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"A sense of wonder – at the world, at people, at books, at ideas": an interview with Siddhartha Deb

Siddhartha Deb

India is a prominent theme in your work. Many writers describe being psychically connected to certain places—whether it is because they hail from these places or because they simply share a special connection to them. Can you tell us about how India shapes and influences your work and why it recurs across your oeuvre?

India is a place I am deeply connected to, and equally deeply disconnected from. My parents were born in the colonial British India, and when the borders were drawn in 1947 for the new nation of India, my father and his family became refugees. I learned early on that the Indian nation considered a vast majority of its people – the poor, the Dalits, Muslims, Christians, indigenous tribals, and refugees – to be outsiders, and I think my need to argue with that idea of India has always driven my engagement with the subcontinent. I’m perennially interested in the question of who belongs, who doesn’t, and why, questions that sadly are pertinent to much of the world, including and especially imperial behemoths like the United States. The India that I write about is mostly invisible or absent in the imagining of Indian elites and the Western gatekeepers deciding what should and should not be written about India, but that invisibility also offers me a certain kind of freedom to do new things in my writing.

Whether focused on India or America, your work thoughtfully engages with subjects that are political. Can you tell us more about your commitment to writing about the political (if there is one) or otherwise, where this impulse comes from, and to what end? 

I was born in the decade of the Vietnam War, which for me was a proud moment of decolonization and the Third World. I was also aware of internal struggles in India, against a powerful, brutal elite, people who, as Frantz Fanon pointed out, were in some ways even worse than the colonial elites they were mimicking. I was forged in this crucible where art had to make a difference in the lives of people, and I still hold on to that. I have been hungry and poor, and I have known others far hungrier and far more poor, and I would go back and not publish a single book if that meant we could live in a happier world, just and free. But I don’t always write directly in a political manner, especially in my fiction. I am interested in beauty, and patterns, and to me it is a great gift (and sometimes a curse) to be interested in stories, the ones I make as well as the ones other people make, sometimes with their lives rather than with art.

You engage with the work of other writers quite deeply— J.M. Coetzee and Hanya Yanagihara, to name a few. What benefits or otherwise do you find in that level of engagement with the works of others.

As one of my favourite writers Roberto Bolaño said, “Reading is always more important than writing.” Reading others is how I learn about the world, about writing. It allows me to go inside the head of another artist and see how he or she or they create meaning and shapes in the world, the ways in which they succeed and fail. I am not always happy about my writing, but I am almost always happy about my reading. 

As an author of both fiction and nonfiction, do you feel there are any essential differences in either the purpose or impetus between your writing of these two genres? In other words, in your journalism and essays, as compared to your fiction, is the drive in trying to reach your audience in some way distinct?

I am more direct in my nonfiction, less experimental. Some of this has to do with the fact that the nonfiction work I do is often commissioned and is more concerned with questions of house style, editors, the tastes of their specific readers, and their range of interests. But what I particularly like about nonfiction – especially if it involves reporting – is that it puts me in the material world the way reading puts me in imaginative worlds. It makes me spend time with people very different from the usual middle-to-upper class professionals who dominate academics, publishing, and journalism, and who are mostly white in the UK and the US, and upper-caste Hindus in India. These experiences, often with vast, marginalized groups – migrants and refugees, gig workers and security personnel –flow into my nonfiction.

They then show up in my fiction, but further transformed, along more imaginative arcs, particularly because my fiction has begun to veer away from mainstream realism into more speculative zones. 

There are obviously different styles and subgenres within the much larger genre of creative nonfiction. What must a piece of creative nonfiction do for it be effective, to resonate for you? Is there any particular subgenre which you feel does more important work than another?

I love both narrative nonfiction and cultural criticism. When done very well – as in the best of fiction – there is an element of surprise, something unexpected discovered by the writer. In flat, arid writing – whether cultural criticism or narrative, whether by academics or journalists or those who see themselves as “creative” writers, this sense of surprise isn’t there. It isn’t there because the writer doesn’t have a sense of wonder – at the world, at people, at books, at ideas – that for me is the counterpoint to the terrible moment in history where we are living. 

Are there any specific works of creative nonfiction to which you return because you’ve found them to be particularly generative in relation your own writing, or that otherwise have influenced you significantly in terms of content and style?

I find myself rereading James Baldwin often, for the language, for the thinking, for moments when I am troubled, and sometimes when I just wish to feel a connection to Harlem. I still reread George Orwell – although some of his politics and his appropriation as a canonical Western writer I find troubling – particularly his writing on the marginalized and working classes in France and England. I learnt a lot from reading Barbara Ehrenreich on the underclass in the United States.

Since I could never afford to study creative writing or journalism, I had to teach myself by reading, and that is an ongoing process. I reread W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn and Matsuo Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North every few years, if not every few months. A list of other nonfiction writers I admire and reread would include John Gibler, Suzy Hansen, Caroline Moorhead, Oscar Martínez, Sergio González Rodríguez, Rebecca Solnit, and Marcela Turati. 

There is a strong sense that you were deeply involved or otherwise “in the thick of it” in the Beautiful and the Damned—so much so that a subject of one of your pieces essentially attempted to keep the work in which he appeared from being seen. Do you feel your earlier work as a journalist has shaped your approach to nonfiction, and if so, how?

My reading list is heavy with reporters, and as I say above, I enjoy reporting. I don’t enjoy it because it’s easy for me – at the beginning, it is always incredibly difficult for me, a difficulty that was beautifully elaborated upon by Joan Didion in a piece she did for the New York Review of Books. You make plans, you set up interviews, and go somewhere. Inevitably, the people you planned to interview disappear, the plans fall apart, and you wonder what is wrong with you that you have removed yourself from your usual, relatively comfortable surroundings, where you have friends and routine (and I’m very attached to routine), and brought yourself to this place where you know no one, where things are precarious, and your soul is stripped naked because it can no longer hide behind routine and familiarity.

But you wait because you are too ashamed to run away, or because you are stubborn, or because you know it will change, and then things start to happen. That’s when the surprise comes, when you least expect it, and it opens up your sense of wonder at the world. This I learned from being a journalist.

You can do something like this even with memoir or cultural or think pieces. I think you have to embrace the moments when you’re stuck, let your mind wander, look at the sky or the ocean, should you be so fortunate to have access to nature (and this is often impossible if you are young, or POC, or poor, and your life is colonized by rent and real estate, or by social media and consumerism and work, which is why we need to address our material conditions and how they usually cannibalize our creativity), and that’s when the creative, insightful ideas come, when you are surprised. Finally, and I know this sounds pretty old-fashioned, but I learned to respect deadlines and turn in work on time, and those things are still important to me. (You will notice that this is coming in on the day you requested it :)) 

All these things – respecting deadlines, talking to other people (especially people who are different from one on the surface), looking at nature – are ways to step out of oneself. That’s how good creative work happens, not by putting yourself at the centre of it. We have enormous pressure on our sense of self in today’s world – and these are all ways of coming out of one’s head and finding a kind of freedom that allows one to write well.

The negative consequences of late capitalism on society and the environment are consistently explored in your writing. In your assessment, is there a chance that we can change things for the better, and, if so, can literature and art make a difference in moving for change?

I don’t think literature and art can change the world by themselves. They are easily coopted by capitalism. But they can show us that there is light even at the end of the world, if I may play off the title of my most recent work. They can allow us to be free while we write, and be free while we read, and be free when we are not writing and reading but just listening or looking, and maybe then we can let that freedom transform, bit by bit, our unfree lives. That is not going to be enough by any means, but it’s a good starting point.

Interview conducted by John Kuligowski and Zainab Omaki