Singapore Writers Festival

Looking beyond the migrant label

Fiction can offer a different perspective on people beyond their labels, says India-born author Kiran Desai

Indian-American author Kiran Desai (right) at her talk, Place And Displacement: Finding Oneself In 2018, with moderator Carolyn Camoens.
Indian-American author Kiran Desai (right) at her talk, Place And Displacement: Finding Oneself In 2018, with moderator Carolyn Camoens. ST PHOTO: OLIVIA HO

In a poignant lecture that drew on her own family's immigrant experience, Man Booker Prize-winning writer Kiran Desai spoke of the power of literature to change narratives, especially in a world of increasing hostility towards migrants.

"It is fiction that tells us that what we are called is not necessarily what we are and what they are called is not necessarily what they are either," said the 47-year-old.

"We are all the same in the eyes of the novelist."

She was speaking at the Singapore Writers Festival, which is organised annually by the National Arts Council and ran from Nov 2 to Sunday this year.

Born in India, Desai has lived in the United States for 30 years.

She won the prestigious Booker in 2006 with her second novel, The Inheritance Of Loss.

The daughter of esteemed writer Anita Desai, she called herself the "product of dislocations and displacements".

Her maternal grandparents, a Bangladeshi student and a German newspaper editor's daughter, were introduced in Berlin by a sculptor who later became a favourite of the Nazis.

Her paternal grandparents were from a Gujarati village and her grandfather learnt the dictionary by heart under a street lamp so he could get an education in England. He eventually became a judge in India.

Desai spoke of moving as a teenager to Kalimpong, a town in the Himalayas where she would later base The Inheritance Of Loss.

Later, she moved to Britain and then to the US.

She made the journey in "the luckiest way", being from a privileged family, yet she experienced shame at being from a so-called "Third World country".

"One learns this shame as one leaves the visa offices of the Western world, which teaches one that one is filthy in the eyes of power because of a mere accident of birth."

It is far worse, she added, for the "shadow class" of immigrants from more desperate situations.

As a child, she read widely and called the bookshelf of her childhood a "borderless territory".

She thought she would belong more and more in the US the longer she lived there, but now feels she belongs less and less.

"The US has changed so drastically recently that those of us who thought we were relocating there are now feeling dislocated again," she said, without mentioning US President Donald Trump, whose nationalism and anti-immigration views have polarised the country.

"It had a very strong narrative of immigration, of a country and literature created by immigrants and, all of a sudden, that narrative is changing and it is being grasped at so eagerly that it makes me wonder how naive we've all been, thinking we could belong more deeply.

"But it is also true of India. I grew up in a secular country where I thought minorities were equal citizens.

"That narrative has also changed and I think minorities are very scared there now. It seems a very foreign place to me."

In recent years, attacks on the Muslim minority by Hindu nationalists have made headlines in India, with some politicians openly encouraging hate speech and violence against Muslims.

Desai, who is single, has faced backlash for the way she portrayed Kalimpong's Nepalese community in Inheritance.

This resurfaced in the lecture when audience member Shobha Tsering Bhalla, founder of Singapore-based magazine India Se Media, praised her literary achievement, but felt she failed to flesh out the perspective of the local populace.

"I thought I was being completely fair to everyone," said Desai. "But now I am hearing from people like you and the community that I did not do my job."

She said she agreed with Ms Tsering Bhalla's assessment of the political situation then and noted that a novel is written from the inside out, not the outside in.

"Writing art may be freeing, but art is not free. You cannot as an author say you care nothing for the way people you have represented feel about the way you have represented them.

"The only answer to that is there has to be more books on the shelf. As a writer, you put your book on the shelf and open the door for other people to put their books on the shelf."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 13, 2018, with the headline Looking beyond the migrant label. Subscribe