What is Suprose?

Welcome to Suprose.

Why Su-prose? "Su" in Sanskrit is a prefix for "good". This is a place where we will discuss and analyze prose (with a South Asian Connection) - that which is good, awesome, excellent, and maybe rant about prose that could be better.

Whether you love prose, are a prose expert, or want to learn more about prose, or to put it simply want to have anything to do with prose, this blog is for you.

Read, interact, enjoy and share...

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Sunday, December 25, 2011

Anita Desai - A Classy Writer of Elegant Prose

Anita Desai is a writer who needs no introduction. I first heard her speak at a conference I was presenting at in Chicago in 2007. I had read her books and was charmed by her prose, but was truly taken with her Audrey Hepburn like personality and style, which are a perfect fit with the elegant prose she writes.
The biography below is from the website "Voices From The Gaps" --
Born to a German mother and an Indian father on June 24, 1937, Anita Desai spent much of her life in New Delhi. Growing up she spoke German at home and Hindi to friends and neighbors. She first learned English when she went to school. It was the language in which she first learned to read and write, and so it became her literary language. When asked why English remains her literary language, she said, "I think it had a tremendous effect that the first thing you saw written and the first thing you ever read was English. It seemed to me the language of books. I just went on writing it because I always wanted to belong to this world of books" (CLC).
Desai received a BA in English Literature and graduated with honors from the University of Delhi. She started publishing her work shortly after her marriage to Ashrin Desai on December 13, 1958.
Desai is part of a new literary tradition of Indian writing in English which dates back only to the '30s or '40s. She explains that this is because "at one time all literature was recited rather than read and that remains the tradition in India. It is still rather a strange act to buy a book and read it, an unusual thing to do" (CLC). Her new style of writing is also different from that of many Indian writers, as it is much less conservative than Indian literature has been in the past. For these reasons, she says, she is not widely read in India, mainly in Indian universities if at all.
Throughout her novels, children's books, and short stories, Desai focuses on personal struggles and problems of contemporary life that her Indian characters must cope with. She maintains that her primary goal is to discover "the truth that is nine-tenths of the iceberg that lies submerged beneath the one-tenth visible portion we call Reality" (CLC). She portrays the cultural and social changes that India has undergone as she focuses on the incredible power of family and society and the relationships between family members, paying close attention to the trials of women suppressed by Indian society.
Desai is praised for her broad understanding on intellectual issues, and for her ability to portray her country so vividly with the way the eastern and western cultures have blended there. She has received numerous awards, including the 1978 National Academy of Letters Award for Fire on the Mountain, the first of her novels to be brought to the United States. The story is of a remote, isolated woman and her equally withdrawn great-granddaughter as they are forced together in hills surrounded by violence and fire. In 1983 she was awarded the Guardian Prize for Children's Fiction for The Village by the Sea, an adventurous fairy tale about a young boy living in a small fishing village in India. She was awarded the Literary Lion Award in 1993, and has also been named Helen Cam Visiting fellow, Ashby fellow, and honorary fellow of the University of Cambridge.
In addition to her writing, Desai has raised four children: Rahul, Tani, Arjun, and Kiran. She has been a member of the Advisory Board for English, and of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, as well as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She has also worked as an educator at colleges including Mt. Holyoke, Smith, and Girton College at Cambridge University.
In the first week of January 2012, Suprose will feature a Tête-à-Tête with this prolific writer. 

Don't miss this Tête-à-Tête to find out how to enter a giveaway and win one of three copies of - The Artist Of Disappearance by Anita Desai, her latest collection of three fabulous novellas. 

Read and listen to an NPR review of this book here --
Via @nprbooks: Desai's 'Disappearance': Three Tales Of Art And Time http://n.pr/sRZL4X

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

R.K. Narayan On Writing...

You become writer by writing. It is a yoga. -R.K. Narayan, novelist (1906-2001)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Nieman Reports -- Thrity Umrigar on Fiction Writing and Journalism

A Literary Exploration of How Power Corrupts

This story is ‘about how the worlds of journalism and fiction writing are not as unimaginably different as one might think.’

By Thrity UmrigarI published my first novel in 2001, a year after I completed my Nieman fellowship. In fact, I wrote the novel, "Bombay Time," during my time at Harvard. To be honest, I applied for the fellowship in part because I was hoping it would allow me time to write my book. And write it I did, even when it meant waking up at 4:30 on cold Cambridge mornings so that I could write for a few hours before starting my day as a Nieman Fellow.
But to start at the beginning: Once upon a time, not too long ago, there lived a journalist who wanted to be a novelist.

After almost 15 years of reporting on other people's words, thoughts and ideas, of never revealing her own opinions, feelings or beliefs, the journalist was ready to explore the interior life—to express what she believed and felt and held sacred. To tell the stories that she wanted to tell, and not the ones her editors thought were newsworthy.

And so, in 1999, I applied for and was awarded a Nieman fellowship. My apartment in Cambridge was so cold I wore light leather gloves while I typed on the HP desktop I had lugged all the way from Ohio. The ridiculous good luck that had gotten me the fellowship in the first place lingered by my side a little longer, and I found an agent and then a publisher while I was still at Harvard. Some of this stuff you can't make up.

But that's not what this story is about. It's about how the worlds of journalism and fiction writing are not as unimaginably different as one might think. About how, in the end, there are only two kinds of writing—good writing and the mediocre kind. The transition from one genre to another is not as difficult as some people think.

When I was a reporter, the artificial hierarchy that people drew between journalism and literature used to make me mad. Talk about journalism being a poor cousin to literature made me bristle. In order to blur these artificial lines, I tried to infuse my journalism articles with as much literary flavor as I could get away with. Years before someone coined the term "narrative journalism," I was drawn to longer, magazine-length stories—stories about human beings, not sources; stories that could be told with nuance and complexity, that illuminated something about the way we lived; stories that had "interiority."

It turned out to be wonderful practice for my current career as a novelist. First of all, journalism imposed a certain discipline, a work ethic, a workmanlike attitude toward making art, which I appreciated. There is nothing precious or coy or airy-fairy about journalism. With modesty, it bills itself as a craft and not as art. I try to bring that same muscular, proletarian attitude toward novel writing—it's my job, it's my calling, I try to do it as well as I know how. Saying this in no way diminishes the mystical, subconscious, almost sacred aspect of storytelling, those days when you can hear the angels singing to you and through you. But when I catch myself sounding pretentious about what I do for a living, when I hear myself use terms like "narrative structure," "story arc," and "archetypal characters" too often, I remind myself—all I do all day is spin yarns. The drunk at the bar down the street from my house probably does it better. Better yet, I imagine my former colleagues in the newsroom rolling their eyes at me. It works like a charm every time.

I believe that every life has a theme. When I was 6 years old, I began to write poems. These poems were usually addressed to my parents and took on the aggrieved tone of a child who had been refused something. It was my way of taking on the power structure, of trying to right a perceived injustice. Years later, my journalism took a similar path—whether I was writing about homelessness or AIDS or class and gender disparities, I was actually writing about power—who in our society has it, how it is used against those who don't, and what the strategies of resistance are.

My novels have similar concerns. I have written about the power that a rich family in Bombay has over the illiterate domestic servant who works for them, about an American couple living in India who assumes that the rules don't apply to them, about how adults abuse their authority over powerless children. Most recently, I have tackled the issue of Islamic fundamentalism, but from a non-American, non-9/11 perspective.

I guess you could say, this is my life's theme—the exploration of how power corrupts human relationships, the gap between the haves and the have-nots, and the endless struggle for happiness that human beings engage in.

So I try not to think too much about genre. What matters to me is the human heart that beats at the center of all great stories. When I look back on my writing life, I see that the vehicles may be different—poems, short stories, news stories, novels—but the passengers are the same. The passengers are always struggling to move from darkness into light; they are often inchoate and inarticulate, but fumbling toward greater human communication; and they are almost always held together by that shaft of grace that we call love.

Thrity Umrigar, a 2000 Nieman Fellow, is the author of a memoir and five novels, including the bestselling "The Space Between Us," published in 2006 by HarperCollins and "The World We Found," to be published by HarperCollins in January 2012. For more about her and her books, go to www.umrigar.com.

The full article is available at http://www.nieman.harvard.edu/reports/article/102705/A-Literary-Exploration-of-How-Power-Corrupts.aspx

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Nieman Reports -- Gaiutra Bahadur on Writing As A House That Shelters You!

Writing a Life, Living a Writer’s Life

‘At one point, my mother, a woman who is anything but acid, told me: “Get a job, and get a life.” She said this out of love and concern because all I ever did—all I ever do—is work, seven days a week, practically every waking hour.’

By Gaiutra Bahadur
"In exile, the only house is that of writing." Theodor Adorno, the German philosopher and critic, conceived that metaphor. I encountered it in a book I was reviewing, and I decided to use the words, translated from German, as a tagline for my website. Full disclosure: except for the nine words that begin this essay, I have never read any Adorno. I hear his prose is difficult. Yet these particular words of his made perfect, intuitive sense to me. I know I can't really compare his exile, that of a Jewish merchant's son from Nazi Germany in the 1930's, to the rootlessness I was feeling at the time. Still, I identified, deeply.

What am I an exile from? I come from an immigrant family, twice over. But immigration is not the same thing as exile. As any Cuban will tell you, exile involves a dream of return to your homeland—one you were forced to leave. It's a matter for debate whether my family had to leave Guyana in 1981. I didn't have a say, in any case. I was only 6. 

But when I left The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2007, I truly had no choice, being one reporter among many dozens laid off by a new corporate owner. Suddenly I was an exile from a newsroom, part of an early wave replenished many times over as the entire newspaper industry entered crisis mode.

I was among the fortunate few. A few months after my layoff, I was selected as a Nieman Fellow. For a time, this gave me shelter, a nice one as far as shelters go—warm, well stocked, even kind of glamorous, and the companionship of fellow travelers. But like all shelters, it was temporary. As spring arrived, I surveyed the job market, then decided that instead of re-entering an industry in serious upheaval I would pursue a book project. With half of my Nieman stipend saved, I set off for England to dig in archives for a story I wasn't sure I would find well documented enough to tell.

I wanted to write nonfiction exploring the mystery of my great-grandmother, who left Calcutta, pregnant and without a husband, to work on a Guyanese plantation in 1903. The details of her exit from India, with their hint of trauma or scandal, were not unique. Her story was the story of hundreds of thousands of Indian women who ended up in British colonies worldwide as indentured servants, semi-forced laborers who replaced slaves on sugar estates. Talk about exile. These women knew exile. 

Getting Started

The journey I was about to embark on was nowhere close to theirs in daring or sacrifice. 

During my Nieman winter break, I had made some forays into the British Colonial Office archives in London and then to India to ensure the story was substantial enough to take a risk. It was. I didn't, however, realize how great the risk would seem to the publishing industry, then facing its own crisis. 

It took more than a year for my book proposal to sell. Five editors at five houses liked the proposal well enough to pitch it to acquisition boards. Others said they liked it, but didn't bother to pitch. The consensus seemed to be that the story wasn't commercial enough for anyone to take a chance on during what turned out to be the start of publishing's crisis years. An editor at a major trade house complimented me and the subject matter, saying it was "a story well worth telling, a story well worth hearing." But she concluded: "I'm sad to say I found very few problems with the proposal and the story itself—my only worry is more on our end, how we'd bring this to a big enough audience." 

Another rejection letter read: 
We ultimately felt that, while an engaging, global and beautifully written memoir, the audience for this would be small and difficult to reach … We all loved her writing, though … and would love to see her pursue a bigger story or subject in the future.
When my proposal was on the market in 2009 and 2010, publishing was purging its own employees, enlarging a parallel community of exiles. Established writers and books on more mainstream topics were still being contracted, of course. But there didn't seem to be great room for new voices or for risk—for first-time authors, like me, wanting to take on "difficult" subjects. I'm not saying that my proposal was perfect or that all rejections were as kind or gently written as the ones I've quoted. I'm saying it cuts to hear that the story of your people is not "big," even when worthy and well written—and it disappoints to hear that "big" seems to mean mainstream and marketable, even to publishers whose mission statements declared otherwise.

This is about when Adorno's words struck such a chord. I had put everything into the pursuit of a story that no one seemed to want. To top it off, the United Kingdom border control office denied me a one-year business visa because, it said, book research didn't constitute a valid business purpose. The officer in Edinburgh who detained me when I tried to enter on a tourist visa instead told me frankly that the meager state of my bank account probably accounted for the rejection. "Plenty of people come here to hole up in nice houses on the Isle of Skye and write," she said.

By then my Nieman stash was gone. I hadn't put it into health insurance. I hadn't put it into the bric-a-brac of a middle-class life: evenings out, eating out. I didn't even put it into an apartment or a house. Everything I had went into research for the book, mostly at archives in the United Kingdom and the West Indies. I had no lease, no mortgage, no permanent address. I lodged or, once or twice, lucked out with a housesitting arrangement. I rented rooms cheaply from friends, friends of friends, mothers of friends, and strangers who looked kindly on starving artists, and acquaintances who believed in what I was trying to do. In my year and a half there, I lived in eight different flats in London.

When I wasn't working on the book, I was working on freelance book reviews or magazine articles or pitches for them or fellowship applications or teaching Saturday morning English classes to 13-year-olds who didn't want to be there, all to replenish the bank account that the border control lady had found so distressing. At one point, my mother, a woman who is anything but acid, told me: "Get a job, and get a life." She said this out of love and concern because all I ever did—all I ever do—is work, seven days a week, practically every waking hour. And who can blame her for thinking that a woman in her mid-30's should not be living with her parents? Who can blame her for thinking her amply and expensively educated daughter should maybe have a place of her own? Or that she should have the time to do things other than work (like, ahem, get married and procreate something other than a book)?

I'm not sharing the sordid details to make you feel pity. Don't. I chose this life. It is exactly what I want to do, and on most days I am thrilled to be doing it. I feel blessed. I have supportive friends and family and colleagues. I have co-publishers I respect and trust: University of Chicago Press and Hurst, an independent press based in London. And somehow I still have enough money to pay for five more months of rent at a writer's studio in Manhattan and subway and train fare to get there. 

I'm writing this so you know this is the hardest thing I have ever tried to do. It takes soul-risking hustle and soul-exposing humility, a combination that comes from being rejected repeatedly yet somehow still believing that the ultimate goal is bigger than you or your bruised ego. It takes passion—a downright obsessive love for your subject and belief in its value. And it takes being blessed. It's not something to undertake just because you think books might be a better bet than newspapers right now. 

When I was on staff in a newsroom, I was a workaholic. What I did was who I was. And so I made the mistake of identifying my job with a home country. It wasn't. It's still true to say that what I do is who I am. But now I know that this transcends any particular employer, as compelling as health insurance and a biweekly paycheck can sometimes seem. Writing is not a job. It's a vocation, a calling. If you're lucky, it can be a house, too—the thing that shelters you in seasons of transition and constant address changes. It's not the kind of house that Google Earth can locate, but I know exactly where to find it. I make words there every day, words that I believe in, words that I hope will make a contribution, words that have a reality well beyond the imaginary homeland of a newsroom. 

Gaiutra Bahadur, a 2008 Nieman Fellow, is writing her first book, "Coolie Woman," which is scheduled to be published in 2012. An excerpt appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of The Virginia Quarterly Review and was reprinted in the Indian magazine The Caravan.

The full article is available here --

Friday, December 2, 2011

Rudyard Kipling -"If"

Listen to this poem narrated by Kipling, each time you need a little bit of motivation and push to keep you going! Or just listen to it to enjoy!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Tête-à-Tête With Kamala Nair

I have to admit I was skeptical when I picked up my review copy of The Girl In The Garden. To read or not to read... I did read and I was pleasantly surprised. The elegant prose and it's similarities to The Secret Garden, were what appealed to me most about  Kamala Nair's book. This coming of age story is a departure from the usual immigrant experience and a fresh take on the story of a young Indian American girl. This book is an impressive debut and has been very well received by readers and critics. 

Kamala Nair was born in London and grew up in upstate New York, Vermont, and Minnesota. A graduate of Wellesley College, she studied literature at Oxford University and received an M.Phil in Creative Writing from Trinity College Dublin. She currently lives in New York City, where she has worked at ELLE DECOR magazine. Suprose had the pleasure of interviewing her.

1. How did you become a writer?

I have been writing for a long time. I can’t recall when I first started, but I think my love of writing was born out of my love of reading. As a child I was a passionate reader, and that organically led to writing my own stories. After college I decided to attend a graduate creative writing program in Ireland, which is where I started The Girl in the Garden. My plan was to attend law school after I finished the program because I was afraid of not having some kind of solid, conventional career path to follow, but once I had all that time, space, and freedom to write in Ireland, I realized I could never be fulfilled doing anything else.

2. Have you received formal training in writing? How did you prepare yourself for the daunting task of writing a novel?

My formal training began with a poetry class with Frank Bidart in college. I learned so much from that class, and he is an amazing teacher. After that I did an M.Phil in Creative Writing at Trinity College Dublin. With only 14 people in the program, our workshops were intense and intimate. I didn’t really prepare myself to write a novel, because that wasn’t my original intention. It was something I wanted to do eventually, but at the time I was writing short stories. My novel grew out of a failed short story. Once I started expanding it I couldn’t stop.

3. What did you love most about this writing process, and what were your biggest challenges writing and revising your debut novel?

I loved the trance-like experience of the writing process, when it was going well. I would sit down at my desk to write and then emerge a few hours later with pages of work that I wouldn’t fully recall producing, and then walk around the rest of the day in a state of euphoria. The biggest challenge was finding the discipline to keep writing amid the stresses of my day job and the social distractions of living in New York. Revising was difficult because I could no longer shut out my inner critic. Writing a first draft can be a magical and liberating process, but revising is cruel. You have to be really harsh with yourself.

4. Who did you read growing up?

I read a lot of fairy tales, as well as many of the classic children’s books, from The Secret Garden (of course) to Little Women to Anne of Green Gables. I read a lot of great 19th-century British novels, including Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, long before I was able to understand them.

5. Which writers would you consider your role models?

The Brontës, Vladimir Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Edith Wharton, James Joyce, Edna O’Brien, Arundhati Roy, among others.

6. What are some books that are sitting on your table, waiting to be read?

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides…I’m trying to save it for my upcoming vacation in December. Also, Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga.

7. What did you enjoy most about writing your first novel The Girl In The Garden? And what were some of the biggest challenges?

I enjoyed exploring the back-stories of all the characters, and getting to know them intimately. I also enjoyed trying to remember what it felt like to be a ten-year-old girl and seeing the world through her eyes….the innocence and the heightened drama of everything. Tuning out thoughts of the eventual outcome and what other people might think was a challenge.

8. POV, characterization, voice, dialog, what do you think makes or breaks a good novel?

An authentic voice, compelling story, and characters the reader can care about.

9. If you were not a writer what would you be?

Hmmm, probably a TV journalist. I went to Wellesley because Diane Sawyer is an alum and she was one of my heroes in high school. Either that or a zoologist or veterinarian because I love animals, but I’m terrified of snakes so that probably wouldn’t have worked out.

10. When you are dealing with writers blocks or slow moments, what are some of your creativity boosters… music, writing exercises, reading, others?

Listening to classical music, re-reading beloved books, taking long runs, and when all else fails, a nap.

11.  How do you work, do you go by a structured writing schedule? Where do you write, describe your writing environment?

When I was working on THE GIRL IN THE GARDEN, my schedule was pretty structured by default since I had a day job. I woke up around 5:30 or 6 and wrote until it was time to get ready for work. On the weekends I set aside a few hours per day to write. I lived in three different apartments over the course of time that I wrote that book, so my writing environment was constantly shifting. It usually consisted of a dining room table if no one was home, or the antique desk in my bedroom, the only nice piece of furniture I bought when I first moved penniless to New York. I still write at my dining room table or at that desk, or I go to the Rose Room at the main branch of the New York Public Library. Mornings are still the best time for me to write.

12. What are you working on currently? Where is it going to be based? Can you give us a peek?

It’s still in an early stage, so I’d rather not say too much about it quite yet. I can say it’s different from The Girl in the Garden, and that it’s a historical novel that takes place in the 19th century. I will definitely keep my readers updated.

Monday, November 21, 2011

How to Think Creatively - Tony Schwartz - Harvard Business Review

How to Think Creatively - Tony Schwartz - Harvard Business Review

How to Think Creatively

I grew up hungry to do something creative, to set myself apart. I also believed creativity was magical and genetically encoded. As early as the age of 8, I began sampling the arts, one after another, to see if I'd inherited some gift.

Eventually, I became a journalist. For many years, I told other people's stories. I was successful, but I rarely felt truly creative.

The first hint I might have sold myself short came in the mid-1990s. In the course of writing a book called What Really Matters, Searching for Wisdom in America, I took a five-day seminar on how to draw, led by Betty Edwards, author ofDrawing on the Right Side of the Brain.

When Edwards peered down at the self-portrait I had drawn on the first day, she smiled. My artistic development, she told me gently, seemed to have been arrested somewhere around the age of six. This was, she hastened to add, no evidence of lack of ability, but rather of training.

From an early age, we're taught in school to develop the logical, language-based, rational capacities of the left hemisphere of our brain, which is goal-oriented and impatient to reach conclusions.

The left hemisphere gives names to objects in order to reduce and simplify them. One nose is like another, for example, so when we're asked to draw one, we retrieve the symbol we have for "nose" from our memory, reproduce it and move on.

The right hemisphere, by contrast, is visual rather than verbal. It's capable of seeing more deeply and subtly than the left, immersing itself in what's actually there, in all its richness. Once you learn to do that, Edwards told us, drawing what you see is, relatively speaking, a breeze.

Sure enough, by the fifth and final day of the workshop, I was able to produce a self-portrait that was undeniably me, and surprisingly realistic. After several months of practice, I was able to draw myself with a significant degree of skill, and even expressiveness. I had effectively begun to learn a wholly new and non-verbal language.

But what did that have to do with creativity? Turns out, quite a bit.

Over the past hundred years, researchers have reached a surprising degree of consensus about the predictable stages of creative thinking. It was Betty Edwards who first pointed out to me that the stages move back and forth between right and left hemisphere dominance:

1. Saturation: Once the problem or creative challenge has been defined, the next stage of creativity is a left hemisphere activity that paradoxically requires absorbing one's self in what's already known. Any creative breakthrough inevitably rests on the shoulders of all that came before it. For a painter, that might mean studying the masters. For me, it involves reading widely and deeply, and then sorting, evaluating, organizing, outlining, and prioritizing.

2. Incubation: The second stage of creativity begins when we walk away from a problem, typically because our left hemisphere can't seem to solve it. Incubation involves mulling over information, often unconsciously. Intense exercise can be a great way to shift into right hemisphere in order to access new ideas and solutions. After writing for 90 minutes, for example, the best thing I can do to jog my brain, is take a run.

3. Illumination: Ah-ha moments — spontaneous, intuitive, unbidden — characterize the third stage of creativity. Where are you when you get your best ideas? I'm guessing it's not when you're sitting at your desk, or consciously trying to think creatively. Rather it's when you've given your left hemisphere a rest, and you're doing something else, whether it's exercising, taking a shower, drivingor even sleeping.

4. Verification: In the final stage of creativity, the left hemisphere reasserts its dominance. This stage is about challenging and testing the creative breakthrough you've had. Scientists do this in a laboratory. Painters do it on a canvas. Writers do it by translating a vision into words.

The first key to intentionally nurturing our creativity is to understand how it works. I've found the stages often unfold in unpredictable sequence, and wrap back on one another. Still, keeping them in mind lets me know where I am in the creative process, and how to get to where I need to go.

Ultimately, the highest creativity depends on making frequent waves — learning to engage the whole brain by moving flexibly and intentionally between the right and left hemisphere, activity and rest, effort and letting go. That's also a pretty good prescription for how to live.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Writing Like a White Guy by Jaswinder Bolina

Lucid prose from a talented poet..

Writing Like a White Guy by Jaswinder Bolina

Writing Like a White Guy
On language, race, and poetry.


My father says I should use a pseudonym. “They won’t publish you if they see your name. They’ll know you’re not one of them. They’ll know you’re one of us.” This has never occurred to me, at least not in a serious way. “No publisher in America’s going to reject my poems because I have a foreign name,” I reply. “Not in 2002.” I argue, “These are educated people. My name won’t be any impediment.” Yet in spite of my faith in the egalitarian attitude of editors and the anonymity of book contests, I understand my father’s angle on the issue.

With his beard shaved and his hair shorn, his turban undone and left behind in Bolina Doaba, Punjab—the town whose name we take as our own—he lands at Heathrow in 1965, a brown boy of 18 become a Londoner. His circumstance then must seem at once exhilarating and also like drifting in a lifeboat: necessary, interminable. I imagine the English of the era sporting an especially muted and disdainful brand of racism toward my alien father, his brother and sister-in-law, toward his brother-in-law and sister, his nieces and nephews, and the other Indians they befriend on Nadine Street, Charlton, just east of Greenwich. The sense of exclusion arrives over every channel, dull and constant.

At least one realtor, a couple of bankers, and a few foremen must have a different attitude. One white supervisor at the industrial bakery my father labors in invites him home for dinner. The Brit wants to offer an introduction to his single daughters. He knows my father’s a hard worker, a trait so commonly attributed to the immigrant it seems sometimes a nationality unto itself, and maybe the quietude of the nonnative speaker appeals to the man’s sense of civility. As a result he finds my father humble, upstanding, his complexion a light beach sand indicative of a vigor exceeding that of the pale English suitors who come calling. In my imagination, my father’s embarrassed and placid demeanor, his awkward formality in that setting, is charming to the bashful, giggly daughters, and this impresses the supervisor even further. But nothing much comes of that evening. My father never visits again. He marries my mother, another Sikh Punjabi also, a few years later, but that event is evidence that one Englishman considered my father the man, not my father the “paki.”

When he moves to hodgepodge Chicago nine years after arriving in England, he becomes another denizen of the immigrant nation, the huddled masses. He might be forgiven for thinking he will not be excluded here, but he isn’t so naïve. America in 1974 is its own version of the UK’s insular empire, though the nature of its exclusion is different, is what we call institutional. He knows that in America nobody should be rejected, not unabashedly and without some counterfeit of a reason, but all my father’s nearly three decades as a machinist at the hydraulics plant near the airport teach him is that economies boom and economies bust, and if your name isn’t “Bill” or “Earl” or “Frank Malone,” you don’t get promoted. You mind the machines. “Bills” and “Earls” supervise. “Frank” is the name the bosses go by, all of them hired after my dad but raised higher. So when my father suggests I use a pseudonym, he’s only steadying my two-wheeler, only buying me a popsicle from the cart at Foster Avenue Beach. This is only an extension of covering my tuition, of paying my room and board.

At the time, I’m only a year or so into an MFA. I stop by the office of a friend, an older white poet in my department. Publication to me feels impossible then, and the friend means to be encouraging when he says, “With a name like Jaswinder Bolina, you could publish plenty of poems right now if you wrote about the first-generation, minority stuff. What I admire is that you don’t write that kind of poetry.” He’s right. I don’t write “that kind” of poetry. To him, this is upstanding, correct, what a poet ought to do. It’s indicative of a vigor exceeding that of other minority poets come calling. It turns out I’m a hard worker too. I should be offended—if not for myself, then on behalf of writers who do take on the difficult subject of minority experience in their poetry—but I understand that my friend means no ill by it. To his mind, embracing my difference would open editorial inboxes, but knowing that I tend to eschew/exclude/deny “that kind” of subject in my poetry, he adds, “This’ll make it harder for you.” When, only a few months later, my father—who’s never read my poems, whose fine but mostly functional knowledge of English makes the diction and syntax of my work difficult to follow, who doesn’t know anything of the themes or subjects of my poetry—tells me to use another name, he’s encouraging also. He means: Let them think you’re a white guy. This will make it easier for you.


The one thing I least believe about race in America is that we can disregard it. I’m nowhere close to alone in this, but the person I encounter far more often than the racist—closeted or proud—is the one who believes race isn’t an active factor in her thinking, isn’t an influence on his interaction with the racial Other. Such blindness to race seems unlikely, but I suspect few of us entirely understand why it’s so improbable. I’m not certain either, but I’ve been given some idea. At a panel discussion in 2004, a professor of political philosophy, Caribbean-born with a doctorate from the University of Toronto, explains that he never understood why the question in America is so often a question of race. A scholar of Marxist thinking, he says in nearly every other industrialized nation on Earth, the first question is a question of class, and accordingly class is the first conflict. He says it wasn’t until he moved to the United States in the early ’70s—about the same time my father arrived—that he intellectually and viscerally understood that America is a place where class historically coincides with race. This, he says, is the heaviest legacy of slavery and segregation.

To many immigrants, the professor and my father included, this conflation between success and skin color is a foreign one. In their native lands, where there exists a relative homogeneity in the racial makeup of the population or a pervasive mingling of races, the “minorities” of America are classed based on socioeconomic status derived from any number of factors, and race is rarely, if ever, principal in these. You can look down on anybody even though they share your skin color if you have land enough, wealth enough, caste and education enough. It’s only arriving in England that the Indian—who might not even recognize the descriptor “Indian,” preferring instead a regional or religious identity to a national one—realizes anyone resembling him is subject to the derision “coolie.” It’s only in America that such an immigrant discovers any brown-skinned body can have a “camel fucker” or a “sand nigger” hurled at him from a passing car—a bit of cognitive dissonance that’s been directed at me on more than one occasion. The racially African but ethnically Other philosophy professor understands the oddness of this as well as anyone. He explains that in the United States, as anywhere, the first question remains a question of class, but the coincidence between class and color makes the first American social conflict a conflict of race. As such, for the racial immigrant and his offspring, racial difference need be mitigated whenever possible, if only to lubricate the cogs of class mobility: nearer to whiteness, nearer to wealth.

If the racial Other aspires to equal footing on the socioeconomic playing field, he is tasked with forcing his way out of the categorical cul-de-sac that his name and appearance otherwise squeeze him into. We call the process by which he does this “assimilation.” Though the Latin root here—shared with the other word “similar”—implies that the process is one of becoming absorbed or incorporated, it is a process that relies first on the negation of one identity in order to adopt another. In this sense, assimilation is a destructive rather than constructive process. It isn’t a come-as-you-are proposition, a simple matter of being integrated into the American milieu because there exists a standing invitation to do so. Rather, assimilation first requires refuting assumptions the culture makes about the immigrant based on race, and in this sense assimilation requires the erasure of one’s preexisting cultural identity even though that identity wasn’t contingent upon race in the first place.

The first and perhaps essential step in assimilating into any culture is the successful adoption of the host country’s language. What’s unusual in America is that this is no different for the immigrant than for the native-born nonwhite. This is most obvious when I consider African Americans, whose language is variously described as “urban” (as in “of the slums of the inner city”), “street” (as in “of the gutter”), and “Ebonic” (as in “of ebony, of blackness”). These descriptors imply that whatever it is, black vernacular isn’t English. Rather, it’s “broken English,” which is of course what we also call the English of the nonnative speaker. I’m tempted to categorize so-called “countrified” or “redneck” dialects similarly, except I remember that any number of recent U.S. presidents and presidential candidates capable in that vernacular are regarded as more down-to-earth and likable rather than less well-spoken or intelligent. It seems that such white dialect serves as evidence of charisma, charm, and folksiness rather than of ignorance.

In 2007, the eventual vice president campaigning in the primary election against the eventual president says, “I mean, you got the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.” The ensuing kerfuffle is almost entirely unsurprising. Though the white candidate believes he’s merely describing the candidate of color and doing so with ample objectivity and perhaps even with generosity, the description implies that the black man’s appearance and eloquence constitute an exception to his blackness, which is a function of genetics, which only further suggests that the black candidate is an exception to his basic nature. The implication is that he is being praised for his approximate whiteness. Not shockingly, this very conflation of his eloquence with white racial identity leads pundits in another context to ask the obnoxious question, “But is he black enough?” The conundrum the candidate faces is that he need be an exceptional speaker and writer, but part of the “exceptional” here is the idea that he’s an “exception” to his race. He has co-opted the language of whiteness. If he then neglects to take on the subject of race with that language, with the fierce urgency of now, he might further be accused of rejecting his own racial identity. Is he a candidate or a black candidate? If it’s the former, he might not be “black enough.” If it’s the latter, he can’t win.

In a country where class and race structurally overlap, what we call “standard” English reflexively becomes the English of whiteness rather than simply the English of the educated or privileged classes. When I adopt the language I’m taught in prep school, in university, and in graduate school, I’m adopting the English language, but in the States, that language is intrinsically associated with one race over any another. By contrast, in the England of history, the one prior to the more recent influx of immigrants from its imperial colonies, Oxford English is spoken by subjects as white as those who bandy about in Cockney. Adeptness of language usage isn’t a function then of melanin but of socioeconomic location. Color isn’t the question; class is. Unlike the Cockney of England or the dialects of India, none of which are contingent upon racial difference, alternate dialects in American English are inherently racialized. Assimilation in America then comes to mean the appropriation of a specific racial identity by way of language. The conundrum for the poet of color becomes no different than the one that faces the candidate of color: Am I a writer or a minority writer?


The day I’m born, my father engages in the American custom of handing out cigars to the “Bills” and “Earls” and “Franks” of the factory floor, even though he has never smoked in his life. Smoking is anathema to his Sikh Punjabi identity. Drinking, on the other hand, is most certainly not, and he gets gleefully and mercilessly drunk with his brothers at home. He boasts everywhere, “My son will be president.” He believes it. Twenty-four years later, in 2002, when he counsels me to use a pseudonym, he knows I’m already adept in the language. I’ve been educated in it, and in spite of all his diligence and intelligence, this is a key he’s never been given. I talk like them. I write like them. I’m an agile agent in the empire so long as nobody grows wise. He no longer expects a presidency, but he sees no limit to potential success in my chosen field, except for the limits placed on me by my racial difference from the dominant culture. He doesn’t consider the possibility that I write about race in my work, that I might want to embrace the subject, because he knows, like the candidate of black Kenyan and white Kansan bloodlines, I’ve been conditioned to resist making race the essential issue.

And it’s true. The manner with which I avoid the subject of race in my first book is nearly dogmatic. Race is a subject I don’t offer any attention to. To do so would seem only to underscore my Otherness, which would only result in the same sorts of requisite exclusions I experienced growing up in mostly white schools and neighborhoods. Assimilation in those circumstances isn’t a choice so much political as it is necessary. Some remnant of a survival instinct kicks in, and one’s best efforts are directed at joining rather than resisting the herd. To be racialized is to be marginalized. When another Asian kid joins the playground, we unwittingly vie to out-white each other. This tactic I learned from practice but also from my immigrant family. When your numbers are few, assimilation is the pragmatic gambit.

It’s not something that we engage in without a queasy feeling. When my father suggests I Wite-Out my name, he’s entirely aware that he’s suggesting I relinquish the name he and my mother gave me. This isn’t an easy thing, but growing up, I’ve never been kept from doing what the “American” kids do—though I’m born here and though my parents have long been citizens, “American” remains a descriptor my family uses to signify whiteness. Like the white kids, I join the Cub Scouts and play football at recess, I attend birthday parties at my American classmates’ houses and go to junior high socials. In high school, after years of elementary school mockery, I attempt—not unlike the young Barry Obama—to anglicize my name, going by “Jason” instead, a stratagem that those who become my friends quickly reject after only a few weeks. I go to the homecoming dance. I go to the prom. I stay out past curfew and grow my hair long. I insist that my mother close all the bedroom doors when she cooks so my clothes don’t reek of cumin and turmeric. I resist any suggestion that I study the sciences in order to prepare for a career in medicine or engineering. I never meet an Indian girl; there aren’t any in the philosophy and English departments I’m a member of anyway. My parents know I’m bereft of their culture. They must at times feel a lucid resentment, a sense of rejection and exclusion. Their son has become one of the English-speakers, as “Frank” or “Bill” to them as any American. But this, they know, is necessary. If the first generation is to succeed here, it’s by resisting the ingrained cultural identity and mores of its immigrant forebears. If their son is to become president, my parents know it won’t happen while he’s wearing a turban. This is why they never keep me from engaging American culture, though it quickly comes to supplant their own. Assimilation is pragmatic, but pragmatism calls for concessions that compound and come to feel like a chronic ache.


It’s because of the historical convergence of race and class in America that we conflate the language of the educated, ruling classes with the language of a particular racial identity. If I decouple the two, as I might be able to do in another nation, I realize that what’s being described isn’t the language of whiteness so much as the language of privilege. When I say “privilege” here, I mean the condition of not needing to consider what others are forced to consider. The privilege of whiteness in America—particularly male, heteronormative whiteness—is the privilege to speak from a blank slate, to not need to address questions of race, gender, sexuality, or class except by choice, to not need to acknowledge wherefrom one speaks. It’s the position of no position, the voice from nowhere or from everywhere. In this, it is Godlike, and if nothing else, that’s saying something.

To the poet, though, the first question isn’t one of class or color. The first question is a question of language. Poetry—as Stéphane Mallarmé famously tells the painter and hapless would-be poet Edgar Degas—is made of words, not ideas. However, to the poet of color or the female poet, to the gay or transgendered writer in America, and even to the white male writer born outside of socioeconomic privilege, a difficult question arises: “Whose language is it?” Where the history of academic and cultural institutions is so dominated by white men of means, “high” language necessarily comes to mean the language of whiteness and a largely wealthy, heteronormative maleness at that. The minority poet seeking entry into the academy and its canon finds that her language is deracialized/sexualized/gendered/classed at the outset. In trafficking in “high” English, writers other than educated, straight, white, male ones of privilege choose to become versed in a language that doesn’t intrinsically or historically coincide with perceptions of their identities. It’s true that minority poets are permitted to bring alternative vernaculars into our work. Poets from William Wordsworth in the preface to Lyrical Ballads to Frank O’Hara in his “Personism: a manifesto” demand as much by insisting that poetry incorporate language nearer to conversational speech than anything overly elevated. Such calls for expansions of literary language in conjunction with continuing experiments by recent generations of American poets are transforming the canon for sure, but this leaves me and perhaps others like me in a slightly awkward position. I don’t possess a vernacular English that’s significantly different from that of plain old Midwestern English. As such, it seems I’m able to write from a perspective that doesn’t address certain realities about myself, and this makes me queasy as anything. The voice in my head is annoyed with the voice in my writing. The voice in my head says I’m disregarding difference, and this feels like a denial of self, of reality, of a basic truth.

It isn’t exactly intentional. It’s a product of being privileged. In the 46 years since my father left Punjab, the 40 or so years since my mother left also, my parents clambered the socioeconomic ladder with a fair amount of middle-class success. We’re not exactly wealthy, but I do wind up in prep school instead of the public high school, which only isolates me further from those with a shared racial identity. Later I attend university, where I’m permitted by my parents’ successes to study the subjects I want to study rather than those that might guarantee future wealth. I don’t need to become a doctor or a lawyer to support the clan. I get to major in philosophy and later attend graduate school in creative writing. Through all of this, though I experience occasional instances of bigotry while walking down streets or in bars, and though I study in programs where I’m often one of only two or three students of color, my racial identity is generally overlooked or disregarded by those around me. I’ve become so adept in the language and culture of the academy that on more than one occasion when I bring up the fact of my race, colleagues reply with some variation of “I don’t think of you as a minority.” Or, as a cousin who’s known me since infancy jokes, “You’re not a minority. You’re just a white guy with a tan.” What she means is that my assimilation is complete. But she can’t be correct. Race is simply too essential to the American experience to ever be entirely overlooked. As such, I can’t actually write like a white guy any more than I can revise my skin color. This, however, doesn’t change the fact that if a reader were to encounter much of my work not knowing my name or having seen a photograph of me, she might not be faulted for incorrectly assigning the poems a white racial identity. This is a product of my language, which is a product of my education, which is a product of the socioeconomic privilege afforded by my parents’ successes. The product of all those factors together is that the writing—this essay included—can’t seem to help sounding white.


Recently, I was invited to give a few poetry readings as part of a literary festival taking place in a rural part of the country. I borrow my father’s compact SUV and let its GPS guide me for a few days on the road. I spend afternoons and evenings reading poems with local and visiting writers in front of small audiences at community centers and public libraries. The audiences are largely made up of kind, white-haired, white-skinned locals enthusiastic to hear us read from and speak about our work, even when they’ve never heard of most of us. They at least appreciate poetry, a rarity I’m grateful for. During the introductions that preface each event, even the organizers who’ve invited me have difficulty getting my name right, and in one school library, I enunciate it over and over again. I say, “Jas as in the first part of justice; win as in the opposite of defeat; der, which rhymes with err, meaning to be mistaken.” I say, “JasWINder,” lilting the second syllable, and smile as about a dozen audience members mouth each syllable along with me until they feel they have it right. When they do, they grin broadly. After each event, I chat with them one or two at a time, and I do my best to reflect their warmth. They’re complimentary about the work, and though I don’t expect they’re a demographic that’ll especially like my poems—even when you write poems like a white guy, you might not be writing poems everyone will like—the compliments are earnest.

Still, in all this pleasantness, the awkward moment occurs more than once. It’s some variation on a recurring question I get in town after town. The question usually comes up as a matter of small talk while I’m signing a book or shaking someone’s hand. No one delivers it better, with so much beaming warmth and unwitting irony, than the woman who says she enjoyed my poems very much and follows this quickly with an admiring “You’re so Americanized, what nationality are you?” She doesn’t pick up on the oxymoron in her question. She doesn’t hear the hint of tiredness in my reply. “I was born and raised in Chicago, but my parents are from northern India.” Once more, I ought to be offended, but I’m not really. Hers is an expression of curiosity that’s born of genuine interest rather than of sideshow spectacle. I’m the only nonwhite writer at the events I participate in. I’m the only one who gets this question. It makes me bristle, but I understand where it comes from.

After my brief tour is over, I make the 500-mile trip to suburban Chicago to return the Toyota to my parents. I eat dinner at home, and after, my father drops me back in the city. Invariably, the trip down the Kennedy Expressway toward the skyline makes him nostalgic for his early, underpaid days in small apartments on the North Side, his city long before it became my city. He tells a story or two, and we talk as usual about the news, politics, the latest way my uncle annoys him. He goes on a while before his attention returns to the moment, and he asks how my trip went. I tell him it went well. I say the audiences were kind and the drives were long. I say, out there, the country looks like a painting of itself. I don’t mention what the woman asked, the recurring question echoed by others. “You’re so Americanized, what nationality are you?” It won’t matter that she asked it while eagerly shaking my hand. It won’t matter that she asked while asking me also to sign a copy of my book for her. It won’t matter that she offered her gratitude that I’d come all that way to read in her hamlet on the outskirts of America. Though she might have meant the opposite, he’ll hear the question as the old door closing again. The doorway, then, is both welcome and departure, is border guard and border crossing, and though I’m not on the woman’s side of it, I’m not entirely on my father’s side either.

Perhaps for this reason, there’s the continuing sense that I ought to write about race even as I resent that I need be troubled by the subject in the first place. After all, I should permit myself to be a poet first and a minority second, same as any male, white writer. But even as I attempt to ignore the issue altogether, I find myself thinking about it, and I realize now that this fact more than any other makes it so that I can’t write like a white poet. Writing is as much the process of arriving at the point of composition as it is the act of composition itself. That my awareness of racial identity so often plays a part in my thinking about my writing makes it so that I can’t engage in that writing without race being a live wire. Even one’s evasions are born of one’s fixations. More to the point, what appears to be an evasion might not be exactly that at all. John Ashbery doesn’t make a subject matter of his sexuality, but this doesn’t mean he’s unable to inhabit the identity of a gay writer. Similarly, even though Mary Ruefle might not take on gender identity overtly in a given poem, it doesn’t make that poem an adversary to the cause of feminism. I don’t bring all this up to absolve myself exactly, though it’s true I’m trying to figure out a way to alleviate a guilt I’m annoyed to feel in the first place. I imagine male, white poets will recognize this feeling. I bet any poet of conscience who doesn’t actively write about sociopolitical subjects knows this feeling, but the poet is trying to write the original thing, and that originality might not take up orbit around a more obvious facet of a poet’s identity. When any of us doesn’t take on such a subject in our writing, it might not be because we neglected to do so. Rather, it might be that the subject informed every bit of our deciding to write about something else.

More importantly, when it comes to writing about difficult issues of identity, especially those with far-reaching political and cultural implications, maybe the choice needn’t be a dichotomous one. Maybe I don’t need to choose between being the brown guy writing like a white guy or the brown guy writing about being Othered. Instead, maybe I need only be a brown guy writing out his study of language and the self—the same as the Paterson doctor, the Hartford insurance executive, the lesbian expat in Paris, the gay Jew from New Jersey, the male white poet teaching at the University of Houston, or the straight black female professor reading her poem at the American president’s inauguration. Though “high” English might be born of a culture once dominated by straight white men of privilege, each of us wields our English in ways those men might not have imagined. This is okay. Language, like a hammer, belongs to whoever picks it up to build or demolish. Whether we take language in hand to deconstruct itself, to confess a real experience or an imagined one, or to meditate upon the relationship between the individual and the political, social, historical, or cosmological, ownership of our language need not be bound up with the history of that language. Whether I choose to pound on the crooked nail of race or gender, self or Other, whether I decide on some obscure subject while forgoing the other obvious one, when I write, the hammer belongs to me.

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Jaswinder Bolina is the author of Carrier Wave, winner of the 2006 Colorado Prize for Poetry.Poems from his new manuscript—which can be found online here, here, and here—have appeared in recent issues of Ecotone, Columbia Poetry Review, Third Coast, and in The Best American Poetry 2011.

Continue reading this biography at the Poetry Foundation link.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Hari Kunzru on Granta Online

HARI KUNZRU is the author of the novels The Impressionist, Transmission, and My Revolutions, and the recipient of the Somerset Maugham Award, the Betty Trask Prize of the Society of Authors, and a British Book Award. In 2003 Granta named him one of its twenty best young British novelists. He is deputy president of English PEN, a patron of the Refugee Council, and a member of the editorial board of Mute magazine. His work has been translated into twenty-one languages, and his short stories and journalism have appeared in diverse publications including The New York Times, The Guardian, The New Yorker, The London Review of Books, Wired, and The New Statesman.

His newest, Gods Without Men, is due out from Knopf in March 2012. Kunzru talked to Granta, about his work and his new book. Interview at this link.

Interview: Hari Kunzru | Online Only | Granta Magazine

Interview: Hari Kunzru

Hari Kunzru was selected in 2003 as one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists. Four books later he talks to Online Editor Ted Hodgkinsonabout his latest novel (a multistranded epic that interweaves stories from the 18th century with the present), the scandal surrounding News International, the recent riots across Britain and this boyhood dream of being abducted by UFOs.
TH: Your latest novel, Gods Without Men, begins with a parable of a coyote (called Coyote) and is set in the Mojave desert. What drew you to write about this barren and biblical terrain?
It’s emptiness. Three years ago I went on a road trip with some friends and happened on the desert, almost by accident. Since then I’ve been back many times. It’s a high desert so the air is very thin and the quality of the light – its sheer brightness – is extraordinary. It’s a bizarrely occult place too. Deserts, of course, are traditionally places for metaphysical reflection, introspection, self-questioning. Coyote himself is a kind of trickster in the midst of it all. Tricksters have a very important place across all religions and mythologies: they steal what belongs to the gods. They are pragmatic, always grounding the transcendental and divine in the here and now. So, Coyote is opposed to the gods. All of the characters in the book are searching for something, from a god to UFOs and Coyote acts as a counterpoint to this. The book is full of unanswered questions, of holes, you might say. And so Coyote is way of unraveling those novelistic threads even further. In a sense I was using him to undo novelistic conventions by refusing to tie up the threads and show what the characters were searching for, or found.
There is a kind of poetics of technology that runs through your books from your story lila.exe in Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists 2, which later became your novel Transmissions to your latest novel. Do you think technology is bringing us closer together or just creating another set of barriers?
We live in a networked age so we need a networked art form that can reflect that. I think the novel, in all its complexity, is very The way technology is altering our language is precisely what interests me. I think these are the most important stories we could be telling right now.good at doing this. It can editorialize and clarify the ways that networks are reshaping our lives.
I am particularly interested in the effect it has on language. There are a lot of writers who deliberately don’t use that kind of technological register in their work because they think it’s not literary but I think they are overlooking an area of change that is unique to our time. The way technology is altering our language is precisely what interests me. I think these are the most important stories we could be telling right now.
In your latest book spirituality itself is in crisis. Can a sense of identity ever be formed without some sense of spirituality?
Identity without spirituality can certainly exist but at the same time it seems that there is always the question of the unknown that humans are continually plagued by and religion – I mean organized religion – is just one mechanism that people have used to answer that sense of not knowing. Unfortunately where religion often seems to fail is its refusal to enact this same process of questioning: it doesn’t allow for us to go on not knowing and asks that we fill that void with belief. I’m basically an atheist myself, but I have a problem with the militant atheism of Dawkins and his ilk. To me it comes close to an essentialized Protestantism, with its bounded reasonableness. It takes all the fun out of it. What it doesn’t allow for is this same sense of questioning into the unknown. In other words I find distinctions between spiritual and not-spiritual totally bogus as, like many of the characters in the book, these are not categories but continually shifting forces and are embodied through experience and time.
You’ve been a critic of the tabloid press in the past and your latest novel features a news cycle reminiscent of the Madeline McCann story. How far do you think that the scandal surrounding News International will reshape the media-landscape in this country and globally?
I hope it profoundly reshapes it, though I don’t anticipate it will result in a moral revolution of any kind. No, I imagine that the tabloid press will continue to be as ruthless and ravenous as before. What I do think might change, and I certainly hope does, is for the ownership of the media to be somewhat diluted. At the very least it could help to break up Rupert Murdoch’s empire. He has had an unwarranted influence on the political life of Britain for far too long.
What have you made of the scenes of rioting across London?
The place I know best and live is Hackney but I was staying in Camden last night so just arrived back this morning. I think what’s happening is kind of inevitable. Though the young people who are out on the streets don’t have a specific political goal what they are doing is in the realm of the political in the sense that it is born from a long Though the young people who are out on the streets don’t have a specific political goal what they are doing is in the realm of the political...history of social exclusion.What we are seeing now is a harbinger of things to come. We’re at the beginning of a much more serious economic downturn, with the crisis in the Eurozone only threatening to get worse. And the simple fact is that the post Second World War model of the social democratic settlement into the welfare state has, over the last twenty years, been replaced by a hierarchical arrangement which only benefits the top few per cent. This structure clearly needs to change. The current hierarchies that only profit the already very well off can’t carry on regardless any longer. It’s clear we have to reach a more egalitarian arrangement.
What did being selected as one of Granta’s Best Young Novelists mean to you?
It was a really good thing for me. It was something easy to point to, a vote of confidence when I was only just starting my career. It was great to be identified as someone that worth keeping track of. I did watch a documentary on the Granta list recently and was terrified of appearing in the ‘Where are they now?’ category. Thankfully, I didn’t!
In your latest novel there’s a troubled aviator, Schmidt, who becomes fascinated by UFOs. Do you share this fascination at all?
I am fascinated by them. When I was younger I often liked to imagine a Close Encounters-like experience of UFOs descending. It seems that the further away UFOs come from the more the mystery increases. The novel taps into the fascination with aliens that was gripping people during the 60s. The depictions of UFOs and their craft are based on accounts from the 60s, the likes of Ashtar Command and Lightworkers, real believers in other words. It was interesting to me how readily UFOs can be mapped onto a spiritualism, Madame Blavatsky and so on. UFOs seem to translate very easily into a transcendental experience. I’ve never seen a UFO myself but the closest experience I’ve had is something called the Marfa Lights in Texas. It’s a paranormal phenomenon in which a fluctuating number of twinkling lights appear to be levitating over the desert night sky. Though the number varies it’s otherwise a fairly regular occurrence. No one can explain it. It’s a reliable fast-food-like UFO experience, if you’re looking to have one. ■