The Importance of Being Earnest

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Writers cannot live in a vacuum, isolated from political currents anymore, says Pankaj Mishra

From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia, Pankaj Mishra’s latest book, seeks to keep memories alive, memories of historical moments and characters who, as Mishra says, find no place in histories written in the West of the nations that it subordinated, but not even in the histories of the countries whose future it helped determine.

The making of this book has been punctuated by several passionate essays in which Mishra attempts to decimate writing that he sees as misrepresenting the Asian experience (Martin Amis in an essay on Islam in The Guardian), or blatantly fuelling an imperialistic fantasy (Niall Ferguson’s book, Civilisation: The West and the Rest).

Here, he speaks of becoming a self-appointed spokesperson for the formerly colonised, straddling different genres of writing, and  his distaste for the company of other writers.

Q You seem to be on a crusade, defending the Brown Man, Muslims, the formerly colonised.

A I think it is incumbent upon all of us to fight misrepresentation, wherever they are, whether in India or in the West. That’s the duty of the writer, that’s the duty of the critic. And if you take your responsibility seriously, then that’s what you do. If Martin Amis, someone like him, goes up with the statements that he did come up with, and people are not going to stand up and challenge him for that—and he went unchallenged for a long time—and if I feel I have a platform (a lot of people don’t have a platform, a lot of people like myself, Brown People), then I’m going to write, I’m going to challenge this representation of all Muslims as potential terrorists. I feel particularly obliged to write because of my background, my experiences, things that Martin Amis does not know about.  

Q You’re saying writers should not shy away from this responsibility?

A Honestly, Martin Amis will take the opportunity and the platform to express his views on a variety of subjects, whether it is Islam or Iran, pornography, any number of things. All writers who have that opportunity and that platform may not choose to exercise that option. And the Martin Amis version will then prevail in the public sphere and help the process of ‘othering’ and of alienating. We’re seeing what’s happening in America now, mosques being attacked, Sikhs being attacked. What I’m trying to say is that these things matter, these public debates matter, these perceptions, these misrepresentations do matter. So whether it is writers or citizens, they have a commitment to the truth. We [writers] need to engage, without dramatising our positions as spokespersons for society or bearing the Brown Man’s Burden or whatever. I think the days in which I would imagine a writer working in a vacuum, isolated from all political currents, producing [work] for a small minority of sophisticated readers, those days never really existed first of all, and those days are more and more remote now. I guess it’s very easy to dramatise this as ‘writers as activists’. But it’s much simpler than that. You are in this world, you have certain experiences of the world, you have to be truthful about those experiences. And when those experiences are misrepresented in public, then you have to speak up. Otherwise, you do injustice to yourself, your experiences, your writing.

Q Is it a task keeping your anger at such misinterpretations in check when you sit down to write?

A Obviously, you can’t let anger distort your writing. It’s important to engage very passionately with your subjects, and yet express yourself in ways that persuade, and bring evidence, and keep your tone civil. To address the reader as someone who essentially shares your intelligence, if not your attitude. If the line of argument can be made coolly, then it’s more likely to be understood than if you start blaming people or pointing fingers at them.

Q From the Ruins of Empire is your response , in many ways, to ‘Westoxified’ history. How did the idea for the book come about?

A For one thing, it was this desire to write about an Asia that was connected. There are figures like the ones I have described, Jamal al-Din Afghani and Liang Qichao, who traversed a wide territory, both geographically and culturally. And the fact that these hugely important figures in the histories of their nation states, they’ll not only never find a place in the histories written in the West, but most of them have no place in the histories of their region. So I wanted to write about that particular moment when there was someone in Turkey in the late 19th century or someone in China in the late 1890s, how they thought of themselves and their world. Mostly I wanted to deal with little known figures. The stories about famous figures, that is Deng Xiaoping and Gandhi, sometimes don’t tell you enough. It’s the marginal people, the little known figures, the eccentrics, sometimes their lives speak more eloquently about the societies they belonged to, the uncertainties, the confusions, the ambivalences, they are much more resonant and eloquent than, say, the big fence figures we are used to celebrating in histories.

Q You’ve written both fiction and non-fiction. Which, for you, is a more attractive genre?

A I’ve always wanted to be a ‘novelist’. The idea of a writer for me was always associated with the word novelist. It’s perhaps the prejudices of our age that we conceive of writers in that way; maybe I was a victim of that. But basically what happened after I published The Romantics—and I’d written several novels before that that were rubbish—no idea for a novel occurred to me, and when one did, it seemed too much like the book I’d already written. And sometimes you have experiences that don’t fit in the form you have in mind. Then you have to find a new form, the thing that suits those experiences best and I ended up doing reportage, long review essays, and finally this (From the Ruins).

I’m reaching a point where I want to go back to narrative fiction. I very much like the idea of the novel as a form as it can accommodate a lot, a lot of the things in this book. Any of these characters, any of these lives can be turned into a novel. So it’s a very attractive form in that sense.

Q And how would you go about turning this into a novel, given a chance?

A There are conventional ways of doing it, like historical fiction, an established form. But I find that form very unattractive because I find it difficult to read. The challenge is to find a way of doing things which engages you, challenges you. Otherwise, if things are too easy, you shouldn’t have done it. 

Q Which is a more challenging form?

A I think fiction is more challenging in the sense that you work from the raw data of your imagination, which is very fickle. Whereas with non-fiction, at least you know that there is a continuum of facts for you to access. It may be your journey, it may be your travel, it may be something you found in the library, it may be in archives, it may be in the books that you have to read. But in fiction, you work in your imagination, which is a deeply mysterious thing. Sometimes, I don’t know how I managed to write [The Romantics]. When you read it, you have the sensation of reading something written by someone else. And that process of staring at a blank page with no assistance as it were from facts. You put [your thoughts] onto the page, bring it into relation with some other thing that your imagination has come up with. It can be a challenging, difficult thing.

Q Do you face the problem of over-research?

A You can over-research things: read too much, travel too much, expose yourself to things you want to write about a bit too much. I realise it’s important to anchor your imagination in something solid. When you start writing, a very small detail can set you off, a bird song, someone selling ice cream in Shanghai in 1937. In the structure of a novel, that is much more important than, say, the history of sanitation in China in 1930. 

Q Do you have a daily routine you follow?

A It’s very simple, I work all day. I basically get up, read the newspapers, have breakfast, and then get to work by 8.30 am. I like writing in the mornings and reading in the late afternoons. I work till around 6 pm. So I’m actually working all day. Because that’s all I do. I don’t have a job or any other thing. I write in the mornings, in the quiet of the house, and unwind in the evenings, watching movies at home.

Q Writing is your job, so to speak. Do you find this a chore  sometimes?

A I think I’ve never really thought of it as work. I thought of it as something that gives me huge amounts of satisfaction and pleasure. Without that, I wouldn’t be able to function. I wouldn’t be able to see it as work and do it as such because I’d be very oppressed by the idea of meeting an obligation as opposed to something that’s engaging, something that’s helping me grow and learn. I find that the pieces that don’t work for me are those that don’t help me learn. Then I feel it’s work, a chore, an obligation, so I stay away from those kinds of things. It really has to be engaging. Otherwise, I find myself hovering around my desk, checking my email.

Q Are you a big rewriter?

A It is an essential part of the whole process. You stop, and reassess and refresh your mind, and when you come back, you see it differently. You sleep over it and might be woken up in the middle of the night with a solution. One has to be suspicious of anything that’s too easy. It won’t be any good if it is.

Q Are you a strong critic of your own writing?

A One has to have a very harsh attitude towards your writing. Compare it with the best, and just reject it. When you go out into the world with a novel, you are basically in the same field as any number of writers. There’s absolutely no point in publishing something that doesn’t even aspire to be in their league. In other words, give it your best shot or not do it at all.

Q Your work requires you to read continuously. 

A I read just about everything that I need to for the work I do, and then when there is time left over, I read the recommended fiction or non-fiction. Basically my reading is driven by the work I do. In Mashobra [before I wrote my first book], it was entirely recreational. No, that’s not entirely true, I was also reading to find out how I could write. I was reading to find out how a book is constructed, how a narrative is placed, in a sense the craft. But yes, it was reading mostly not driven by agenda. That’s my dream, of going back to that unstructured, slightly day-dreamy reading.

Q You live in London and in Mashobra. You also travel a lot for your journalistic work. Do you find this disrupting?

A Yes, travel is a disruption. I think you have to learn how to deal with it. I didn’t know for a long time, so I used to get disturbed by the fact that I’d arrived at this new place and had to sit down to write. I learnt ways to get this sense of continuity and not let mind lag set in.  

Q Are you a recluse?

A I’m not at all. I often get asked that question. And I don’t really know what that means because I travel a lot, which means I meet a huge variety of people. I stay away from—quite deliberately because I don’t find it of any use—places where I’m identified too much as a writer and where I’m supposed to account for my life, my favourite colour, open up my personality for display. I find all that very boring. What I find pleasure in is writing, travelling and learning new things. I don’t feel like I need to be affirmed as a writer. I don’t go to parties, or go to literary festivals. Though I do some of these things when a new book comes out into the world and I have to accompany it.

A question like that [of being a recluse] also arises because a writer has become a public figure in ways that were not expected, nor did it happen, say 50-60 years ago. So there’s this notion that if you don’t spend some time [being out there], you are being reclusive. In fact, what you are doing is what everyone was doing 50-60 years back, just getting on with their work.

Q You dislike going to literary festivals?

A It can be enjoyable. You always find new people, not necessarily those whose works you admire because often they turn out to be disappointing in flesh, but people whose work you don’t read but who turn out to be very engaging. I actually just go to literary festivals where I’m interested in the city or town. Otherwise it just becomes too professional, the whole thing. You’re constantly meeting writers alone. For a lot of writers, it’s a way to get out of their homes. I already get out so much, I don’t need that kind of break that a lot of writers who’ve been working for a long time need, to be taken to some other reality where you’re put into contact with other writers.

Writing is such a lonely profession, you can spend pretty much most of your time by yourself. It makes many people—most people I would say—very touchy, very prickly, which doesn’t make for great company. And you realise that the [people] you’re meeting, because they managed to isolate themselves and have been so focused on their work, it has made them less interesting. They’ve put in their all in their work, and that’s made them grouchy, [people who don’t] particularly enjoy other people’s company.