Holders of the Word:
An Interview with Bharati Mukherjee


Tina Chen and S.X. Goudie

University of California, Berkeley

Copyright (c) 1997 by Tina Chen and S.X. Goudie, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the author and the notification of the editors.

  1. In her epilogue to Days and Nights in Calcutta , Bharati Mukherjee proclaims the spirit that motivates her writing: "Even more than other writers, I must learn to astonish, to shock" (299). Bharati Mukherjee has indeed produced a body of work that both sustains wonder and evokes surprise. The author of four novels: The Tiger's Daughter , Wife , Jasmine , and The Holder of the World ; two short-story collections, Darkness and The Middleman and Other Stories ; as well as The Sorrow and the Terror and Days and Nights in Calcutta , two works of non-fiction co-authored with her husband Clark Blaise, Mukherjee has deliberately, sometimes flamboyantly, fused her many impulses, backgrounds, and selves to create a "new immigrant" literature that embodies her sense of what it means to be a woman writer of Bengali-Indian origin who has lived in, and been indelibly marked by, both Canada and the United States. In the process, she has broken boundaries and refused to limit herself to easy categories. She sees herself as a pioneer--of new territories, experiences, and literatures--and coextensive with her mission to explore new worlds is her intention to disturb what came before.

  2. Though adamant about her desire not to be classified as a "postcolonial" writer/critic, Mukherjee nonetheless addresses a network of issues of great importance to scholars and writers less violently opposed to being identified as "postcolonial." In addition, her writing has been the subject of significant scholarly engagement in recent years: many of the most recognized figures in postcolonial studies have addressed, often vociferously, the goals of Professor Mukherjee's critical and creative project. Because of their concerns, seasoned and aspiring scholars alike turn to her work to engage a wide variety of critical perspectives and theoretical approaches. Such scholarly interest suggests that, whatever a critic's point of view, both Professor Mukherjee and the postcolonial studies community are vested in proliferating discussion on matters involving race, class, gender, and nation in national and transnational contexts. In fact, despite the heretofore adversarial relationship between some postcolonial scholars and Professor Mukherjee, one of the virtues of this interview, we believe, is that it points out significant areas of shared concern between Professor Mukherjee and her detractors, despite attempts by both parties to disavow such mutual interest.

  3. In interviewing Professor Mukherjee for Jouvert: a journal of postcolonial studies , we utilized an interviewing strategy that negotiated the intersections of her artistic vision and the questions and concerns raised by critics in response to it. Professor Mukherjee, a writer who also prides herself on being a scholar and a critic, responded graciously to the challenges of such a conversation. Conducted during the summer of 1996, the interview addresses a constellation of questions and issues on the process of writing, reading, and interpreting fiction. Even as critical sites of possible alliance between Professor Mukherjee and the postcolonial studies community dot the surface of the interview, many of the disagreements that exist between them are cast into relief. Together, these locations map the beginnings of a productive and exciting literary cartography.

  4. The interview opens with a statement volunteered by Professor Mukherjee, followed by five discrete sections. The first, "Vision and Voice," originates from Mukherjee's admission that "the problem of voice is the most exciting" (Days and Nights 298) and explores her artistic agenda before addressing what critics and scholars have had to say about her deployment of this aesthetic. The next section, "The Anxiety of Influence?," fleshes out Mukherjee's relationships to other writers and asks her to consider the multiple levels of engagement between readers, writers, and critics. In the third section of the interview, "The Politics of New Immigrant Writing," Mukherjee discusses the ideological contours of the type of writing she has engaged in. She comments on several leading postcolonial scholars and what she perceives to be their relationships to her work. At times she draws explicit boundaries between the goals and orientation of postcolonial studies and her own mission as a "new immigrant" writer. In "States of Violence," section IV, we talk about the crucial "space" of violence in her fiction, both on textual and metatextual levels. Finally, in section V, "Writing and Technology," we examine the critical debate surrounding Mukherjee's most recent novel, The Holder of the World . Appreciative of Jouvert 's investment in the intersections between information technology and scholarly practice, we ask a series of questions about Mukherjee's use of virtual reality as a trope for dislocating and transforming literary, cultural, and historical topographies of Mughal India and colonial, 19th, and 20th-century United States. Collectively, then, the five sections of the interview respond to the multiple demands of literary production and interpretation. By providing additional insight into Professor Mukherjee's critical and creative project while simultaneously affording her a forum in which to critique postcolonial scholars and critics who have expressed interest in her work, we offer a survey of territorial disputes that are all the more provocative for being still unsettled.

    Photograph by Emma Dodge Hanson

  5. M: Postcolonial studies seems an inappropriate category in which to place my works. I don't think of myself as a postcolonial person stranded on the outer shores of the collapsed British Empire. I haven't thought of myself as a postcolonial since I finished co-authoring, with my husband Clark Blaise, Days and Nights in Calcutta . Writing my half of that book was my way of thinking through who I was, where I was, where I'd rather be. If I had chosen to return to India after writing that book in 1977, or if, like Salman Rushdie, I'd spent my entire adult life in Britain instead of in North America, I might have evolved as a postcolonial whose creative imagination is fueled primarily by the desire to create a new mythology of Indian nationhood after the Raj's brutalization of Indian culture. But I didn't. I came to the U.S., initially as a student, because in 1961 the University of Iowa was the only place in the world offering a degree in the area I wanted to study, and because American universities had scholarships to offer me. When I first arrived on campus, I thought of myself as a Bengali rather than as an Indian. You were who you were because of the language and dialect you spoke, the location of the village of your male ancestors, the family and religion you were born into. I was a Bengali and proud of it, which meant that I claimed as heritage a culture distinct from that of a Bihari or a Punjabi or a Gujarati or a Tamil. That's the way we were brought up in Calcutta in the Fifties. We were encouraged to set ourselves apart from people of other Indian states. In Iowa, where I didn't run into too many Bengalis, I began to see and feel affinities with rather than hostilities towards non-Bengali Indian students on campus.

  6. If you insist, on this beautiful May afternoon in 1996, that I describe myself in terms of ethno-nationality, I'd say I'm an American writer of Bengali-Indian origin. In other words, the writer/political activist in me is more obsessed with addressing the issues of minority discourse in the U.S. and Canada, the two countries I have lived and worked in over the last thirty odd years. The national mythology that my imagination is driven to create, through fiction, is that of the post-Vietnam United States. I experience, simultaneously, the pioneer's capacity to be shocked and surprised by the new culture, and the immigrant's willingness to de-form and re-form that culture. At this moment, my Calcutta childhood and adolescence offer me intriguing, incompletely-comprehended revelations about my hometown, my family, my place in that community: the kind of revelations that fuel the desire to write an autobiography rather than to mythologize an Indian national identity.

    I. Vision and Voice

  7. 7. J: In "A Four-Hundred Year Old Woman," you state that your "image of artistic structure and excellence is the Mughal miniature painting with its crazy foreshortening of vanishing point, its insistence that everything happens simultaneously, bound only by shape and color" (38). Would you give an example of how the Mughal miniature translates into your writing?

  8. 8. M: The best example probably is "Courtly Vision," the last story in the collection Darkness . I have an obsessive love of Mughal miniature painting. The miniatures that speak to me most eloquently were painted during the reign of Emperor Akbar. I suppose that's because mine is a writerly love. Each of the Akbari paintings that I'm mesmerized by is so crowded with narrative, sub-narratives, sometimes meta-narratives, so taut with passion and at the same time so crisp with irony. Every separate "story" in the miniature matters, every "minor character" has a dramatic function. But all the strands and details manage to cohere, that's what's amazing! And each is "framed" by an elaborately painted border. The border shouldn't be dismissed as the artists' excessive love of adumbration. The border forces you to view the work not primarily as a source of "raw" sociological data, but as sociology metaphorized ; that is, as a master-artist's observation on life/history/national psyche cast in the aesthetic traditions of the community and transmuted into art.

    The story, "Courtly Vision," was inspired by a number of Akbari paintings, particularly one that shows the Emperor in battle dress, leading his massive, battle-ready army out of his fortressed capital. The painting anticipates victory, and evokes a celebratory mood. The mood is historically tenable: Akbar, wise, tolerant, brave, won his wars. But what drew the writer in me to the painting was the contextual irony of such victory on the battlefield. Akbar built an exquisite capital city in Fatehpur Sikri, but he had to abandon it because he'd sited it in a drought zone. He was affably curious about "the other," which meant he allowed in European peddlers, freebooters, Christian missionaries, and so unintentionally facilitated the power grab by the many European East India Companies, and the eventual debilitation of the Mughals. When I started "Courtly Vision," I was aiming to close with that epiphanic contextual irony. But before I finished the first draft, the "frame"--converting verisimilitude into meta-narrative--had worked itself in. The "frame" made the reader witness to a painter's (via author's) re-presentation of history as evidenced in a slick Sotheby's catalogue, and, through the inclusion of the cheap estimated price, upped the final irony into Europe's devaluation of Mughal art.

    Until recent decades, Eurocentric art criticism dismissed Mughal miniatures as unsophisticated, as lacking mastery of perspective. The point is that Mughal artists had developed a Mughal aesthetic. They preferred to work with many points of focus. I had some idea, while I was writing the stories for Darkness and The Middleman , how much about form and principle I had absorbed from the 16th- and 17th-century paintings I so loved. But it was as I drafted the essay, "A Four-Hundred Year Old Woman," that I thought through, and articulated, my Mughal-inspired narrative aesthetic. I like to move narrative by indirection, to create apparent "lumps" and "spills" along the through-line. This applies to novels like Jasmine and The Holder of the World as well as to the short stories. "The zigzag route," one of my characters confesses, "is the shortest." The indirect narratives are, of course, designed to parallel or to undermine the main character's story. The parts, when added up and "framed," should reveal authorial vision. The "frame" and "voice"--the term that we writers communally use to indicate aesthetic strategy--are what make the sum of the parts, 2+2+3, not 7 but 10.

  9. J: So you work like a bricoleur , parts are used and reused and shaped and reshaped, much like the character Jasmine's identity. As with time and space in the novel, things do seem to recur though with a difference, even as Jasmine suggests she's given up one identity and moved on to another. There are a series of transformations . . .

  10. M: Yeah, Jasmine goes through several transformations, and I like to think that she is still open to many more self-inventions. She lives on, very fully, inside my head. But when I was talking about indirection , I was trying to insist that the novel, Jasmine , be read as more than the story of Jasmine's change. That's why the novel provided so many different points of focus: the experience of dislocation and relocation is handled by each of the immigrant characters. As in Akbari miniatures, my novel compresses the immigration histories of many minor characters. Professorji, his wife, his elderly parents, the Caribbean housekeepers in Manhattan, the Guatemalans in Florida, Du and his Asian-American friend in Iowa: even within an ethnic group, each minor character has a distinct response. And white Americans, including the volunteer for the Sanctuary Movement, treat these various minor characters variously. The "opposed parallel" that moved me most as I was writing was the one between Jasmine and Du. Jasmine's very open to new experience and optimistic about outcome. Her attitude is: Hey, you can't rape me and get away with it! You can't push me around! I'm here, I'm gonna stay if I want to, and I'm gonna conquer the territory! Du, who has to attend school in the U.S., probably outwardly dresses more like U.S.-born Americans than does Jasmine, and certainly is more familiar with American colloquialisms and pop culture, but he's cynical of post-Vietnam America, he's aware of the limits of the American Dream and makes his guerrilla attacks on that Dream. The total picture: that's the heady part of writing, the creating of all these . . .

  11. J: little miniature universes within the frame.

  12. M: Right. In a way, I suppose that's being a Hindu, I mean, this being constantly aware of the existence of many universes, this undermining of biography and individual ego. The cosmology that my characters and I inhabit derives very much from the Puranic tales. The Puranas are cycles of tales (think of them as morality tales, religious fables, there are thousands of them) that every Hindu child is told the way that kids in the U.S. are exposed to fairytales and bedtime stories. As "story," they really work, too! Conflict, heroes, villains, obstacles, action, surprise revelation! But the stories metaphorize the Hindu concepts of cosmology, time and space. Current discoveries in astronomy are certainly pointing up the existence of universes other than ours. I believe in re-incarnation, which, too, may be a metaphor for some geo-biological phenomenon, why not?

  13. J: Has your background as a Hindu enabled you to create an intimacy with the reader, from a New World perspective, that is distinct from other stylistic and narrative techniques you've encountered in American writing?

  14. M: I don't know if all Hindu-American writers see the world in the way that I do and the way that I mix Islam with Hindu art, because I've been exposed to both of these, really results in a very syncretic narrative strategy. As such, my incorporation of Hinduism might be quite opposed to how some other Hindu writer living in New York may think of Hinduism or exercise it. I don't want to lump all Hindus together.

  15. J: You've identified "voice" as the "prime aesthetic" of your writing. In this context, it seems particularly interesting that Jasmine has been critiqued for the inauthenticity of the protagonist's voice; as Liew-Geok Leong writes, "[t]he voice of Jasmine, surprisingly articulate and assured, is not always believable, given her background and circumstances; it is her creator's voice that takes over and speaks for her, the result perhaps of too close an identification with the subject" (494). Upon reflection, do you see any validity in this evaluation?

  16. M: Leong would appear to be ignorant of the craft-related lexicon of contemporary American writers. Just as terms such as "essentialism," "subaltern," "agency," and "signifier" are accepted by academics as shorthand for certain conceptual constructs, so "voice" is our shorthand for the process of decision-making regarding tone, diction, pacing, texture, withholding, etc. in a given work.

  17. J: In other words, you're suggesting that your notion of voice is more expansive, that you're not striving after some sort of realistic, mimetic voice.

  18. M: I am saying that being a scholar as well as a writer, I expect myself to do my homework very, very thoroughly, before I make public pronouncements. "Voice" should not have been confused with tone, diction, etc. Of course I am not striving after some sort of realistic, mimetic voice. I leave that to tape-recorders. Art is about selection, stylization, and metaphoric revelation.

  19. J: Other writers have been subject to the same sort of criticism in terms of voice, right? For example, the African American writer Charles Johnson has been criticized severely by some because the protagonist of his award-winning novel Middle Passage , a freed slave, speaks in highly philosophical language, and his narrative voice tends to be anachronistic.

  20. M: James Alan McPherson gets the same flak for not using "inner city" American-English exclusively or predominantly. It's absurd. It's as absurd as saying that because Gayatri Spivak was born into a Bengali family and grew up in Calcutta, she has no right to public expression in non-Bengali languages, especially not in the languages of former colonialist nations such as England or France, nor to derive any theoretical model from Marx or other European white males. I believe that if you are literate, all literature that you expose yourself to is your heritage to claim or reject.

  21. J: Again, it seems that your major concern with such critics is that, in the interests of "authenticity," they restrict you from using the assembly of creative tools in your bag, that there's a prescribed way in which "voice" is supposed to be rendered.

  22. M: It's patronizing, elitist, and classist of such critics to presume that the poor and the de- privileged do not have sophisticated thoughts and poetic articulation. They need to acquaint themselves with scholarship regarding oral literature. In addition, I am very bothered by their reduction of art to sociological statement. Fiction transmits its message (by which I mean its author's vision) very differently from essays.

  23. J: Given your criticism of V.S. Naipaul along those lines during an interview some years ago ("A Conversation"), it must be particularly painful to be criticized for a certain failure in voice. In that interview, you attacked Naipaul's notion that the dispossessed are incapable of articulating, in sophisticated ways, their pain, desires, etc. He suggested to you that he feels they're incapable of speaking in any complex or redemptive way due to their psychological, social, and cultural fragmentation as a result of colonialism. You are now subject to an attack that is the flip side of the same coin. The suggestion is that you're still not allowing them to think and speak for themselves. Critics argue that you're just . . .

  24. M: They have taken a Naipaulian position about me and my writing, from a high moral ground, and I resent that, and I'm saying that . . .

  25. J: . . . they're the ones who want to speak. That they want to speak for these people and have you renounce your right to speak in the ways you wish?

  26. M: Right. That's where my ire is located. The writer claims only to speak for her unique, eccentric characters. These critics, on the other hand, though they locate themselves in North America and participate in the North American competitive, materialist economy, invent or appropriate the positions of populous, Asia-based communities, and worse, they reduce the diversity of those communities' positions into one that fits most neatly into their favored theory. The Indian graduate students and junior faculty members I have talked to on western Indian campuses in the last two years have expressed growing resentment of such usurpation. The theorist they most often named was Spivak, perhaps because she is the best-known of the Indo-American group.

    Some recent publications by serious Indian literary critics based in India, for instance by Professors Aijaz Ahmad and Harish Trivedi of the University of Delhi, indicate an emerging resentment of the appropriation of Indianality and postcoloniality by scholars of Indian origin (or of non-European origin) who have opted for U.S. citizenship and/or permanent residence in North America. The Jouvert community is no doubt well aware of Ahmad's direct attack on Edward Said--and by extension, it would seem, his indirect attack on Spivak--for "internationalizing the periphery." (That's Ahmad's phrase, not mine. I myself prefer to reject the center/periphery template, and so, resist Eurocentric vocabulary.) Professor Trivedi, who lectured here at Berkeley a few months ago on the Eurocentric implications of the term "postcolonial," was more direct in his attack on the right of Spivak, a U.S. citizen and long-term U.S. resident, to speak for the "periphery."

  27. J: Spivak has cautioned against reading her as someone who claims to "give voice" to those she represents; she has said in The Postcolonial Critic --and I'm paraphrasing--that to read her as speaking for "the periphery" is to read her, wrongly, as a "Third World informant."

  28. M: But then she goes on to, at the same time, trounce others for providing versions, portraits that don't coincide with hers so that she, I'm not going to say that she's lying, but there's this problematic position . . .

  29. J: You don't get the same reception?

  30. M: Oh, I get severely attacked by many Indian critics, but for a very different reason! Whereas I have heard Spivak being attacked for appropriation of the so-called "periphery," I have been virulently attacked for defining myself as an American writer of Indian origin writing of the diasporic and immigrant experience. It started with a response to a journalist's question during a press conference in Delhi in 1990. I was asked, "Wouldn't you, if you had your rathers, come back to live in India?" and, thinking of my husband and children settled in the States, answered, "Frankly, no." That "no" was misinterpreted as a betrayal of my Indian heritage. But, now that so many Indian families have relatives settled in the U.S., my "immigrant" material is being read or re-read in fresh ways.

  31. J: In this discussion about who gets to speak and who doesn't, there seems to be an implicit criticism that your characters are not authentic.

  32. M: Right, and I'm saying that this Leong should be listening to rap, doing some more "hanging out" in inner cities to see how much poetry there is in ordinary lives. How can any critic have the audacity to assume that all members of a group think, feel, react, and verbalize identically? How do you explain one brother from a dysfunctional family becoming a writer--I'm thinking obviously of John Edgar Wideman, author of Philadelphia Fire --and his brother becoming a murderer? So, to assume that you are identical with everyone else in your class is to not understand human beings.

  33. J: And when she accuses you of perhaps identifying too closely with your subject and writing an "inauthentic" character as a result of that identification, would your charge be "no, you're also identifying with the subject but your identification forecloses the possibility of the life which I choose to explore"?

  34. M: Well, not only that. I hear Leong saying that someone from Jasmine's background and circumstances cannot speak the way that she does. You see, that's very different from the way you're verbalizing it. I am saying that to think all people who are born poor are therefore incapable of thought, imagination, and speech, is a very elitist and classist kind of assumption; I need to see them as individuals rather than types.

  35. J: It seems that you are responding to this question on at least two different levels.

  36. M: My response to this question is structured on three different levels. One is that the critic doesn't understand voice; she simply is ignorant about how writers use this term. My second point is that no fine fiction, no good literature, is anchored in verisimilitude. Fiction must be metaphor. It is not transcription of real life but it's a distillation and pitching at higher intensification of life. It's always a distortion. And then the third point is that just because Jasmine happens to be poor doesn't mean she is incapable of imagination, intelligence, and articulate speech.

    II. Anxiety of Influence?

  37. J: Are there Indian writers writing in English whose work you admire?

  38. M: Do you mean Anglophone writers who are Indian citizens and are residing in India? R.K. Narayan. I keep nominating him for the Nobel Prize. I'm also very interested in younger fiction writers and poets like R. Raj Rao and Ranjit Hoskhote.

  39. J: In addition to Naipaul, we're wondering what other Caribbean writers have influenced you in any way: Wilson Harris and his AmerIndian aesthetics, Michele Cliff, Edouard Glissant, or Maryse Condé and their notions of cross-cultural poetics, etc.

  40. M: None of them have influenced me, though, of course, I have enjoyed reading each of them. About Naipaul, I can't say that he influenced me, but I can say that A House for Mr. Biswas inspired me when I read it as a student in the early Sixties. I hadn't read any fiction about Trinidad Indians before that. That novel gave me the self-confidence to claim my own fictional world.

  41. J: If, as with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness , "canonical" texts exercise an influence, however disturbing, on the formerly colonized--and in some instances, newly immigrated-- what colonialist texts have left their mark on you?

  42. M: None, really. By the way, I didn't read Heart of Darkness until I came to the States. Of all English literature I was exposed to, Shakespeare's tragedies moved most. I could recite soliloquies by Macbeth, Hamlet, Portia, Shylock, King Lear, Cordelia with great feeling. I think it was the music of the lines, the sound of the words, that excited me. Elocution was my most favorite subject in school. I loved to read poetry out loud. Tagore and Keats, oh, they were so heady when I was a schoolgirl in Calcutta. I responded to the euphony first; then to the ideas. I didn't know any Buddhists and came from a staunch Hindu family, but Tagore made me weep over the persecution of Buddhist converts in ancient India. Same with Keats; I'd never been to Greece, not even seen pictures of the country, but I sure could visualize the friezescapes in the "Ode on a Grecian Urn." There was something fresh about Keats because he was rebelling against the narrowness of British conventions. Though India was a sovereign nation when I first encountered Keats, my convent-school campus remained a very "English" spot. You know, we had to sing Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas, that sort of thing, and we were expected to admire the logic and orderliness of the British mind. Keats was resisting those values in his poems. I suppose loving Keats' poems for me was a quiet form of guerrilla warfare against my teachers.

  43. J: Before deciding to use it for The Holder of the World , did Keats or "Ode on a Grecian Urn" ever take on a different aura for you? You have said elsewhere that your life and work should be divided into three distinct phases--as a colonial, then national, subject in India, as a postcolonial Indian in Canada, and as an immigrant, later a citizen, of the United States. Did Keats and his ode accompany you through those transformations?

  44. M: I'm not sure I even thought about Keats for twenty years after leaving India. When I sat down to write The Holder , I was a very different person from the girl who had recited the odes out loud for pleasure, and the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" was very much on my mind because, like Keats, I was playing with history and imagination. That's the marvelous thing about the writing process: you don't know when and how a memory, a scrap of conversation overheard, an allusion or image, is suddenly going to surface and work itself into your story. That ode came to me; I didn't seek it out. That's the way the creative process works for me. I knew right away that I would use the Keats references to control and ironize what my characters had to say about time, and to make authorial meta-statements about writing.

  45. J: Is there a distinction between the way that Keats sees the Grecian urn and the way you see a Mughal painting?

  46. M: That's not the contrast that I would make. I would make it between virtual reality and the urn. The urn is still, the action is frozen, and one can only observe. I'm not so much concerned with what Keats is saying about these people as I am with how action has been stuck in time and can't be redone. The people are always going to have their hands and feet in one particular posture, whereas with interactive technology, you're changing the narrative by inputting new information according to your new mood. The ways virtual technology will be used for therapy, to help autistic children or to enable people to overcome their fears, is very close to what I'm talking about. The individual experiencing the image, not simply the image itself--both are going to be transformed by interaction.

  47. J: We've asked you to discuss your literary influences but we also wonder what "critics" [literary and otherwise] you consider important to the development of your own critical project in delineating the future of American writing?

  48. M: None.

  49. J: Do you find the "writer-critic" a more effective, perhaps even more productive, type of critic than the scholar?

  50. M: For writers and readers, yes. Writers writing about fiction see the text as process whereas scholars reduce it to product . Writer-critics explore the work from inside out; they divine the aesthetic decisions that the text's writer has made to best get across the authorial vision, and then they assess the effect of those decisions. They let the work set up the criteria by which it should be judged instead of imposing their arbitrary grid on the work; they aim to "open up" the work instead of reducing it to a dutifully-followed or sloppily-followed set of narrative rules thought up by a scholar. I think the best essays on the "art of fiction," on beginnings, endings, etc., to date have been written by writers. A book of essays on writing I'd recommend is How Stories Mean , edited by John Metcalf and J.R. Struthers. Contemporary scholars seem to have deliberately removed themselves from primary texts, so that not only do they sometimes get their data wrong (and I mean titles of works, names of characters), but they often discard those complexities in the text that don't fit their theories, and they devalue those aesthetic innovations that challenge their particular socio-political agendas. Scholars seem to just talk to scholars, using a language of the initiated. The "subaltern" critics might wish to speak for the de-privileged, but they certainly don't speak to them.

    III. The Politics of New Immigrant Writing

  51. J: You have remarked that no longer do you find exilic writers as provocative as they once were. Yet they're still quite popular. Why do you think expatriate writers like Naipaul continue to enjoy such popularity, specifically with Western audiences?

  52. M: I don't know how popular they are or what you mean by popularity. I think an awful lot of minority writers and expatriate writers complain that their books don't get into bookstores, that they may get reviews, or the same few will get reviews, but that there really isn't any kind of cross-fertilization of readers. I think there are two kinds of writers and I'm not saying that it's only about exilic writers or immigrant writers but all writers: those who reinforce what the public thinks, the conventional values, and those who constantly interrogate the conventional values. An awful lot of the exilic writers, the expatriate writers, are providing the kinds of portraits, moods, positions, and problems with which the readership, the publishing industry, and the scholars--or critics anyway--are familiar and comfortable. The few who are obliterating that particular kind of discourse between Third World and First World, margin and center, or minority and mainstream, have a much harder time being understood or being recognized. I've been writing and publishing since 1971 but it's taken me an awfully long time to get any attention, largely because I was, for a while, an Indian citizen living in Canada as a landed immigrant and writing about people outside of India. Then I became a Canadian citizen but writing, let us say, about immigrants in New York. They didn't know how to classify me, whether by my passport or by my material, which was about immigrants at a time when there was no such category as "immigrant fiction" that wasn't about Europeans coming to North America during the 19th century. So I don't know about "popularity." Very recently there was an article I read in the Times on Spanish-speaking writers in New York objecting vociferously to the ways in which they are shut out when they write middle-class fiction about middle-class characters who speak in perfectly educated, sensitive English, even though they're second or third generation. The stereotype is that if you're going to write about Hispanics, you'd better make them lettuce-pickers and have a spiritualist. The kind of criticism from literary critics and theorists who have encountered my own work stems from their belief that if you're India-born, you must write about India and you must write about an Indian woman or peasants being victimized.

  53. J: They want it primitivized in some way.

  54. M: Yes, stereotyped. It's absurd, when you think that I'm writing about the post-1965 immigration-transformed America, and that the majority of South Asians granted visas are urban, educated professionals and their families. The aim of fiction is to break down stereotypes. Unfortunately, the publishing and academic industries seem to profit more from reinforcing stereotypes. This is what African-American intellectuals have to deal with too. That's why I feel I'm on the same wavelength with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Cornel West, James Alan McPherson. Why should a minority person be made to feel guilty because she believes education leads to both self-improvement and national enlightenment? To me, class is as divisive as race.

  55. J: Just as there is a risk of becoming locked into one's own exilic condition to the point of pathetic self-absorption, isn't there a danger of being too celebratory about the enabling aspects of an immigrant's "multicultural" point of view?

  56. M: I'm going to object to the word "multicultural" here because I've spoken so vociferously against this whole official multiculturalism in Canada. I'm going to limit it to an immigrant's point of view, all right? Yes, my work has sometimes been cited for celebrating too enthusiastically the swagger of immigration, the energies released in the process of transformation. It is as though certain readers cannot see beyond the color of my characters' skin, or their gender, or their predetermined view of America, without linking them, automatically, to the long sad history of New World exploitation. Yes, they are victims but they are resilient victims, unviolated in their core of need and imagination. Rocky, being white, can pick himself off the canvas, land a few blows, and be a hero; Rakesh, however, a laid-off engineer with three kids and no American certification, opens a dingy spice store and Hindi video outlet and somehow is perceived as pathetic. This is the stereotyping that has to end. My Professorji, who used to be a doctor in his home country and is now having to sell human hair for making wigs or electronic equipment in some basement video store in Queens, is somehow seen, necessarily, as a pathetic character rather than as a resilient hero, who says "all right, this didn't work, but something else will work."

  57. J: By identifying yourself as an immigrant writer, you resist being classified by postcolonial scholars as an exilic or expatriate writer. You also don't seem to stake out an intellectual position as a writer/scholar akin to what Abdul R. JanMohamed has termed the "specular border intellectual," a category for writers from formerly colonized or enslaved places who engage in a critique of multiple locations from a position of "homelessness-as-home."

  58. M: Just the fact you bring up JanMohamed is troubling to me. We're very, very different kinds of Indians. Simply because of skin color and South Asian ancestry, the non-South Asian is likely to lump us together just as they have long lumped the Samuel Selvons and the V.S. Naipauls together as part of the Indian diaspora. JanMohamed, having been brought up in Africa according to a different religion, a different language, a different cultural and revolutionary experience, has surely more to say about minority discourse in Africa and about how to apply his particular African training and African experience to being a minority in a white-dominated world in the U.S. and less about mainstream India and Indian writing. The mission of postcolonial studies as a discipline is to level all of us to our skin color and ethnic origin whereas as a writer, my job is to open up, to discover and say "we are all individuals." In fiction we are writing about individuals; none of them is meant to be a crude spokesperson for whole groups, whether those groups are based on gender or race or class. If the story of one individual reveals something about the way in which human nature works, great, if it doesn't, then it has failed as art.

  59. J: How would you characterize, then, the relationship that exists between postcolonialism and your creative project?

  60. M: The mission of postcolonial studies seems to be to deliberately equate Art and journalism, to reduce novels to specimens for the confirming of their theories. If an imaginative work doesn't fit the cultural theories they approve of, it's dismissed as defective. The relationship between the artist and the postcolonial scholar has become adversarial. It doesn't have to be, that's what's so sad. I'm not denigrating all scholarship, but only that particular school of postcolonial criticism that is hostile to art and aesthetics. All that, as a writer, I value--power of word-choice and placement of punctuation, imagery, texture, pacing--all the strategies that I employ to articulate my vision as precisely as I can to the reader, these scholars treat as debris to be cleared for the exposing of camouflaged "hegemonic" agendas in the narrative.

  61. J: You make some very clear distinctions between writers and scholars. In the field of Caribbean postcolonial studies, such distinctions are not so clear. People like Edouard Glissant, Wilson Harris, and Maryse Condé would all be considered both important postcolonial scholars and writers. Isn't there an opportunity for solidarity between scholar/writers or haven't you reached out to those voices?

  62. M: Oh, I'm friends with Maryse Condé, and am familiar with the work of Harris and Glissant. I'm glad to hear that scholars of Caribbean studies are not as anti-imaginative literature as are the Spivak-influenced Indo-American postcolonial graduate students who write papers or dissertation chapters on my work. I find so many glaring errors in their so-called scholarship; I mean getting really basic data wrong, like titles or genre of a text, names of significant characters. I don't know how such shoddy work gets past a dissertation supervisor in any respectable university! I recently came across a paper by an Indo-American woman scholar that accused me, not my character(s), of being anti-America, and recommended that I should try to feel more comfortable living in the United States, all on the basis of having read one single story, the title of which she got wrong. It sometimes appears that all I value as a writer are being deliberately denigrated or disregarded by the scholars. What is important to me is Isaac Babel saying, "A comma placed just right will stab the heart," whereas for a lot of these scholars, judging from the papers that I've read, to worry about artistic or meter-effective placement of punctuation is to be sort of right-wing.

  63. J: In his book In Theory , Aijaz Ahmad critiques the notion of "adversarial internationalization" by arguing that while "Said speaks, inexplicably, of 'intellectual and scholarly work from the peripheries, done either by immigrants or by visitors, both of whom are generally anti-imperialist'....[t]he vast majority of immigrants and visitors who go from 'the peripheries' to the 'Western center' in the United States either take no part in politics and scholarly endeavor or turn out to be right-wing people'" (207-8). He characterizes you as the ultimate representative of this second type of person. Have you had a chance to respond to this assertion in any formal way?

  64. M: Yes, yes I have. I did it for an Indian publication that is the equivalent, sort of, of the New York Times Sunday Magazine . They'd invited writers to write about the notion of "internationalizing the periphery," if you like. First of all, I want to know where Aijaz Ahmad gets his statistics for making this kind of generalization? I didn't find it in his footnotes and I certainly didn't find it in the text. And then, has he ever done research on my voting records? Does he know that I was a very active member of the NDP in Canada? The choice I was faced with in the late 70s just prior to leaving for the United States in 1980 was to either give up writing and run for public office as an NDP candidate, or say to myself, "Politics, someone else will carry on. I live my most real life through writing."

  65. J: These are highly provocative rejoinders to level at Ahmad, especially considering how he criticizes Said for not checking his facts or statistics. Ahmad even goes so far to suggest that Said hasn't really read your writing, or the writings of your immigrant peers, and that Said's classification of you as "anti-imperialist" is gleaned from what other critics have said about immigrant texts rather than a first-hand reading of them.

  66. M: Yeah, well, I don't think that Ahmad has checked his facts about me or read any of my essays either, let alone my fiction. And then I want to know, what does "right-wing" mean in the context of his quotation? Does it mean simply that anyone who is not a Marxist is "right-wing"? If "right-wing," for Ahmad, applies to anyone who agrees with the spirit behind the American Constitution and the idea of democracy, then I suppose I am. I do not wish to trivialize democratic ideals by equating America with blue jeans and Coca-Cola, which is a very cheap, easy shot that Europeans as well as many South Asian intellectuals take. As such, I'm placing my faith in fighting for civil rights and this is where I talk about my political aesthetics in this essay. The cause that I have now put a great deal of my energy into is fighting for gay rights; for gay rights to be treated as an extension of civil rights. When I lived in Canada, it was the gay groups who worked hardest for us South Asians, in fighting discrimination. South Asians were at the bottom of Canada's race-based totem pole. The feminists let us [people of color] down as they obtained their goals regarding women's rights. If the Constitution gives me a way of forcing Newt Gingrich's feet to the fire, a way of forcing American politicians to live up to the letter of the law, then I'm going to do that. And if that means being "right-wing" by Ahmad's standard then too bad. I find these categories totally, totally useless. In India, among the intellectuals that I see once or twice a year while traveling, there is no agreement about what constitutes right-wing and left-wing. In my hometown, Calcutta, there are four distinct communist political parties. For instance Calcutta's Maoists call the city's Moscow-Marxists "right-wing," so I don't know where Ahmad is coming from, and he ought to know better.

  67. J: Yet in terms of the "American" scene, Ahmad seems to argue that immigrant writers such as yourself have re-adopted the notion of America as "melting pot." He's suggesting that ironically, by using the melting-pot mode of writing, you're allowing yourself to be coopted yet again by the mainstream: to hybridicize in a syncretized fashion can be a very conservative position to adopt. While your writing can be seen as progressive and action-oriented, scholars such as Kristin Carter-Sanborn argue that many of your heroines are passive, women who are changed by, rather than changing, the American landscape. Despite their seeming adaptability, the argument is that you are romanticizing their domestication. These critics would like to see, ostensibly, more resistance to the assimilation and cooptation of these non-traditional immigrants.

  68. M: Jasmine or Hannah Easton aren't passive women, by anyone's measure. They quite literally cross oceans, transform their worlds, and in the process leave behind a heap of bruised hearts and bleeding bodies! I don't think Ahmad has read my works. If he had read them, he would have known that I don't use European or Euro-American models for my narratives. I'm having to invent a whole new structure for American fiction, a whole new kind of sentence to express non-traditional immigrant emotions and psychic texture. It's very hard for critics in the U.S. and in India to understand who Jasmine is, or where she's coming from, because she's not a familiar American or Indian character. To resist and remain the way you were in India is to perpetuate, and more disturbingly, is to valorize, an awful lot of cultural vices such as sexism, patriarchy, castism, classism. Would Ahmad consider it cooptation when an American woman writer who has emigrated from a clitoridectomy-valorizing Muslim community, let's say from Togo, chooses to adopt for herself and to support--through her fiction--the U.S. social/cultural/legal response to ritualized female mutilation? The immigrant writer decides what to let go and what to retain. It's always a two-way transformation. To resist cultural and ideological mutation simply because one want to retain racial/cultural/religious/caste "purity"? is, in my opinion, evil. I'm against that kind of Hitlerian racial and ethnic pride; I'm against the retention of "pure culture" for the sake of purity.

    I think a very significant, thought probably unanticipated consequence of the controversy generated by In Theory has been the legitimation of "immigrant fiction" by writers of Indian origin as a genre quite distinct from "post-Independence fiction" by Indian writers residing in India, and from "exilic fiction" by India-born writers residing outside India. The works of Indian-Caribbean writers like Roop Lal Monar, Indian-Caribbean-Canadian writers like Sam Selvon, Sonny Ladoo, Cyril Dabydeen, Neil Bissoondath, Indian-African-Canadian writers like Moyse Vassanji, Goan-African writers like Violet Diaz Lannoy, Indian-British writers like Hanif Kureishi, are more intelligently explored in the context of exile. For works like Midnight's Children , The Trotter-Nama , The Great Indian Novel , however, the most appropriate context is exilic mythologization (of personal and national histories). On my more recent annual trips to India, especially when I've taken part in panels with Indian academics on the literature of the Indian diaspora or conducted Fiction Workshops on the University of Baroda campus, I've noted my Indian colleagues' increased awareness of the discrete aims of these two genres.

  69. J: In "Immigrant Writing," you discuss how America has "lost the power to transform the world's imagination." You suggest that no one as yet has spoken for "New Americans from non-traditional immigrant countries." Why is it the burden, or privilege--depending on how one looks at it--of new American immigrant writers to "reinvigorate" not only American writing, but also "the world's imagination"?

  70. M: First of all, I don't think that the writer starts to work on her novel by saying, "I'm going to invigorate all of American writing." Any writer who does so will end up producing a sterile, agenda-ridden text and not literature. What I, as immigrant writer, hope for is to transform as well as be transformed by the world I'm re-imagining and re-creating through words. I'd like to think that ideas and feelings generated by my fiction will trickle into other cultures and literatures through translation, and provoke re-thinking of what citizenship entails. Jasmine has been translated into 18 languages. I'm very touched and humbled by the letters I get from immigrant readers who have read the book in their own language and have integrated Jasmine's adventures into their own personal/cultural experience.

  71. J: That's an intriguing dialectic, this idea of immigrant writers and their characters simultaneously transforming and being transformed. Maurice Merleau-Ponty defines "intersubjectivity" in a related way as the trespassing of one's self on the other and of the other on one's self . . . for him, contact with "the other" is not all about assimilation.

  72. M: Yeah, and I've written at great length on that idea, as early as 1990.

  73. J: To move beyond Ahmad and his concerns with your writing, what relationship do you see in the future between what we've called "immigrationism"--not a term you used but one that seems to capture the spirit of the project you outline in "Immigrant Writing"--and postcolonialism? What do you think keeps the South Asian postcolonialists with whom you've expressed dissatisfaction from listening to you in the way you feel you should be listened to?

  74. M: Arrogance. And a lack of sensitivity to literature. I think that they come to works of fiction with closed-off, ready-made, perfectly sealed theories and that they're not willing to discover any new ground. Just as in travelogues, some travelers, like a V.S. Naipaul, quite often go with preconceived notions about the country and find only what they expect to find: reinforcement and confirmation of their preconceived notions. There are other travelers, and I hope I'm one of these, who come with a fluid, open mind, and let the locals speak for themselves; they experience the place on its own terms. There are those who confirm social, political stereotypes and other writers who interrogate the stereotypes. William Gass will have a respected small audience, but he's never going to have a wide, popular audience because he isn't entertaining and comforting the average reader by expressing the ideas and articulating the philosophies that make you feel good about yourself.

    In terms of seeing connections between the South Asian postcolonialists and immigrationism, I see "diasporality" as a kind of continuum with immigrants and immigrationists at one end of the scale and expatriate or exilic figures and postcolonialists at the other. Those who decide, "all right, I'm going to go on with my life, the past is going to color my present and the present is going to color my future, but here and now, I'm a different person," these people reflect the spirit of immigrant writing by keeping themselves open to new experiences and responding second by second. They're changing and being changed: you are a new person every second of your life depending on how you act and whether you are open to bruisings and dentings. This energy is completely opposed to the postcolonial who, if he or she is not within the immediate postcolonial context, is simply talking about the past and ignoring or obliterating the present because it's so much safer to talk about a dead debate.

  75. J: Has the marketplace proven itself open to "new experiences" and how has that dynamic affected the reception of your work?

  76. M: In 1985 no U.S. publisher was willing to publish the manuscript of Darkness because at that time there was no marketing category for "ethnic immigrant American fiction." The issues facing the South Asian community of naturalized citizens were perceived as irrelevant to "real" Americans, meaning whites, African-Americans and dispossessed American Indians. Editors would say, "This collection is incredibly powerful, even though it's so dark in its outlook, but we can't imagine any American reader wanting to read about these people." The book was eventually bought for $3500 Canadian dollars by Penguin Canada, and came out as a paperback original that was meant to get lost. In the introduction to the collection, I talked about seeing myself as "a series of fluid identities." Since then, I've found corroboration in the fascinating published material of psychologists and academics--Alan Roland's work on the contextual self and in Robert J. Lifton's work on the protean self . I would have had an easier time getting published, and being paid more decent advances, if I had written in the exilic tradition of nostalgia and loss.

  77. J: What about someone whose fluidity is forestalled, who is unable to move beyond the past despite a willingness to engage in the present? Dimple, in Wife , seems to be just such a character.

  78. M: Several of my characters fail to move from expatriate to immigrant in the "diasporality" spectrum. Some of the characters don't try, don't want to. In my narratives, I want to represent a varied set of responses to the experience of un-housement. And these characters help to piece together an unsentimental portrait of the United States. I certainly know what I love about the spirit of America, but I've also written at great length about the underside of the American Dream. Hannah, in The Holder , is an embodiment of the guts, imagination and assertiveness of that American spirit, and its underside--the will to imperialize.

  79. J: As you've outlined above, much of the "energy" which marks good writing stems from its willingness to engage in the "bruisings and dentings" of life. Are writing programs doing enough to impress upon young writers the benefits of engaging the "real world" political, ethnic, and racial struggles in American society?

  80. M: The answer is "No." All fiction is political and moral, but very few works of fiction in this country are about politics or morality. Novelists humanize "the other", and reveal a just, generous, ideal world, but they don't hector nor dictate as do demagogues and pamphleteers. I think that minority American writers are more likely to want to--and attempt to--create national mythologies through their fiction than are white Americans, because history and memory are of powerful consequence to them. The original white settlers' dream of "rugged individualism" is anti-history.

    IV. States of Violence

  81. 81. J: You've commented before that a lot of your stories are about transfiguration or psychic transformation, not economic transformation, and that you consequently are interested in psychic violence and its effect on the individual, often female Asian Americans, rather than group violence and its effect on the masses. Why do you think you've concentrated more on psychic violence inflicted upon the individual and less on political unrest and labor agitation in your work, especially as you were subject to the threats of such violence during your childhood in Calcutta?

  82. 82. M: Good fiction concentrates on the emotional, intellectual and physical responses of a small cast of characters when they are thrust into a situation that is not routine for them. Politics and history, or rather political and historical events, provide the context for the characters' varying reactions. And, by forcing the reader to live through the particular characters in their particularized situations, the author hopes that readers will make an epiphanic connection to the world of real politics and issues around them. Remember Cynthia Ozick's story, "The Shawl"? In that extraordinarily moving story, Ozick doesn't once mention the word, Holocaust; she focuses on the conflicts of a mother and her two daughters trying to survive the horrors of death-camp internment. That's what good fiction does, and should do. When I want to directly address the evil of racism, the denying of civil rights to gay men and women, etc., I prefer to do so in essays.

    As for providing the larger context of politics, class and race, I've done that from my first novel on. In The Tiger's Daughter , individual actions are shaped by, and/or reactions to, the Naxalite revolution in Calcutta, and the imminence of the establishment of a Marxist government in West Bengal state. In Wife , Dimple experiences racist discrimination in a Queens shop, gendrist discrimination at home, and classist discrimination at meetings with white feminists. I just wish that scholars would go back to reading the primary texts before presuming to make [mis]pronouncements on them!

    In terms of psychic violence and female sexuality, I grew up at a time and in a class in Calcutta when you couldn't say the word "sex." I'd never said the word "sex" and we certainly were not allowed to think of it; I didn't even know how the male anatomy was constructed. So for me or for my characters who are coming not from villages but upper-class, urban Indian settings, sexuality becomes the mode of resistance or a way to rebel. After all, if you're coming out of a society where sex is the unspeakable, the unutterable, then doing it or acknowledging your sexuality results not only in individual rebellion but actually constitutes an attack on a whole patriarchal, Victorian, hypocritical society. And why psychic violence? Ultimately, physical injuries are less affecting than the wounds inside. You lose a leg, you get a prosthetic. But what do you do about the scarred psyche?

  83. J: You've written elsewhere about the need to "make the familiar exotic and the exotic familiar."

  84. M: Yes, to bring out the luminosity in the most banal moment, and to elicit sympathy for the least familiar character.

  85. J: By privileging psychic as opposed to physical violence, does your work implicitly cultivate an "aestheticization" of violence? For example, violence appears to be somewhat "benign" in its after-effects on Jasmine--she doesn't seem to bear too many psychic or physical scars from her traumatic experiences with Suki and Half-Face. Similarly, in The Holder , violence seems to be surprisingly positive in its effects on Hannah, transforming her in its crucible from an "unfinished, unformed" woman into "a goddess-in-the-making." To borrow the structural trope of The Holder , is the violence you write about somehow like the "virtual reality" Beigh experiences, transformative and enlightening to be sure, but somehow less than "real"?

  86. M: First of all, before I get to the idea of virtual reality and violence, I want you to come to the kitchen with me. This is Goddess Kali, the image of the Godhead as Destroyer. The Godhead as Kali is what I worship. Most Hindu Bengalis in Calcutta do. Most Hindu Bengali families have an altar to Her in their homes. I do; in my bedroom. You can see for yourself that Kali isn't one bit passive. She has strung Herself a garland of severed heads, and She's hefting Her blood-stained weapons to decapitate more evil men. Kali is what Jasmine was mythologizing herself into when she killed her rapist, Half-Face. In Christianity, humans are made in the image of God. But in Hinduism, all creatures are manifestations of the Godhead. Why doesn't Jasmine agonize more over having killed the man who brutalized her? Why is her reaction "benign"? Her goal is the Hindu ideal of non-attachment. To allow oneself to be utterly destroyed by the violence done to her and done by her would be to fall victim to maya . You've read R.K. Narayan's The Guide ; you're familiar with the Hindu concept of non-attachment. The difficult feat for the Hindu American writer is to dramatize the benignity of non-attachment without making characters appear uncaring or grimly stoic.

    V. Writing and Technology

  87. J: Considering the potential violence of representation, do you see writing--or virtual technology, in the case of Beigh becoming Bhagmati in The Holder--as a violent medium?

  88. M: I don't know if I think of the medium as violence. It's certainly a medium that forces the author and the reader to take enormous risks, to expose oneself to emotions one would rather avoid.

  89. J: Well, you have talked about the physical and psychic violence that necessarily accompanies transformation for the immigrant. Given the transformative capability of technological developments in writing, has your own evolution as a writer been marked by epistemological violence?

  90. M: I have no idea. I started with orality. I come from a culture where grandmothers and mothers tell endless stories. There wasn't a single night that I didn't fall asleep to my mother telling stories at dinner-time. We sat on raffia mats on the floor and ate off brass plates. She mashed rice and fish into little balls and fed me, quite literally, with her fingers while she told me stories from the historical novels or biographies that she'd read. Stories about Marie Antoinette, Napoleon, Mary Queen of Scots. Bigger than life characters and adventures. I marvel at it now: my mother putting food into my mouth and, simultaneously, putting the wonder of narrative into my head.

    It was by listening that I visualized and was mesmerized by conflict, by character, by romance, whatever. I started to read and write very early--I was in regular school by the age of three--and at that time, we used pens that you dip into an inkwell. I don't know if that was violence, but you did immediately start thinking in wholly different ways and the scratching--I can still see the blots of ink, the scratching on the paper--slows you down, but also gives you time to think. Then my relationship to story again became very different when we graduated by age nine to fountain pens. Also, the paper was so different over there; you could see bugs worked into the fabric, or big seams . . . the paper was rough and pocked with shiny bits. Seeing whether the pen nib would go over the shiny impurities or not resulted in a wholly different way of dealing with orthography and a different mental process which accompanies the writing of stories. There wasn't ever a time that I can remember when I wasn't writing stories and I remember what a big breakthrough it was when my father brought back ballpoint pens from Paris. They all melted in the heat but you could write so much faster! That was very empowering, and I went straight from that in the States to typewriter and when I started thinking on electric typewriter, again, suddenly my relationship with the word, and therefore with narrative, became very, very different, more conscious.

    If by "technological developments in writing" you mean the availability of computers, software, data storage and retrieval facilities, information-design programs, virtual reality, etc., then I have to confess that technology has been for me a means of exploring and expanding knowledge without losing the writerly sense of wonder. Clark and I were among the very first batch of American writers to get into computers.

  91. J: Oh, really?

  92. M: Yes. In fact, Clark was on a program on NPR to discuss the ways in which the form and the process of writing has changed as a result of his switch to the word-processor. Technology has broken down linear thought as well as linear plot-movement. I don't think of technology as an enemy of Art. Technology serves the artist.

  93. J: That sentiment is consistent with your writing in The Holder , where technology is employed throughout as a literary and thematic device. Nevertheless, the novel implies that such media are only actualized through data-gathering by sensitive and careful human beings like Beigh, people who have a personal investment in such projects. For example, Venn, who tries to experience the past using the interactive computer program, ends up with nothing more than a "postcard view of modern Madras"; he can't access the experience Beigh can, in large part because he hasn't cultivated the kind of sensitivity that she has from tracing Hannah's life. The technology acts as a "gatekeeper" of sorts, which we find very interesting, especially when considering how technology structures First and Third World relationships of power and hierarchy.

  94. M: To me, creative imagination is the "gatekeeper." The technician downloads a statistics-rich experience; the artist, using the same program, wrests a vision. And each time you use that program, you learn or dis-learn some element because "you" are made up of a series of fluid identities. Similarly, each time you read The Holder , I hope you come up with new insights.

    I'm not sure I agree with you that technology privileges "First" World over "Third." Much of the information transfer and accounting for U.S. corporations and mega-multinationals with European headquarters is done offshore, meaning in areas that you are designating as "Third." I've done homework on this. It's class , not geography, that's providing the hierarchy grid. Urban, upper-middle classes and professionals in Bombay, Singapore, Hong Kong, Manila, etc. have all the latest electronics and communications instruments. But the poor and the homeless in all areas of the world, including North America, are increasingly disempowered by technological advances. Your question seems to arise from the need of postcolonial studies scholars to impose politics as the dominant grid for measuring art. But for the writer of serious fiction, politics or race or gender is only one element of many hundred elements that go into the making of a character. Novelists aim for fullness of catharsis, not a political pamphlet.

  95. J: Yet, isn't it difficult to separate the aesthetic from the political? For example, two reviews suggest that while the use of virtual reality is a clever device in The Holder , the representation of 17th-century India--with its "excessive" emphasis on violence and ornamentation--ironically reduplicates exoticized representations of India found in colonialist texts and period pieces (see Koshy and Parameswaran). These reviewers argue that any attempt to alter or deconstruct such representations through the use of virtual reality is undermined by your perhaps unconscious kinship with Orientalists of the past. How do you respond to such charges, and upon reflection, do you wish you'd used "virtual reality" any differently?

  96. M: Absolutely not. One, this is not a book about India, but about the making of America and American national mythology. That's why I used the two women characters, Hannah the pre-America American, and Beigh, the post-deEuropeanized American, to dramatize the need to redefine what it means to be an "American" in the 1990s. Two, I'm sure the two reviewers you are referring to haven't done eleven years of research into mercantilism in 17th-century India as I have. Crucial new material on 17th-century trade, especially on intra-Asian trade, has been published in the early 1990s by Indian and Sri Lankan scholars. So it's simply ignorance of Indian mercantile and military histories on the part of these two reviewers. That's what I find most frustrating about being a scholar/writer: that academics and journalists with insufficient knowledge of the contextual material have the audacity to make such public pronouncements! I don't know where this animus comes from. Why is it so hard for them to deal with impassioned, well-researched, provocative fiction by a woman author?

  97. J: Part of these critics' suggestions, though, is that despite careful research, your revisions of colonialist or orientalist accounts of the seventeenth century are not substantive enough.

  98. M: My suggestion to them is that they bring greater intelligence and sensitivity to bear on the act of reading literature, including The Holder .

  99. J: This is a book about the process of history making, specifically about the "American" way of making and re-making history. Yet, one might argue that the representations of Native Americans in the early sections of the novel set in Puritan New England perhaps unwittingly repeat the imperialist tendencies of many colonial and nineteenth-century American texts. Specifically, the miscegenetic encounter between Rebecca and her Nipmuc lover recalls similar encounters depicted in novels by nineteenth-century New England women, including Lydia Child's Hobomok and Maria Sedgwick's Hope Leslie . In those works, such encounters are subversive to the extent that they allow for a female voice to emerge and suggest possible "new" alliances between women and Native Americans. Yet the Native American never really "speaks" in these novels . . . a romanticized version does, and thus these amorous encounters serve, one could argue, merely to empower and exoticize colonial and nineteenth-century Anglo-American women at the expense of Native Americans.

  100. M: Well, in my novel, I have Rebecca's bi-racial children very much alive and present to recount their own tales when they are ready to. Rebecca's Nipmuc lover has several prototypes in history, of course. I'll leave it to other authors to write the lover's story. Actually I'm very interested in writing King Philip's story from his point of view some day. An author focuses on a few individual characters, and hopes that a larger frisson of emotion and revelation comes across to the reader. I would be guilty of bad writing if I insisted on making Rebecca's lover stand for all Nipmucs let alone for all original Americans, or Bhagmati all Hindu women. Margaret Atwood has written: "You tell the story you have to tell; let others tell the story that they have to tell." My message to these academics: Read the story that I have told in The Holder ; don't fabricate a story that I didn't tell, but that you need to pretend I did so that you can distort the text into a convenient target of hate. I've been quoted in an article in Harper's as saying these postcolonial scholars are "assassins of the imagination."

  101. J: While we certainly do not intend to "assassinate the imagination," we would argue that by relegating Rebecca's bi-racial children to the margins of the text as unspeaking subjects, their narratives, as is the case in much colonial American writing, are endlessly deferred. Nonetheless, we feel that much of the richness and strength of the novel derives from the interventions you make in the captivity narrative tradition and the "canon" of 19th-century American literature.

  102. M: Well, perhaps next time you read The Holder you'll have new "takes" on the significance of my meta-fictional use of Sita's, Bhagmati's, and Hannah's "captivity narratives."

  103. J: In conclusion, we'd like to go back to the idea of Mughal painting you articulated earlier as a governing aesthetic in your writing. You've said that "I will be writing, in the Mughal style, till I get it right" ("Four-Hundred Year Old Woman" 38). The Holder seems to be very much predicated upon "Mughal aesthetics." It seems to be an excellent example of the "complication" and "elaboration" of Mughal miniature painting and reflects the "sense of the interpenetration of all things" which you have identified as a compelling aspect of such an aesthetic. Having said all that, have you finally "gotten it right"? And if so, where are you going from here?

  104. M: Who knows? The characters surprised me draft by draft; the structure of the novel evolved almost in spite of myself. I should add that my structures are also inspired by my obsession with chaos theory and fractals. In fact, a couple of European scholars have published essays on the operation of chaos theory in Jasmine . Where am I going? I don't want to know too far ahead.


Ahmad, Aijaz. In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures . London and New York: Verso, 1992.

Carter-Sanborn, Kristin. "'We Murder Who We Were': Jasmine and the Violence of Identity." American Literature 66.3 (Sept. 1994): 573-93.

JanMohamed, Abdul R. "Worldliness-without-World, Homelessness-as-Home: Toward a Definition of the Specular Border Intellectual." Edward Said: A Critical Reader . Ed. Michael Sprinker. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992. 96-120.

Koshy, Susan. "Rev. of The Holder of the World, by Bharati Mukherjee." Amerasia Journal 20.1 (1994): 188-90.

Leong, Liew-Geok. "Bharati Mukherjee." International Literature in English . Ed. Robert Ross. New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1991. 487-500.

Metcalf, John and J.R. Struthers, eds. How Stories Mean . Erin, Ontario: Porcupine's Quill, 1993.

Mukherjee, Bharati. Darkness . Markham, Ontario: Penguin, 1985.

---. "A Four-Hundred Year Old Woman." The Writer on Her Work . Ed. Janet Sternburg. Vol. 2. New York: W.W. Norton, 1991. 33-38.

---. The Holder of the World . New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1993.

---. "Immigrant Writing: Give Us Your Maximalists!" New York Times Book Review . 28 Aug. 1988: 29.

---. Jasmine . New York: Grove Wiedenfield, 1989.

---. The Middleman and Other Stories . New York: Viking Penguin, 1988.

---. The Tiger's Daughter . Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971.

---. Wife . Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975.

Mukherjee, Bharati, and Clark Blaise. Days and Nights in Calcutta . Saint Paul, MN: Hungry Mind Press, 1995.

---. The Sorrow and the Terror: The Haunting Legacy of the Air India Tragedy . Markham, Ontario: Viking Penguin, 1987.

Mukherjee, Bharati, and Robert Boyers. "A Conversation with V.S. Naipaul." Salmagundi 50--51 (Fall 1980-Winter 1981): 4-22.

Parameswaran, Uma. Rev. of The Holder of the World, by Bharati Mukherjee. World Literature Today 68.3 (1994): 636-7.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. "The Problem of Cultural Self-Representation." The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues . Ed. Sarah Harasym. New York and London: Routledge, 1990.

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