On Wednesday, Columbia School of the Arts hosted their second online Nonfiction Dialogue of the semester. Writing Program Chair Lis Harris talked with author Amitava Kumar about the immigrant experience, seeking out material for nonfiction, and more.
After a series of uncharacteristically sunny, albeit much-appreciated, 70-degree days, Wednesday evening brought about a welcome spell of rainy, autumnal sweater weather. At 7:25 pm on November 11, I curled into my armchair and logged into Columbia School of the Arts’ second Nonfiction Dialogue of the semester. The series, hosted by author and department chair Lis Harris, features distinguished nonfiction writers and has been going strong for 15 years. Their first talk of the semester took place in October and featured author and poet Maggie Nelson.
I entered the event just in time to hear Kumar declare warmly, “The good thing about Zoom is that it allows us to reconnect with friends we haven’t seen in such a long time!” He lit up as new faces appeared onscreen. Kumar would lean forward, squinting his eyes, and say, “Oh my god, look who! Hello!” before asking how a former student or colleague was doing, how they’d found the event.
A couple of minutes past 7:30 pm, when the participant count leveled off at about 65 members, MFA student Eyal Cohen introduced the evening’s speaker.
Amitava Kumar, currently an English professor at Vassar College, is a novelist, poet, journalist, and documentary screenwriter who has published a number of nonfiction works and two novels. His novel Immigrant, Montana was named a “Best Book of the Year” by The New York Times and The New Yorker; it was also included on Barack Obama’s list of favorite books of 2018. Kumar has won a Guggenheim Fellowship and a USArtists fellowship, and his writing has appeared in The Nation, The Guardian, Granta, The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, Vanity Fair, and many more publications across North America and India.
When Cohen finished his introduction, silver-haired Kumal, with an all-permeating enthusiasm, declared, “Wonderful! You’re so cool! Let’s be friends on Facebook or something!”
After reading an excerpt from his essay collection titled Lunch With a Bigot: The Writer in the World, Kumar and Harris began their charismatic back-and-forth about what it means to write nonfiction today.
On the Nature of Nonfiction
Kumar believes that nonfiction shouldn’t simply be reportive, it should be inventive. According to Kumar, we must all come up with “ridiculous prongs” through which we can investigate the world.
On Breaking Through the Restraints of Academic Writing
It’s easy to submit to the unsatisfying rigors of academic writing, Kumar acknowledges, before proclaiming, “Academic writing has made my hair fall out! Look, Lis!” Twenty years ago, he explains, writers were straight-jacketed into using a vocabulary of theory that was dead, and at the time, Kumar wanted to see himself as a “real writer.” Since then, it’s taken a lot of effort to break free of these “shackles” of jargon and theory, and he notes that one is never entirely free. “It’s always an effort.”
On Writing About the Immigrant Experience
Kumar immigrated from India to the United States in 1986. He says, “That was one of my earliest entries into writing, really.” He notes that, at the time, his writing was angry; it sought to take revenge for all of the insults piled on him in daily life, like when he was going to get his visa or stopping at the DMV. He explains that writing at that point in his life gave him a sense of identity and lead to a voice that has stuck with him through all of these years.
While writing his first book, Passport Photos, Kumar decided that he had to tell his own complex, more elaborate story about language, inconsistencies, and sometimes even lies. Ultimately, he emphasizes, his immigrant experience allowed him to find his voice.
On Writing About Home (and Notebook-Keeping)
Kumar grew up in Patna, the poorest state in India, and Harris asks why his family hardly makes an appearance in his book about his childhood home, A Matter of Rats: A Short Biography of Patna. Kumar begins on a brief tangent, lifting a tiny beige memo book, one that can fit into the palm of his hand, so the audience can see it. He explains that he has always kept notes in memo books of this size, and he refers back to them by number when working on different projects. When discussing his book about Patna, he says, “That was #18… or maybe #28.” Then he answers Harris. Kumar didn’t include many mentions of his family in A Matter of Rats because he wanted to write about his home without any of the defensiveness he usually had.
On Preserving Truth
Kumar once interviewed a small boy who, after seeing the atrocities of war, was faced with hordes of reporters and journalists who asked him to tell his story. Kumar recounts the boy’s blank, detached expression as he repeated the narrative of his experiences over and over and over again. This, he says, should serve as a warning to all nonfiction writers. “How does something get polished into a narrative that is sleek and conventional?” he asks. “How do we maintain the ragged edges of reality?”
On Transparency in Literature
Kumar teaches his students about writing with the implication of self. He wants them to be able to look at the language they use, and think, in this essay, what am I losing? What am I gaining then losing again? A language of self-doubt often becomes more honest.
On Creating Voice
Nonfiction came easy to Kumar. Even his fiction includes “hints” of nonfiction. He says, “I want readers to believe I’m telling my own story, even when I’m not.” To do this, Kumar infuses the texture of his own life into the narrator’s voice, even when he is being inventive and wildly imaginative on every page.
When writing nonfiction, Kumar emphasizes, it’s most important to escape the hushed, monotone voice of a tennis commentator. He usually overcomes this tendency by “drinking a lot of coffee and saying, ‘Come on, man!‘”
A tangent at this point in the evening leads to Harris wishing Kumar’s mother a happy birthday. Kumar rocks back in his chair, eyes suddenly wide, “Now how did you know that?! Oh my god!” He seems fraught, panicked even, at the idea that such personal information could be found through a Google search or Wikipedia page, until Harris laughs and says, “You told me!”
Kumar relaxes once again. “Oh, oh, oh,” he says, “It’s so sweet of you to remember!”
On Integrating Various Styles in One Piece
“Why integrate? Be free! Wear integration lightly.”
On Seeking Material for Nonfiction
Kumar always says the same thing to his students: “The world, with all of its radical surprises, is more interesting than our shallow selves.” He wants new writers to go out and discover stories worth telling. For example, Kumar once had a student who hopped into taxi cabs and said to the drivers, “Take me to a place that is important to you, and tell me why.”
On Silence in Writing
“I don’t meditate on silence,” Kumar says. “I meditate, but I don’t meditate on silence.” Still, when the pandemic started, Kumar had a fear that academics and writers would try to explain it too quickly. At the time, most fiction was dissatisfying to him: “I wanted silence.”
On the Author’s Presence in Their Piece
Kumar appreciates and admires a narrative presence that is warm and observant far more than one that is self-assertive.
The evening came to a close fifteen minutes later than scheduled, though I hadn’t even noticed we’d gone longer than an hour. At 8:46 pm, Kumar smiled broadly and waved, a pen tucked between his fingers. “Thank you so much, friends! Bye-bye!”
–image via Columbia University School of the Arts