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)
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.
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.
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.”
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
From my latest The Bookist column “What Is It, Dear Heart?”:
I am at Yaddo writing a novel about the messiness of love. Yaddo is an artist colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. I have been here for a month. I write every day, I walk in the woods, and before I go to bed each night I read a story from a collection of love stories titled My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead.
My latest column (“The Bookist,” a monthly column for Hindustan Times Brunch) is on poetry:
One night in the early Eighties, in the basement theatre of Shri Ram Centre in Delhi, I heard the Hindi poet Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena read his long poem Kuano Nadi. This was my discovery. I had taken a DTC bus from Delhi University to Mandi House to listen to this poet without knowing anything about him.
His reading changed me. His poem was about rural poverty and it took me away from myself; it presented a radical vision of art and the language he had used welcomed me as if it was the doorway of my home.
I saw the above sign at a reading I did at Oblong Books in Rhinebeck. This post is about recent events related to the release of my essay collection, Lunch with a Bigot, primarily links to my radio interviews: with Joe Donahue on WAMC; with Brian Lehrer on WNYC; with John Hockenberry at WNYC’s The Takeaway. Also, check out this podcast on The Aerogram’s “Marginalia” where I was interviewed by Anita Felicelli. In other news, my “Ten Rules of Writing,” excerpted from Lunch with a Bigot, were presented on LitHub. And a wonderful interview with David Burr Gerrard appeared on Biographile.
Forthcoming readings from Lunch with a Bigot:
Tsion Café, Harlem, New York, Thursday, May 7, 2015, 7 PM, in conversation with Akhil Sharma;
Oblong Books, Rhinebeck, Friday, May 9, 2015, 7 PM;
Community Bookstore, Brooklyn, Tuesday, May 12, 2015, 7 PM, in conversation with Dani Shapiro;
Inquiring Minds Bookstore, New Paltz, Friday, May 15, 2015, 7 PM.