Lunch with a Bigot: On Performance Writing and Reconceiving the Essay

lunch with a bigot - amitava kumar - book cover

In his new essay collection Lunch With a Bigot, novelist and journalist Amitava Kumar describes joining fellow writer Hari Kunzru at the Jaipur Literary Festival to read from Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses, banned in India. Kumar’s intent was to protest Rushdie’s absence from the event. The essay that resulted is nuanced and thoughtful, tracing the evolution of Kumar’s relationship with Rushdie’s writing, from idolatry to rejection to, finally, a deep, if tempered, gratitude. Throughout this book, Kumar actively shifts his attitudes, and by doing so, shifts ours.

Last month, I interviewed Kumar at a café in Poughkeepsie near Vassar College, where he is a professor. His collection ranges widely -- from the title essay, in which he has lunch with a man who has placed him on a hit list because he is a Hindu who has married a Muslim, to a piece considering Raymond Carver as a writer and father and himself as writer and father -- and our conversation ranged almost as widely, across contemporary global politics and how criticism might be creative and provocative. He was as insistent on nuance as he is in these essays. "An essay is not an op-ed that tells its reader what to think," he told me. "An essay is a complicated working-out of one’s own contradictions and complicities."

A couple weeks after our interview, there were many, many op-eds about PEN America’s decision to honor the editors of Charlie Hebdo. Many writers, including Kumar, signed a letter objecting to this decision; Rushdie criticized the letter for adding "disgusting 'buts'" to the honor. But 'buts' are what essays are all about, and long after the op-eds about Charlie Hebdo are forgotten, the essays in Lunch With a Bigot will remain.  

Signature: In the interview with Arundhati Roy that you include in this book, you begin by asking…

Amitava Kumar: (laughs) I know where you’re going.

SIG: …You begin by asking her to name a stupid question she’s been asked in an interview. So let me ask the same of you.

AK: I don’t know whether I tell this story in the book, but I was once in a public conversation with Hanif Kureishi, who wrote The Buddha of Suburbia and other books. When we ended our interview, he opened the floor for questions. A guy raised his hand and said, "Mr. Kureishi, are you circumcised?" I wish I could present that question as the stupidest that I have been asked.

If one is writing about religious hatred or riots, the questions that come from the audience are sometimes unbelievably shallow and vile. For the life of me, I cannot remember the question that was asked immediately after my reading in Bombay after my book Husband of a Fanatic came out, but in any case, I just did not respond. I was following the J.M. Coetzee line. When he is asked a bad question, he just does not respond. But afterwards I was critiqued by many people for that.

SIG: In your title essay, the vile things that the bigot says -- it seems to me that they are not much different from the things that people like Bill Maher have been saying over the last few months. Do you think that Islamophobia is getting worse in this country?

AK: It’s amazing how opinions that are scandalous become normalized. That is why you have a clichéd response among commentators when they say, "Could this comment be made about another group, such as American blacks or Jews?" I can see the move that is being made there, but the move I’m making in that essay is to say, "Is the bigotry really that different from what is in us?" So am I saying to you that you should look inside yourself for your own inner Bill Maher? I don’t know. But I am saying that even on a campus like this one, people aren't so much prejudiced against another group as they are interested in proclaiming their own purity. 'Political correctness' is the phrase. I want to say, "Stop for a moment. Before you engage in such instantaneous shaming of your classmate -- who has said a probably wrongly-worded thing in class -- ask yourself: Are you not mistaken sometimes? Do you not do the wrong thing?"

I haven’t answered you directly. I’m saying that yes, what Bill Maher says is scandalous. It’s so easy for folks to normalize their opinions, to engage in a groupthink that is damaging. But I’m also interested in the response to it. "Yo, Brother Bill, think about what someone who has lost twelve people in his family in Northern Pakistan to a drone strike -- when none of them had anything to do with terrorism -- might think of you." But they don’t think. It’s medieval thinking on the part of Bill Maher and others, and it brings me to despair sometimes.

SIG: I want to come back to the beginning of your answer. You’re saying that what I said about Bill Maher is a way of excusing myself.

AK: Yes, I am, because that’s something I’m saying to myself as a writer of essays. An essay is not an op-ed that tells its reader what to think; an essay is a complicated working-out of one’s own contradictions and complicities.

Let’s take another example. You can’t mention "Palestine" without immediately dividing an audience in America. Now, I know what is right, I have a sense of justice, and from my position, the Palestinian cause should be given voice here. But frankly I’m not willing to simply proclaim that fact. Rather, I’m faced with an aesthetic question that is also a political one: How do I write in a way that, instead of only reaching a polarized constituency, makes folks on both sides of the divide think?

I don’t have an answer. If one isn't going to simply engage in name-calling, how can one engineer a mode of response that is creative and constructive?

SIG: In one of the more provocative pieces in the book, you walk into Manhattan bookstores and ask for the "White Literature" section. Could you talk about that?

AK: There’s a line in that piece where I say I didn't want to be the Sacha Baron Cohen of literary criticism. But hell, I did want to be the Sacha Baron Cohen of literary criticism. I wanted to have that immense daring. I think criticism is often so pallid, so tame. I wish it were more performative.

I wish I could take credit for that idea, but it was actually Ken Chen of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop who brought it to me. He said, "This would be good for you, you could do this." And I enjoyed it immensely.

Once or twice, I've mentioned that piece to my own students and asked them to devise a strategy that would make your respondent do things or confront something in a new way. A kid in my journalism class went into taxis at the Poughkeepsie train station, and instead of saying, "Take me to the place where I want to go," he said, "Take me to the place where you want to go."

If art is creative, what is the creative response to art, even in criticism? I would describe that as being central to the book.

SIG: Does writing fiction and writing essays feel different?

AK: I've been teaching a course called The In-Between Novel. Before I started teaching this course, I would have said that it feels very different. With this course, which is bound to some ambition I have about writing, my aim was to bring essay close to fiction and fiction close to essay.

In other words, I've changed my idea of fiction a little bit. The whole apparatus of make-believe seems just make-believe sometimes. I’m trying to bring the essay, which is not an op-ed, and the fictional, which is not make-believe, closer to each other.

SIG: It sounds from what you've been saying like teaching is integral to your process, rather than just the financially-necessary hindrance it is for many writers.

AK: It has been a bloody hindrance, but largely because of my own mistakes. Maybe because I was not writing as much. I would be assigned courses and I would teach them. But for some reason here at Vassar, and also because I've been given more opportunity to teach creative writing, there’s a much more meaningful dialogue. I don’t know how it happened, but it was a very good turn. I would love to work out a simple theory to share with those who are understandably disgruntled because their teaching and their writing don’t speak to each other.

SIG: The issue of when to prioritize your writing and when to prioritize the other aspects of life is another thing that seems central to the book. I think all writers are annoyed at having to do anything that’s not writing.

AK: There’s a writer who is doing a lot of creative things. I want to say to him, "I just want you to know that you’re only doing this because you don’t have children. If I didn’t have children, I would have come up with ten more creative ideas!" There’s a part of me as a writer that thinks that if that life didn't happen, more writing would happen. But then there’s also another part of me that hopes that more writing will happen because that life happened. So I’m not ashamed to confess that I often note down many of the crazy things my children say.

SIG: You wrote an amazing essay in the book about this topic.

AK: Thank you. My son said to me, at four or five: "You are cold, vicious, and cruel." Where did that rhythmic sentence come from?

Philip Roth describes writing as a nine-to-five job. In the afternoon, when he had his lunch, he would read the New York Times for an hour. And the evening was only for reading. Maybe he would watch a baseball game. That has struck me as ideal, though I've never done it, where you have your best hours reserved for writing, and then you let life happen, for him in the form of reading.

But I think it can’t be one or the other, it has to be both. Really, I want to be doing both all the time. Everything is teetering into imbalance.

SIG: I also wanted to talk about your essay on Salman Rushdie.

AK: What can I say about that piece? I didn't think I was a fan of some of the books he had written later on. But when I went to write that piece, I went to my folders and saw how lovingly I had saved everything he had written. People like me had found in him -- not so much a cause as an eloquent spokesman for a cause. So by dismissing him, I was performing some stupid Oedipal act, when in fact a more mature reckoning would have taken into account what I owed him.