Siddhartha Deb is an Indian writer, writing about a little known part of his country (the Northeast borderlands). The Point of Return, his first novel, involves the struggle between two generations as India moves out of colonialism and into a new nationalist age. His next, An Outline of the Republic, moves into a darker territory where a whole region lives in fear of terrorists and a journalist tries to discover the identity of an young woman, accused of starring in a pornographic film and, subsequently, kidnapped by the same group of terrorists. The Point of Return was recently included in “60 Essential English Language works of Modern Indian Literature” published by World Literature Today.
He currently lives in New York and teaches at the New School. He regularly travels back to India for research purposes. Soon he will publish a non-fiction book, The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India, that uses all the techniques required as a novelist, to write about the “reality” of India in a new way. He is currently working on his first non-Indian novel, which will be partly set in New York. The example of Siddhartha Deb reminds us that sometimes it is those outside a culture, yet intimate with it, that can give us the most perceptive observations and criticisms.
— Jeffrey Errington
Jeffrey Errington: The Point of Return starts with a quote by Melville: “It’s not found on any maps true places never are.” What kind of places are you interested in writing about?
Siddhartha Deb: Both my novels are set in the Northeastern part of India where I grew up. It’s an area that’s on the physical map, but not on the mental map that most people have of India. In the cities, people don’t think about this area, except perhaps to note that it’s beautiful, that many of its inhabitants are tribal and that some of those inhabitants are violent insurgents. I write to challenge and complicate this simplistic view. Also, engaging with the periphery allows you to view central places in a different way. Delhi looks very different when you look at it from Meghalaya or Manipur. If this connects with Melville, it is perhaps in the way that Melville used a whaling ship to look at America, where he concentrated into a limited setting questions about the relationship between man and nature, between different races. In that sense, the Northeast has been my whaling ship, my Pequod, allowing me to comment on India from the periphery. But now I have a new challenge in that I would like to write about New York, a place that could not be more central and more written about. The question is: how do I capture this central place in a new way? How do I make Manahatta into the Pequod?
JE: So you have focused on the place that spurned you. Now you are looking to write about New York, the West and a different place.
SD: Spurned? No, I wouldn’t say that, even if The Point of Return is a novel partly about the principal characters –the father and the son—being rejected by the Northeast or feeling that they have been rejected by the Northeast. This area has been one of my obsessions and because it’s so remote, relatively speaking, that when I began writing about it, I was full of the hope that the publishing world would be pleased that I was bringing it stories from such a remote place. Had I known more about publishing, and that publishing houses are largely interested in the easy exoticism of saris, Bollywood dances and spices, I probably wouldn’t have been able to write The Point of Return. But with naive optimism and not a little desperation—during that time I was living in Harlem and enrolled in the graduate program in literature at Columbia University—I wrote The Point of Return. In my second novel, published as An Outline of the Republic, I tried to go further with the foolishness of capturing the Northeast of India, this time by sending my protagonist on a journey that finally pushes him off the map and into a border town of Burma.
In both the first and the second novel I was very passionate about capturing a specific part of India. In some ways, that was a problem because I think it makes me an unclassifiable writer in the West, an un-Indian Indian writer because I don’t work with the accepted frames of India.
The next book which I have just finished, doesn’t have that problem. It’s a narrative nonfiction book, and it’s about a contemporary India that gets a lot of press, meaning this rapidly rising free market superpower, and this wonderful democracy that much of the West uses to contrast with the authoritarianism of China. It’s about the new shopping malls, the consumerist middle class, and the new rich. But the book complicates these easy ideas from a perspective that’s quite critical of the rampant inequalities in India, and it does that to a great extent through the various characters that it discovers. The book is set in Delhi, Bangalore, Hyderabad—the places that are talked about a lot—but also in slums, godforsaken villages, post-apocalyptic factory towns, and although I didn’t plan on this when I began the book, in the Northeast.
And then there’s the whole question of returning to fiction. I haven’t been satisfied by most contemporary novels, especially those set in very well-trodden territories like New York. Even the geography of these novels is limited, where all we see are small strips of that city. So I feel that—both with the nonfiction book about mainstream India and with the fiction I am writing now—that you can do a lot with even the most written about places. People talk about the crisis in the form of the novel, at least in England and America. There is no crisis. It’s a good form, an open and flexible one. The crisis is with the writers. They are narrowing down what is possible. Established writers in the West now live comfortable bourgeois lives, a narrow middle-class life, and it’s hampering them. It’s not a Flaubertian “live like a bourgeois, write like a madman,” approach. They are not writing like madmen, but as very comfortably bourgeois, and the novels reflect that. They give the sense of ennui, of living past the moment when anything mattered, whether it’s history or politics or identity, when the truth is that the world is being violently changed even as our contemporary novelists play their ironic tunes. The work is under-imagined and under-lived.
JE: When you say under-imagined do you mean in the content that the writer is giving the reader or in the way that that novel is then soaked into the reader’s imagination. Who is it under imagined by?
SD: On the writer’s part. Let me be concrete: I remember a novel I reviewed a few years ago. It’s by a well-known writer, a good writer, and is set in New York with a lot of characters who talk endlessly about television soaps, films and music. It’s obsessive focus with popular, consumer culture seemed to point to a larger problem of how it couldn’t engage with either life, as lived by the individual, or with political circumstances, as experienced by groups. In this particular novel the problem becomes emphasized by an Indian cab driver, whose character is just an accumulation of ridiculous details. The driver is obsessed with an American TV show. He has a degree in Cultural Studies from Delhi University, but he has also had an arranged marriage in his Punjab village. This is nothing but an under-imagined, lazy, and dare I say it, Westernized rendition. The bits don’t add up. If his world involved an arranged marriage in a village, then how did he get into Delhi University to study Cultural Studies? Absurdities and contradictions, but without the playfulness that might make these absurdities interesting. If the writer knew these contradictions then perhaps he would push the contradictions further. But it’s as if the novelist was thinking, “I am writing a novel about popular culture. . . . But I want to show diversity, to reflect polyglot New York, so I will have an Indian cabbie and since I want this novel to be about popular culture he will have to be interested in American television soaps. And I guess he is from Delhi so I will make him study Cultural Studies at Delhi University. And he is from India so I will make him have an arranged marriage.” Frankly, the old Anglo imperialist writers like Conrad and Kipling did a better job.
JE: Have contemporary writers allowed their imaginations to become suburbanized?
SD: Let me build on your metaphor. What they have done is gentrify their own fiction. Look at William Gibson’s dirty and gritty early work. When you read the early novels – I’m thinking especially about Neuromancer and some of the earlier short stories—they are filled with messed up people living in a bruised and battered world. But the later novels? They happen in lofts with hardwood floors and French windows. The characters are trend spotters who drink double lattes after they have finished their Pilates class. There’s an example of a writer who has been gentrifying his own fiction, and the odd thing is that he has done it while moving up the literary hierarchy from pulp—and terrific pulp—to quasi-literary fiction, which is to say the realm of the middle brow, neither pulp nor high art. And this is so true of so much contemporary writing in English. I don’t think the writers intend for their writing to seem fake—indeed they want you to think that it’s art—but I react to it as if it were fake. It feels like I am in one more airport with the same franchised stores and I have no idea what country I am in: No specificity.
JE: Are younger writers now starting out in this gentrified form? University to MFA and then they produce a ‘gentrified’ novel.
SD: Most of the writers who emerge from the route you describe are privileged in terms of race and class. Unless you have family money or are well connected, and often one is related to the other in the United States, life won’t be particularly comfortable as a writer, even if you get published. I have a friend who has been writing well for a number of years. It was impossible for him to get an agent. And I eventually told him that he might have to get an MFA to enter that world.
JE: It sounds like your friend’s writing is fine but his writing resume isn’t up to scratch.
SD: That’s a good way to put it. The publishing houses don’t like to take decisions that involve paying a decent but modest sum for a novel that is different and might sell a few thousand copies. Sure, that might begin the career of a writer, but neither the harried editors—who are forced to work as if they are on one long assembly line—nor the conglomerates that employ these editors have that capacity to think long term. And so they prefer overpaying for a hyped book, even if they might not make that money back. However, bad as this is, I think it might be possible to live around the edges of this ecosystem.
I don’t live in New York all the time. I teach in New York—I have been doing so for the past couple of years—but I spend a lot of time in India where I hang out with very different people from the sort I might spend time in New York, or for that matter, in New Delhi. People who are arms dealers, sex workers, and farmers. I spent part of my last summer at the barracks of a steel factory talking to men who’d migrated there to work. So when I return from all this, it gives me material and helps me keep New York in perspective, especially all its hype about what constitutes success.
A lot of people who want to write these days don’t seem to be deeply interested in books, or in reading, or in the great variety that the world has to offer them. Their main reason to write is to express their selves, to get published and get famous. But writing is more obsessive than that. If you really want to write, you will do it even if nobody is going to publish you. That is the compact that every writer has to make with themselves.
JE: Is interesting literature happening away from all of this? Indeed, can we find a kind of power that may sharpen our prose if we exist outside of universities, publishing houses, grant-giving organizations? For example how about Roberto Bolano?
SD: I think the answer to that is yes, although such a life can be difficult both in its relative poverty and the lack of recognition, which often stings more. Nobody really spends too much time thinking about all those missing teeth of Bolano’s and that poor, damaged liver. But yes, living outside the system, or on its edges, does seem to throw up a freshness of voice and perspective. I think of Edward P. Jones as an American writer who shows this. From what I know about him, he seems to have been relatively unknown, and to have lived outside the system, and one feels that the long period of obscurity and silence helped him hone his craft. There’s a quality in his writing that is not showy, but is very alive. Bolano certainly took risks, but his risk taking, in terms of style, took place in a different context. One, the writing in South America often takes more risks and is more experimental. I just finished Ghosts by Cesar Aira, and it is absolutely incredible. So the tradition that Bolano came from was more experimental and allowed him a greater degree of freedom. He could have this incredibly erudite interest in Modernism and Surrealism as well as an interest in genre fiction like the work of Philip K. Dick and successfully blend them. But he was also an obsessive writer, and it is hard to nurse that kind of obsession within the context of Anglo-American commercial publishing. If you look at his oeuvre in English, a lot of it cobbled together after his death, you see how he repeats style and form and themes. He wrote The Savage Detectives with a bit part for a character called Auxilio Lacouture and then he expands her into a novel of her own called Amulet. He’s obsessed with the relationship between art and politics, with place, like the frontier zone between Mexico and the United States, which he riffs on in The Savage Detectives and then returns to in the apocalyptic cityscape of Santa Teresa in 2666 which is a sprawling monster of a book. Being outside of the Anglo-American world certainly helped Bolano become this kind of writer, as did the experience of being an exiled Chilean, close enough in both language and certain social mores to European/American culture and yet also at a remove from it. The writer in the Anglo-American world often gets corrupted by power and money because England and America have been the centers of empire in the 20th century. Look at a writer like Martin Amis. A literary pedigree, feted in London and New York, praised for possessing a certain verbal panache and yet so disconnected from the larger world as evidenced in some of the things he says about Muslims. He probably understands nothing about Islam, but he is willing to shit on Muslims, because it is a fashionable thing to do right now, a politically correct form of racism, if that doesn’t sound oxymoronic. He discovered how bad Stalinism was in 2005, rather than how bad Guantamano or Abu Ghraib was in 2004. I think he still hasn’t got around to how bad the British Empire was.
JE: We have talked about the content of novels and how they have become bland or gentrified. In your review of Diary of a Bad Year by Coetzee you said that the novel is a “supple form replete with possibilities.” What are its current possibilities?
SD: Each writer really has to answer that question for themselves. It’s a lifelong project. The finish line, as Graham Greene says in his autobiography, is only at the end of your life. So you reinvent the form, or try to reinvent the form, with each work you write. Sometimes, it seems that the writing programs have narrowed down what people think of as the novel. So much of contemporary writing is first person narration. But often this first-person narrator is transparent to the reader, in that his or her desires and expectations coincide very neatly with those of the work’s middle-class audience. A lot of these books seem to revolve around consumption habits and courting etiquette, and I’m deliberately using a seemingly anachronistic phrase because in the contemporary novel sexuality or Eros functions within such tightly bound norms. These writers seem to be tapping directly into the material of their lives, but they are not doing anything very interesting with it. People bring in discussions of food, clothes and babies and to add a touch of gravitas one sometimes rolls in the Holocaust, Muslim terrorists, or one’s ethnic heritage.
JE: Returning to the subject of New York, how could somewhere that is so fascinating currently create so little interesting literature? Is it gentrification? Is it the people that are writing about it? Are the wrong people having access to the publishing houses?
SD: Probably a bit of all of the above. But I think there is an opportunity here for writers who are willing to take risks. It might be dispiriting in some ways that so much of the writing produced by the culture is banal. But the fact that the writing is bad makes me think there’s something I can do here. So much of contemporary cinema, both Hollywood and Indie cinema, is so bad. It’s not because America is a not an interesting place, it is. It is not because people aren’t interesting, they are. It’s not because they don’t have good stories, they do. It has to do with corporatization and a gentrification of the imagination.
JE: We are still waiting for the great post 9/11 novel to emerge. We are still waiting for someone to take that event and put its ramifications into a novel. Perhaps it’s a time thing. That catastrophic event that happened in 2001, maybe we need an entire generation to allow that to saturate our consciousness. These novels that you are describing are not political in at all. Yet, New York became one of the most politicized cities on that day. People living in small cities in China were staring at the TV and knew that something was happening, but that political zeitgeist hasn’t yet made its way into these novels.
SD: It may take more time, but it’s not just time. People have become too obsessed with me, me, me. Writing is not about the Self, but the intersection between the Self and the Other. It is not about who I am, but it is about who I am as I encounter everyone and everything that is not I. Isn’t that both the exciting and painful thing about living? But writers don’t seem to recall this. New York is a tremendously diverse place, but it also allows people living and writing here to live very monochromatic lives. And one might contrast this with American non-fiction, which at the moment is pretty good. It’s not very inventive formally or stylistically, but in terms of subject matter, it’s doing a good job. The nonfiction writers do the business of talking to the people who are not like them; farm workers, immigrants and taxi-drivers. A good American journalist would do a better job than a fiction writer right now of representing a taxi-driver. And it’s not that fiction is not capable of it, as Tom Wolfe once said. A novel can do it, a novel can always do it better! But novelists have stopped doing this work. There is no willingness to engage with what is out there. It can’t just be about me and my friends. But most of the novels are about me and my friends.
JE: Balzac once wrote that “novels are private histories of nations.” Are writers not being faithful to that call and writing the private histories of the nations that we are living in?
SD: I’d say that’s probably true on a global scale. But in the most dominant publishing world, the English-speaking one, people seem to have given up on that ambition. Or what is more likely is that we are in a state of transition and perhaps we’ll come out of it with some terrific work in the near future.
Jeffrey Errington was born in Sydney, Australia. He studied at Sydney University and Cornell University. He currently lives in South Korea, where he teaches English at a nuclear power plant.
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