I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
A circa-now novel that interrogates where our pandemic news comes from, mob violence in India, and how journalism has failed us.
Soon after November 2016, countless essays declared the old contemporary novel suddenly irrelevant to our panicked, anxious present. (Cue the uptick in historical fiction.) What, then, should the new contemporary novel look like? And how long would we have to wait? It turns out the answers are: 1. Amitava Kumar’s A Time Outside This Time, and 2. five years. The poet and journalist’s eleventh book concerns Satya, an Indian novelist at an artist residency in Italy at work on a book titled Enemies of the People. It’s early 2020, and the coronavirus is spreading. Satya’s wife Vaani, a psychologist back home in the US, believes air travel would be more dangerous than staying put. So, he trades news with the other artists and reads 1984. He cites psychology studies that Vaani’s shared over the years. And he continues researching the real-world deaths of Mohammed Naeem, Tabrez Ansari, and Alimuddin Ansari, victims of anti-Muslim mobs in Narendra Modi’s India.
Kumar’s scrapbook approach enfolds the Tucker Carlson-esque figure Gautam Sikdar, who is also Vaani’s ex; a Pakistani student and possible con artist named Khalid Farooq; Black Lives Matter protests in upstate New York; and yes, Donald Fucking Trump. November 2016, then, never stopped. It’s our Groundhog’s Day, everywhere in the world. But take heart. A Time Outside This Time beautifully collages our exploded present with anger and wit. It was the most potent reading experience I’d had in recent memory. I met Kumar at a bar near the campus of Vassar College, where he’s taught for nearly fifteen years. He was genial and observant—he noted our waiter’s ambidexterity—and gives the impression of David Byrne by way of Dead Poets Society. We spoke for an entire hour without saying the word autofiction.
Ryan ChapmanMy first question is one of immediacy. This novel feels like it has so much wind at its back. It’s a sailboat always about to topple. Did you approach it differently because you wanted to bring in very recent history?
Amitava KumarSome of the immediacy just comes from the idea that the whole book is in response to the news. But the pandemic came much later. In 2018, when I started, I had thought, I’ll write about a man being killed in the street in India. Because there’s going to be a response to the lynching of Muslims suspected of eating beef. Which is a part of the discourse of the rise of right-wing Hindutva—Hindu ideology in India. So that was the initial thing.
I wrote a bit, and wrote a bit, and around that time—in one chapter the narrator goes to meet someone, an informant, in a police camp. I also did that. Some of it was entirely invented, but I was doing that sort of thing. And then the fucking pandemic arrives, you know? And I really began thinking, okay, how does one respond to this? And my editors were quite determined that, if a part of the continuity is that there is a guy at a residency writing about the news, then the pandemic should come there.
RC A gigantic subject. Like a tidal wave is hitting the writing process.
AK Which is what it felt like. It was like, Fuck. You know? All narratives suddenly ceased. It was just the virus now. How to deal with it? What is it? And I must say—and I don’t know if my narrator does it or not—but I suddenly thought, if the World Health Organization is saying we are faced with an “infodemic” (and that it has to be dealt with), and I can’t do anything about the vaccine while sitting in my study, I can do something at least about the infodemic. I can think about, How does one write about fake news about the virus itself? And have a deliberation on what the novel is to do in this case. And I don’t know if it works or not—which, by the way, I’ll be saying every three minutes—but, okay, I’ll just write one whole fucking chapter called “The Velocity of News.” Which is about how fake news is spreading.
RC That’s the chapter where Satya says, “Those readers more interested in the story than in news should skip this chapter and go directly to the next one”
AK What I do there is something like what Nabokov does in Speak, Memory. Maybe in chapter five—I can’t remember now. I mention it in my “On Voice” piece.
RC Where Nabokov says something like, If you’re going to misinterpret me, this part’s for you. The rest of my readers won’t care about this.
AK Exactly. I just thought, Let me do that sort of thing here. And I think my editors were puzzled by that a bit. But after a while they didn’t resist it. They only said it should be shorter.
RC What was the editing process like?
AK I don’t know if you’re a fan of such books, but there’s a whole slew of books where we have to recognize that they’re a mix of essay and narrative. And I don’t think editors—who want your books to sell—are such a fan of people going on with their fucking essays. You know what I’m saying?
RC Lest we forget Sebald didn’t sell well in his lifetime. It’s easier to market the posthumous genius.
AK That’s right. My editor in India was like, Sebald has done it. You don’t need to do it. My luck was stumbling on 1984—which Satya is reading—and discovering that in the middle of 1984, or maybe towards the end, Orwell puts in a whole damn essay! This boring essay, boss! But I think I said somewhere in the book, Shit, didn’t his editors say that, you know, this is the wrong move? I think maybe my editors took note and did not want to pressure me.
RC It’s a great defense. Well, Orwell did it…
AK Yes, yes, I was hoping the work was a sheath of some sort.
RC In your 2017 novel Immigrant, Montana, you write, “If and when I imagine an audience for my writing, it is also a divided one.” Referring to your Indian audience and your American one. Since your new book so directly engages third-rail topics, are you excited, eager, or trepidatious for how these two audiences will receive this novel?
AK When Immigrant, Montana came out I was asked by Knopf to meet with a lawyer, who wanted to know if some of the characters were based on real people, and whether I had indeed quoted from letters of women. And the Indians, by the way, had no trouble with Immigrant, Montana at all. With A Time Outside This Time, the Americans had no trouble, but the Indians went through lawyers, and every piece of news that was quoted had to be substantiated. I had to send research links, etc.
My real fear is in India there’ll be trouble. Anything can happen. There, most people who do not read books, but will learn that I have written x, y, z about ministers, about the acts of vigilante mobs, what I have said about the prime minister—I think there will be a backlash. I don’t know. If there’s legal action, I think the lawyers have that part covered.
RC I’d be curious to hear your ideas on how readers will come to it over time, too. The book will evolve in a way that ninety-nine percent of other novels feel cast in amber. Still relatable, still fascinating—but cast in amber. And your book has no amber.
AK Let me speculate on that. First of all, I like what you said about immediacy. If I think about it a little bit craft-wise, I’ve always had this ambition to sort of think, What is the writing that feels like blood on the bandage, you know?
When I think of immediacy, I think of when I first bought Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, when it came out. A few years pass and I bought it for my daughter. When you turn to a certain page—maybe close to the part where it says, “because white men can’t / police their imagination / black men are dying.”—there is a page with a few names. In my copy, there are, I think, three names. In my daughter’s copy, there are nine, maybe ten names. A visceral, artistic response to the killing of black men in this country. The book becomes a record of those deaths. And the book evolves. It evolves to track the changing barbaric record of this country. I found that very inspiring. The news, they only remember yesterday. My book becomes a way of remembering the day before yesterday. And the day before that. My novel is a way of remembering the news. So, to answer your question—and it’s only speculation—today when people read it they should feel the frisson of, Oh! Someone is writing about today. The “today” is not lost. And someone who reads it tomorrow should not feel that today has faded from memory. That might seem a little bit of a flex, but that’s the ambition of the damn thing.
RC It’s interrogating what journalism can’t do as a form—or what journalism is failing at right now.
AK Exactly. You know the way we have to think about the two different audiences. In America there’s nothing more depressing than seeing those videos of Black men who are killed by the police. And in India it’s when these vigilante mobs kill Muslims. I often find the barbarity that erupts in India will also visit this place. It’s what’s going to happen tomorrow. Or at least that’s the way it seemed in the Trump era.
Look at how Fox News kowtows to power. In India, so many of the journalists have just become servants of the state. I wanted in fiction to explore, How does an alternative journalism exist? And also, How can fiction perform a task that journalism sometimes has failed?
RC You’re asking the reader to believe in fiction as much as you do.
AK Or that you have to be as skeptical as I am, or distrustful of narratives that are handed to us. I have so much belief in fiction, in storytelling, and in readers being savvy about storytelling, about the truths they tell—but also the lies they tell—that I wanted to engage in science and psychology in order to say, “Look. That too is a story.” But it is a story that’s been vetted in a particular way. Ask yourself, Where the fuck does your story come from?
RC Satya takes up painting in reaction to the anti-Muslim violence. And I understand you have a book of drawings publishing in early 2022?
AK I really did think that I should paint the news. In the book there is an example of a man kneeling, begging for his life. He’s trying to prove his innocence, but it is already too late—they were going to kill him, and they do.
During the pandemic, I was also painting the obituaries printed in the New York Times. And that is in the drawing book. And there are journals that surround it.
Since you evoked Sebald earlier, I wanted to ask you. He wasn’t thinking about immediacy. He was thinking about something in the past being approached obliquely—some covers being removed, and some covers put on. Preserving in some ways a mystery but also approaching a darkness with eyes open. Does that seem fair to you?
AK Now if we come to the present. I’ve just read the first half of Bewilderment by Richard Powers. Have you read it yet?
RC I haven’t, no.
AK There’s a compelling urgency to thinking about what is happening to our world. It’s very intelligent, marshaling knowledge about science, about nature… That, I don’t have access to. But I was trying in my own modest way to delve into psychology just as a way of letting a story be wired through certain explanations of human behavior so that we don’t just get “character.” We instead get some intellection. Why do people behave the way they do? What are the social roots of that? Stuff like that. That’s what the book is.
RCWhen Sebald was writing, the idea of the Anthropocene wasn’t as cemented. He could write and say, This is how we might process World War II in order to make sense of history and the present. Whereas we have to consider there might not be a future.
I described your novel to a friend like this: book as nervous breakdown. And I wanted to ask you, how much anxiety can a book hold? Is there a limit?
AKYeah. I think about that all the time. Also, it’s tied to for me the question of endings. There’s an essay I’m teaching in my class called “Hawk” by Joy Williams. It’s about her dog going berserk and then being put to death. It’s a violent piece. But the essay still ends with grace.
I just don’t want to turn away out of sentimentality, or away from the real darkness. I mean, my god. These men who have been killed by these vigilantes, they have these families left without recourse. Without justice. So, how can I end a story, man?
I think at some level fiction—while recording everything that is real, while taking the body blow—should just imagine something else. My long-winded response to you is, record the fucking breakdown. And in some place, constantly reach for beauty, for grace. That’s what I was trying to do.
RCYou quote Philip Roth’s famous Commentary essay in the book, and I thought frequently of his line from American Pastoral about the “indigenous American berserk.” You show us it’s not just an American phenomenon.
AK Exactly. I went to central India to interview these people. Indigenous Indians—to link to the Roth phrase in a very literal sense—who protest the corporate takeover of their ancestral lands because their villages are on mineral-rich territories. (I wrote about this for the New Yorker.) The police acted with great violence. And one of the leaders that I interviewed, she was brutalized by police in such inhumane ways. And I was finally able to reach the guy responsible for that, the police chief. I had by then returned here. His swift reprimand was, “Why don’t you write about America?”
What I’m saying to you is, Roth, despite his expansiveness and his genius, thought it was only an American thing. The villains in India think it is only in America, where all these things happen: “Why are you telling us what we are doing, in not vaccinating, when there are bodies rotting outside of hospitals in Manhattan?”
It’s amazing this idea of cultural nationalism almost, this insularity. A cosmopolitan fiction should breach those walls. It’s a different kind of human pursuit where you’re not saying everything is universal, but you’re saying everything is fucked. Everywhere is fucked. Let’s recognize how in different ways we are doing something horrible, everywhere. It’s a very depressing story.
RCNabokov was resolutely against joining groups or aligning himself with any political parties. Where do you feel the capital-A author stands right now in relation to politics?
AKWhen the Black Lives Matter movement explodes in the timeline of the novel, my narrator’s wife goes out to a protest and buys pizza for the kids who are partaking. My wife would have done that. Like Satya, I would stay at home and want to think a little about, What can be written about this that both distances us and brings us closer to the experience of it?
And even as I say that I think: history is made, friends, not by what you write, but by actually putting your body on the line. Satya’s answer should not be taken as the most acceptable way. I hope that I, as an author, would want now and then—without sacrificing my faith in writing—to put my body on the line also. That’s where I stand.
RCIt’s an explicit question in the book: “Who among your neighbors will look the other way when a figure of authority comes to your door and puts a boot in your face?” It’s also the question in the background of so much art these past few years. Most art need not address it directly, but…
AK But if it does, and if it can do it well, it’s like a fucking delight.
A Time Outside This Time is available for purchase here.
Ryan Chapman is the author of the novel Riots I Have Known (Simon & Schuster). He teaches at the Sewanee School of Letters MFA program and lives in Kingston, New York.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee