Amitava Kumar: The idea of how the world comes into your mundane life, how to find an imprint of that on the page, I think that’s what novels are doing these days. My novel is an investigation into that feeling when the pandemic comes rushing in. Why write fiction when you’re surrounded by the fiction of fake news? In the process of writing the book I was struggling with this question, and I’m not sure I really have an answer for it. But I was trying to say, for example, one horror would be succeeded by another horror so quickly that I would forget what had happened on Tuesday. So I thought okay, why don’t I make my novel a record of what’s happening.
Last year in March, the pandemic weighing heavy over us, the writer Yiyun Li made a generous proposal: we could read 15 or so pages of Tolstoy’s War and Peace every day as a part of an online community #TolstoyTogether. Yiyun said, “I have found that the more uncertain life is, the more solidity and structure Tolstoy’s novels provide. In these times, one does want to read an author who is so deeply moved by the world that he could appear unmoved in his writing.” We finished reading War and Peace in 85 days, thousands of readers spread across the planet. A Public Space, the literary organization that brought us together under Yiyun’s guidance, has just come out with a book Tolstoy Together. Yiyun and I will be talking about this entire experience by Zoom on Oct 4. Here is the registration link: https://www.crowdcast.io/e/skylit-li/register
Kumar’s bibliography is, like A Time Outside This Time, a mix of reportage, cultural criticism, and fiction. His books include Passport Photos, a genre-blending investigation of postcolonialism and migration; Husband of a Fanatic, an autobiographical reflection on Hindu-Muslim relations in India; and A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Book—partly an account of two suspected terrorists and partly a study of 9/11’s effect on art and culture.
Kumar’s breakout novel, Immigrant, Montana, published in 2018, laid the groundwork for A Time Outside This Time; it too intersperses its narrative with essayistic digressions. The New Yorker called the book, somewhat perplexingly, a “nonfiction novel” and compared it to the work of autofiction eminences Ben Lerner and Sheila Heti.
Kumar isn’t quite comfortable with the term autofiction. (Novelists charged with writing it tend not to be.) “What is usually presented as autofiction is narrowly a story of the self,” he says. “I wanted to mess with that idea. I’m not someone who is describing getting up from this table, making tea, going into the bathroom, coming out, making a call to my wife.”
February 23 is the first anniversary of the Delhi riots. When making this painting I was thinking of Bashir Badr’s lines: ‘Log toot jaate hain ek ghar banana mein / Tum taras nahin khaate bastiyan jalaane mein.’ (People go broke in building a home / And you remain unmoved as you burn down whole neighborhoods.)
From the acclaimed author of Immigrant, Montana, a one-of-a-kind novel about fake news, memory, and the ways in which truth gives over to fiction.
When a writer named Satya attends a prestigious artist retreat, he finds the pressures of the outside world won’t let up: President Trump rages online; a dangerous virus envelopes the globe; and the 24-hour news cycle throws fuel on every fire. For most of the retreat fellows, such stories are unbearable distractions; but for Satya, these Orwellian interruptions begin to crystalize into an idea for his new novel, Enemies of the People, about the lies we tell ourselves and each other. Satya scours his life for moments where truth bends toward the imagined, and misinformation is mistaken as fact.
Sifting through the President’s tweets, newspaper clippings, childhood memories from India, and moments as an immigrant, a husband, father, and teacher, A Time Outside This Time captures our feverish political moment with intelligence, beauty, and an eye for the uncanny. It is a brilliant meditation on life in a post-truth era.