On Halloween, my best friend’s older brother sold us each one Poland Spring water bottle filled with watered-down vodka. There are now 15 dollars less to my name. We drank this vodka with a great deal of teenage bravado — trying not wince at the clear liquid’s resemblance to rubbing alcohol. My friend’s father made a crudité platter for us. The night ended with me throwing up baby carrots and mini peppers in my dad’s Honda, at the first hard left out of my friend’s driveway. Never have I felt more like a 16-year-old.
Earlier this year, at a literary festival in Jaipur, I met the Tamil writer Perumal Murugan. I had just finished reading his book “Poonachi,” which will be published in the U.S. this month as “The Story of a Goat.” (The translation is by N. Kalyan Raman.) Here is how the novel begins: “Once, in a village, there was a goat. No one knew where she was born. The birth of an ordinary creature never leaves a trace, does it?” When I read those lines, a thrill ran through me.
A specter is haunting the writing of fiction—the specter of fake news. I fear that my abilities as a novelist are being challenged by those who manufacture lies on social media. There is fiction and then there is fiction—falsities that lead to lynchings and riots. Both rely on storytelling, but that’s like saying soil is used both in gardens and in graves. The way language is used in each case is entirely different, if not opposed.
When I moved into the house I bought a few years ago across the road from Vassar College library, the first thing I unpacked was my own little library. On one small shelf I put books by John Berger, putting in the center an anthology of his writings, so that the photograph of a young Berger looked out on the room. Berger, at once a writer and an artist and a critic, was important to me: I had discovered him as an undergraduate in Delhi. No one else could be as political and sensual as he was in his writing. His books have been my companions for much of my adult life; A Seventh Man, his imaginative work on migrants in Europe, inspired my very first book, Passport Photos. His language hovered between poetry and criticism; he was at once incisive and lyrical; a precursor to many contemporary writers who mix genres. On that same shelf with Berger’s books I put books by writers I knew personally and admired – Michael Ondaatje, Geoff Dyer and Teju Cole – but also Joan Didion. I had never met Didion or Berger, so neither could be aware of this, but I had turned them into my mentors. ‘The contents of someone’s bookcase are part of his history, like an ancestral portrait,’ the critic Anatole Broyard wrote. I was trying to create a family album, accurate for who I was as a writer at that time in my life.
Jeffrey Williams (JW): Your new novel, Immigrant, Montana, has been widely reviewed and most of the reviews have touted it as autofiction, although it strikes me that it is not really autobiographical. Having known you for a long time, I’d say you conducted a skillful ruse, giving it the air of autobiography.
Amitava Kumar (AK): I worked very hard both to invent things and, at another level, to make it appear as if it were my story. For example, the narrator is called AK-47. I was on a train somewhere, and I thought, he must have a provincial name, Kailash, which is not a name you will hear among many Indians. And then I thought up the idea that an Irish friend of his calls him Kalashnikov, and that becomes AK-47, so it promotes the illusion that it’s about me.