Interview: If You Read, You Will Become a Writer, Says Author Amitava Kumar

Author Amitava Kumar at the signing of his book, The Yellow Book: A Traveller’s Diary.

Author Amitava Kumar was at Kunzum Jorbagh for the signing of his new book The Yellow Book. We caught up with him for a short interview and he gave us insights into his journaling, his new book as well as what he tells his students about writing. Read on.

BSA: In your book, your first chapter talks about writing. You’ve given 10 points on how to write. Are there any other points that you’ve not mentioned here, or are you keeping them for something later? 

Amitava Kumar: One thing that I keep repeating to my students is that you have to write every day and walk every day. By which I mean that you should write, but you should have modest goals. A 150 words every day. That’s my golden rule. And walk mindfully for 10 minutes, by which I mean that if you are just more conscious of your body and of your breathing. And if you’re mindful, then you have a space of thoughtfulness or introspection that allows you to be a bit more creative. So that’s my one mantra: write every day and walk every day. 

BSA: When did you start journaling? 

AK: I started I think maybe when I was 30 years old. I would do that earlier too, but those were very puerile writings. It was only when I was a little older that I began taking down things as a writer. So that it was not simply saying this is what I did today, but instead how to build a record of experience and cast it in a frame, have some take on it and even if it was just for myself, tell a story, even to oneself about what happened that day. 

BSA: You grew up in Bihar and now you are teaching in the US. How has life changed for you? 

AK: In Bihar, I felt that life was happening to me, I was not doing anything to my life. Partly it was youth, partly it was aimlessness. And once I went to the US, I became a much more serious reader and I became a writer. I suddenly became more active, life did not become a matter of passive experience, it became more of an active forging of experiences. If you start doing journaling you start thinking about what you’re going to record in your journal, and therefore, you start looking for experience. So, the main real change is that I became, I think, a writer — I only wanted to be a writer when I was in India — in the US, I became more of a reader and then I became more of a writer. 

BSA: You’ve mentioned a lot of authors in your book. Which authors have influenced you most? 

AK: I think VS Naipaul has been a great and decisive influence on not just me, on people of my generation. Someone a little older than me, like Amitav Ghosh to someone younger than me like Pankaj Mishra. And then Rushdie who has been a great influence also on people like Arundhati Roy, who wrote in a voice that was so much more liberated. They were not using a language that was borrowed English, instead they were using a language that was our English. Naipaul, Rushdie, and then JM Coetzee who got the Nobel maybe 10-12 years ago, and recently, I’ve been reading Annie Ernaux, another Nobel laureate, she’s an amazing writer. 

BSA: Your book, The Yellow Book, is a series of experiences which you’ve written about and you always manage to find something literary to touch upon it. How did that come about? 

AK: That’s a great observation on your part. How to find something literary? It comes about from reading. For example, let’s say someone in that crowd there, that person gets married. When they’re getting married, they will think of what is happening to them in terms of what is really happening. If I was going to get married, though at my age I don’t think that’s possible, I would also remember a scene about marriage that I had read about and then another book in which that same day had been experienced and then something that had happened… So, what I’m saying is that something becomes literary because you have so much that you have read to fall back upon and give your writing a little bit more of a swing, a little bit more of texture. That is how it came about. I mean that is my real mantra to everyone: If you read, you will become a writer, if you don’t read you will not become a writer, or at least you will not become a good writer. 

BSA: Can you give me a list of five books that you would want everybody to read? 

AK: Since I just mentioned Annie Ernaux, one of her books, we all have parents and our parents get older and they die. Maybe the book about her mother’s dementia, I Remain in Darkness, would be a good one and or about her father’s death, it’s called A Man’s Place. Anyone who is Indian in particular should read VS Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas. I think Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things opened, or started something in our culture, about expression, about writing and about having a politics, so The God of Small Things. Since I told you that I was watching influenced by JM Coetzee, I should mention one of his books. It’s difficult to choose one of his books. I like them all but there is a book called Waiting For the Barbarians. And for the last one, there was a British writer who didn’t sell a lot, but she was an amazing writer. She started writing very late in her life. Her name was Penelope Fitzgerald. I went to the British Library in London, and I looked at her notebooks. And there is one book I want to advocate, though all of them are dear to me. The one I’m going to advocate is called The Beginning of Spring. An Englishman and his wife are in Moscow, spring has arrived and the wife leaves this man and disappears. It Is a beautiful, light and mysterious book. So those are my recommendations.

Pick up Amitava Kumar’s book from any Kunzum store or Whatsapp +91.8800200280 to order. Buy the book(s) and the coffee’s on us.

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