Art and Lies

A Time Outside This Time BY Amitava Kumar. New York: Knopf. 272 pages. $27.

The cover of A Time Outside This Time

ALEXANDER CHEE: You have never shied away from writing about the events of the world, but your new novel, A Time Outside This Time (Knopf, $27), takes that on in a different way: a novelist at an artist’s colony considers whether the violence in the world outside the retreat is an interruption or a muse.

AMITAVA KUMAR: You’re right, I have not shied away from writing about the events facing the world. I wrote a book about terrorism trials called A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb. But that writing did not have reflections on writing, like this one. It didn’t ask the questions this novel asks. People were spreading fake news via WhatsApp, leading to lynchings and riots. I asked myself, could novels discuss news in a way that became an antidote to the fiction of fake news? What does one do when one writes about the violence of the world? Or: How to convey the immediacy? These are questions that came alive for me only in this book.

Compelling paradoxes.

One has heard of how the novel can accommodate all these different things. How could I have a story that conveyed how we now take in news? If news is coming to us so fast that we forget what happened last Thursday, isn’t it important to also just list some things that you want to remember? In remembering the name of the man who was killed this Tuesday, I should not forget the name of the man who was killed last Friday. You’re hearing all these voices, and you struggle with how to accommodate them. The form I chose sets several narrative chapters among in-between chapters of information. A chapter called “The Velocity of Lies,” which lists rumors and news, juxtaposed with another called “The Death of Information.” I thought, “Let me make that a way of remembering.”

I was seeing videos of Muslim men being lynched in India and thought, What can I write in response? I had read Claudia Rankine on the killings of Black men, using writing and visual media. I was thinking about the fiction that fake news is, and also confronting the idea of the infodemic within the pandemic, as the World Health Organization called it. All of this gave urgency to my responses as a fiction writer, a call to think more deeply about the nature of that art.

Your novel brought to mind Susan Sontag’s idea of the novel as a moral form for the way that it brings our attention down to a single experience, so that we are not overwhelmed with how everything is always happening everywhere all at once. This novel is that but also a defiance of that idea as well.

Grad school is now a distant memory, but I remember Bakhtin discussed polyphonic voices in a novel. You’re bringing together an immense diversity or plurality. That was the democratic promise of the novel. But in choosing one tweet out of twenty tweets that Donald fucking Trump sent one day, I am, of course, selecting. The idea is to conjure a real feeling of simultaneity. And yet of course, one is aware that one is always selecting, choreographing effect, because news is rushing in from different places. In the narrator’s case, it is from parts of the US, but also from India and maybe from elsewhere. That’s the feeling I wanted to evoke. There is the narrator, but the world is rushing to his door.

The world is rushing up to his door. And so it’s also a commentary on the life lived inside of these artist retreats.

We can also say that there is no retreat, even in the spaces that purport to be retreats. Doesn’t the West, for example, imagine that it is safe from the depredations of what used to be called the Third World? In the book I quote the man who was one of the first arrested under the Patriot Act, an Indian-origin man who was convicted of selling an illegal missile to an undercover agent. He was a stupid man, but he had got one line straight. He said: you know, Osama bin Laden taught Americans geography. They now know where Afghanistan is. And in that way, the virus has taught people that you have to take the consequences of the society we are living in. If you are, for example, the prime emitter of carbon, it is going to cause a global change that is going to affect you. You will have hurricanes. It’s not only the poor in Bangladesh who will perish, it will affect your life. So, no retreat.

This feeling you describe has some history in literature. At the beginning of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West, she is in a hospital after surgery in 1934, shocked by the news of the murder of the king of Yugoslavia in Marseille. Was there a tipping point for you, an assassination of the king of Yugoslavia?

It was the lynching of a Muslim man. I wrote, in September 2017, “A lot of life is left in a man being killed.” It was the anniversary of the killing of a man called Mohammad Akhlaq in a place called Dadri, outside Delhi. And I thought I’d write about that.

In the last days of the Obama presidency, Obama gave an interview to Michiko Kakutani in which he says Malia Obama had read Hemingway and was interested in his goal of writing the truest sentence you know. And I thought, I will write the most revealing lie every day, just like my narrator does. And so, what followed that lynching was trying to note down what the Hindu Right was saying every day or what Trump was saying every day, what Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway. . . . We just note down things like that, trying to fashion out of those rumors and lies, trying to see: What could be a novelist’s response to it? From that tipping point, I asked, What can you give? I saw a video of a Muslim man—he’s about to die and he’s sitting on the edge of this canal with his killers around him. They think he was responsible for a cow killing. They’re killing this man, and he asks for water, but no one gives him water. I wrote down in my journal, “What can you write that will make someone give a dying man a glass of water?”

Amitava Kumar, 2018. Imrul Islam
Amitava Kumar, 2018. Imrul Islam

There’s something intensely, appealingly humane about that idea as a guide—even the longing for the idea.

Yes, it gave me focus. My narrator, when he’s at the retreat, people ask him, “What are you working on?” What he’s saying is, This evening, while holding my glass of chilled locally sourced wine, I’d like to be able to tell my interlocutor that the question I’m really asking is this: Who among your neighbors will look the other way when a figure of authority comes to your door and puts his boot in your face? It helped me focus, to always ask: OK, who is complicit in this scenario? Who is resisting, and what are the terms of their resistance?

When we come towards the last pages, after George Floyd is killed, I found it enormously inspiring to see the young respond the way they did and in such large numbers. I thought, “Let me write this down. Let me show who will turn their face away.” Well, these people will not turn their face away. They will put their bodies on the line. Let’s talk about that. Or let’s represent that but also find a place for writing within that resistance.

There’s a tweet from October 11 by you: “I once heard Joseph O’Neill say that in any piece of political literature, he asks, ‘Where is the state?’” And you add: “I love the beautiful, accurate maps that writers draw to say, ‘Here, here.’” That seems to me also what you were doing.

I think about O’Neill’s statement when I talk with police officers and informants in India. It also reminds me that part of what political fiction should also show is how the state is a writer of fiction. Maybe even how the state is the writer of bad fiction. And we, as writers, should explore how our fictions are different from that.

In choosing the things you juxtapose, you’re also looking to replicate the moments when you experienced meaning in the juxtapositions, and then to offer that up.

Yes, and then the writing therefore becomes a record of that experience, and the experience is preserved. There’s also a battle against forgetting. It becomes a diary of sorts, a journal of a bad year or bad four years. In chapters like “The Velocity of Lies,” I tried to think of the lies as they occurred in the time line of writing the novel. And this is some of the response, and I just set it down and keep it as an important part of a telling.

What did you discover in the process of writing, maybe about yourself or about what you do?

There were protests in India, and the young, as well as the very old—not so much the middle-aged—gathered in places and demonstrated against the unjust laws of Modi’s regime. And a human rights lawyer, a woman who has provided aid in the past to writers accused by the Indian government of sedition, said to the thousand protesters gathered in a park, “Keep a record. Don’t trust the state. Don’t expect the police to document the violence it is raining on your head.” I learned that while the news cycle was spinning blindly, everything disappearing into quick oblivion, I needed to note it down so that I would remember what happened. And then: What was the next unbelievable thing they did? And how did it go from bad to worse and even further worse? And, important: Who resisted? Who said something that opened up a space of possibility?

And so the lies, the space of possibility, what the novel is trying to describe, comes from this.

That’s the gesture I was led to at the novel’s end, when the novelist wants to set down something in writing. He begins recording events while thinking of the lawyer’s message: “They will not remember what they are doing to you, but you must.”

Alexander Chee’s most recent book is the essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel (Mariner, 2018).