“On Voice” by Amitava Kumar
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a print journal. In his craft essay “On Voice,” Amitava Kumar explores voice by taking his readers on a sprawling journey that winds through his home state in India, the words of his literary influences, and the worlds of his novels. Readers will be able to hear Kumar’s own “entertaining and incisive” voice in his forthcoming novel, A Time Outside This Time (Knopf, October 5), which Publishers Weekly has deemed “fake newsworthy.”
Plots are for dead people, but voice—oh, voice is how you know you’re alive.
Mars Blackmon, the Spike Lee character in She’s Gotta Have It saying, “Please baby. Please baby. Please baby, please baby. Please, please. Baby, baby.” I had arrived in the US the same year the movie was released, in 1986; I was a new immigrant, a graduate student, when I watched that movie soon after it came out. The idea of language as excess. Language not just for writing academic papers. Language of desire but also language as desire. This was an early lesson about voice.
Years passed. I was producing academic essays, exercises in critical theory, and my writing had the consistency of freshly mixed cement. But I was dreaming of escape. There is a clipping from a newspaper that I printed out and stuck in a notebook—an exchange between a journalist and the literary agent David Godwin. The journalist asks Godwin what turns him on in a book, and the literary agent replies, “Voice, not so much story.” Godwin says that he has been reading a book about a woman’s childhood in Botswana. The beginning twenty pages are dull, and then there is a wonderful scene. “Her grandfather is sitting on a verandah, surrounded by masks, drinking red wine. Two little red drops hang on his lips. Suddenly the masks come down, sit on his mouth in the half-light, sip, and speed away. You know that’s where the book begins. It’s so arresting, so different.”
Godwin wasn’t my agent yet. But when I began writing something to show him, I thought, that’s what I will do: something “arresting” and “different.” I wasn’t worried that I didn’t really have a plot ready; I’d have voice. What was I hoping to catch? I was hoping to avoid that hushed tone of TV tennis commentators at Wimbledon—public but with a false intimacy—that is adopted a few moments before a difficult second serve: “Venus has appeared frail, but she can summon an inner reserve. Let’s see if she can do it here.” “Seventh double fault. Her task will be uphill now.” This also meant I wouldn’t have green grass or white lines or players in fashionable skirts. No strawberries and cream. I’m from the Hindi heartland in India, and I thought a prison would be rather nice. My first cousin had been arrested and jailed around that time. The state of Bihar, where I’m from, was described then as having only one growth industry, kidnapping. A doctor, or a businessman, or their kid, would be kidnapped and a call would come for a ransom.
A call had been traced to my cousin’s phone. My sister believed that the police had made a mistake. It is true that my cousin had suffered. Unlike my sister, I chose to believe that my cousin had suffered for literature. In that first novel, Home Products, my narrator, Binod, visits his cousin in prison. This cousin, Rabinder, is full of plans. He tells Binod that he would like to sell an idea to some big mobile phone company. It was an idea for a commercial, but Rabinder’s real scheme was to get into filmmaking once he was out of prison.
The commercial would begin with a shot of a blue-green planet afloat in dark space. Then, with instant thousandfold magnification, the camera would digitally zoom into the part of the landmass in the northern hemisphere that lies above the Indian Ocean, the subcontinent flecked closer to the top of the screen by the white crest of a wave representing the Himalayan snow peaks. The camera would veer right, coming closer to the ground to reveal, for one five-hundredth of a second, the muddy expanse of the Ganges, and then fanning above it a city visible only as a dirty wash of miniature rooftops, their color a uniform gray. The camera’s eye would pick out a large yellow building, the state’s prison. There would be a short pan along the length of a tall wall before it paused at a barred room in which sat a solitary man. The film would cut to a shot from above: the top of the man’s head and, pressed to his right ear, a mobile phone.
“What do you think?” Rabinder asks Binod.
Binod says that the idea is a good one but asks why is the prison necessary.
Rabinder says, “Honestly, can you think of any place where a mobile phone would be more needed than in prison?”
My cousin was released from his jail cell; soon, he started building a luxury hotel. And David Godwin didn’t take me on as a client for that book. That would happen later. I think I had mistaken a scene, the masks coming down from the wall to sip wine, as an example of voice. It was just a scene. A surprising scene, no doubt. So, too, the man in the prison cell. Voice is something else. Maybe the next novel I wrote had it, this element of voice, because Godwin decided to represent me and sold Immigrant, Montana. For this novel, I had picked up another lesson in voice.
I had read Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir, Speak, Memory. Nabokov’s writing was for me a wonderful example of a desirable voice for writing because it was alert to the fact that art is always also artifice. When I learned later that he had published parts of Speak, Memory also as fiction in the New Yorker, I felt doubly delighted. I didn’t for a moment think that he was being false or meretricious; instead, he was announcing that the text was fabricated, made up through labor and a love of words. This is the most honest thing a writer can do.
In Chapter 3 of Speak, Memory, Nabokov is telling the reader about his distinguished family tree, his affluent ancestors and their role in history, their eccentricities, etc. At one point he is talking about his Uncle Ruka, Nabokov’s mother’s brother, who at his death at the end of 1916 left his enormous wealth for Nabokov to inherit. Of course, the revolution came and divided Nabokov from his inheritance. A lovely little description of the property follows before Nabokov breaks off and inserts a new section which is no more than ten lines. He directly addresses the reader: “The following passage is not for the general reader, but for the particular idiot who, because he lost a fortune in some crash, thinks he understands me. . . .” More than anything else in the memoir, it was this turn that demonstrated to me the writer-as-magician stepping out of the job of pulling rabbits out of hats and revealing to you, the true magic this, how it is all done. I carried this voice in my head for years and then sneaked it into Immigrant, Montana; Nabokov’s sense of command, or maybe it was just his grasp of artistic freedom, also gave me permission to directly address my reader and take them into confidence. This was another lesson in voice. I included commentaries on my writing process and also pictures of clippings from my notebooks.
In a 1997 interview for BRICK magazine, W. G. Sebald told James Wood the following: “I think that fiction writing, which does not acknowledge the uncertainty of the narrator himself, is a form of imposture and which I find very, very difficult to take. Any form of authorial writing, where the narrator sets himself up as stagehand and director and judge and executor in a text, I find somehow unacceptable. I cannot bear to read books of this kind.”
I am of the same view. So the voice of a narrator struggling with truth, indicating with a pointed finger the joints in the scaffolding, is also mine. In a piece of fiction I’m working on right now, an Indian woman who works for CNN in Atlanta has this memory: “I had become conscious that when we were in the company of educated people in Patna, my father would tell them that he was born in the same hospital as Orwell in Motihari. I later found out that Orwell was indeed born in the same sleepy town as my father, close to our ancestral village Khewali, but it is quite likely that his mother had given birth in the small bungalow that served as the Orwell residence. Richard Blair, Orwell’s father, was a sub-deputy opium agent for the British. The bungalow in which they had lived in Motihari, now a dilapidated cow-shed overrun by pigs and stray dogs, was described recently in one Patna newspaper as an ‘animal farm.’” The story that the woman is telling is very close to mine, except that I discovered Orwell when I came to Delhi on a scholarship to finish high school. His essay “Why I Write” was a part of the assigned reading for our class. I’m mentioning Orwell now because the boldness, the freedom, the playfulness I see in Nabokov is at a huge remove from Orwell’s voice that I first associated with the voice of a writer.
Back in my late teens, when I read Orwell’s essay, I didn’t know that this famous writer had been born in Bihar, close to my ancestral village. I identified with him chiefly because in his essay he described a voice in his head, “a continuous ‘story’ about myself, a sort of diary existing only in the mind,” which was “a mere description of what I was doing and the things I saw.” Orwell had written:
For minutes at a time this kind of thing would be running through my head: ‘He pushed the door open and entered the room. A yellow beam of sunlight, filtering through the muslin curtains, slanted on to the table, where a match-box, half-open, lay beside the inkpot. With his right hand in his pocket he moved across to the window. Down in the street a tortoiseshell cat was chasing a dead leaf,’ etc. etc. This habit continued until I was about twenty-five, right through my non-literary years. Although I had to search, and did search, for the right words, I seemed to be making this descriptive effort almost against my will, under a kind of compulsion from outside.
It is possible we all do this as children or adolescents and then grow out of the habit, unless you are a writer. In my case, I had become conscious of this activity after I began reading literary texts. Orwell was a part of that early education. I could be in a Delhi Transport bus in Daryaganj, and a voice running in my head would name the objects I saw being sold on the street, their colors, the look in the eyes of the sellers.
I also read Orwell’s essay about the politics of the English language; he wanted to promote writing that was unfussy and modest, never calling attention to itself. He was, of course, giving voice to an ideology, postwar socialist, I imagine. When I first encountered that language, I wanted to make it my voice. It was also a part of my desire, as a postcolonial, to escape the colonial inheritance that dictated that our use of English ought to be, as Lord Macaulay had intended it, the language of the clerks. My father wrote his letters to us in a stiff, bureaucratic language. My fondness for the Orwellian diction was challenged in the American graduate programs in critical theory where I found myself writing sentences suffocated with defensive subordinate clauses. In my time since, especially in the writing of Immigrant, Montana, I tried to embrace a voice that was not just loud, exaggerated, sexual, but also exuberant. In interviews, I would say that English had been taught to us as a language in which we had to do our homework; to write fiction or imaginative nonfiction was to sense a liberation in language.
The voice you own, or adopt, is to a large extent based on your education. Orwell was a part of my education. But that was long ago. When I think of voice now, pure voice in nonfiction, the richest most enduring fabrication, the first thing that comes to mind are the interviews collected and shaped by Svetlana Alexievich. I also like that the voices collected in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen came in response to a questionnaire shared on some listserv. What were the questions, I’ve always wanted to know. I admire Rankine’s collaboration with sculptor Kate Clark to access what is uncanny and disturbing in our racialized existence. Or think of Janet Malcolm’s “Forty-One False Starts.” I have used that piece in my journalism classes a few times, but my main desire was to learn from it myself. How to have a voice that is provisional and probing, fragmentary and precise? I think my friend Teju Cole’s essay on the “Black Panther” attains that ideal in a satisfactory way.
It is often easy, as in this essay, to slip into memoir. I have a mild distrust of this voice: it is a distrust of the comfort that an easy access to the past offers. It is possible that I have on occasion tried to overcorrect this tendency. If you have ever read my essay “Where is your White Literature Section?” you will know what I mean. At a friend’s suggestion, I walked up to the counter at different bookshops in New York City one fine spring day and asked the salesperson there, “Excuse me, where is your white literature section?” Over and over again, I posed this question to helpful sales staff who—bewildered, patient, clueless, condescending, and in one case, angry—tried to tell me what to buy. At McNally Jackson, the nice sales guy said, “Who are the great white authors?” Immediately to his right was the seeming answer. Withdrawing a copy of Freedom half an inch from its place on the shelf, he gently intoned, “Franzen.” He also introduced me to other names, Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth. In my essay, I talk of how wearying I found the exercise, not just what people said but the pretense I had to maintain throughout, this voice I had adopted as the Sacha Baron Cohen of American letters. I remember thinking to myself that I had dissembled, I had lied, and I would never be allowed to be on This American Life. But that unstable place, where earnestness gives way to exploration, and you have found a voice that is unsettling and maybe even disturbing and exhausting, is a place I want to visit again. I hope an enterprising and fun editor comes up with a compelling idea, or that inspiration strikes me at the right moment. I’d love to find out how English is spoken there and the voice in which I’d report from that place.
Amitava Kumar is a writer and a journalist. His latest book is A Time Outside This Time (Knopf, forthcoming in October 2021). Kumar’s writing has appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, Vanity Fair, the New York Times, Harper’s, and many other publications. He is the Helen D. Lockwood Professor of English at Vassar College.