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.More
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.
The intended readership of Writing Badly Is Easy may seem to be academics, students and those working towards joining the ranks of scholars, but Kumar’s approach, a combination of donnish table-talk and friendly advice over a drink, should appeal to anyone who has ever sat before a blank page and felt a surge of panic.
An Indian newspaper asked me to contribute a hundred words about a summer that was transformative. I wrote about the summer when I wrote the first draft of Immigrant, Montana. (The novel was published in India as The Lovers.) I was also asked to supply a photo from the time I was writing about. My daughter took this photo of me embracing her little brother a minute after my return from the residency.
My friend Vasundhara at Aleph Book Company in Delhi asked me to share my writing advice. It was pub day for my book Writing Badly Is Easy. When I got her note on my phone, I was at Mass MOCA in North Adams. My daughter took this picture. I have now written a few lines in response to Vasundhara that you can hear here.
I was interviewed for National Geographic Traveller India.
What do you love and hate most about travel, today?
I like that travel gives you new eyes. When I arrive in a town, and am taking pictures, I realise that most often my best pictures are the ones taken on the first day. Intimacy is overrated; newness is everything.
What do I hate about travel? How much time do you have? The presence of large crowds in packed enclosures, waiting to criss-cross the earth, makes me think of what we are doing to the planet. I’m put in this mood to entertain pessimistic thoughts because I feel my age when I travel. My body aches, I want to lie down. I crave silence.