Wanted to mess with distinction between fiction & nonfiction: Amitava Kumar on new book
Fiction and nonfiction, the two conventional genres of literature, are distinct in their narratives, structure and style. But acclaimed writer Amitava Kumar has challenged this “fixed distinction” in his new novel, saying he wanted to “mess with” it.
The most outstanding feature of The Lovers is that this decidedly modern novel is an intriguing mix of story and reportage, anecdote and annotation – as well as picture and text.
“Novels describe what it means to be alive at a given moment. My reportage attempts to convey that feeling – of living on a university campus in the US in the early nineties, or writing a novel at the current moment. Also, I very much wanted to play with, or mess with, the somewhat fixed distinction between fiction and nonfiction,” says Kumar.
“So, what I’m saying is that in some places the reportage is there to disrupt the idea that what you are reading is an entirely made-up story,” says Kumar, who has previously written A Matter of Rats: A Short Biography of Patna; Home Products, which was shortlisted for the Crossword Prize; and A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb.
Although he is not the first writer to have used this technique, what sets him apart is the ease with which he melds the two to give a direction to the plot. The novel is about a man in search of a love story. This man, our narrator, is Kailash – a new immigrant in the US, eager to shine.
In his account of his years at a university in New York, the narrator takes us through the arc of youth and love. There is discovery and disappointment. There are the brilliant women, Jennifer and Nina, and Cai Yan. And then, there is the political texture of campus life and the charismatic professor overseeing these young men and women, Ehsaan Ali. Manifest in his first years and first loves is the wild enthusiasm of youth, its idealism, chaotic desires and confusions.
“The character of Ehsaan Ali is based on the scholar Eqbal Ahmad who was born in Gaya (Bihar) and then came to the US via Pakistan. He had a storied and celebrated life. I wanted to tell his story and I think that might have been the beginning of this novel. But to give that portrait a certain kind of depth, I surrounded it with stories of students – students whose lives had been similar to mine,” says the author, who is a professor of English at Vassar College in the US.
Asked if it was actually necessary to “mess with the fixed distinction between fiction and nonfiction”, the author said it is now “too late in the day to invest our belief entirely in fiction or make-believe”. He also hopes that young readers would be curious to learn about the experiences of Indian students in America, the acquisition of new knowledge, not just in the classroom but outside it -- and also the discovery of love.
As a gifted writer and storyteller, what is his favourite aspect of writing?
“To give what is imagined or made-up the feel of the real, and to do so in a way that is intelligent and provokes thought. I mean, even fake news tries to convince us of its reality but it does so mostly by appealing to your preconceived notions, your shared biases or your prejudice. How to do the opposite? To create a sense of the real and then challenge your biases. I think that is my favourite aspect of writing, and that is what I’ve tried to do in The Lovers,” he says.
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