Tuesday, 7 February 2017

How a book begins...

Anita Desai and Kiran Desai on how their writing lives intersect, 
and how each nourishes the other’s work

 After a life in writing, Anita Desai wants her style to be pared down to the minimum so that the “silences are just as effective as the noise”. Daughter Kiran Desai doesn’t want the anger she feels about U.S. President Donald Trump and his world to disrupt her writing any more. 

“I have been thrown off the normal course and I want to get back to my book,” she says, a book “about power… about a young Indian woman out in India and the world” that she has been writing for a decade and which is slated to be out next year.

Unique inheritance

As mother and daughter share the stage at the Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet, we get a rare glimpse into the process of writing of two writers who happen to be in the same family. For Kiran Desai, her earliest memory of the ‘inheritance’ of a life in literature was that her mother had a “quietness from being a writer” who vanished every morning with extraordinary discipline to write. “Her writing life was part of our existence.” That work ethic and her imagination led to Anita Desai writing many novels that include celebrated ones like Clear Light of Day; In Custody; Fasting, Feasting; Baumgartner’s Bombay; The Village by the Sea, and her latest, the three-novellas-in-one, The Artist of Disappearance.

Kiran Desai, who won the Booker Prize for her second novel, The Inheritance of Loss, says her mother is her first reader who makes a few notes, which lead to “enormous changes”. She remembers her mother, on the other hand, writing “very clean” manuscripts; “I wrote many drafts,” Anita Desai intervenes, gently.

In her introduction to Anita Desai’s Booker-nominated Clear Light of Day, Kamila Shamsie wrote that “those who talk of Anita Desai’s surfaces of calm, or deceptive stillness, miss entirely her ability to make her readers feel uneasy from the start…”

When Anita Desai began writing, in the 1950s, there were few writers writing in English and she used the home and family as themes before moving away deliberately to In Custody to write about a world where women hardly figured. “My own experience was limited, I wanted to step out into a world not of my own experience. It was becoming tedious to constantly write about the domestic situation” she says. When she reached Baumgartner’s Bombay (1988), the story of a wandering German Jew in exile in Mumbai, she “had gained a little confidence just escaping from my own early concerns.”

How a book begins

Anita Desai speaks softly and her observations on life and writing are unsentimental, which is perhaps why she admires Rabindranath Tagore and Virginia Woolf — “there is Woolf in the background, she remains the standard setter for me”. She has been spending a great deal of time in Mexico — “there’s so much past in a present-day setting” — and is “wondering” about her next book. “I am trying to avoid nostalgia in future writing,” she says, as “nostalgia is a great enemy of art”. Her steps to write a novel? “I always start with a place, then characters appear on the scene and then they talk to each other.”

Kiran Desai starts the book-writing journey by gathering “sentences, thoughts, landscapes and scenes… I keep a diary and collect things there.” Both live in New York, and sometimes write together, daughter upstairs, mother downstairs, and talk about where they are in their books before sharing a drink at the end of the day.

Anita Desai remembers her daughter writing marvellous letters home and recalls wishing she would try her hand at writing even as she was pursuing studies as an environmental scientist. “Luckily, her professors in college noticed the same things that I had noticed.” So, can writing be taught? Kiran Desai feels that “strange corners get worn down if you are writing for group approval, which you do when you are part of a writers’ workshop.” Her first book, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, was born in such a workshop, and she feels it’s a “self-conscious book”. She took a decade to write her second book, but that “enhanced her writing”. As for Anita Desai, who has taught creative writing, she doesn’t think she would have the courage to attend a writers’ workshop: “I learnt my craft by going into myself and reading, carefully reading what would be good for my work.”

Favourite works

Ask Kiran Desai what are her favourite Anita Desai books, and she gushes, “There are a few, In Custody, Clear Light of Day and Baumgartner’s Bombay — these books and the landscape are deeply familiar to me.” Most of all, she feels close to Baumgartner “because he is a character of unending exile”.

Anita Desai never draws attention to herself, walking in quietly for her daughter’s session with Paul Beatty, last year’s Booker winner, and heading towards the back, wanting to sit away from the harsh light, as her daughter’s words about her ring in our ears: “There is no narcissism about her, no loud showing off. I have always felt encouraged by her, critics have looked harder.”

On Kiran Desai

It's the morning after her night of triumph. Kiran Desai, sleepless but still glowing with all the unaffected grace that she showed on the Guildhall platform, has been giving interviews since 7.30am. Soon, she will rush to Heathrow to resume the German tour that her Man Booker victory so noisily interrupted. We talk over tea in her Bloomsbury hotel. "English tea?" asks the waitress. When I answer "yes", of course I mean Indian tea. Thereby hangs the endlessly rich and tangled tale that has sustained so many creative careers - including those of Kiran and Anita Desai.

Kiran still hasn't been able to contact her mother, thrice-shortlisted for the award that her daughter has grabbed at the first time of asking. Anita is staying in a remote corner of India, in a Tibetan refugee settlement, without phone connections or TV. For mother and daughter, this counts as an unusual break of service. "I really complete adore her," Kiran says, without a touch of Hollywood (or Bollywood) gush. "I see her face and I completely melt. It's an amazingly close relationship, and usually I talk to her every single day." In her acceptance speech, the younger Desai avowed that "I owe her such an enormous debt that I can't express it in any ordinary way."

She has, instead, repaid it in a quite extraordinary way, with The Inheritance of Loss. In 1999, I judged the Booker, and we chose to name Anita Desai's exquisite Fasting, Feasting - with its twinned Indian and American novellas - as our official runner-up (to Coetzee's Disgrace). The two generations of story-weaving Desais touch on the same raw social nerves, and massage them deftly into literary art. Both write from, and to, the Indian experience of migration, of expatriation, of striving to succeed abroad yet yearning for an increasingly imaginary homeland.

For all their overlapping themes, a stylistic chasm of Himalayan size falls between the two authors. The daughter is exuberant, the mother austere; the former conveys a leaping, darting energy; the latter, watchful stillness and restraint. One bounces where the other glides. And yet... both, in utterly distinct voices, capture the sorrow that underlies the migrant's restless transits. Both are prose poets of modern disenchantment.

Biography: Kiran Desai

Kiran Desai, one of four children of the novelist Anita Desai, was born in 1971 and brought up in India. She went to school in Delhi and Kalimpong, in the Himalayas, where her family had a house. After a period in England, she and her mother lived in the US from the late 1980s. Kiran attended Bennington College, and studied creative writing at Columbia University. She published her debut, Hullbaloo in the Guava Orchard, in 1998. It won a Betty Trask Award. She has spent the past eight years working on her second novel, The Inheritance of Loss (Hamish Hamilton). This week, it won the Man Booker Prize and made her the youngest woman ever to receive the award. Desai lives in Brooklyn and spends part of the year in India.

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