to get laid?

Making the Most of Imposter Syndrome:

And I know you’re laughing, sir, but it’s a serious matter because I was explaining my whole being to that guy. There would be fictions that would spring in my mind. ‘Officer, I’m new in this country.’ Or, ‘Officer, I arrived only the other day.’ I felt in the beginning years they must know this guy did not do very well in his studies in India — why did we give him a visa? You know, I always had that fear.

SW: Your narrator often addresses someone called “Your Honor.” When describing your voice as a writer, you mentioned a personal inner dialogue in which you address a traffic cop who pulls you over. For your narrator, this personal dialogue manifests as justifying himself to a judge. How have you, personally, grappled with this experience? Do you have advice for those who also experience a constant state of feeling as though they must “explain their whole being?”

Amitava Kumar: I believe there is a name for it. “Imposter Syndrome.” Yes, I have experienced it. In fact, when I first arrived in this country, I lived in fear that they were going to send me back for any number of reasons. I felt I could be accused of not being who I was — that I wasn’t as ambitious or focused or talented as my various letters of application to universities had said I was. Or that I had lied about my intentions to return home after acquiring my degree. Or that I didn’t have the property at home that I claimed to have. I think one should use this fear, or this impulse, to recognize in it one’s place as an outsider. The outside is a good place to be for a writer. You are always going to be observing, you will stay alert, and the world will continue to offer itself to you as new. Use it to write!

On the Rebuke of Imagination:

Have you noticed that many people have this great preference for biographies? It’s very reassuring to read an account which seems A) real, and B) ennobling, you know? My father used to always read about Winston Churchill. There was no admission of how even the real, the nonfiction, was always a contested zone.

SW: At Sampsonia Way, we focus on freedom of speech and expression, and supporting writers as they speak their truth. During your reading, you mentioned the blurring of fiction and nonfiction takes place not only in your book, but in the world— ‘fake-news’ on forwarded WhatsApp messages becoming primary news sources, for instance. Or false statements made by political leaders. You described this “fictionality of our world” as a central question at the moment. How does the merging of fiction and nonfiction in the ‘real world’ inform your work as a writer, professor and/or journalist?

Amitava Kumar: I think the world is increasingly turning into a place where you sometimes just don’t know what to believe. The writer of fiction in America today is being challenged by the president of the country who produces fiction every day. Trump’s existence in the White House, his daily lies and the gullibility of his supporters, is a rebuke to my imagination. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. Should I insist on truth and put my faith in fact-checking? Or should I turn to more extraordinary fiction, one that trumps Trump? This is a question that I have been exploring in my classes in recent years. Last semester I taught a course of “fake news.” Before that, I taught a course called “In-Between Novels.” I’m thinking of writing a novel about a professor, a middle-aged man of color, who is teaching a course on fake news while working during his free hours on a novel…

Comments are closed.