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Wisconsin Book Festival 2008: Amitava Kumar speaks
Amitava Kumar
Amitava Kumar

A native of India, Amitava Kumar has emerged as one of South Asia's most prominent contemporary voices -- a journalist, author, editor and poet who has earned both critical praise and literary laurels for long-form non-fiction works including Bombay-London-New York and Husband of a Fanatic: A Personal Journey Through India, Pakistan, Love and Hate. The former was named among The New Statesman Books of the Year, while The New York Times included the latter on its Editor's Choice list. Moreover, the Myers Program for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights in North America bestowed an Outstanding Book of the Year award on yet another of his books, Passport Photos. And his 2007 novel, Home Products, was short-listed for India's prestigious Crossword Prize.

His new book, A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb, is Kumar's report on the global war on terror. A professor of English at Vassar College, Kumar is also an editor and a contributor to journals ranging from The Nation and Harper's to Kenyon Review and The American Prospect.

Kumar is scheduled to appear at the Wisconsin Book Festival with Moustafa Bayoumi, author of How Does it Feel to be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America, at 5 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 16, in the Overture Center's Wisconsin Studio. In an interview conducted via email, Kumar reflects on how life has changed since 9/11, identifies a handful of websites he finds most indispensable, revisits his recent experience covering the Democratic National Convention, describes what it was like to meet a man who had threatened him, and identifies those other authors he is most looking forward to seeing at the 2008 festival -- including one whose hand he aspires to kiss.

The Daily Page: A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb is such an inspired variation on A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Book, by Edmond Jabes. Assuming you've read the book by Jabes, what is your appraisal of it?
Kumar: Jabes's book is a profound meditation on language and outsiderness. As you know, he was a Jewish poet, an exile, who had fled the Egypt of his childhood. What remained with me long after I finished the book was the image presented in the title, of a foreigner and a book. That paradigm has changed, hasn't it? In post-September 11 America, the dominant image of a foreigner is not of a man with a book but with a bomb.

When and how did you conceive A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb?
The book began as a piece commissioned by Ian Jack, the former editor of Granta magazine, about an Indian man arrested by the FBI for trying to sell a missile. This man was a failed women's clothing salesman. He was unable to find a missile to sell to the FBI informant, and the FBI had to arrange for a missile for him to sell. It took a lot of time and US taxpayers' dollars.

The story broadened when I read of a man in India who was arrested for possessing a missile. The man and his family-- they were Muslim -- were tortured for days. Then, it was found out that the alleged missile was a part of a textile machine. It was a bobbin.

The book grew out of such stories.

Who did you envision as its audience? And who would you compel to read it if you had the power?
Given my background, having grown up in India and now living in the States, I always have a divided sense of audience: I want to be read in both the U.S. and the Indian subcontinent. Delhi and Detroit!

I'd like my readers to see how the war on terror takes place not only in Bush's America but also elsewhere, a global pattern with local perversions.

What can your Wisconsin Book Festival audience expect of your appearance here?
I want to read out the opening few pages of A Foreigner. About Muslims in India. And then a bit about an NYPD report about Muslim youth in New York.

Where were you and what were you doing when you learned of the attacks on 9/11/2001?
I was at home, asleep, when the phone rang. I heard my wife crying. It was an editor calling from India, wanting me to file a report.

The talking heads that morning kept repeating the mantra that our lives would never be the same. If you buy that, what are the most substantial ways your life has not been the same as it had been?
My life hasn't changed, or has changed only as much as the lives of most people around me. But I'm lucky, I think. Many people in America can testify to the loss of their rights and a sense of stability in their lives.

The commentators we heard on TV that day were recording their sense of catastrophe. But they were also telling us about the extent to which their lives had remained protected so far. They were revealing their privilege. For people around the globe, that calamitous sense of catastrophe was rather more familiar. And for many more, since 9/11, thanks to the acts of the U.S., that condition has become a part of the everyday.

The theme of this year's Wisconsin Book Festival is "Changing Places." What does that phrase mean to you?
It means to me something about travel and migration. And displacement, as in become an exile or a refugee. But, more profoundly still, it suggests to me a quality that is at the heart of the act of reading and writing. It evokes the use of imagination to step into another's shoes. To grasp a different point of view or a different existence. Or approach the subjectivity of the other.

You once mustered the temerity to meet for lunch with a man who published your name to his online list of Hindu traitors. Is it fair to conclude you possess an abundance of courage, or at least confidence?
I was only slightly afraid, but I don't think it was courage at all that made me go to him. It was curiosity. This is what a writer must have, more than courage or confidence. I went to the man who had threatened me, and been abusive to me even on the phone when I called him, because I wanted my enemy to have a face. How else was I going to write about him?

The list of links on your blog numbers more than 60, and represents an astonishing range of interests -- from Get Your War On, Tom Tomorrow, Three Quarks Daily and Al Jazeera to This American Life, Arts & Letters Daily, The New York Times, a handful of South Asian publications and dozens of intriguing blogs. Which three do you consider most indispensable, and which three do you find the most engaging?
The ones I read every day and are therefore indispensable: Three Quarks Daily, Maud Newton, and, during this election season, Huff Post. (I also visit a site called Cricinfo each day, but I suspect most of your readers aren't into cricket.)

There's always something engaging at This American Life, Ultrabrown, and, again during this election season, Talking Points Memo.

In terms of gratification, how does having one of your books listed by the The New York Times as an Editor's Choice compare to having another one of your books be recognized as an Outstanding Book of the Year by the Myers Program for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights?
When I had started out as a writer, I hadn't known how important readers are to the work you do. And that is in a way what awards represent. If I get an award, I think, well, at least the judges read it. That means three or four more readers for my work! Wonderful!

How does your poetic impulse serve your journalism?
Not as much as I would like it to. Poetry can be a creative way to rewrite the rules of documentary, of straight prose or plain reportage. I am conscious of the times I let the facts overwhelm me instead of drawing attention to language and to the language of representation itself.

One month after filing daily reports from the Democratic National Convention in Denver for The Indian Express, what is the most lasting, vivid and telling detail you carried away that might best summarize the experience?
I was stunned by the size and scale of things. The sheer number of people inside the Pepsi Center and then at Invesco Field. The vast multitudes, strangely unreal, brought to life under the television lights. But it wasn't just the television lights: the people were electrified by the appearance of certain speakers. That was pretty striking, witnessing that transformation. It was all spectacle, but it was pretty breathtaking.

As editor of a collection of essays about V.S. Naipaul, which of his books would you recommend those unfamiliar with his work read first, and why should they begin there?
A House for Mr Biswas is a study of failure but, on each page, Naipaul shows such an eye for comedy. That book is a masterpiece. I like his non-fiction too. His massive work of reportage, India: A Million Mutinies Now. He is always delving into people's stories that resonate with larger narratives of social conflict and change. And such a wonderful eye for detail!

Among the other presenters at this year's Wisconsin Book Festival, who might you be most eager to see?
I'd like to be able to kiss Marilynne Robinson's hand.

I'm looking forward to reading with Moustafa Bayoumi, who is very smart and very sharp. Sean Wilsey wrote an unforgettable piece of non-fiction about September 11 called "The Greeter." I'd love to see him. And Aleksandar Hemon, of course. But the festival has a very diverse list, and I hope to learn about new writers.

What are your most significant impressions of Madison?
I have been there several times, visiting the university. During my youth, in India, I vaguely knew that the university had a great reputation for radical scholarship. That is certainly true. But now I also have very particular associations with Madison. It is home to Rob Nixon, whose writings, starting with his book on Naipaul, have been a great inspiration to me.

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