The Sidney Harman Writer-In-Residence Program
Class Interview with Anita Desai
The students in Professor Eva Chou’s Contemporary Asian Literature course, English 3950 (Topics in Literature), interviewed the novelist Anita Desai, the Sidney Harman Writer-In-Residence for Spring, 2003, during her visit to their class.
Students: We enjoyed reading and analyzing your novel Clear Light of Day and your story “Rooftop Dwellers” knowing that we will be meeting you. We wonder what you think about when you are writing?
Anita Desai: When I am writing, I focus 100 percent on my writing. Then, by the time I’m half way through the book, I’m already thinking about the ending. People think that because I write about India I must be trying to portray India in a way. I aim to tell the truth about any subject, not a romance or fantasy, not avoid the truth.
S: What sort of process do you use to write?
AD: My style of writing is to allow the story to unfold on its own. I try not to structure my work too rigidly. I don’t make outlines for my novels. Instead, I jot down notes, then formulate characters. I try to trace the connection between the characters and that way a story or plot emerges.
S: How do you feel after you have finished something?
AD: Usually a feeling of disappointment follows the book, because what I hoped to write is not what I actually accomplished. However, it becomes a motivation to write the next book.
S: When did you know you were a writer?
AD: Ever since I could first write I have been doing so. When I was taught how to write and read at school, I made up my mind that this was what I love to do best and this was the world I was going to occupy. So I started writing little stories at that time. When I was very young, I used to share much of what I wrote with my family, but as I got older and more self-conscious, it became a much more private process.
S: Our class read and discussed Clear Light of Day, and we have many questions to ask you.
S: Can you say something about the book?
AD: It is the one closest to my heart. When I wrote it I was in love with literature and under the influence of great English writers, so it was a very literary novel.
S: We noticed the time period of Partition in 1949 and then twenty years later and also that two of the characters are girls—these might match your background. Is it somewhat autobiographical?
AD: The setting is autobiographical, but [being partly set in 1949] it is also about India becoming independent and de-colonized. It is set in my home city of Old Delhi, in a period of my childhood, during a time when I was becoming a woman. It was the coming together of two momentous events in my life, growing up and India transforming from a colony to independence. Even such a quiet, protected, enclosed place as the family’s home could be affected by the great events of history. But Bimla in this novel and also Moyna, in the story “Rooftop Dwellers,” stay alone to represent the growing independence of women in India and having the choice of not getting married.
S: Our class noticed that the parents were very remote, but we couldn’t find a reason in the novel for it.
AD: The main reason for the parental absence is to protect my parents’ private lives. I felt that I might inadvertently give away some of my parents’ private aspects when I was writing so in order to prevent that, I decided to make the parents conveniently absent and aloof. The reasons were subconscious too. In part the novel was autobiography, but I was shying away from writing about my own parents. I sidestepped the issue. But decades later, in my recent Fasting, Feasting, I faced up to this relationship.
S: The novel is divided into four parts: the visit of one sister to her old home, the past in 1949, then childhood, and finally the visit in present time again. What was your purpose in this design?
AD: The book begins and ends with the visits to give the impression of a tunnel into their ancestors and family history. I believe in going backwards into the past—I felt I was digging a tunnel back to the past. Originally I had planned to go even further back, to infancy and ancestors, but I stopped. I ran out of energy.
S: The character of Baku, the husband of the visiting sister, is an ambassador. Why is he so pompous?
AD: Many characters in the novel are representative of types that exist in India. He represents the caste system in India with an air of superiority, the caste system in India and the people thinking that western things are better.
S: But the brother Raja is interested in Urdu poetry and is friends with a Muslim family though they are a Hindu family.
AD: I grew up in Delhi in the north of India. There it is very Islamic, with the history of the Mughal dynasty and everywhere Urdu spoken, and Islamic architecture and food and dress. Islam was as much a part of our lives as Hindu things. Many of us regarded the Partition [of India and Pakistan in 1949] as a tragedy. Raja represented an India that had an Islamic tradition. This is another unfinished business that is taken up later in my book, In Custody, where a character sacrifices his life.
S: At the end of the novel an elderly guru sings a song by Iqbal, what is the significance of this song?
AD: The song of this famous Urdu poet shows that poetry, art, is significant in the history of India. India is a curious place that still preserves the past, religions, and its history. No matter how modern India becomes, it is still very much an old country.
S: Do you have a favorite piece among your writings?
AD: I have the same feelings for almost all of my writing. Every book has unfinished business, but maybe Fire on the Mountain is one book I have never been disappointed with.
S: Do you have any advice to give to young writers?
AD: Someone who wants to write should make an effort to write a little something every day. Writing in this sense is the same as athletes who practice a sport every day to keep their skills honed. When you are writing, you must be 100% focused on the writing. Also, when I write I often stop and check by asking myself, “Does this make sense to anyone besides me?”
S: Are any of your own children writers?
AD: One of my daughters, Kiran Desai, is a professional writer. She wrote the novel, Hullabaloo in Guava Orchard.
S: Has your work changed over time?
AD: My literary style has changed over the years. Now my writing is bare compared to my earlier work. My schooling as a child in India had an impact on my writing, I grew up reading the major English writers. As I grow older I feel less a need to prove my skills. I realize I don’t always have to write in their style. I think Fasting, Feasting is an example where my style has changed since Clear Light of Day.
S: What do you think is the future of literature in the Indian languages, now that Indian literature in English has become so strong?
AD: It’s become strong in the last ten or twenty years. When I started to write, it certainly wasn’t. There were just a few of us, we had a lot of problems finding publishers, there were very few readers, and no one seemed very interested. I think things changed very dramatically.
S: Does it bother you when people don’t get what you wrote?
AD: No, people do see my works differently, but that is how it should be. I believe that once a writer creates a novel, it takes on a life of its own. I feel dissociated from a book in the bookstore—it belongs to the reader.
S: Thank you very much.
Ivette Santos, Kathryn Ricker, Linda Chin, Alexandrea Iwanicki, David Kwang, and Linda Fung collaborated in editing this interview.
Return to Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence home page.
- Edward Albee
- Agha Shahid Ali
- Hilton Als
- Yehuda Amichai
- Paul Auster
- Elif Batuman
- April Bernard
- Susan Choi
- Anita Desai
- William Finnegan
- Mary Gaitskill
- Amitav Ghosh
- Francisco Goldman
- Philip Gourevitch
- Eduardo Halfon
- Major Jackson
- Gish Jen
- Ben Katchor
- Jane Kramer
- Mark Kurlansky
- Tony Kushner
- Jhumpa Lahiri
- Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
- Colum McCann
- Lorrie Moore
- Carol Muske-Dukes
- Sigrid Nunez
- Joseph O'Connor
- George Packer
- Richard Price
- Francine Prose
- Brenda Shaughnessy
- Laurie Sheck
- Charles Simic
- Katherine Vaz
- John Edgar Wideman