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A passage to Mexico

Anita Desai and Maggie Gee

Filed under: Fiction

Anita Desai talks to fellow novelist Maggie Gee about the creative process, the many changes her writing has undergone, and her encounters with different cultures.

GEE: There’s never been a battle between the languages for you?

DESAI: I’ve never thought of it as a battle, because I’ve used different languages for different things: Hindi and German for communication with family and friends, and English for writing. But I have wanted very much to find some way to combine different languages, which is hard to do when you’re writing a book. I have always tried to make the other languages, the silent ones, somehow visible and audible. I think of writing as transparent, so that one can see many layers underneath, made up of the different languages and the different literatures that have gone to make up your mind and your own world.

GEE: How do you write, physically?

DESAI: I am terribly ashamed to admit that last year I made a serious effort to move on to the computer; my daughter tried to help me but I failed. So I still write by hand and then use a typewriter. I know these things are totally obsolete!

GEE: You have sustained a career through four decades of changes in the publishing industry. Does it get harder?

DESAI: The life I’ve led has helped me to withdraw into my study and stay with my books and not be affected by publishing trends. But writing does get much harder. When I look back and see how easily one could write when one was young…I wasn’t so self-conscious. All I wanted to do was get it on to paper, no matter how. I’m much more critical now, and find myself writing much less. I don’t have that energy and stamina you have when you are young, when you can face a big book and don’t mind it running away with you. I am now very conscious of having only this much time and this much space in which to fit this new book.

GEE: Fasting, Feasting [1999, short-listed for the Booker Prize] is more economical than your other books, more formal. Did you have the whole ofFasting, Feasting in your mind when you began it?
AD It just happened by sheer accident. When I first went to the USA to start teaching over there, I wondered if I would ever be able to write again, because I felt I had left my material behind. So it was a surprise to me when I sat down and immediately started writing about what I’d known all my life, the same Indian family, the same people. I felt as if I had been travelling like a turtle with all my baggage on my back, and I realised it would always be with me. But having written that part, I felt I needed to push this book in another direction, because all that American material was so vivid at the time, and it demanded to be written down as well. I contrived a way to do it by taking one of my characters to the United States. I really didn’t know if there was a link between the two parts of the novel – it wasn’t immediately apparent. But I realised eventually that these two novellas were mirror images of each other – not exact images, but as if the mirror were distorted.

GEE: There were eight years between Baumgartner’s Bombay [1987] andJourney to Ithaca [1995]. Did that gap in publication arise because of moving to the USA from India?

DESAI: It must have come about because I was constantly going back and forth between the West and India. My writing changed. I found it very difficult to maintain the narrative thread: suddenly I had to teach myself to write in fragments. First you break up your narrative into bits and pieces, and then you find a way of putting it together again. That’s the only way I was able to continue writing.

GEE: In Fasting, Feasting you almost seem to be saying that India and America are irreconcilable. Have you found it very dislocating, moving to America?

DESAI: Fasting, Feasting was more about being a foreigner and not having any entry into this world. Like Arun, I was walking the streets, looking through windows, wondering what kinds of life were being lived there, trying to read the symbols, not understanding.

GEE: That makes the novel sound rather less threatening than it is. You show America as a culture of glut and neurosis, a culture where people are terminally isolated from each other. It is a very bright and very harsh portrait. How did American readers take this book?

DESAI: Oh, you can imagine they didn’t take to it at all. From my American publisher down, they all disliked it intensely. I just hoped it would be balanced by the portrait of India on the other side which you wouldn’t call sentimental either.

GEE: Do you now see more in American life than when you arrived?

DESAI: I’ve decided I can’t really write about America. I don’t think I’ve got very much further than that first vision I had of it. I wouldn’t be able to write even that section now: that initial vision has become blunted through familiarity.

GEE: Are you conscious of trying to write different books each time?

DESAI: Once I’ve written a book I do have a feeling of having left that behind. It seems almost as though it was written by somebody else and I barely recognise it any more. With each book you have to find a different way to go about it – I suppose that’s why each book presents itself as a challenge.

GEE: How did writing go with having four children?

DESAI: It’s very strange, because now when I look back on it I think I never read or wrote so much as when the children were small. They must have fitted in beautifully. It was wonderful to be seeing to meals and bath-times and so on but also to have a world to retreat into.

GEE: Were they the happiest days, in some ways?

DESAI: In some ways, yes.

GEE: Your novels are full of very sympathetic, intimate, believable portraits of children and unsympathetic portraits of parents.

DESAI: I can tell you they are absolutely not based on my own parents…I have never been able to find a way to write about my own parents. I don’t think I ever will.

GEE: It is the selfishness of the parents you write about that I notice. The way, say, Uma’s parents in Fasting, Feasting take her for granted, imprison her, make use of her.

DESAI: I think Indian parents see themselves as protective and supportive of their children, not realising this can also mean they are extremely repressive and dictatorial, not giving their children the freedom to be individuals.

GEE: Did you know you wanted to be a writer before you married?

DESAI: Oh, I was a writer before I married. I had published stories in magazines and done book reviews. My husband knew this would be something I would continue doing. There was absolutely no discussion about that.

GEE: So you didn’t have to face that choice that was such agony for Anamika, the brilliant, beautiful young cousin who is sent a letter offering her a university scholarship in Clear Light of Day [1980, short-listed for the Booker Prize], but never takes it up; her family treat the letter as a credential to impress marriage candidates.

DESAI: Any artist does have to struggle to maintain individuality in such a society. There is such pressure to be the traditional wife or traditional mother. One constantly struggles in some way, though being a writer is much easier than being a singer or dancer who would have to fight out in the open. Writing has been a very secretive pursuit always, though I know it can also be considered very subversive.

GEE: Is it that you have two selves, one for the family where you don’t ask them to look at you as a writer, and the other the life of the study?

DESAI: Oh absolutely, that is the strategy one has to employ. Look at Jane Austen: she had to do that so long ago. It’s the only way to maintain your own voice – to keep it quite secret and separate from your family so that no one in your circle finds it threatening.

GEE: Do you ever find yourself thinking, ‘What would my mother-in-law or my children think about this?’

DESAI: Yes.  There are some stories I shall never be able to write and some things I’ve held back for a very long time. In fact Fasting, Feasting was written long before it was published – I held it back until the parents who inspired that Indian section were both dead. Occasionally I’ve run into trouble. In In Custody [1984, shortlisted for the Booker Prize] some people thought that I was mocking great Urdu poets, in particular one who was fairly recognisable.

GEE: And were you?

DESAI: Well, the character Nur was based on someone, but he was a far more scandalous character than I made him in the book.

GEE: I thought about the nightmare interview in In Custody before I did this interview. The junior academic, Dev, works a long time to secure an interview with the famous Urdu poet, Nur. When it finally happens, it is farcical, going on for three weeks, and the tape ends up unusable. In Custody is harsher and more satirical than your other books.

DESAI: I made a very conscious effort, with In Custody, to break away from the writing I’d been doing until then. I had written about the Indian family and women’s lives so often that I could almost do it blind, treading over and over again the same small piece of territory. But I couldn’t realistically have women characters just pushing open the doors of the world, so I had to write about men. I meant to keep women out of it altogether, because the world of Urdu poetry would be very male. But I found all these women whom I had locked out were screaming and thumping on the door and demanding to come in.

GEE: It’s quite a dark book, I think.

DESAI: Yes. It was very much a vision of life being lived inside a trap,
while having a vision, as Dev has, through the poetry he loves, of a very different world, and not being able to break through to that until the very last moment when Dev accepts his life just as it is, and realises that if he lives it, that is his freedom, too.

GEE: Do you know your endings, in advance, or do they evolve?

DESAI: Sometimes I start with the ending and write the whole book
towards it. At other times I’ve not known what the ending would be, not till the last pages. For example, with Baumgartner’s Bombay, I knew it was the last day of Baumgartner’s life, but till the very last page of the book I didn’t know which of two people would kill him. In the writing, though, the ending seemed inevitable.

GEE: Fire on the Mountain [1977] is my favourite of all your books, but it has an incredibly bleak ending. Clear Light of Day, on the other hand, is in many senses transcendentally hopeful, and The Village by the Sea [1982], another of my favourites, has a kind providence at work. Do you think art, and endings, should be hopeful?

DESAI: I often think it’s only in art that one can transcend what life is, what the world really is. That art is the only hope. In some books when I’ve written about art I’ve tried to convey that. But often when one is just writing about the world the way it is, the endings are much harsher and bleaker, because I’m not that hopeful about the world itself.

GEE: Do you have a favourite book?

DESAI: You know, with every book when I’ve ended it I’ve had the awful feeling that somehow I’ve gone astray, that it wasn’t quite what I wanted it to be. It’s odd how books seem to control one, rather than one controlling the book. So almost always there’s been a sense of failure, really, and I suppose that’s why I’ve gone on to write the next book. But if there’s one book I ended feeling that I’d done it the way I wanted to do it, it was Fire on the Mountain, actually.

GEE: I don’t think I’ve ever had such a strong sense of place in a book. Is it somewhere you know?

DESAI: Yes. I spent a summer there when I was a child, and then took my own children there, so I relived my childhood summer. I think that’s what gave it whatever intensity it might have.

GEE: Your novels are soaked in English literature, but also in echoes of Urdu and Hindi poetry. In Clear Light of Day you bring Urdu and Hindi poetry into the novel in translation

DESAI: Yes, the heroic and romantic nature of Urdu poetry is one of the novel’s themes. That is very hard to convey in English and not let it sound sentimental or too ornate. In Clear Light of Day I was using translations of Urdu poetry that already exist, but in In Custody I wrote the Urdu poetry myself.

GEE: The ending of Clear Light of Day reminded me of the end of To the Lighthouse, where Virginia Woolf honours Lily Briscoe, the painter. In your final pages, Mulk’s guru, the Urdu poet, becomes, in a way, the hero. I felt you were saluting art and saluting Urdu poetry in that beautiful conclusion.

DESAI: Yes, you’re absolutely right. But not just Urdu poetry, also a way of life and a tradition. Delhi had been this wonderful diverse multicultural city, and that was passing.

GEE: And is Woolf an influence?

DESAI:  I’ve read Virginia Woolf’s novels and loved them so much. I go back to them again and again even now with great pleasure. But I’ve had to struggle very consciously to break free of powerful influences like hers, to find my own voice and not write in emulation of all these great writers. Eventually one has to leave them behind. But I’m sure no writer can really do that.

GEE: There’s so much poetry cited in your writing – Swinburne and Ella Wheeler Wilcox for example. You quote from Eliot at the beginning of Clear Light of Day. Did you ever write poetry?

DESAI: I’ve tried to, but failed. But now, much more than prose, it is
poetry that affects my writing. Before I start a day’s writing I like to read a page or two of poetry. It’s like taking a tuning fork and getting the right note. It makes you more aware of and alert to the value of each word and the sound of each sentence. I used to read Rilke a lot, and Cavafy. Recently I’ve been reading Octavio Paz and some of the Latin American poets and also the Russians, like Akhmatova and Brodsky. Fortunately there are marvellous translations of their work. Among English poets, I love going  back to W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot and the modernist poets.

GEE: There are new writers coming up, fashions change. Can this be a problem?

DESAI: I have become aware in recent years that there are one or even two whole new generations now of writers in present-day India, and the material they’re writing about, which is the present moment, is not my material any more.

GEE: What are you writing about now?

DESAI: About a completely different world. In recent years, ever since I’ve been in the USA, I’ve been travelling and living a lot in Mexico. It’s an utterly fascinating place to me – its literature, its history, its people. I’ve just finished a book set in Mexico, but I’m full of tremendous doubts about it.  I’ve had to find a totally different form for it. It really has been the most difficult book I’ve ever written. I’ve been working on it for five years. It has some Mexican characters, but the main characters are foreigners living in Mexico. One does have to move on to new scenes. The trouble is one doesn’t know them so well, and so one’s pursued by the sense of getting it wrong.

GEE: I think it takes a lot of courage to change your material. And also the critics don’t like it.

DESAI: No, that is another thing I’m worried about.

GEE: They want you to write the same book again and again so they can use the same perceptions –

DESAI: –  which you’re tired of, and want to leave behind.

GEE: How do you react to criticism?

DESAI: Well, I suppose any bad reviews do leave one devastated. But in the end one isn’t writing to get good reviews. If one did that, one would be writing differently, because one knows what gets good reviews. One’s writing exists in a different world altogether. I think one can’t get away from one’s destiny. One has to pursue what one is meant to pursue, regardless.

GEE: There is a dark strand in your writing. There are images of death – the well in Clear Light of Day where the cow drowns, for instance, or the frightening whirlpool at the end of In Custody. How does your writing relate to death?

DESAI: Well, isn’t that at the heart of those childhood nightmares, that fear of darkness that children have? Isn’t it something that pursues us in different forms? I don’t know if it isn’t partly that fear that drives one into writing or making art, because while you’re doing that you’re heightening every moment, giving it an additional intensity and vividness, trying perhaps to fight the darkness which is all around you and waiting for you too. I have to tell you that’s part of my fascination with the Mexican world and Mexican culture, the way they approach death. My new book is really about the Day of the Dead and their celebration of death, because they are aware that it’s always a part of life.

GEE:  I was born on the Day of the Dead. So let’s go and have a drink.

 RSL Review 2004


Related RSL Fellows

Anita Desai 1978
Maggie Gee 1994