Amitava Kumar: Social media has made us impatient

Updated: Apr 20, 2019, 07:56 IST | Dalreen Ramos | Mumbai

In his new title, Amitava Kumar presents a comprehensive manual for writers who want to find their place in the world today

Amitava Kumar regards painting as an important aspect of his writing process
Amitava Kumar regards painting as an important aspect of his writing process

We hate the pressure of typing out a great first sentence. This is because we just read Amitava Kumar's latest title that releases today. And it's aptly called Writing Badly is Easy (Aleph Book Company) — with the second word struck through on the cover — so you can breathe a sigh of relief. The book delves into the maladies of Babu English, the culture of academic writing and the core of the English language itself. And Kumar, whose Immigrant, Montana was included in Barack Obama's list of his favourite books of 2018, maintains a non-morose tone throughout.

There are a number of examples in the book to draw from — Anton Chekhov, Eudora Welty, Honoré de Balzac, Suketu Mehta and George Saunders. But most importantly, we don't recall a time when we started laughing before flipping to the contents page of a book. We did with this one. You'll have to start reading
to know why.

Guide
Amitava Kumar

Edited excerpts from the interview.

You began working on Writing Badly is Easy in 2009. How have you seen your writing change since then?

During those years, I published a novel. In India, it was published as The Lovers; in the US, the title was Immigrant, Montana. I thought of it as an "in-between" novel, one that mixed fiction with non-fiction. But my blurring of the lines between, say, memoir and fiction is a part of a change in the broader writing culture. In the last few years, we have witnessed a storming of the barricades by books that mix genres. Books that break the rules of fixed disciplines. Claudia Rankine's Citizen and Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts in poetry and non-fiction. In fiction, people like Rachel Cusk or Sheila Heti producing what often seems like
a report from real life.

In the note, you write, "I love reading interviews with writers, particularly when they describe their work-routines." Could you describe yours?

The mantra I give my students is "Write every day and walk every day." Modest goals: 150 words every day and 10 minutes of mindful walking. In my case, after my kids have left for school, I make coffee and climb up to my study to write. My window overlooks a small creek. In recent months, I have often given in to the temptation to paint watercolours of the scene outside. This has added to my list. I now try to also draw every day.

The fax you received from VS Naipaul has been included in this book. You mention that you could recall each word, even though you had lost it for a while. Does memory lie at the core of good writing?

Memory is both fertile and fallible. It is a field in which the writer must pitch his or her tent. But does it lie at the core of good writing? No, I think observation does. If you observe well — which is to say, if you see clearly — then you can write well. In India, we do badly in our writing because we try to be formal and abstract. That is the way of Babu English. We don't always write in visual images.

What are your thoughts on writer's block?

I don't have it.

How has social media impacted the way we write?

It has made us, sadly, impatient readers. We are distracted. We like to know what we are getting into when we click on a link. We feel safer with little bits of information at the top: "Two-minute read" or "Four-minute read." It is a long way from reading Proust.

What are you reading now?

Just today, I ordered Sally Rooney's Normal People. For one of my classes, I'm re-reading Leila Slimani's The Perfect Nanny.  I had been in conversation with Slimani at the Jaipur Literature Festival, and felt that her book was a perfect novella.

Lastly, why write?

I always ask my students to read Joan Didion's Why I Write and also George Orwell's essay with the same title. Orwell's is the original piece. These essays are freely available online and I recommend them to you. They answer your question better than I can. Nevertheless, let me tell you a story. When I was a teenager, I moved from Patna to Delhi to study. Everything that was new was of interest to me, but I didn't always have the language to describe or name this newness. It was wonderful to finally find the right words. I'm trying to tell you that one should write in order to find one's place in the world.

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