Guest fiction editors Amitava Kumar and V.V. Ganeshananthan discuss South Asian diaspora literature, war, and conflict—and their fiction selections for Guernica.
Amitava Kumar: Here’s a question: is war more a fact of life for South Asians? Is it a consistent theme in fiction written in the South Asian diaspora?
V.V. Ganeshananthan: It’s hard for me to answer that with complete confidence when I still struggle with the question of how race and ethnicity relate to literary genres and classifications. How do you think it does? People often talk to me of South Asian literature, and I’m not sure what they mean—writing by South Asians? About South Asians?
Certainly, writers in the South Asian diaspora deploy a great variety of styles—but some common themes. All fiction is political in some way, and it’s interesting to see fiction play out in some South Asian spheres in which talking about politics has become dirty, something polite people don’t do. And of course fiction does all sorts of things, goes all sorts of places, that polite people don’t go. So I was fascinated to ask some terrific fiction writers about politics and war and see what would rise to the surface, what would bubble up, and what would stay in the background.
And some things also stay in the background because in parts of South Asia and its diasporas, war and a kind of unstable politics have been normalized. I am always fascinated to watch characters dealing with their personal lives without explicitly acknowledging the hold politics has on them, even as it affects everything they do. Have they become desensitized? And how does one write about violence without fetishizing it?
I asked our contributors for writing about war and conflict because it is the subject that most compels me; the kind of anger and passion that moves us to war is flawed, and yet deeply human.
Amitava Kumar: You are asking what is South Asian writing. It is fiction which has at least three of the following: a large family or two, arranged marriage, misery, some violence, Bollywood, the interior design of nostalgia which uses the furniture of loss. You can choose the stylistic beverage-to-go: verbal exuberance or hushed poetry.
This is a caricature. But only partly. Give me an example of a novel you’ve read recently by a South Asian or about South Asia that departs from this model.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: I can think of novels by non-South Asians, that are not set in South Asia, that fit that formula. A historical novel about British royalty, or indeed, many Russian classics, could very easily incorporate the first three! Doesn’t most good literature have misery in it?
Page Turner: The Asian-American Literary Festival
on November 13-14 will showcase writers and editors from this issue of Guernica at 3 p.m. on November 14,
at powerHouse Books in Brooklyn. Tickets here.
Amitava Kumar: Those are good points. But another way to defeat my generalizations is to point to writing that escapes the formula I’ve described above. This summer, I read Amit Chaudhuri’s The Immortals, which is about a classical musician in Bombay. Startling, original language. And about ordinary lives that are intriguing rather than replete with agendas in the manner of an oversubscribed, undergraduate course in postcolonial politics.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: I need to read that! You’ve been telling me about it. Okay, here are some other examples: Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid or Coming Through Slaughter (or The English Patient or…), Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music or The Golden Gate… and (contributor to this special issue of Guernica fiction), Tania James’s Atlas of Unknowns, perhaps? Guernica contributor Romesh Gunesekera’s The Match moves through lives that feel deeply resonant in Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and England.
But why can’t we write about misery, Bollywood, postcolonial politics? I know you’ve read Chandra’s “The Cult of Authenticity” in the Boston Review.
Amitava Kumar: I always thought that Chandra’s point was about arming writers with the freedom to write about anything—and not so much to give them reason to keep writing about the same old thing. I’m not saying we can’t write about misery, Bollywood, and postcolonial politics—see my own novel for exactly that mix, perhaps with that other crucial ingredient, incest! I’m really railing against writing that is easily, even too easily, recognizable as belonging to a category.
From your examples, I think we’re arguing for the same goal. It’s just that you want to reserve the right to use the familiar, if you so wish. Which is fair, of course.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: I’m arguing against the desire to categorize fiction; one of the points of fiction is to illuminate complexity, the ways in which people exceed the categories they make for each other. In Tania James’ story The Other Gandhi, Royce thinks he knows the category of people who can play Gandhi; in Hasanthika Sirisena’s contribution, Murder the Queen, the narrator struggles to define violence—the difference between kidnapped and kidnapper. One of the ways we understand things is to name them. In fiction, you have the room to name something, and then hold it up from a different angle and name it again. And that multiplicity of truths can exist.
Amitava Kumar: I’m very glad you’ve made this point about our contributors. Let me follow your example and say something about the two other contributors. Preeta Samarasan’s story, A Rightful Share, gathers its energy from a conflict that is fueled by ethnic and class differences; but what intrigued me most was her ear for the vernacular, which reminded me of the Trinidadian Sam Selvon. How wonderful and fresh is the complaint—“for fifty years we have trusted this bloody gomen…” And Romesh Gunesekera’s remarkable tale for this issue, Red Ink, finds distance by locating the tale in China. Here’s a good example of what I was calling a resistance to categorization—but, forget all that, what I love here is how the tale has been refined and distilled into pure parable.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: To return to the original question I asked, how do we categorize South Asian writing, then? You cite Amit Chaudhuri’s work as going beyond the standard tropes. What aesthetic and political visions do we share as South Asian writers? I’m interested in war because I think it pushes people to extremes and I find that dramatically interesting. South Asia has no shortage of material there, either.
Amitava Kumar: Ten years ago—and this was only truer in the two decades that preceded it, when it all started—South Asian writing would be described as a diasporic phenomenon. It took place in the West. I don’t see that happening as much now. I’m very excited by it. But the phenomenon I’m describing is not called South Asian writing. This is a name we use only in the West.
Does that leave us only with national literatures? No, I don’t think so. I don’t also happen to think that we can make pat distinctions between the writing done, say, in India and Pakistan—or not at least in the manner done by Daniyal Mueenuddin on NPR this past summer. Mueenuddin said Pakistani writing was grittier and emotionally tougher than Indian writing: he and his cohort aren’t lying in warm bath water, he said, reflecting upon funny, quirky families. Yes? And are Vikram Chandra and Suketu Mehta doing just that, watching their skin get all wrinkled and pruned in the tub, while across the border the legions of the pure wage battle? Please!
There are similarities between us, and there are also differences—but these can’t be reduced into a soundbite for NPR! In my opinion, one fairly new and shared feature of writing in the subcontinent is its visibility. Young and hip writers are turning out more and more exciting work. Just look at the range of writing that is on the shortlist for the Vodafone Crossword Prize awarded each year in Mumbai. Or the writers from the different parts of the subcontinent that show up for the literary festival in Jaipur. The canvas has suddenly become so much bigger.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: Or maybe the canvas has always been that big, and categorizing eyes are just starting to see it. I asked our contributors for writing about war and conflict because it is the subject that most compels me; the kind of anger and passion that moves us to war is flawed, and yet deeply human. This has been true in different times and different nations, and no matter where or when, the drive to end war—to best our worst selves—also always surfaces. I am repulsed by war and also drawn to it because war brings people to commit acts not only of blatant horror, but also of quiet valor. This can be as simple as being the kind of reader willing to try repeatedly to cross boundaries of all kinds: a peacemaker trying to understand a thousand different stories.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: I’m excited to see you at Page Turner: The Asian-American Literary Festival, on November 13-14, Amitava. The event, organized by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, will showcase writers and editors from this issue of Guernica at 3 p.m. on November 14 at powerHouse Books in Brooklyn.
Fiction writer and journalist V.V. Ganeshananthan is a graduate of Harvard College, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where she was a Bollinger Fellow specializing in arts and culture journalism. Her journalism and essays have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Sepia Mutiny, and The American Prospect, among others. A board member and former vice president of the South Asian Journalists Association, she also serves on the board of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and on the graduate board of The Harvard Crimson. Her short fiction has appeared on Esquire.com and in Himal Southasian magazine, and is forthcoming in Granta. She is a past recipient of Phillips Exeter Academy’s Bennett Fellowship and residency, and has taught at Skidmore College. She is now the Zell Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Michigan. Random House published her first novel, Love Marriage, in April 2008. Washington Post Book World named the book one of its best of 2008. It was also longlisted for the Orange Prize. Visit her at vasugi.com
Amitava Kumar grew up in Patna, famous for its corruption, crushing poverty, and delicious mangoes. He is the author of Husband of a Fanatic: A Personal Journey Through India, Pakistan, Love, and Hate (The New Press, 2005), an Editors’ Choice book at the New York Times. He is also the author of Bombay—London—New York (Routledge, 2002), and Passport Photos (University of California Press, 2000). His novel, Home Products (Picador-India, 2007) was a finalist for India’s premier literary award, Vodafone Crossword Prize. Kumar’s forthcoming book, A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb, is a writer’s report on the global war on terror. Currently, he is Professor of English at Vassar College. Visit him at amitavakumar.com.
Author photos by Preston Merchant.