“You Turn Yourself into an Outsider”: An interview with Anita Desai
As a child in India, the only thing Anita Desai wanted was to see her books on the family bookshelf, sitting next to those by Nikolai Gogol, Thomas Hardy, and Virginia Wolf. Seventy years later, and living in New York, Desai is now a long way from her childhood home. But with a career that has spanned sixteen novels, and most recently, a collection of novellas entitled The Artist of Disappearance (2011), one could make the claim that, in a way, Anita Desai has fulfilled her childhood dream.
This past October Desai came to Pittsburgh as a featured writer with the Prague Writers’ Festival‘s first appearance in the United States. On October 16 she also read selections from her novel Baumgartner’s Bombay at a salon-style reading hosted by City of Asylum/Pittsburgh.
On the day of the Prague Writers’ Festival kick-off, Desai spoke with Sampsonia Way in the lobby of Pittsburgh’s William Penn Omni Hotel. In this interview she discusses her childhood of writing and reading, her creative process over the years, her state of hereditary exile, and the complicated perspective on India and the West that it has afforded her.
How did you discover you were a writer?
From a very young age I knew that this was I what I wanted to do. Before I could even spell I was putting letters together to make words. We also had lots of books in our home and everyone read a lot. My family would see me sitting in a corner, scribbling all the time, so they used to address me as “The Writer.” I just wanted my books to be on the bookshelf too.
What was the first thing that you wrote?
A little piece that was published in a children’s magazine when I was nine. Looking back, I don’t know if it’s lucky or unlucky to have such a closed vision so early on in life. I see others trying many things before they set out on their life’s work, and I never had that. While I wish I could do more, I’ve been incredibly happy just being able to read. For me, as a child, the greatest joy was getting my pocket money for the month and racing off to the bookshop to see what I could buy.
What were you reading at that time?
In my early years I was influenced by the British classics of Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, and Thomas Hardy. Those are the ones we read, but as I progressed I also discovered Russian authors. It was a great revelation to learn that as a writer you could delve so deeply into the human mind and experience. People like [Fyodor] Dostoyevsky and [Leo] Tolstoy write with such a range of human experience, but the one I particularly love is [Nikolai] Gogol. He wrote some of greatest short stories that have ever been written. There’s an abstract element to his work that seems somehow mysterious, and a little vague, so I keep returning to try and discover those secrets.
Your most recent work, The Artist of Disappearance, is a collection of three novellas that was published two years ago. Are you working on anything right now?
I’ve been absorbed in [Kiran Desai] my daughter’s work, seeing her through the difficult stages of the novel she’s writing. But in the process I’ve been remembering that it’s hard to keep up my stamina through a long piece. I was very happy while working on The Artist of Disappearance because I restricted myself to the limited form of the novella and could do it with ease. In the future I’ll try to write more novellas. The novel takes a lot out of me.
Do you have a routine when you write?
I spend at least three hours at my desk every morning, whether I’m working on a book or not. I always told myself that a desk and a chair in a corner by myself is all I need. I like to have a window and a view too, but I mostly need to be alone when writing. I also write by hand and don’t use the computer until the end of the process. It’s fine for editing, but not for writing.