The Indian American writer’s latest novel was one of Barack Obama’s favourite books of 2018
Kumar’s upcoming book is a creative guide for writing well
"I finally felt I belonged," Amitava Kumar says when I ask him about his reaction to Barack Obama including his latest novel, Immigrant, Montana (published in India as The Lovers), in his year-end list of favourites of 2018.
On 28 December, following a personal tradition, the former US president posted on Facebook a list of books, movies and music he “found most thought-provoking, inspiring, or just plain loved" last year. Kumar’s novel, set largely in the US, finds a place in that line-up, helmed by Becoming, the best-selling memoir by the former first lady, Michelle Obama (“obviously my favorite!" her husband quipped in parenthesis), followed by books by several others, such as V.S. Naipaul, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Zadie Smith and Ben Rhodes.
Kumar’s reaction, terse as it may sound, is telling, especially since he has been living in the US for over three decades and is now a US citizen. Born in Bihar, he went abroad for higher education before finally settling there, attaining the status of an immigrant, and eventually becoming an “immigrant writer". Does it trouble him to be boxed off in that label, I ask, as we sit down in the author’s lounge of the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival 2019 last month for a quick interview. “I never felt bounded by the immigrant novel," Kumar says after a brief pause. We go on to parse the generic affinities of this creative entity.
In 2013, Pulitzer-winning writer Jhumpa Lahiri caused a mini-sensation in the literary world when she refused to admit, in an interview to The New York Times, that there was merit to labels like “immigrant fiction". “What do we call the rest? Native fiction?" was her riposte, when asked about the term. Kumar is in agreement with her sentiments. “I was as interested in telling stories set elsewhere, such as the one about my first cousin in the village, who was killed by her own father and brother after she had gone to burgle a house and had been held back and raped by the men who caught her," he says, recounting a chilling incident from The Lovers. “In that scene, I was presenting what I would call a ‘home product’." The phrase, incidentally, lent the title to one of Kumar’s earlier books.
Breaking into chaste Hindi every few sentences, often peppered with rustic humour, Kumar is not a textbook immigrant writer. He doesn’t wear any obvious markers of deracination on his sleeves. Even when he switches to English, his speech remains unaffected by Americanisms. Kailash, the protagonist of The Lovers, shares his antecedents (including his initials, since he is nicknamed AK by his fellow students in the US), although Kumar denies any direct resemblance. “Fiction allows you to play with uncertainty," he says. “I wanted to foster the idea that AK is me, but that is not the case in reality."
The novel traces AK’s life as a student, especially his interaction with the maverick scholar Ehsaan Ali (modelled on the real-life Pakistani-origin academic Eqbal Ahmad), and the profound influence he leaves on AK’s impressionable mind. Interspersed with this story of intellectual evolution are tales of AK’s erotic adventures. Moving in and out of the lives of various women, he carries within him a lingering instability, a feeling of being un-homed always—emotionally, physically, geographically. As an immigrant, his fate is not only to lose the home he has left behind in India, but also to gain none in his adopted country.
Perhaps for its allegiance to both worlds, AK’s original homeland as well as the one he adopts, The Lovers operates on a register that is hard to freeze. Juxtaposed with stories of the havoc wreaked by monkeys on AK’s village in Bihar are passages that closely scrutinize Western philosophy. In an earlier novel, Home Products (2007), Kumar had seamlessly put in references to Bhojpuri, politician Lalu Prasad’s legacy, the role of the railways in the South Asian imagination, and other such eclectic vignettes. More recently, the shifting tone and texture of his prose has been interrupted by images, after the style of German writer W.G. Sebald, in whose hand categories like fiction and non-fiction lost their distinctiveness—a loss that brought in its wake immense richness of thought. “In Sebald, the coexistence of images and text keep you questioning the thought behind each photograph, provoking an exercise of the senses," Kumar says. Even in his day job as professor of English at Vassar College in upstate New York, he encourages his students to introduce photographic imagery in their writing.
Kumar has also taken to painting and sketching in small notebooks almost as a daily habit. “Earlier, I used to tell my students to write every day and walk every day," he says. “Now I urge them to also draw every day." The idea, he says, struck him during a visit to Michael Ondaatje’s home in Canada, when the latter asked him to read John Berger’s Bento’s Sketchbook, a 20th century classic, impelled by the question: How does the impulse to draw something begin?
Drawing makes one more observant, Kumar says. “And if you are a better observer, you become a better writer too." On our way to the author’s lounge, he had, in fact, stopped to execute a couple of impromptu portraits with fluent strokes of pen on paper. These flash sketches, Kumar says, are “more purposeful than doodling", though he plans to enrol himself in drawing classes once he is back in New York. His hands already move with abandon. The only way for him to get these compositions out is by such swift movements, Kumar says, mimicking the haste with which a photographer may take a candid shot.
The confluence of text and image brings us to the literary moment we are currently in. “For me, it is signified by the blurring of fiction and non-fiction, in the emergence of a style that seems to be reporting the world of facts but is actually fictional—it is fiction that makes us aware of the fictionality of the world," he says, mentioning the work of writers like Rachel Cusk and Olivia Laing’s novel Crudo. Kumar’s new book, titled Writing Badly Is Easy (Badly, in the title, is in strike through), to be published later this year in India, is also such a literary experiment. “It is a work in mixed form," he says, “bringing together self-help, interviews, essays, fiction".
The book is his attempt to rescue graduate students in the US from “producing sawdust", Kumar says, and those in this country from “writing bureaucratese". Sounds like the sort of jolt we need at a time when publishing is being turned into a democratic right rather than an exercise in merit and election.