The Inheritance of Insight

Kiran DesaiBooker Prize-winning author Kiran Desai (The Inheritance of Loss, 2006) opens up about where she finds inspiration, what she learned from her famous mom, and how she handles the critics. (Third Place Books, May 2007)

By Shiwani Srivastava

It’s been a very good year for author Kiran Desai. The author’s second novel (The Inheritance of Loss, Grove Press, 384 p.) has garnered some hefty literary praise, including the 2006 Man Booker Prize and the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Fiction Award. Now, at the ripe young age of 36, she contemplates what got her to where she is today — including India, the country that provides a constant source of inspiration, and her mother Anita Desai, an accomplished author who has been short-listed for the Booker Prize on multiple occasions.

Desai read from her novel and talked about her writing process at the intimate Third Place Books in Seattle:

Q: Your most recent book, The Inheritance of Loss, has been getting a lot attention lately. But your first book, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, was also a success in its own right. How do you feel about your first novel now that you can look back in it as a more experienced writer?

A: It’s funny, critics have said “Your books are so different – and the titles don’t really go together.”  And yet I actually think that there is a connection.  The first book was such a desire to capture a whole entire pure little world.  It’s such a sweet vision, almost a childlike vision, of what it meant to be growing up in an Indian community with a close-knit family life.  I was very much influenced by writers like R.K. Narayan, and I think I was really trying to hold onto a childhood vision of India that I was losing.

I had left India at that point, and I was attempting to create everything I loved the most.  But when I finished it, it didn’t feel entirely honest.  In a way, it had some fakeness to it because it was really the vision of a fabled person who grew up with a happy childhood. It doesn’t really prepare you for the world in any way.  There is no pure version of the world like that where even if there are problems, they stay within a secure little circle. Certainly, my life didn’t fit into that picture anyway.

Q: Recently, much has been made about the fact that your mother, Anita Desai, is also a famous author. What is your relationship like with her?

A: It’s a close relationship.  Primarily the relationship is mother-daughter – that’s really what matters.  But of course, we talk business too. I was just telling her before coming here today how tired I am from the book tour. We were commiserating about how you never get an extra day to enjoy a city when you’re on tour. She agreed that the schedule could be “dreadful.”

Q: How has her work influenced you as a person?

I grew up in a world of books with all her books on the bookshelves. But I started writing in writing workshops, thinking it was a completely different manner from the way she had written.  I had some good experiences and some less good experiences.  The writing workshops worked for me by not really working.  I found I fell into a very old-fashioned way of writing — and when I was done, I realized it was very much her way.

But that’s a good thing. I didn’t have to fight to create the writing life in the way so many writers have to.  I see so many friends going through the process and sort of forcing this habit.  I realized that the rhythm had been inside me, but it’s a very old-fashioned rhythm – it’s the rhythm of someone of another generation, another country, another time.

When she started writing, India was just a far-away country that had a closed-door economic policy.  My mother would just read the addresses of publishers off the back of books and just send her work off into the world, one package at a time. And that’s how she got started. When I started writing, I depended on and used the same rhythm she established. I would write a lot in our house and work all night.

Q: You mention the impact of India on your mother’s writing. But how has it influenced yours? Why did you set The Inheritance of Loss in such a remote region of India?

A: I could’ve set this book in many different parts of the country and still talked about the same issues.  Of course, I told the story I was familiar with and that happened when I was there [near the foothills of the Himalayas]. At the time, I was 13 or 14.

The story goes back to the demise of the Indian Nepali community after Indian independence, and the things that they did for greater economic and political rights [in the 1980s].  I don’t think I understood it fully at the time – it was a muddy period and what was happening will always be contested in some way.

But I felt I could talk about the issues because this is basically an immigrant story. I myself am an immigrant, and I’ve realized that immigrant issues are not merely Western issues.  We tend to think of them that way, but of course, this exists in every part of the world.  There are so many parallels to this [Nepalese movement for an independent state].  This particular movement was very violent for a while, but their attempt at statehood was never really realized entirely.

Q: Where did your inspiration come from for this book?

A: It’s not exactly myself, but it’s pretty close.  It was a time when my mother was writing, but she was not writing well in Delhi and wanted to move to the mountains to write.  We had a house and her family had an old connection with that part of the country.  We used to go there every year, and finally we moved there.  I felt so foreign in my own country.  I wanted to go and write about what it means to grow up in a complicated place, in a complicated country, and then face the world with a complicated insight.

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