Self-Help for Academics


In my latest blog for The Chronicle’s Lingua Franca, I write about the widespread suspicion of self-help books and also why it might makes sense for serious writers to write in that genre:

In 1997, Alain de Botton published his book How Proust Can Change Your Life. I was charmed by it. I remember using it in a course on cultural criticism for a graduate class that had a mix of theorists and creative writers. I thought of de Botton’s book as a model we could adopt. Here was an original work of criticism that taught me something about Proust while it playfully adopted a popular or low-brow form of writing — that is, the self-help book.

Like every other self-respecting academic, I’m distrustful of self-help books. In my hometown in India, at the bookstore where I once bought a Saul Bellow novel as a teen, mostly textbooks are sold now. And self-help books, immediately recognizable because of their lurid covers, promising a bright future. Learning is replaced by the reading of instruction manuals; change narrowed to individual striving; all of human emancipation instrumentalized, reduced to the acquisition of a better attitude or a few simple skills.


Writing About Cities


In my latest column for HT Brunch, a report on writing about cities:

The Jaipur Literature Festival recently came to the US – to Boulder, Colorado, at the foothills of the tall Rockies. Partly as a result of the thin mountain air, and partly because of its wide skies and intense bright light, but maybe also because of its laws that make marijuana-consumption legal in Colorado, there is a sense of weightlessness on the streets. I enjoyed my days there.

In Boulder, there were many writers whom I had seen earlier on the grounds of Diggi Palace in Jaipur. But here we were meeting again and in new company. On this occasion, I often had a question for the writers I met: can you name a book that is a good example of writing about cities?


Dear Committee Members


In the inaugural issue of Catapult, I offer advice on how to write a recommendation letter:

To Whom It May Concern:

I am writing to recommend to you a novel by Julie Schumacher with the marvelous title Dear Committee Members.

This is an entertaining epistolary novel made up entirely of that least promising of forms, letters of recommendation. The sender of these letters is Jason Fitger, a cantankerous professor of creative writing. He belongs to a recognizable type: an early book he wrote met with success but his productivity has since dwindled, if not entirely vanished. Fitger is employed at a less-than-distinguished institution in the Midwest with a telling name, Payne University.

The letters go out to a vice provost, department chairs, a literary agent, managers of grocery stores and other captains of industry overlooking dead-end jobs, even former girlfriends in positions of power in administration. Because Fitger is an uninhibited over-sharer, the novel’s narrative advances easily. He presents us at every turn a vivid picture of the academic workplace as a disaster zone, of literature as a beleaguered discipline, and last, but not least, the writer as truth-teller.


Subodh Gupta


In response to an invite from the AAWW, I visited the Queens Museum and wrote about a work of my choice in their exhibition of modernist and contemporary Indian art. The piece I chose was Subodh’s Gupta’s “What does the room encompass that is not in the city?” I had an hour to look at the art-works and then quickly write a response. Here is my flash fiction:

Afterwards, they were to go for drinks.

The exhibition was at the Queens Museum. They had kissed once, some weeks ago, after a screening of Apur Sansar at the Film Forum, but then Piya had left for D.C. to intern at NPR. Piya’s father owned a jewelry shop in Hawthorne, NY. She had been born in a hospital in Westchester County. Aamir was from Allahabad, his parents were both professors there, in sociology or psychology, Piya wasn’t sure now.

But where would they find a bar here? They sat down with bottles of cane cola in the museum café. The café had glass walls. In front of them, they could see giant fountains around the Unisphere, tall jets of water rising twenty feet high, the spray drifting in the warm air while planes crossed the sky from left to right.

Piya said, What is one work of art that has touched you the most?

An art work, Aamir said. Anywhere in the world?

Piya nodded.

In the classes he was attending at Columbia, Aamir was used to hearing professors ask questions. Why is this novel structured thus?

Now, he paused. He wanted to be truthful with Piya, he wanted to say something that was true and touching.


Knock on the Door

Max Pinckers, from the series Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty, 2013_040 Max Pinckers, from the series Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty, 2013_137

Here’s my latest HT Brunch column.

I’m held by the moment when the knock is heard. It evokes a primal fear, a sudden dread bruised by panic and confusion, a nightmare reality intruding into the dream of desire.

But what happens inside the drama of love? What are dreams made of? And for those who can escape their authoritarian guardians, what fate awaits them? These questions were taken up by a young Belgian photographer, Max Pinckers, whose book Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty (2014) is an exploration of love in India.




I was fortunate to be asked to write about any American classic of my choice for the Library of America:

On the right side of my writing desk in my study is a black wooden bookshelf with thick, box-like sections where I keep books I need for my current projects. But on the wall in front, the wall that I face while I write, is a bookshelf on which are kept the books I know I will return to regularly. Those are the books that have made me who I am: they hold the key to the kind of writer I want to become. These titles are my personal classics. On the top of the shelf there is a boxed set of Paris Review interviews and the framed photographs of my two children, and below them, in the first row, a line of hardbound books in their white cardboard cases. These are the Library of America editions of Philip Roth’s writings.

I must have already read three or four novels of Roth’s before he became central to my thinking. Why did this happen? Perhaps the change occurred one night in Delhi.


(I chose this image because I imagine it was made when Roth was still teaching. In an English department! Photo from here)

Partition Lit.


My piece for HT Brunch on the literature of the Partition has a somewhat dissenting take on Manto:

In the famous story Toba Tek Singh by Urdu writer, Saadat Hasan Manto, we get a brilliant, biting commentary on the arbitrariness of borders.

Manto’s protagonist, Bishan Singh, lives in a lunatic asylum. He doesn’t know whether his village Toba Tek Singh is located in India or the newly created nation called Pakistan. As much as the depiction of the madness of that time, what interests me in the story is the persistence of the ordinary.

My throat catches as I hear what Bishan Singh’s old friend Fazal Din says to him during a visit to the asylum: “Soon you will be moving to India. What can I say, except that you should remember me to bhai Balbir Singh, bhai Vadhawa Singh and behen Amrit Kaur. Tell bhai Balbir Singh that Fazal Din is well by the grace of God. The two brown buffaloes he left behind are well too. Both of them gave birth to calves, but, unfortunately, one of them died after six days. Say I think of them often and to write to me if there is anything I can do.”

It is literature’s task to record with an unblinking, democratic eye, both our triumphs and failures as individuals as well as a collective. Manto was a soldier in the war on error and hypocritical illusions about the human heart, but I have always nursed a slight suspicion about him.

Like tabloid journalism, Manto seemed to enjoy the violence a little too much.



T.Cole_cr Retha Ferguson

My piece on the ways in which Teju Cole on social media sites makes writing and creativity take place in new ways:

Everyone understands the idea of prompts. The use of #hashtags on Twitter, in my opinion, offers the most succinct example of incitement to writing. The novelist and photographer Teju Cole has used Twitter #hashtags to provoke public writing and image-making among his 190,000 followers. This exercise can become an extraordinarily creative, collaborative act. Cole is on a temporary (or maybe permanent) break from Twitter, but even as I started writing this post I saw that he was producing a new set of essays on Instagram, reposting photographs of the Mona Lisa taken by visitors to the Louvre, and accompanying them with his analysis of social photography, the ritual function of icons, and the optical qualities of digital compression.


Of Academic Interest


I asked the well-known philosopher Judith Butler to unpack for me the phrase “academic interest.”  Here is the piece I wrote for The Chronicle’s Lingua Franca:

In a video that is available online, you can watch Judith Butler, philosopher and winner of a bad writing award, speaking to a crowd at Occupy Wall Street. It is a short speech, pointed and incantatory, and Butler is brilliant.

A wonderful innovation of the Occupy Wall Street movement was the use of the human microphone — the name given to the body of the audience repeating, amplifying, each statement made by the speaker. This practice was probably introduced because there was a ban on the use of megaphones. During Butler’s speech, the repetition by the human microphone helps. It produces for us the image of her words being taken up by the public (so that we see philosophy as a public act) and we, her listeners, also get a chance to think through her words in the process. Critics of the Occupy Movement, Butler says, either claim that the protesters have no demands or that their impossible demands are just not practical. And she then adds, “If hope is an impossible demand, then we demand the impossible.”


Teachable Moment


I have written a piece about Claudia Rankine and how she creates teachable moments; for instance, in her commentary on what commentators say about Serena Williams. More generally, the piece is about academe and race:

Everything in American public life, when it comes to race relations, serves as a frame for a history of violence and degrading humiliation. And yet, what is inspiriting about Rankine’s latest volume of poetry is its deep investment in the teachable moment. The teachable moment in Citizen doesn’t involve sharing beer. Instead, we watch the poet flinch, or introduce a pause, or post a rebuke. The teachable moment here often simply resides in asking What did you say?

One of the pieces in Citizen begins thus:

You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred
street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean
is making him hire a person of color when there are so
many great writers out there.


Photo of Serena Williams from here