10 Questions for Tabish Khair
- By Emma Kemp
“Despite the superficial tinkering [of the revisions in the Norton English], which, as suggested, is justified by a marketing rationale rather than a literary one, what lingers on is the general incapacity of the Norton English to really step out of mainstream Anglo-American critical paradigms.” – From “The Nortoning of Nagra,” Summer 2019 (Vol. 60, Issue 2)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
I think it was a poem, roughly metered and rhymed of course, about plane-crash survivors drifting out in sea. And similar poems, heavy on empathy, influenced by the British Romantics and Victorian poets read in school, because they were written in secondary school. These poems my doctor-father — who was opposed to my becoming a writer (Not a career, he correctly noted), but also genuinely appreciated and encouraged my writing – diligently collected and returned to me when I was in senior college, and which I promptly burned because I was so “adult” — embarrassed by my juvenilia. The first poem I published — selected by Jayanta Mahapatra for a poetry page he used to edit for The Telegraph (Calcutta) — was on a photo of Mahatma Gandhi. I think I was in high school then.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
I grew up in a small town (Gaya) of Bihar in India, a place where the pressure of life largely drowns out literature, in any language, and in any case not a place where English is spoken. I was lucky to have books (in English and other languages) around me, both at home and in school, and I read voraciously, gravitating to English and texts in English translation, partly for the variety they offered and partly because my other two languages (Hindi and Urdu) were at political loggerheads. By early college, I had read most of the major romantics and mainstream poets like Tennyson, Browning, Auden, and Whitman, much of Dickens, Austen, George Eliot, Hemingway, Kafka, Graham Greene, Tolstoy, Chekov, Gogol, Kundera, Gorky, etc., and, of course, the more popular writers like Wodehouse and Somerset Maugham, which my cousins or classmates also read at times. (Not to mention the earlier and very popular secondary school substratum of Enid Blyton, Alfred Hitchcock, Ludlum, Louis L’Amour, Hindi pulp, comic books, etc.) I loved many of the so-called classics as a reader, but I could not always connect to them as a struggling writer: my small-town world was not there. They could not really teach me how to write my world. Even Premchand or Tagore did not help much. Some of Russian fiction was the closest I got to it. A bit later, I found a connection of sorts in R. K. Narayan and, strangely, in fiction from the American south (Faulkner, Cather, etc.) and the Caribbean (Lovelace, Selvon, Naipaul, etc.). Later, I also discovered Indian writers in translation — Ismat Chughtai, Manto, Mahasweta Devi — who helped a bit. But I have had to work with bits and pieces of writers and their works; I could not totally absorb any single “influence” because of my unusual background (particularly unusual for someone writing in English). My influences are quilt-work at best.
What other professions have you worked in?
I have been a journalist in India, working as a stringer for The Times of India in Gaya, my hometown, and then a staff reporter in Delhi. I have also done the odd immigrant job while studying for my Ph.D. in Copenhagen: dishwashing, floor scrubbing, hotel work, etc. And I have taught.
What did you want to be when you were young?
A writer. I never was in doubt. Just did not know how to go about it. Didn’t dare say it out aloud in my small town, middle-class circles, as “I want to read and write” sounded like such an indulgence!
What inspired you to write this piece?
The problem of teaching complex “postcolonial” texts in a place like Denmark, where the tendency to put neat answers in square boxes – which exists in all academia – is further compounded by historical and cultural factors.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I need absolute silence while writing. But I listen to music – usually familiar (old-ish) songs with good lyrics, ranging from sixties Bombay film songs to country music or rock – in between. And, sometimes, Indian or Western classical (no vocals) when I am revising.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
Close the door. And check that it is shut.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
A friend or two, my partner perhaps. I put it away for at least a couple of months and then start revising it again, following the initial feedbacks.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
Painting. Pottery. Something tactile and slow.
What are you reading right now?
The Overstory by Richard Powers, Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine, and The Poetics of DNA by Judith Roof. All three seem to be excellent, I must add.
Born and educated in a small town in Bihar, India, Tabish Khair is the author of various books, including the poetry collections Where Parallel Lines Meet and Man of Glass; the studies Babu Fictions: Alienation in Indian English Novels and The Gothic, Postcolonialism and Otherness; and the novels Just Another Jihadi Jane, The Bus Stopped, Filming, The Thing About Thugs, and How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position. His novels have been shortlisted for nine prestigious prizes in five countries, including the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Encore Award, and translated into several languages. Khair now mostly lives in a village near the town of Aarhus, Denmark.