Interviewed by Sue Leonard.
Writing, to Anita Desai, is as instinctive as breathing. She began to write as soon as she knew how to join the letters of the alphabet. As a child growing up in India, she wrote descriptive pieces, essays and stories. Some of them were published.
“They got published in a children’s magazine, and that gave me a sense of being a writer,” the 71 year old tells me on the phone from a room in Trinity College Dublin. “The family used to talk of me as the writer in the family. And that gave me a sense of vocation. I never thought of doing anything else.”
Writers back then, though, were generally not visible in the way they are today.
“Writers were books on the shelves; not people,” she says. “But I was very fortunate. When I went to University I did begin to meet writers. I had a neighbour; a Polish, English woman who was very kind and hospitable to me. She was the writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. She made me realise writers were actual people living ordinary lives.”
Anita’s first novel, Cry The Peacock, was published when she was 25. But it was a struggle. Back then Indian publishers didn’t take chances on native writers, preferring to publish text books, or to reprint Classics from England and America. Eventually she found an English publisher.
“Things have changed so much; the publishing scene is very lively now,” she says. “Suddenly the publishers have realised there are Indian writers that readers all round the world are interested in.”
Described as India’s finest writer in English, Anita Desai is at Trinity College to deliver the Hely-Hutchinson Memorial Lecture on the subject of multiculturalism. It’s a subject close to her heart.
A prize winning novelist, short story writer, and children’s writer, Desai’s family spoke several languages; her mother was German, and in her writing she has drawn parallels between lives lived in different cultures.
When she began writing, such high profile appearances would have been unthinkable.
“I would have been terrified,” she says. “I wasn’t a very social person. Having children, and being so deeply involved in the life of literature, what little social life I had was not congenial to me. I didn’t know any writers and nobody talked about books.
“If someone heard that you had a book out they would say, ‘oh, what a nice hobby.’ So I kept it very much to myself. My four children saw this and said they never wanted to write. They said, ‘you live such a boring life. We want to do far more exciting things.”
The youngest, Kiran, decided to study Environmental Studies at college.
“I got wonderful letters from Kiran at that time. I used to say that she should expand them and make something of them. She never responded to that. But some of the professors in the college recognised her writing talent and they were the ones to encourage her to give up the sciences and take up writing instead.”
Anita was thrilled. How, though, did she feel when Kiran won the Booker prize for The Inheritance of Loss? An award she, herself, had been shortlisted for three times?
“It was a wonderful moment; there was a sense of fulfilment,” she says. “I shared a writing life with Kiran and I had the feel of this book growing slowly; mostly under my roof.
“It had been a hard eight years for her. She had little support or encouragement, really, and none at all from anyone in the publishing world. So it was a triumph I could share with her. I am so happy for her.”
The first of Anita’s Booker nominations came in 1980 with Clear Light of Day. Set in Old Delhi in the time preceding partition, it is a sumptuous depiction of a family battling old jealousies. Reading it, one feels subsumed into their world. It’s a glorious read.
“That is probably the most autobiographical book that I have written,” she says. “It is not about my sisters and myself, but there is that sense of family and an old house. And Old Delhi at that time is one that I knew.”
Since then, Desai has veered away from the domestic tale.
“I have written bits and pieces about Italy and Germany. And my most recent book, The Zig Zag Way, published in 2004, was set entirely in a foreign country. And that was Mexico.
“I was very hesitant and tentative about the project because it was based, very much on travel and research rather than on my experience and knowledge of a place. It was set in Mexico’s past.
“It was enjoyable. It took me out of myself. Reading the history I found fascinating, because it has such parallels with Indian history.”
Anita can see parallels between India and Ireland too. “Religion has had a huge effect on the psyche of people in both countries,” she muses. “And the colonial past is another thing that we share.”
Anita’s lecture ‘Let us be Various,’ was a fascinating exploration into the way language affects writing, as well as contemporary life. She explained that, in choosing English to write in, she had to suppress her other languages. This, she explained, led to a certain linguistic unease.
Her solution was to incorporate other languages. In ‘In Custody,’ for example, we meet a poet of Urdu. And in Baumbartner’s Bombay she writes about a German Jewish refugee who ends up in India during the war and stays there.
Gentle, and softly spoken, Desai holds the audience with ease. But then, she is now used to talking in a lecture theatre, and holds several fellowships.
“At 45 I left India, and the domestic scene,” she says. “I taught, first in Cambridge England, then in Cambridge Massachusetts. That has trained me to come out of myself. ”
At present, Desai divides her time between India, America and Mexico. Since The Zig Zag Way was published, she has been writing shorter pieces such as introductions, and book reviews. Is her Canon complete?
“It’s complicated,” she says. “When I am not writing, I do miss it. I feel that the most important part of myself is not at peace. But I am not sure that I will write another book. One runs out of the energy required as one grows older. And it does require an enormous amount of energy to create a world that does not exist.
“And then India has always been my subject, and when I return now I find it so changed. It does not belong to me in the same way. It is no longer my subject. I do feel it requires younger writers and a newer generation to tackle that.”
I tell her that I’ve heard it said that a writing life lasts 40 years.
“I wouldn’t be that precise,” she says, “but I do feel that a writer starts writing with a certain amount of material within them. That has to be described, and after that it is becomes more difficult.
“I find it quite difficult to find new material that is quite as interesting; quite as exciting, as that that has come before.”
© Sue Leonard. 2008. ends.