The Ruse of Fiction: An Interview with Amitava Kumar

Amitava Kumar’s recent novel, Immigrant, Montana, tells the story of Kailash, an Indian graduate student who ...

Amitava Kumar’s recent novel, Immigrant, Montana, tells the story of Kailash, an Indian graduate student who has immigrated to the US to study at Columbia University, and his education in love as well as in academe. The novel was a New York Times Notable Book of 2018, and it has been compared to the autofiction of Teju Cole and Ben Lerner. In this interview, Kumar talks about how the novel is and is not autobiographical.

Kumar has also published several books of criticism and of reportage on India and Pakistan.

Jeffrey Williams (JW): Your new novel, Immigrant, Montana, has been widely reviewed and most of the reviews have touted it as autofiction, although it strikes me that it is not really autobiographical. Having known you for a long time, I’d say you conducted a skillful ruse, giving it the air of autobiography.


Amitava Kumar (AK): I worked very hard both to invent things and, at another level, to make it appear as if it were my story. For example, the narrator is called AK-47. I was on a train somewhere, and I thought, he must have a provincial name, Kailash, which is not a name you will hear among many Indians. And then I thought up the idea that an Irish friend of his calls him Kalashnikov, and that becomes AK-47, so it promotes the illusion that it’s about me.

But, of course, so much of it is fabrication, so I had never thought I was doing autofiction. I was very much open to invention, but at the same time I wanted it to read like it was a report from real life. It therefore attempts to insert personal details in a way that people understand as autofiction. For example, as you know, I never went to Columbia, I never studied with Said, I never knew this man called Eqbal Ahmad, on whom the main character, Ehsaan Ali, is based. But they were a great inspiration to me.

These are people who have contributed to postcolonial theory in a way that I think is vital and I wanted to portray that, and I also wanted to portray the classroom space as a serious space. Take the idea of mentorship, for example: when you are young and lost and have a messy personal life and the teacher says, “You might want to write about this,” that changes your life. I was interested in that.


JW: How did you get the idea of the Ehsaan Ali character?


AK: He’s based on Eqbal Ahmad, who was not a well-known academic, but he was from Pakistan. He was born in a village in India not very far from my own, and he came here as a young man. As a teenager, he walked across India during the Partition to the new country, Pakistan. He had lost his father, who was killed because he had distributed land to people who were tilling the land. The killers were his own relatives, who owned land and didn’t want it given away.

As a young man, Eqbal Ahmad got a fellowship at Princeton and came to America. He went on to do his PhD in Tunisia, where he became involved in the Algerian struggle. He was a friend of the Palestinians. He came back while the Vietnam War was raging, and, along with Catholic antiwar activists, he was indicted for conspiring to kidnap Kissinger.

He was a real person, so there is reporting on that. I never met him, but he was an inspiring figure. People like Said dedicated their books to him—Culture and Imperialism is dedicated to him—and he was a good friend of Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. I interviewed his students and I interviewed his wife in the process of writing this book. I first thought I might do a nonfiction book about him, but I didn’t get enough material. I brought him into the story because I was aware of how much these mentors matter, especially if they are radical, and how they change the course of your life.


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JW: In some ways, the novel seems to have a sad or wistful tenor. It’s not about grief, but it’s a book about loss.


AK: It is. I was very conscious of getting old, and I thought that I wanted to put down what it felt like to be young and to be in love, when you’re seized by desire. So, there is a little bit of what it meant to be young, to be learning, to be struck by knowledge that was transformative, which included knowledge of bodies but also knowledge about politics and knowledge about literature. I hope my book is a tribute to that sort of learning and encounter in the classroom, where you’re offered this richness.

Still, I had not been happy with the way that postcolonial theory, at the time I was emerging from grad school, was an abstract exercise. There were no real people in it. That sense of abstractness exists in a continuum with the feeling that any proper, honest acknowledgment of desire is also suppressed. So, I guess I’m trying to say that the rebellion is not just of genre or form, but also of content, in the way that it addresses desire.


JW: I wondered if one of the models you might have had in mind was Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which was a big book in the ’80s, when you were in grad school, and also Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. They both portray desire, or the ungainliness of desire, and how one negotiates it. Your book is “Kailash’s Complaint,” in a way. I saw those echoes more than autofiction. What models did you have when you wrote it?


AK: People have been talking about Ben Lerner or Teju Cole. The second draft I wrote during a residency at Lannan Foundation, and the apartment that I was given was where Ben Lerner had written his last book, 10:04. I read that book carefully in that room. I was struck, although he had invented so much, how he had chosen just the precise details to describe the room, the street outside, the artifacts. But I don’t think of it as autofiction at all; I think of it as invention, where the props are very carefully placed and examined and arranged. So, Ben Lerner was an inspiration. And, certainly, my friend Teju Cole was, because I’m in almost daily conversation with him.

But for the first draft, I was at Yaddo, and the woman who showed me my room said that Philip Roth had written The Breast in that room. I chose to take that as an omen. Philip Roth was an inspiration for his lack of inhibition, for his great openness to being wrong. There’s this lovely passage in American Pastoral about how we get people wrong, and then, on careful reconsideration, we get them wrong again. It’s a brilliant passage. How many academics dare the possibility of being wrong? Or say something about being wrong, instead of asserting authority? That’s what I was trying to do, and Roth was an influence.

One other very crucial influence was John Berger. He had a biographical attachment to my story because he wrote about Eqbal Ahmad standing in a kitchen in Amsterdam, where he had founded the Transnational Institute, and telling Berger the story of his crossing from the village in Bihar to the border. Berger wrote about it in a short book called Photocopies. I’ve used some of Berger’s story, but I’ve invented things, too, and presented it as fact. I went to the archives and put archival material in, but it’s invention, and I very much enjoyed doing it.

JW: Another comparison is Sebald, especially the stance towards memory and reflection, and the warp of memory, as well as the pictures you interleave.


AK: “The warp of memory” is a lovely phrase. In Sebald’s The Emigrants, I think, there are stories about silkworms—you’ll see these accounts about obscure things like silkworms, and they’ll lead to a total history, brushing the grain of history to find a document about barbarism, as Walter Benjamin says. That’s how I thought of putting in a rhesus monkey. There’s a story at the beginning of my book about a monkey that the narrator might have seen in his childhood, and the monkey taking a gun and blowing its head off. You’re then led to the discovery, later in the book, of the whole history of monkeys running wild in India. A primatologist explains that soon after Indian independence, male monkeys in large numbers were being shipped to the US, which created a “chaotic fission”—that’s the primatologist’s phrase for the breakdown of the society of the monkeys.

More important for me was the idea that there are these unsung heroes of modernity in the US. When we were young, going to the moon was the singular achievement of mankind. Well, the Indian monkey was sent on these space flights, with names like “Sam 1,” “Sam 2,” “Sam 7,” “Sam 9.” If you go to the NASA website, their reports say something like, “Healthy young male monkey went safely to space. It was only on return, upon impact, that he died.”

That, to me, makes you reflect on the experience of migration. You see an attachment, and indirection and invention are a way of telling a story.


JW: Clearly your work is a reflection on migration, from your first book, Passport Photos, on. The feeling is different from accounts of immigration from the early 1900s or after World War II, which was mostly from Europe to the US, and the fiction dwells on forced displacement and assimilation. It seems to me that your book recounts a new sensibility. If you look at the statistics, there were very few people from Asia, particularly from India, in the US up to the 1970s, whereas by 2000 there were well over a million people born in India in the US, and they often came with professional credentials or for education. Your story is not about being exiled from one’s home, and it’s not really about assimilation; it’s more about being in between, and one might go back and forth. So, you don’t depict exile in the sense that Said uses but have a more ambivalent or wistful sense.

AK: That’s true, but there’s also a little bit of rage, especially in the beginning. In one of my poems, called “Love Poems for the Border Patrol,” the narrator is at a visa counter in the American embassy in India, and an officer says to another officer, “You can’t trust them.” The officer sitting down now raises his weary eyes and says, “Did you, the first time you went there, intend to come back?” He’s asking the graduate student who has come to America and gone back, asking for a visa. The graduate student now has this fantasy to say: “Wait a minute … did you get a visa when you first went to the moon? Fuck the moon, tell me about Vietnam. Just how precise were your plans there, you asshole?” So you’re right, but not only is there no assimilation, there is a seeking of accountability. The speaker says, “And did you when you went to Panama the first time know that you’d come back, guns blazing, a century later?” It’s a rebuke, like the immigrant writer in the Brixton riot who held up a sign, “Because you were there, we are here.”

That has persisted in Immigrant, Montana. This guy’s not always apologizing or wanting to be a part of white America. He’s taking stock of what it means to be an outsider. This also goes back to your question about influences. Our narrator, whether he tells you or not, has read Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, but equally important, he has also read Seasons of Migration to the North, by Tayeb Salih, where the journey is reversed. A black man goes to England, and the story is of his journey up the river and his desire to liberate Africa with his penis. What he dreams of are wide-open white thighs—a very problematic desire. I think awareness of all those readings is also a part of this narrator’s legacy.


JW: You didn’t go through a writing program, so how did you learn to do writing?


AK: No, I didn’t. In fact, I sometimes envy people who have gone to Iowa and places like that—in the same way that I envy people who have gone to Ivy League schools, like Columbia or Duke. But how I learned to write was by turning other people into my mentors, whether they know it or not. I never met Philip Roth, but I read his work with great attention. For postcolonial writers, Michael Ondaatje has such an importance. Recently, during a book tour in Canada, he invited me to lunch and I spoke to him about John Berger because he was a friend of Berger’s. Ondaatje said to me, “You should read Bento’s Sketchbook, by Berger, and draw every day.” So, I bought Bento’s Sketchbook, I looked at his drawings, and then I started doing my own drawings. Now and then I send Ondaatje a drawing I have done, and, whether he knows it or not, he became a mentor of mine. That’s how I started, by studying the work.

Photography is the same. As a grad student in Minnesota doing my PhD, I would sleep with books of the photographers that I admired beside me. One I looked at many times was by a Frenchman, Gilles Peress, who did a book called Telex Iran and one on Rwanda. Gilles Peress, Alex Webb, Raghu Rai—I slept with their books during graduate school, in 1993, ’94.

I wish, though, that I had a mentor like my narrator has in Ehsaan Ali. But I have got a bookshelf in my study for the project I’m working on next. And I have the books that are my models—I’ve got Roth, I’ve got Ben Lerner, I’ve got Teju Cole, I’ve got Claudia Rankine, I’ve got three books by Maggie Nelson. I’m learning by making them my mentors by myself.


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JW: Is there a politics of your writing? The issue of politics comes up in Immigrant, Montana, when Ehsaan insists upon AK’s having a position, and AK deflects the question. You seem to argue for more expressive kinds of writing, but people could challenge you for not having a politics.


AK: There is a storyboard of a film by Satyajit Ray that won the Cannes prize in 1960s, Pather Panchali, which means “Song of the Little Road.” In it, the brother and sister sight the train for the first time in their lives. This is about the appearance of modernity in India. As in all of Ray’s work, simple scenes, elegantly framed, produce a cumulative emotional effect that is shattering. I guess I want the simplicity, the elegance that engages the emotions and produces an effect.

Another part of that is, how does one think in such a complex world, in a world of globalization? I’m in favor of writing-as-collage, writing that brings unlike things together because that is what will give us a fix on contemporary reality. Globalization is always bringing things together in violent ways that we do not even always understand.

I also want to think of how to represent ordinary life in the sketches and drawings I’m doing. The sketches are like calligraphy, awash with movement, as if a subtle suggestion was blowing through them, like an invisible breeze. That’s what writing should do: a light breeze blowing through the pages, a subtle suggestion. How to write stuff that catches life in its movement? That’s possibly an aesthetic idea, but it’ll make you see. It will make you attentive and that might lead you to the right politics. That is better than hypocrisy and moral grandstanding. icon

Featured image: Amitava Kumar in the classroom. Photograph by John Abbott / Vassar College