An Interview with Kanishk Tharoor
By Grant MunroeMarch 27, 2017
Along with much else, the values he inherited — and the growing threats to those values — are reflected in Swimmer Among the Stars, published recently by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The collection spans continents and eons, jumping nimbly between genres: one story counts down the days to the destruction of a Middle Eastern city by an unnamed khan, the next traces the ecstatic journey of an Indian elephant gifted to the princess of Morocco in the late 1970s, the following imagines a near future ravaged by the effects of climate change. Regardless of the era or place they inhabit, Tharoor’s characters are often driven by the universal desire to connect with worlds outside of their own — even at the risk of heartbreak or death.
Though juggling deadlines for columns he writes for two Indian newspapers, preparing the second season of BBC Radio’s Museum of Lost Objects, and shuttling between various international book festivals, Tharoor spoke with the same calm, attentiveness, and humor I remembered from our days as graduate students at NYU. Conducted over three sessions — two via Skype and the last through email, sent by the author from Dubai — our conversation touched on everything from the global rise of nationalism, the writerly benefits of Dungeons & Dragons, craft in MFA programs, a rise in sympathy for authoritarian leaders among young voters, contemporary Indian authors that more Americans need to read, the misuses of history, and more.
GRANT MUNROE: Before we jump into the discussion of your book, I understand you traveled from India to New York City days after Donald Trump signed the so-called “Muslim Travel Ban” on January 27.
KANISHK THAROOR: Yes, I mentioned the experience in a recent column for the Hindustan Times. My wife and I had a layover in Doha, Qatar, at an airport where many travelers were stranded. It’s a transit point for people from Somalia, Yemen, Iran, and other countries listed in the edict.
A little later in the same column, you mentioned your Indian relatives’ surprising reaction to the news.
I should say that many in my family were saddened by the ban and deeply moved by those who protested at airports across the United States. But at the same time, as that was happening, I was hearing a different, slightly callous reaction from relatives in India: their concern wasn’t with those banned, but rather the fact that Pakistan wasn’t included on the list. The history of tensions between the two nations is a huge subject; there is animosity within some of the more influential Indian groups against Muslims, a tendency to target them.
You’ve lived in New York for years.
Yes, since 1990. But I’m an Indian citizen, along with my twin brother Ishaan, who works as a foreign affairs writer for the Washington Post.
Your father, apart from being a diplomat and political figure, is a writer himself. And your mother is professor of literature. What was your exposure to literature like as a child?
We lived in inevitably cramped New York City apartments overflowing with books. My parents were eclectic in their interests. When I was a kid, my mother would read to us from the Bible, or from Soviet-era collections of Russian folk tales, or from the Persian national epic the Shahnameh (“The Book of Kings”). I was lucky to grow up with the serious activity of reading and writing around me. It’s a great privilege. The world of literature never seemed opaque or remote to my brother and me. As I’ve gotten older and spoken to other writers, I’ve come to realize how rare and lucky this was.
Was there ever a period when you rebelled against your parents’ tastes?
I don’t think I ever rebelled, so to speak, but I definitely got interested in books and genres they didn’t care about: for a while, like many others, I loved Tolkien and read a lot of fantasy; when I was 15 or 16, I developed an odd obsession with Tolstoy and other Russian writers. But it wasn’t a rebellion. Just periods of happy exploration.
What were some of the genre writers you enjoyed most?
I read everything Tolkien wrote. The Dune series by Frank Herbert. Also a number of pulpy fantasy books, especially during middle school.
More people our age did than they’d like to admit. I read the entire Dragonlance series in ninth grade —
I didn’t want to go too deep into the weeds, but Dragonlance, my God, yes. At a very young age, I role-played Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, too. From eight until around 14.
With your brother?
My twin brother and other friends at school — a very healthy collection of dorks.
Junot Díaz spoke about how D&D played a formative role in his path to being a writer. Others have, too: Colson Whitehead, Sherman Alexie.
I don’t want to make the facile comments you hear so often, you know, where people say, “It’s all about world building,” or suggest that there’s a hard link between the adolescent fun of role-playing and my current work as a fiction writer. But it does help you absorb fundamental principles. I think the game, in many ways, has less to do with world building than the challenges of narrative — learning how to make and unmake story lines, connect plot points, and so on.
This emphasis on story — on the primacy of story — comes across in your collection. The pieces here don’t follow what we’ve come to expect of contemporary fiction. There’s little of that oft-mimicked Chekhovian style, where an author shoves his characters down a path to some epiphanic moment.
No, I write for the same reasons I read, and I read to learn. I read to be filled with a sense of wonder. I don’t read to feel religion or the heights of emotion, necessarily, nor to always be brought to some kind of sentimental payoff, like what we’ve come to recognize in a great deal of so-called “MFA fiction.”
As an MFA graduate, what are your thoughts on the institution?
I’m grateful for the authors I was introduced to, and for the time and support the program gave me to just read and write. Being forced to concentrate on craft helped me become more concerted and self-aware — but I also resented that focus.
I find it strange that it doesn’t matter what you want to write, all you need is the craft through which any subject can be written. We never talked about why it’s worth writing a specific type of story, the value of adopting certain types of narratives, the importance of some narratives over others. You know what I mean? There was a strange sense that all material is equal — that craft alone makes things distinct. I bristled against this, and still do.
You also carried on as a writer of nonfiction.
Yes, I work as a journalist and essayist, writing for various outlets in the West, including The New York Times and the Guardian. I also write quite a bit for publications in India, where I write two columns, one for the Hindustan Times about US politics, and another for The Hindu Business Line about globalization and multiculturalism. I’m also the presenter and writer of BBC Radio’s Museum of Lost Objects, the second season of which is in the works now.
So the stories, collected over several years, were published by Aleph in India earlier last year. It’s already won an award.
Yes, the Tata Hexa Literature Live! First Book Award for Fiction, which is a nice feather in the cap.
And it’s been gathering excellent reviews from Indian critics.
I’m very fortunate for the way it was received.
Do you find it strange jumping between the different literary cultures in which you’re being published?
It’s funny, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I was raised in a way that I never really felt conflicted about my identity, so to speak; that was in part because I was given the tools to be able to switch frames of reference. When in New York, I have a frame of reference there; when in India, my frame of reference necessarily changes. I have the cultural, historical, political knowledge, and enough of the languages to be able to do this relatively easily. No, maybe not with ease — but without great difficulty or confusion.
I think my fiction speaks to a similar desire: the desire to inhabit a culture-switching mode, where frames of reference change quite swiftly. And inhabiting an existence in which the specific part of the world where one lives — one’s nation, perhaps, or region — doesn’t restrict one’s identity.
What are some differences between Indian and American readers?
Both might be reading in English, but they’re not reading the same authors. Writers who are so well known here are often unknown in India, and vice versa. One reason why my book was well received might be that Indians are accustomed to reading fiction that isn’t about them, but about things often outside their immediate horizons: books that don’t ask them to relate, so to speak, to their own situations; they’re used to feeling out of place when reading fiction. There’s an openness, even a willingness, to be taken to the unfamiliar. While this is true among certain readers in the United States, I don’t know if it is to the same degree.
To show the terrible ignorance I have about English-language Indian literature, I’d never heard of Raja Rao, whom you wrote about last year.
Rao was one of the first to write the Indian experience in fiction in the English language. It’s strange to imagine now, but there was a time when Indians writing in English was a bizarre notion. With the exception of his first novel, Kanthapura, published in 1938, I’m not a huge fan of his work, though. It shows a stultifying and exoticized interest in a nebulous species of philosophy that might be better viewed as “spiritual knowledge” to Westerners. A sort of Orientalist, stereotypical, outmoded idea of India as a land of so-called “spiritual accomplishment.” He’s part of the canon as a pioneer, but I’m not convinced by the quality of his writing.
Do you consider yourself an Indian writer?
I am Indian. I do think of myself as Indian. But I don’t know what adjective I’d use to describe myself as a writer. In terms of lineage, my writing aspires to traditions that aren’t only Indian. It follows my interests, which don’t adhere to national boundaries.
I find it strange that, by the simple fact that I’m an Indian, my writing would belong in a category that somehow speaks to a broader Indian culture. But it’s a valid question. So many writers need — or maybe it would be better to say they benefit from having some fairly coherent sense of a national identity. I don’t know if I have that.
American literary culture is often accused of being terribly insular. Chad Post of Open Letter Books runs Three Percent, a blog that, in its very title, underscores the fact that only three percent of all fiction titles published in the States are works in translation. But this is different in India?
Well, let me not overstate the case. In India, there are so many local languages whose literatures are often neglected and not read in the way they should be. What I mean is that Indians are often reading literature not written by Indians — whether in translation or from other English-language nations.
Toward the middle of your collection, in “Cultural Property,” you write of an Indian archeologist who, while working on sites in England, steals an Anglo-Saxon sword and other relics in order to smuggle them to museums in India. He says he’s not doing it for money. He claims nationalism isn’t a factor, either. What’s his motive?
I wrote the story to address the issue of who or what owns cosmopolitan, universal culture. For so long, that’s been synonymous with the mostly imperial European or American metropolis. Everybody else has their own national and parochial cultures, but here in these great Western cultural capitals, you have a passport to global culture that isn’t accessible to most.
As a boy, I would go to a place like the old Indian Museum in Calcutta — a dilapidated, crumbling Victorian hulk with barely any artifacts — and compare that experience to what I felt while exploring the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the London Museum, or the Victoria and Albert Museum, which has all sort of amazing Indian objects taken by the British. It made me think at a young age about who has the right to culture, and what culture. The motivation here is not nationalist; it’s making the claim that non-Western nations, nations like India, can house these objects of universal culture.
Who are some Indians authors you feel deserve more attention from North American readers?
There are so many, I don’t even know where to begin. I hope the lovely writing of Janice Pariat can make waves here as it has in South Asia. There is so much excellent translation taking place, too, particularly by Arunava Sinha, who translates prolifically from Bengali into English. Amitav Ghosh is of course well known in the West as a novelist, but his recent nonfiction work on climate change, The Great Derangement, published by University of Chicago Press, which came out last year — is astonishing. I recommend that book highly. It’s a fascinating look at ecology, fiction, and modernity. When it comes to fiction, especially, Ghosh makes an excellent case for its purposes and failures.
Your book addresses climate change in “A United Nations in Space,” where you imagine a future devastated by the effects of global warming. I noticed the United States was absent from the nations assembled in the story’s forlorn, orbital UN.
That was deliberate. I felt it was plausible that the United States would no longer exist in that apocalyptic scenario. I was raised in this country, I love living here and hope to continue doing so, and I have no desire to see it end. But as someone who’s lived in the West most of my life, I’m trying to find ways of engaging with the world that are at once universal — but not from a Western perspective. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re from an Indian perspective. But from a perspective that displaces the West as the origin of the gaze, so to speak.
Before you entered NYU’s creative writing program, you were on track to becoming an academic.
I did my undergrad at Yale, worked for a few years in London, then had a fellowship at Columbia in history of South Asian studies, which I assumed at the time would become a PhD. But I realized quickly that I didn’t want to be an academic historian.
Why was that?
I felt the sort of historical writing that I wanted to do wouldn’t be best served — or even enabled — by working within academia. My interests are so omnivorous. I like chasing patterns, treating history like comparative literature, in a way.
“Swimmer Among the Stars,” the title story of your collection, is about a team of ethnographers who record the last speaker of a language: an old woman who shares the words and grammar of her tongue, but finds it impossible to communicate its essence. The only time her language seemed to take any substance was when she was in song or at play — which the academics dutifully record, yet can’t grasp. What was the story’s origin?
It came about through my interest in language extinction. I have a good friend here named Ross Perlin, who’s the assistant director of something called the Endangered Language Alliance. New York City, not surprising, I suppose, is a repository of languages that are at risk of extinction. There are languages spoken in Queens that are no longer spoken in the hill tracts of Bangladesh, or Indonesia, or wherever else.
While I do feel the ethnographers are doing entirely well-intentioned and important work, I do have this slightly ambivalent feeling about the project. I struggle with the idea that language encapsulates, in a very neat way, an identity or an entire culture’s mode of thinking. That the last speaker of a language speaks for all those who spoke that language is a slightly problematic premise: it implies that languages are static when, in fact, they’re evolving, dynamic, living — they’re inherently very messy, never pure. That ambivalence is something I was playing with, much in the same way the elderly woman plays with her language through the course of the story.
It’s implied that the study is taking place in India. A few others are set there, and touch on Indian politics, though very lightly.
Narendra Modi has headed the Indian government since 2014. He’s a Hindu nationalist — among the first in a new wave of similar politicians rising to power.
There are fascinating parallels between Modi and Trump. In a speech that Trump’s advisor Steve Bannon gave to a Vatican audience in 2014, he said Modi’s victory signaled the start of a “global revolt.” According to him, Modi’s election was a “great victory” for a kind of nationalism that boded well for the West — a nationalism that structures itself against what’s perceived to be a cosmopolitan, multicultural-promoting elite.
Modi is very much of that ilk. He draws support from a sort of heartland, lower middle class, aspirational middle class in India. Much in the same way that Trump managed to draw support from the American lower middle-class voters who perceived him as representing something authentically American. Or returning America to those who purportedly “built America.” In the same way, I think many of Modi’s supporters feel he’s somehow more authentically Indian, a better representative of India or Indian civilization than the leaders of other political parties.
You wrote about a growing popularity with the right among younger voters.
Yes, based on a study done of Indian students by the Children’s Movement for Civic Awareness. It seems more now are susceptible to the figure of an authoritarian: a leader who can bulldoze his way through, effect change in a heavy-handed way. When Indians compare themselves to China, which they often do, they see that when the Chinese want a road built, the road gets built, no matter who’s in the way. Whereas in India, we have a legal system, we have courts, and so on, meaning the delivery of that road can get bogged down, often challenged and delayed. These are the trappings of democracy, and some feel impatient with them. Figures like Modi are perhaps elected on the assumption that they can cut through the bureaucracy. He’s very much seen as an operator whose mission is simply to get things done.
And you see that among Trump’s supporters as well: a reverence for his business success, a belief in this mythic idea that he can effect change quickly, while career politicians are scheming and self-interested.
We watch the media attack Trump for his evident disinterest in facts. At the same time, many — even his strongest critics — agree that he’s skilled at building narrative. He tells stories that are easy for people to follow and affirm, even if the constituent parts of those stores are false.
I thought of this while reading an essay you wrote for the LA Review of Books, where you describe an Indian scientific convention that erupted in controversy when one member presented a lecture titled “Ancient Indian Aviation Technology.” Later in the same piece, you wrote that Modi claimed the flying chariot of Rama in the epic tale Ramayana is proof that Indians, as you wrote, “zipped around in aircraft thousands of years ago.”
Modi has said many things that aren’t, strictly speaking, true. He said some strange things about history. I don’t think he’s consistently making stuff up the way Trump does, but, like Trump, he is an engaging speaker. He’s charismatic. He sounds and comes across in a more appealing way than most politicians. His speeches, like Trump’s, appeal to those seeking entertainment — in part because nobody knows what he’ll say next.
It made me think back to your title story — the relationship between the ethnographers and their subject. The ethnographers are concerned very much about facts, but the last speaker strays away. What engages her are the stories and fictions that she’s able to build, which seem to offer a much more solid foundation about what her language than by simply cataloging facts — words and the functions of grammar — in a laboratory.
You put it better than I could have.
It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot recently. Like you, I took Lawrence Weschler’s “The Fiction of Nonfiction,” a popular graduate course he taught at NYU, which hit on so many current issues being discussed by the media, about the media.
Yes, that class was brilliant.
One of my favorite authors we read and discussed was Joseph Mitchell. I’ve been wondering how to reconcile Mitchell’s “Old Mr. Flood” stories — which ran in The New Yorker as nonfiction, but were partially fictionalized — with current debates surrounding issues of journalistic integrity and so-called “fake news.” Today, Mitchell’s work would have been denounced (in fact, it has been), yet many, including Janet Malcolm, feel he wrote an account of Manhattan’s old Fulton Fish Market that got closer to the truth than anything before or since.
In the same way that you’re drawn to Mitchell, I’ve been reading a tremendous amount of Ryszard Kapuściński — much more intensely now, in the years since I took Weschler’s class. The difference with both authors, I think, is that their work earns the reader’s respect. You quickly come to recognize the purchase they have on the topics that interest them, the expertise they’ve developed on those topics, and the integrity with which they present them. They’re both so good that I’m willing to accept their honest perception of the world — so much so that I’m not hugely bothered by the accuracy of details.
Couldn’t this also describe the position of Trump’s supporters?
I’m laughing, because that’s uncomfortably close to the truth. But no, with Trump, there’s more of a willingness to embrace a fantasy that he’s selling — a fantasy that hinges on a fear of terror and the promise of strength. Things that many people assume will have a positive effect on their daily lives. In his method, yes — I suppose you could find an odd echo in Kapuściński. But whatever license they take with their material, Kapuściński and Mitchell offer us a clear-eyed, humane vision of the world. That’s not really in Trump’s wheelhouse.
Earlier you connected entertainment and the unpredictability of autocrats, which made me think of my favorite part of your book: “The Mirrors of Iksander,” a set of 14 very short stories nestled at the heart of the collection.
That’s my favorite part, too. Like I wrote in the preface to that section, each of them spring from an episode of “the Alexander romance,” a cycle of stories about Alexander the Great, which were shared by cultures as far flung as Scotland in the West and Aceh in Southeast Asia. I was intrigued with what was done with the form by Arab and Persian writers, who referred to Alexander as Iskandar, among other names, and transformed him into a Muslim hero. My stories follow their tradition.
The vignettes are very light, in a way that reminded me of Italo Calvino.
They’re playful, too. Iksandar is portrayed as a man of expansive energy, endlessly pushing outward. It’s only when he gets puzzled or waylaid that Aristotle appears, Jeeves-like, to council him on the next course of action.
Apart from source texts and Calvino, they were also influenced by Kapuściński’s journalism, in fact, as well as his stunning books on the Emperor of Ethiopia and the Shah of Iran.
Autocrats and autocratic societies play heavily in several of your stories.
I hadn’t considered that, but I suppose you’re right.
Do you consider yourself an autocratic author?
I’m laughing again, but yes, what author isn’t? My characters are my pawns. They have no agency beyond what I allow them.
That’s not to say that your stories are cold. There’s very deep emotion — anguish, really — expressed in “Portrait with a Coal Fire,” in which a poor villager from a developing country reconnects with an American magazine photographer who captured what the villager considered to be a compromising scene. Was this based on a true event?
The implication is that it’s an Indian subject. Like with several of my other stories, it reflects my interest in how people engage with the world. And how media distorts our view of the world.
It feels written with insider knowledge on the personal difficulties journalists face — especially those occasions where even the best-intentioned stories are seen as false or exploitative by those covered, and the guilt that some journalists might feel for being unable, in the end, to meet the expectations of their subjects. Especially when changes are made from editors that might distort the story in ways that aren’t necessarily false, but add a sharpness or bluntness that wasn’t in the initial draft. In your role as a journalist, have you been in a situation like this?
No, but I know people who have been. One of my friends recently wrote a profile of a musician he’s adored since he was a teenager. After the piece was published, the musician got back in touch, and said, “You’ve destroyed me. You’ve ruined me in this piece.” It was devastating for both of them.
Did you start any of these stories with a specific conceit in mind, only to find it changed during the writing process?
Yes, I think so. This is why I find writing short stories easier than the novel. There’s a lot of freedom to wander. I feel I do my best thinking as I write. I find that I’ll have an image or an idea for an endpoint or a kind of fanciful conceit — from which the story will spiral into being. I often surprise myself with the direction the story takes.
Do you ever find yourself caught on the path toward that image?
In general, I write straight through, then tweak later. But I’m a slow writer. I tend to revise when I write. Every day, I return through the entire story, adding a little more after a lengthy revision.
You couldn’t do this while writing a novel.
No, the process there has been different. I’ve had to telegraph things much more, establish more of a balance, more structure. But I do compartmentalize when writing, so I have certain sections that I can work on, then surface again to work on others.
Can you share what the novel’s about?
It is historical, like much of my work. It’s set in the 15th century, following the narratives of two, as you would call them, autocrats on either side of the Mediterranean.
What else are you working on?
A few short story commissions from Indian publications. I have a piece coming out in Harper’s Bazaar India: a short story based on a photo shoot done in a curator’s house, full of artwork. And of course I have my nonfiction work, my columns, and the second season of Museum of Lost Objects for the BBC.
I hate to ask this, not because it’s an insensitive question, but because I’m frankly sick of talking about Trump —
I understand completely.
— but as a Green Card holder, has his presidency changed your life?
Personally, I see his presidency in terms of a much larger issue, a global questioning of the values I was raised under. I don’t pretend to be representative of a wide swath of society, but I was raised to believe that diversity is a virtue and also a fact of life, to believe in openness toward others and to other cultures, to believe in inclusivity: multicultural, liberal, cosmopolitan values. And now we’re seeing a kind of — I mean, even nationalist might be a wrong word — maybe it would be better to say a civilizationalist questioning of those sacred cows.
And so this period has become a distressing, perilous, even exciting moment for someone like me, who’s feeling that these virtues — virtues I’ve taken for granted my whole life — are under assault. Not just here, but in Europe and elsewhere. In India, secularists and pluralists are under attack from Hindu majoritarians in the same way US populists attack effete coastal elites.
If not directly then indirectly, I think my fiction is animated by the question of how we can be impure in a world that seems to be striving for cultural purity.
What are you reading now?
I’m a huge fan of the Icelandic author Sjón. He writes marvelous gems of novels. I recently read Moonstone, an exquisite little book about a gay teenager 1918 Reykjavik who’s obsessed with cinema, and dealing with the influx of Spanish Influenza. Sjón wrote the novel in memory of a gay uncle who died from AIDS. Even though deep emotion powers the book, there’s a refusal to surrender to sentimentality. And you?
I just finished Antoine Volodine’s Radiant Terminus, translated from the French by Jeffrey Zuckerman. It’s a strange, dreamy post-apocalyptic novel set far in the future, after the collapse of the Second Soviet Union, that carries echoes of Beckett and the Strugatsky brothers and other, earlier Soviet-era writers.
With apocalypses in mind, you might enjoy The Wake by the British ecologist Paul Kingsnorth. He wrote it as the first in a series of books about the collapse of worlds. It’s historical, set in the 11th-century England, and written entirely in an English stripped of all its post-1066 additions — a kind of imagined proto-English. It takes a couple of pages to get into the rhythm of the language, but after that it’s so wonderfully stark.
There’s a starkness to Volodine’s novel that I enjoyed, too. I also liked that it unapologetically ignored conventional models of “character progression” that you often find in literary fiction. He doesn’t fixate on psychological motivation.
I do think that’s how many people access fiction, though: through the prism of an individual character’s desires and failings. I like using assemblages of characters; the individual doesn’t always form a building block of my fiction. I suppose that’s the influence of older, pre-modern, pre-novel modes of storytelling, from folk tales to epics and so forth — modes that aren’t as concerned with the individual, yet still manage to tell compelling stories.
Not to belabor the point, but do you feel the focus on individual psychology is overrepresented in contemporary American fiction?
I don’t want to deliver some kind of sweeping judgment. It’s too early in my career to do anything that rash. But not long ago, I went to a lecture given by Argentinian writer César Aira. He complained about how in contemporary fiction you’re often entering houses, walking up stairs, into the bedroom, so the writer can open the closet door and let you count his slippers. I agree; I’m not interested in that type of writing, either. I don’t need narratives to wear their politics heavily, but again, I write for the same reasons I read: I want to learn, I want to be amazed, I want to be terrified — but most of all, I want to be brought into a world that’s not my own.
Grant Munroe’s writing has appeared in One Story, Literary Hub, The Walrus, The Millions, The Globe and Mail, The Rumpus, McSweeney’s, and elsewhere. In 2016, he founded the Woodbridge Farm Writers' Retreat. You can follow him on Twitter at @grantcmunroe.
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