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Kiran Desai Talk Asia interview

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(CNN) -- The youngest-ever winner of the Man Booker Prize speaks to CNN's Anjali Rao in this weekend's TALK ASIA. Kiran Desai takes Rao behind the scenes of Hong Kong's literary festival and explains what it's like to be a celebrity author at such a young age.


Anjali Rao (AR): You are the youngest woman ever to win the Booker Prize, which you did in 2006. Do you ever get used to that idea? Has it started to sink in yet?

Kiran Desai (KD): You know, it doesn't mean a thing to me. It could have been a year here or a year there. That's what the media uses for a headline. But this book actually aged me considerably! I think I got some gray hairs over writing this book. It took seven years so it certainly felt like a long, long time.

AR: Tell us about the moment that you've heard that you won the prize.

KD: You know, it was again one of these crazy trips. I feel as if I'm living in a cartoon, I mean, two days in each place. I was in Germany for a book tour, flew to London for one night, got the prize, left the next morning...So, it seems that I've entered another universe. Soon, it'll end and I'll go back to writing in my normal life again. This has been continuing for several months.

AR: Seven years, as you mentioned, to write the "Inheritance of Loss." I'm sure you've been asked this so many times, but I do have to ask it. Why on Earth did it take so long?

KD: Well, for one thing, I was very happy writing. And I knew it would end as soon as I finished the book. And the book, I think, was also the one stable thing in my life; I took it with me everywhere. I was living all over the place and traveling, so it felt like home, and didn't want to let go of that blanket in a way. It's kind of disconcerting to be done with it. But, more importantly, it took me a long while to get to an honest place, a place from which I could write this book. I think immigration is a great con game: you tell yourself lies, you reinvent yourself in many different ways, and to undo all of that took quite a while.

AR: Immigration has certainly a central focus in the "Inheritance of Loss" but then, there is also globalization, and terrorism, and issues of inequality as well. Why did you choose such weighty topics?

KD: I didn't mean to choose weighty topics. In a way, it's also just a family story. I realized when I was writing this book was that what I was going through was really the emotional result of travel between East and West over many generations. In a world, where the power imbalance is still intact, a world of huge power imbalance, so I sort of went back to my grandfather's time to try to trace his journey, and trace my parents' journey and then went onto my generation. And I wanted to talk about this huge class divide that persists across the world and its very interesting to see how the same people are poor on both sides of world, I mean, when you start drawing the lines between places, it's frightening how closely you can draw the lines. You think of people being poor in a very far place far away, but when you actually do the work of following the journey, poverty is very close to us.

AR: One of the core characters in the book, Biju is certainly indicative of that and really sort of you know embodying these complications faced by South Asians when they migrate to the West. What are your thoughts on people that leave their homelands in search of the American dream, I suppose, and then they get there and they find that really life is not so fabulous elsewhere?

KD: Yes, I think you have to tell stories to pretend it is as fabulous after you've made that journey. But I think it's often, and I really do wonder, some people do seem to live the American dream, but you wonder whether if some people are living it because others are not.

AR: You left India yourself when you were 15 years old. Do you think that you're now the living proof, I suppose, of the American dream, because you've lived in the States for a long time?

KD: Well, that's part of the myth that I was seeking to dispel. I think immigration and this American dream, you can't look at it in a blinkered way within boundaries of a nation. Half the story goes on somewhere else, on the other side of the world. It was an attempt to look at it in a wider perspective. And then the dream doesn't really look all that glossy.

AR: South Asian writers do seem to find themselves lambasted by people back home when they move away and write about India. And they're accused of painting a picture of an India that doesn't really exist anymore. Do you think that's a fair criticism?

KD: I think it certainly is an important point; it's something to think about. You get criticized no matter what, that's a part of being an immigrant. If you write a lovely story about India, you're criticized for selling an exotic version of India. And if you write critically about India, you're seen as portraying it in a negative light -- it also seems to be a popular way to present India, sort of mangoes and beggars.

I do think that the modern India does belong to writers who are living in India. It's certainly true, perspective can help, leaving a place can help, but you also have to know your subject. That's really why I went back to India after 1980s, which is when I left, so I went back to the India of my childhood when I was writing this book. I think if I were to writing about India again, I would go back.

AR: Do you think you're hung up on the past then?

KD: I think I went through certain things when I growing up that I didn't really examine until I was an adult and until I was an immigrant. I went back to an area of a lot of conflict in India which had to do with immigrants, immigration to India. And when I left, I saw the parallels in the whole debate of what does it mean several generations on to demand political rights, economics rights.

What does it mean to be cheap labor in India? What does it mean to be cheap labor in the States? I mean we think of immigration as a Western issue but, of course, it isn't. It's true of every place, so that was the reason for returning to draw those parallels.


AR: So here we are at one of Hong Kong's most prestigious locations, at the Hong Kong Club and this evening you're going to be speaking to a packed out room full of the territory's glitterati. Do these things ever get intimidating?

KD: You know, I think I've been in such a daze that, no, I don't get scared anymore. I think I did at first when I first started out. But now I'm just one after the other having to sit on the stage, you get used to it. Should I be scared?

AR: If you're used to it then I think that's fantastic. Kiran, the 1990s are really sort of seen as having an Indian literary renaissance about them. What do you think is so appealing to the rest of the world about sub continental life and society?

KD: It's funny, this whole fashion of Indian writing. In a way, I don't think that it's really quite fair. I think if one book is popular, publishers immediately go after another book and another one and they start supporting writers from that part of the world, which is wonderful for Indian writers. But I was talking to a young Nigerian woman, a wonderful author, and she said she was told India was the flavor of the month and it was much harder for her. So there is this downside to all of this, but it is certainly true that it's wonderful to be an Indian writer.

AR: You deal, in the book, with the Nepali insurgency. Why did you decide to get political?

KD: Again, it wasn't an obvious choice. If you are a writer, seriously writing in India, even if you're writing about a family story, you automatically are writing about immigration, globalization, you can't help but fall into these bigger arguments. It was a surprise to me, as well, to see how it is to emerge from a book and to find yourself part of a much wider debate. Of course, as a writer you are writing from a very personal place, you're writing from the smallest place what one human being is going through in a particular place, what they're up against. It's a shock to come out of that and to realize that other people are looking at it from the other way: How did you portray these people? How are you portraying a movement? What does it mean for globalization? So you really fall into the same debate but from a different angle.

AR: When Asian authors pick up these subjects, which other people might think are politically or spiritually delicate, they can find themselves in a bit of trouble back home. Certainly you know in extreme cases like Salman Rushdie where death threats were issued against him and kept in place for many years. To what extent do you have to be aware of offending people?

KD: I think you have to be very aware, because again, we're not writing in a perfect world

AR: Yes, not everyone was impressed though with your portrayal of the Nepali characters in the "Inheritance of Loss." Some people said that you painted them as crooks and thieves and beggars. So, you did receive a torrent of hate mail along with your Booker Prize. What did that correspondence say and how did you deal with it?

KD: I was very upset by it, of course, because I actually have a lot of sympathy for the cause. It did descend into violence and it was sort of a very muddy time. And I did sort of portray the fact that there was a lot of police violence. And I tried to present it in a sort of, many-angled way, but from the viewpoint of an outsider because, of course, I am an outsider. It was from the viewpoint of a Westernized class on the mountain side, portraying people in a heroic side or not it's not really a writer's job to do that.

So yeah, I did get a lot of, sort of angry letters. And I think this is what a lot of writers face when they do end up with death threats and anger, and you realize that writing is serious business, which is not something that you think about when you're actually writing. It seems like something very irresponsible and not serious at all.

But again, I do think that writers do have to stand up and say you are writing from the smallest perspective. As a writer, you sort of have to stand up... that's the important one, what one human being may be going through, a muddled person perhaps, or a confused person, or a half-good half- bad person. But it's from that private human space. As a writer, it's not your job to portray people in a particular way, a people, a nation, in a heroic light. So, you have to kind of fight for that little space, in a way.

AR: Salman Rushdie is a family friend of yours. I guess he would know better than almost anybody about how to deal with the fiercest of criticism. Was he able to advise you on that?

KD: I think he often does talk about this, of this sort of literature really having to protect itself from being manipulated in this sort of way. And yet, if you do stand up for insisting for this freedom to talk about, to imagine, what again from a small human perspective what they may be going through in a big world. You upset a lot of powerful and big people! Again, it's a shock but you come up against some very big things.

You and he do have some similarities. He also won the Booker Prize at one time and he also now lives...

KD: He also said it was luck! Someone asked me this; we were both in the same book festival, and I said, "It's just lottery, it's luck." And he said loudly, "That's right!" It is.

AR: He also lives in the U.S as do you. Tell us about your move to the West when you were just a teenager?

KD: You know, it's a move that's always portrayed as taking your destiny into your own hands and moving into a brave, free place and I think it was a long while before I realized that it was quite a different sort of journey. It was many moves made a long time ago had forced me to move in a way. It was no surprise that I would leave India. And, you know, that was again something I think I realized when I was writing this book.

Kiran, it's a great shame that we all have to leave it there. I do thank you so much for the time that you've spent with us today.

KD: Thank you, thank you so much.

AR: Our guest today has been the author and Booker Prize winner, Kiran Desai. Thank you for being with us here on Talk Asia. I'm Anjali Rao, I'll see you again soon.

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