DATE November 20, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Novelists, mother and daughter Anita and Kiran Desai,
discuss Kiran's winning Britain's Man Booker Prize for Fiction
and their literary life from the time they left India
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Britain's most prestigious literary award, the Man Booker Prize for Fiction,
was given last month to my guest, Kiran Desai, for her novel, "The Inheritance
of Loss." At the age of 35, she's the youngest woman ever to receive the
prize. Her mother, the writer Anita Desai, was short-listed for the prize
three times. This is the first time a mother and daughter were short-listed
for the Booker. Anita Desai will join our conversation a little later. Kiran
was born in India in 1971 and was educated in India, England and the US. She
now lives in Brooklyn. Her novel is about the legacy of colonialism and what
she describes as the enormous anxiety of being a foreigner. The story
alternates between a judge in a small Westernized town in the Himalayas during
a Nepalese insurgency and Manhattan, where Biju, the son of the judge's cook,
is trying to make a living working in restaurant kitchens that employ illegal
and semilegal new immigrants. Let's start with a short reading from "The
Inheritance of Loss." I'll let Kiran Desai set it up.
Ms. KIRAN DESAI: When I first came to New York, what really struck me was
how the Third World was meeting for the first time in the basement kitchens of
New York. You met someone from Malaysia, who was meeting someone from
Tanzania, who was meeting someone from, say, Saudi Arabia. So this passage
has Biju from India and his friend Saeed Saeed from Zanzibar working together
at The Queen of Tarts Bakery. Biju and Saeed Saeed find common ground in the
fact that they have been sent, you know, hundreds of letters from their
families asking for help and, you know, many letters from people who also wish
to come to the States, and they feel they are drowning in all these requests.
They themselves haven't made it, and yet they're being asked to help others.
(Reading) "`I know, man. I know how you feel,' Saeed said. Saeed Saeed's
mother was dispensing his phone number and address freely to half of
Stonetown. They arrived at the airport with $1 in their pocket and his phone
number, seeking admittance to an apartment that was bursting with men already,
every scrap rented out. Rashid, Ema, Jaffar, Abdulah, Hussein, Mussa, Ludvah,
Ali, and a whole lot of others, sharing beds in shifts. `More tribes,' said
Saeed. `More tribes. I wake up, go to the window and there, more tribes.
Every time I look, another tribe.' Everybody's saying, `Oh, no visas anymore.
They're getting very strict. It is so hard.' And in the meantime, everybody
who apply, everybody is getting a visa. Why do they do this to me? Those
boys, let them in, they will never leave. They're desperate, desperate. Once
you let them in, once you hear their story, you can't say no. You know their
auntie, you know their cousin, you have to help the whole family, and once
they begin, they will take everything. But then everyone have nothing then.
That is why I leave Zanzibar.'"
GROSS: Thank you for reading that.
That's Kiran Desai reading from her novel "The Inheritance of Loss," and this
is the novel that won this year's Booker Prize, which is the UK's biggest
This is not a novel about how wonderful multiculturalism is. It's really
about how difficult multiculturalism is, particularly for newly arriving
immigrants. What made you want to write this book?
Ms. K. DESAI: Well, you know, there certainly is a richness to the
multicultural cities of the West. There's a lot of humor, a lot of richness.
And I think for one class, the world is becoming flat, the playing field is
becoming level, but, you know, for another class, I think the story's
completely different, and the world is still round, and, you know, you see
this very, very successful class in New York of immigrants that's being made
so much of and a shadow class of illegal immigrants where the story's
completely different. You see people making epic journeys, journeys that are
quite similar to the ones people made many generations ago. We think, well,
you know, poverty is still intact in much of the world and we see this in the
rest of the world and we also see this in the cities of the West.
GROSS: Now, is this a part of the immigrant experience that you're familiar
with? You came to the United States as a middle-class person from India.
Ms. K. DESAI: Hmm, well, you know, it's quite true. I definitely am part
of the winning class, and a lot of this book is sort of holding up a mirror to
people like myself. And myself, I grew up as a very Westernized Indian, you
know the family relationship with the West has gone back several generations,
and we've been part of the winning class of...(unintelligible)...of the
British, but on the other hand, I think stories of poverty are extremely close
to you in India. You know, you grow up with cooks, people who clean in the
house, even if you're a middle-class person, and I think even if you're in a
low middle-class family, there are still people poorer who will work for you
in this complicated hierarchy about who's sort of the lowest in the rung, and,
you know, which part of the country they come from, or even some of them come
from overseas, from Nepal or Bangladesh, and you hear these incredible stories
of poverty, and they're actually as close to you as anything in your own
family, and sometimes these people are closer to you than people in your
family. They know you more intimately. So a lot of these--I don't think it's
fair to write an immigrant story leaving out these other stories that are so
GROSS: To write your novel, did you have to ask yourself how you look to the
immigrants in, say, New York who are having trouble getting green cards and
who are at the very, kind of, bottom of the ladder?
Ms. K. DESAI: Yes. I mean, I think actually one thing we all share is the
horror of the green card, and it certainly was easier for me, and there's no
doubt about it, but that horror of the visa and the green card extends, you
know, no matter which class you come from. I think there should be a special
word in the dictionary to describe green card terror of, you know, all those
emotions that surround the desire for a green card, because it's just so much
part of the cities on every little street corner, I think, sort of what hangs
in the air.
GROSS: A lot of your book is about that desire. So would you describe that
Ms. K. DESAI: You know, I think, you always are told that immigration is a
sort of, you know, heroic story of an individual taking their destiny in their
hands and moving overseas and making it in a country that allows you to make
it, that just has more room. And yet, I think it is more complicated in that
we are all brought up to leave. There's such a push out of the country. The
most common experience is to line up for a visa outside the British Embassy or
the American, and that's also something that extends outside the class. And
it doesn't matter whether you're rich or poor. You are going to line up at
that same embassy and try to get abroad. And then I think when you arrive,
you just know it so deep inside you, the next thing you do is to try and get a
green card, and this is, of course, what they dread in the embassies. They
are all trying to, you know, sift the people out, the ones who will perhaps
return, the ones who are going to stay and they're always asking. `Are you
going to stay?' and you always have to say, `Oh, no, I'm going to come home,'
whereas, of course, you are planning to stay and everybody knows this. So as
soon as you arrive, I think the whole thing starts off again, how to get a
green card, how to apply, which lawyer is good. You know, people call up the
immigration hotline. They watch shows on Indian TV for immigrant lawyers, and
I think it's an endless journey and a huge worry really for everybody.
GROSS: What did you have to do to get a green card?
Ms. K. DESAI: It took me forever. I think I've been in this country 20
years and I've had a green card for just over five.
Ms. K. DESAI: Mmm. And I had to go to all kinds of lawyers and, you know,
yes, a constant sort of worry, I think, is the main thing you have, and I was
on student visa for a long time and finally applied under a special category
for writers and artists and got it through that...
GROSS: Yes, well, I was wondering...
Ms. K. DESAI: (Unintelligible)...as a family.
GROSS: ...wondering, as a writer, is it hard to get a green card 'cause it's
not like you're going to have a 9-to-5 job?
Ms. K. DESAI: You don't have an employer, I know...
Ms. K. DESAI: ...so it's a terribly risky field, and for a while, I
told...(unintelligible)...I should definitely be doing something else.
Writing is the worst way to--sort of absolutely crazy to try and do it in this
GROSS: You know, in the reading that you just did, the two characters were
feeling very put upon by all the relatives from their countries who wanted to
come to the United States and wanted help, you know, wanted these two guys to
help them even though these guys hadn't made it themselves and had nothing to
give. Has there been a network of family for you coming over that you've
Ms. K. DESAI: Well, we all came separately. I mean, I have a lot of family
here. Like no--I mean, again, I'm from a sort of, you know, come from a
middle-class background, and all we cope with are visits and that goes both
ways. In the summers, Indian relatives visit us. There's a huge migration of
Indian relatives and all Indians, I know, in America expect their family to
come for a few months, you know, and everyone says, `Oh, they don't know how
to cook, and they make all these demands, make things so difficult. They have
no understanding that things are different in this country.'
And, meanwhile, all of us go back in the winters to India, and in India, I
remember from growing up, everyone says, `Oh, no, the American relatives are
coming, full of complaints, saying the same lines over and over. India's so
dirty, it will never change. They have to be given cereal. Their stomachs
are always a mess.' So that's really what I mainly deal with, but I think for,
you know, people who come from poorer backgrounds, there's this huge feeling
of guilt and of having to help a lot of people, and again, I think you can
only make it as a successful immigrant if, you know, you go a lot of the
distance alone, so you have huge instances of guilt, of cruelty, and also of
course, the other story, people who make remarkable efforts for their family
that's left--you know, family left behind.
GROSS: You know, one of your characters wonders about one of the people he
works with, another kind of like semilegal immigrant who's working in one of
the restaurant kitchens. He wonders why this guy, if he hates America so
much, why does he want to stay here? Why does he even want a green card? Is
that a question you had to try to answer for yourself about people who seem to
dislike the country yet really want to be here?
Ms. K. DESAI: Mm-hmm. I've seen it so much. I've seen people incredibly
angry at this country, and there's no--they will stay and there's just every
effort made to stay, and I think, you know, we're dealing with a world that
has such a huge imbalance in power. I mean, that's really where it comes
from. I don't think it's really surprising, you know, that plenty of people
who come here and feel huge amounts of shame thinking that they've come from
the wrong side of the world, a place that doesn't have a voice, you know, in
the halls of power, and you see a huge amount of anger bursting out and yet a
determination to try and join the game at the top, you know. There's this
feeling that this is where you have to be. This is the center of it all.
This is where you have to be to be successful in the world. So I think that's
a hard thing for a country that's accepting immigrants to realize but you see
it in so many European countries as well. People don't understand this
immigrant anger, and yet it's obviously so huge.
GROSS: One of your characters, you know, who's been, both in England and in
the United States, an immigrant who's been in both of those places, says,
`Well, at least in America people are hypocritical and they try to act nice
even if they don't like you, whereas in England, they'll just yell at you, "Go
Ms. K. DESAI: Well, no, I'm often sitting in conversations with immigrants
from all over, and one of the most hilarious conversations and I think one
that's repeated is who is worse and which ruler is worse, and people who have
been ruled by the British say, `Oh, the British are actually much better.
It's the Portuguese who are really bad and the Spanish were really awful and
the Dutch--oh, no, the Dutch were really cruel.' So you have all of these
conversations, you know, who's the better master? And again, I mean, even
when I go back to India, you see, you know, people who, you know, one child
has immigrated to Australia, one child has immigrated to Britain, another one
to the States, and they sit there and people sit there and discuss this--you
know, `Where are you, where do you assimilate better, where does it not matter
where you're from, where is history's burden greatest?' And, of course, that
happens to be England.
GROSS: You think that's England?
Ms. K. DESAI: Well, I think they're just so conscious of the history of
colonialism that there's no escaping it, whereas in the States it's a fresh
relationship and a new one, and I think it's certainly one that's, you know,
really optimistic. People seem to be so happy about it on both sides. Bush
was treated like, you know, a hero, when he went to India, and I think even he
was surprised at the warmth of that welcome.
GROSS: Well, you know, you've lived in England and the United States. So, do
you get a sense of the people in England relating to you as a former colonial
Ms. K. DESAI: No, I think it's just so complicated. In one way, they greet
you in the nicest way possible, because they know the most about the country,
so you can really feel as if you're among people who sort of understand, and,
of course, there are still people who are really Indophiles and you know, `Go
back to India' all the time, and Indian literature has a very old history
of--you know, in England, and people have been reading Indian writers for a
long time, whereas, I think, here it's a new thing. It's a new phenomenon.
On the other hand, I think you're just obviously much more self-conscious.
You sort of realize that this is being, you know, this is an old history.
People tend to behave in sort of stereotypical ways, and I immediately felt
very self-conscious when I was in England, and that sort of dissipated in the
States and especially in New York, where I think, you know, you really feel
comfortable walking down the streets no matter where you're from.
GROSS: My guest is Kiran Desai. Her novel "The Inheritance of Loss" won this
year's Man Booker Prize.
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Kiran Desai, and her novel "The Inheritance of Loss" won
this year's Man Booker Prize, which is the UK's biggest literary award.
Now part of your novel is set in the United States, part of it is set in
India, and one of the main characters in the Indian part of the story is a
judge who is the father of the character who works in the kitchens of
restaurants of New York, and he also has a granddaughter who is basically
deposited at his doorstep by the child's parents, who then kind of leave the
country and never come back. Now I understand that the judge is based on your
Ms. K. DESAI: Well, not exactly, in that my grandfather never had the
personality of this judge, so there's a huge big difference in that he wasn't
an ogre, like the judge in the book.
GROSS: Yes, that's a good thing.
Ms. K. DESAI: It's a good thing, yes. We all came out, you know, all
right. But this is certainly a generation where I saw a huge amount of
cruelty taking place and a lot of people coming back from England, and it's
also being written about quite a bit in accounts of old people who worked for
the Indian civil service and you know, even of more famous people, people like
Gandhi and Nehru, our founding fathers, and they came back from England and
found they couldn't relate to their families. The families had remained
Indian and their wives had remained Indian, and so often, I think, these women
were just put away in the back room. So I did want to write about just what
it meant to introduce a Western element into a country that's not of the West.
I mean, what does that do to a family?
But it is true that my grandfather made this huge journey from a village in
Godhra, where he learned the English dictionary by standing under a street
lamp, and then went all the way to Cambridge, took the Indian civil service
exam and returned a judge under the British administration just at the moment
the Indian independence movement was going on and people were being called
upon to leave their jobs with the British administration. So I began to
wonder what it meant to be the sort of hero and traitor rolled into one and
how on earth someone could cope with it, I mean, intellectually but also
emotionally. How would you get around that? And a lot of that generation was
very silent about what had happened, and I think a lot of them made up stories
that they could live with, but it must have a been a really difficult time
where they must not have seen a right way to move. You know, they had made
this journey, they were trying to help their families lift themselves out of
poverty, attain a different class that wouldn't have been so easy to do in an
Indian setting where, you know, class is very strict and caste is very strict,
and so it was actually the British administration that allowed movement out of
that and a whole different idea of secular India. You know, of course, good
things always mixed up with bad, and you have to negotiate that.
GROSS: So, what did your grandfather do to earn his living after India became
independent from England? Did he remain a judge?
Ms. K. DESAI: He remained a judge and, you know, there was such a gap.
There was such a vacuum of power, everyone had left, that any Indian who was
qualified was really promoted and did very well. So he became a high court
GROSS: One of your characters, as we've mentioned, works in restaurant
kitchens and sometimes lives in the kitchen...
Ms. K. DESAI: Yes. Yes.
GROSS: ...because it's cheaper than actually renting a place.
Ms. K. DESAI: Yes, yes, I've been to some basement kitchens and...
GROSS: Well, that's what I was wondering. Yeah, would you describe what
Ms. K. DESAI: Well, a lot was taken from stories of people on both sides, I
mean, people in India have sent their children abroad and just from all the
stories you hear in New York, people who, you know, worked in the bakery just
next to where I used to live. But I remember going into some of these
kitchens of Indian restaurants and just seeing, you know, pots and pans and
the cooking going on and also laundry hanging overhead and towels and
vegetables being washed and also soap and razors on the sink, and you realize
that, you know, it's all, yes, it's a scene of people living and working, you
know, and sometimes all these kitchens are even connected. I think the family
owns a whole lot of them so it's a big domestic scene going on downstairs.
GROSS: How did you get access to go downstairs and see what it looked like?
Ms. K. DESAI: I think people are very friendly when you're, you know,
talking to people from the same country, and you're really chatting about
things, and I think people--Indians like to talk.
GROSS: Did you talk...
Ms. K. DESAI: We tell each other everything. You know, you do get a lot of
information. I didn't find people being secretive at all.
GROSS: So, I mean--so how do you ask to see the kitchen where people are
living, as well as cooking, you know.
Ms. K. DESAI: Just talking to the waiters and saying, `Oh, where do you
live?' `We live right here.' And you know, going down to see.
GROSS: Right, right.
Ms. K. DESAI: Just as simple, just very, very simple.
GROSS: Did you feel any different about the food knowing that there were, you
know, razors and towels and laundry next to the vegetables?
Ms. K. DESAI: Oh, I knew the food would be better! This is where taste
GROSS: Kiran Desai's latest novel, "The Inheritance of Loss," won this year's
Man Booker Prize for Fiction. The novel is dedicated to her mother, the
writer Anita Desai, who will join our conversation in the second half of the
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.
I'm Terry Gross back with Kiran Desai. Last month she won Britain's most
prestigious literary award, the Man Booker Prize, for her novel, "The
Inheritance of Loss." It's in part about the lives of new immigrants who have
come to Manhattan and try to eke out a living working in the kitchens of
restaurants. Desai grew up in India, then moved with her mother to England
and the US. Her mother is the writer Anita Desai, who was short-listed for
the Booker Prize three times. She'll join our conversation in a few minutes.
How old were you when you went to England and the United States?
Ms. K. DESAI: I think I was 15 when I was in England and 16 when I was in
the States. So high school for me was India, England and the States, so it
was three countries.
GROSS: In the years that you've lived in the United States, do you feel like
you've found the Indian-American community change a lot?
Ms. K. DESAI: I have, so much, and 20 years I think it wasn't apparent to
me. It didn't seem to be a big community at all. I lived first in Amherst,
in Massachusetts and then went to college in Bennington in Vermont, and, of
course, there were very few Indians around. And then I think something just
very, you know, just the most obvious, simple thing happened. They opened up
the visa quotas, and a lot of Indian professionals began to arrive and I think
really transformed the cities in New York. Even when I first came, the Indian
community was certainly strong but not this strong, the way--I mean, I look
around now, and there are so many South Asian literary festivals and South
Asian film clubs and lecture series and, you know, book readings, panel
discussions. The restaurants are getting more and more, the cuisine is
becoming more and more specialized, and so it's certainly easier for me to
maintain a connection with India now than it was 20 years ago. It's so funny
but I feel closer to India now than I did a little while a go.
GROSS: You know, I'm just curious, this may seem like an odd question but
since your novel is so much about immigration in a global era, what's your
reaction when you call an 800 number, you know, like to buy airline tickets or
anything like that, and you know that the person answering your call is
actually in India.
Ms. K. DESAI: I know, and they know you're an Indian in America as soon as
you pick up the phone, and I've had some of the funniest conversations, you
know, and some really hilarious experiences, where they've called me over and
over again, you know, the same satellite TV company, and first time I say, `I
don't have a television,' and they say, `Oh, so sorry, madam, not everyone has
a TV.' And then they call again and then they call again, and finally I say,
`Stop calling me. You call me every day.' And they say, `Oh, Kiran, why are
you getting upset? You're from India, aren't you?' I say, `Yes, I am from
India.' `Will you be comfortable speaking in Hindi, Kiran?' `I just don't want
to talk about satellite TV.' `Oh, Kiran, what are you cooking today, Kiran?'
And then, you know, I began to think, this is so--somebody should make a
Hollywood film. This is a perfect setting. Grumpy Indian Westernized girl
working in New York, sitting alone over her books, call center boys from
Bombay calling from Delhi, gradually Indians from both countries joining
hands, singing songs, and it would be very funny. It would be a very funny
movie, I think.
GROSS: Joining hands and making purchases.
Ms. K. DESAI: Making purchases, dancing across the Brooklyn Bridge
GROSS: Well, Kiran Desai, we actually have your mother on the phone...
Ms. K. DESAI: Oh, how nice!
GROSS: Your mother Anita Desai is, of course, also a writer.
And I should explain to our listeners that Kiran Desai's new novel, "The
Inheritance of Loss," won the Booker Prize this year, which is the top
literary prize in the UK, and her mother, Anita Desai, was nominated--well,
was short-listed for that prize three times. And this is the only time that a
mother and daughter were ever short-listed for this prize and certainly the
only time a mother was short-listed and a daughter actually won it.
I think we have your mother on the phone. Hello?
Ms. ANITA DESAI: Hello.
GROSS: Hi, is this...
Ms. K. DESAI: Hello, Ma.
Ms. A. DESAI: How funny this is!
GROSS: Anita Desai...
Ms. K. DESAI: I know.
GROSS: ...thank you for joining our conversation, and, you know, we've been
talking about Kiran's novel. How did you find out that she won the Booker
Ms. A. DESAI: Well, I was in India at the time. I was staying with my
brother in Dehradun in the Toonreli, and we got up at 5 in the morning and
turned on the computer and saw her name scrolling across the screen. That was
wonderful. And at 6:00, all the TV channels started broadcasting the news, so
we knew it was true. It really had happened.
GROSS: Now, it took Kiran eight years to write this book, and I was wondering
if you were ever worried...
Ms. K. DESAI: A very embarrassing fact.
GROSS: ...about her. Anita Desai, were you ever worried that your daughter
would never be able to actually finish this book? Or worse yet, say, she
finished it and it wasn't published after all that work?
Ms. A. DESAI: I was certainly not worried about her not finishing it. I
was quite sure she would. She was so deeply absorbed in it, I knew she
couldn't let it go. I was frightened all the time, I have to say. Seeing her
put in so much labor and so much thought, I would have been terribly unhappy
if it hadn't received the wonderful reception it did.
GROSS: Well, Kiran Desai, what was it like for you to spend eight years on
Ms. K. DESAI: Well, I know, it does seem--it's completely--yeah, I'm
embarrassed to say it's been that long. But you know, after, I think a year
goes by or two years go by, three years go by, you just fall into a different
way of living altogether. My existence was just not separate from writing
this book. At various times, I realized that that was unhealthy and that it
was not--it was quite dangerous to live like this. And you realize the doors
open as I write and you can exit. Nothing really holds you back but--so, yes,
the book just spilled out into my life, and I didn't notice the years passing.
GROSS: I understand that the original manuscript was thousands of pages.
Anita Desai, did you read all those thousands of pages?
Ms. A. DESAI: No, no. There weren't thousands for one thing. There were a
GROSS: Oh, OK.
Ms. A. DESAI: And I think I read what was the first draft. I'm not sure if
that's the draft that Kiran kept everything in.
Ms. K. DESAI: No, you got a bit of an edited version.
Ms. A. DESAI: I see. I see.
GROSS: Did you give your daughter advice on how to shorten it?
Ms. A. DESAI: No, I didn't think it needed to be shortened. I did sit down
with her and go over some of the points I thought of while reading, just
suggestions really and pointing out where I went astray or got lost, but other
than that, certainly not. And I never asked her to shorten it. In fact, I
was sorry that she did shorten it so much.
GROSS: Well, Kiran, what's the best advice your mother ever gave you about
writing? Or maybe she doesn't, like, give you advice per se.
Ms. K. DESAI: She's always very gentle with her advice, never a stick held
over my head so I don't even feel it as if it is advice. But you know, one
of--as she just said, she didn't advise me to shorten it, and I think that's
because that's the kind of reader she is, she's quite happy with a messy book
that's also flawed and that might be better for being longer, messier harder
to read, even though it's not polished. And I think the publishing world
expects it to be--you know, they want you to produce a more polished product,
and yet I think sometimes when you do that, you lose, you know, a wilder, more
eccentric, more difficult quality that also has its purpose, and I sometimes
like reading books that are, you know, obviously not perfect.
GROSS: Well, Anita Desai, do you think your daughter's book lost something by
becoming more polished and better edited?
Ms. A. DESAI: Well, the first draft that I read was so dense, and it was so
rich, and I was sorry that she let go of some of the characters and some of
the histories. I know that editors might have thought of these as
digressions. I didn't think of them as digressions. I thought they just made
the work so much richer. They were part of its wonderful quality.
GROSS: My guests are the novelist Kiran Desai and her mother, the writer
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guests are Kiran Desai and her mother, Anita Desai. Kiran won this
year's Man Booker Prize, Britain's most prestigious literary award. Her
mother, Anita Desai, has been short-listed for the prize three times.
Kiran Desai, do you think you were influenced as a writer by having a mother
Ms. K. DESAI: Certainly, but you know it's so much so, that I can't even
name the beginning or the end of it. I don't know if it's her influence as a
person or if it's the influence of her books. It's probably a combination of
the two, but the biggest thing for me is just being, you know, not having to
fight to create atmosphere in which I could write. I found that I just knew
how to live a writing life from her and when we do write in the same house, I
always think of how hard it is to write for so many writers to create that
atmosphere in which they can work, and for me it's always been available.
GROSS: Well, Anita Desai, your daughter is just saying she grew up knowing
what it's like to be a writer and having you as a role model. You didn't have
that kind of a role model when you were becoming a writer, and you also had
four children to take care of. So it must have been much more difficult for
you to carve a place in your life where you were free to write.
Ms. A. DESAI: Perhaps it was difficult to carve a place in which I could
write but it was also absolutely essential. I knew I had to do it, and when
the children were small, they used to rush to my desk as soon as they went to
school or went out into the garden to play, and there was always that space in
my mind in which I let myself live with my book. I couldn't have done without
that. Certainly, when I was writing, there wasn't another writer in the
house. It wasn't a writer's house. And you're right. One does need role
models, and I did have one who lived down the road from where I lived as a
child, and I got to know her, and it was just wonderful knowing somebody who
lived very like me with a family and yet wrote these wonderful books. Her
name is Ruth Jhabvala...
Ms. A. DESAI: ...and I've always tried to stay very close to her because
she's been my model.
GROSS: She's a screenwriter, too.
Ms. A. DESAI: Yes, but in those years, she was writing her novels and her
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Well, you know, Anita Desai, since your daughter's
novel is about immigration in a lot of ways, you know, immigration during--in
a global era, I'm wondering what it was like for you when you decided to move
to England and then to the United States, taking your daughter with you,
knowing that you were bringing her to new countries. Were you concerned about
her adjusting or anything?
Ms. A. DESAI: Well, at that time I wasn't thinking of the books I was going
to write or she was going to write. It was just the way my life evolved. At
a certain stage, I had to leave and I had to come to the West...
GROSS: Why did you have to leave?
Ms. A. DESAI: Well, the world I was living in was extremely limited and I
felt I was going over and over the same material all the time. It began to
seem very confined and very oppressive and I did long for a wider world,
greater experience and when this was offered to me, first by the University of
Cambridge in England and then by various colleges here in the United States, I
took those opportunities. I deliberately wanted to change and expand and
widen my experience of life. Kiran was a schoolgirl at that time. I couldn't
leave her behind, so I took her with me, and, yes, it must have been extremely
difficult for her as a schoolgirl, a child of 15 and 16 to be thrown into such
a very different environment.
GROSS: Kiran, was it difficult?
Ms. K. DESAI: In many ways, I think it was. You know, I think it's
inevitable this kind of journey. I'd never left India before, so it was my
first realization of what it meant to be Indian, and what, you know, the place
of India was in the world, and, of course, at that moment, I think it was all
a blur, and I--as it is when you're a teenager, I think you just distance
yourself from yourself. But in retrospect, I don't think you ever can go back
to a simpler life or wish that you had chosen a more simple existence. I
don't think you ever turn away richness, even if it's difficult.
GROSS: Anita Desai, when you said that you had to leave India because you
felt limited, I was wondering if you felt limited as a writer or limited as a
Ms. A. DESAI: I think I felt limited as a woman. As a woman, I had to live
a certain kind of life. I was somebody's daughter, somebody's wife,
somebody's mother, but I felt I was never myself, not myself, the writer. And
in order to gain that independence, I had to also detach myself from the life
I had been leading.
GROSS: And did it work out that way? Did you get the independence and sense
of self that you wanted when you left India and went to England?
Ms. A. DESAI: It did work out that way. I was given, as I said, once you
have stepped out of that confined but very much more orderly and simple life,
you can't really go back to it. And I found myself growing increasingly
independent, so much so that it was impossible to become dependent again.
GROSS: Anita Desai, when you first started getting published in Britain and
in the United States, there were fewer Indian writers who were published and
widely read, and since then, there have been several, you know, pretty
well-known Indian writers. The Indian community has grown in the United
States, so I'm wondering if you think, Kiran, that your different--that your
experience getting published, and Anita, your experience getting published,
are really different from each? In other words, if it's been any more
difficult to get published or to find an audience.
Ms. A. DESAI: Yes, when I started writing, there were very few Indian
writers that were known in the West and really few of us in India, too. We
didn't form a community. There was no sense of community. It was an
extremely lonely life that one had chosen for oneself. And I do see things
have changed tremendously now, both in India and for the Indian community here
in the West, and they do have this wonderful sense of an audience, which is
wonderful in a way because it validates what you are doing, but I think it may
also be a bit frightening to think of so many people watching what you are
doing, waiting for you to bring out a book, ready to pounce on it in a way.
And, in a way, I'm rather happy that I didn't have that when I was doing my
early work, and I could just write for myself without any sense of somebody
looking over my shoulder without being aware of an audience at all. It was
lonely, but it was also wonderfully free.
Ms. K. DESAI: Yeah, I think it's a much cozier world, it's true. You know
you have sort of in touch with South Asian writers writing in India, in
England, in the States. We all meet at conferences. A huge number of them
live in Brooklyn. We all drink together, and it's this wonderful sense of a
community of authors just because there's so many more Indian writers writing
now and of people waiting for books to come out and going to readings with,
you know, wine and some Osaz, which again didn't happen, even not so long ago.
It's quite recent. I think the big challenge is to be able to lose
self-consciousness and to write well. I think when you do write for the
market or if you write for an audience or for audience approval, it's like
writing for writers' groups or writing in a writing workshop. I think you
have to be so determined to disappear from the world and push yourself as far
as you need to go, which often is a difficult, weird, eccentric lonely place,
and that is where writing comes from.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both so much for talking with us. And
Kiran, congratulations again on winning the Booker Prize.
Ms. K. DESAI: Thank you so much.
Ms. A. DESAI: Thank you, too.
GROSS: Kiran Desai's new novel, "The Inheritance of Loss," won this year's
Man Booker Price for Fiction. Her mother, Anita Desai, was short-listed for
the prize three times.
Coming up, a new recording featuring an orchestra that some superstar
conductors think is one of the most important developments in the classical
music world. Lloyd Schwartz will have a review.
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz reviews new
recording of Beethoven's 5th and 7th Symphonies led by Venezuelan
conductor Gustavo Dudamel
TERRY GROSS, host:
It might come as a surprise that such superstar conductors as Simon Rattle and
Daniel Barenboim think that the most important thing going on in the world of
classical music is not taking place in one of the European capitals but in
Venezuela. Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz explains.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. LLOYD SCHWARTZ: There's a phenomenal national music program for young
musicians in Venezuela. It was founded 30 years ago by a visionary musician
named Jose Antonio Abreu, who has kept the program alive and growing through
all the careening rights and lefts of Venezuelan politics. There are now more
than a quarter of a million students taking music lessons and rehearsing every
day, including Sundays. Some begin as young as three years old. Most of
them, along with three quarters of the rest of Venezuela, live below the
poverty level. So they're not only given musical instruments. They're also
given cell phones because they live in neighborhoods too poor to have phone
lines. This program is literally giving them a future, saving their lives.
It's also producing some extraordinary musicians. The youngest member of the
Berlin Philharmonic is Venezuelan bass player Edicson Ruiz, who got the job
when he was 19. And the charismatic 25-year-old Gustavo Dudamel has become
one of the most sought-after guest conductors in the world. Next year, he'll
be principal conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony, Sweden's national
orchestra. At 17, he became the leader of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra,
the top-ranked of Venezuela's 170 youth and children's orchestras. Now he has
an exclusive recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon, which has just
released his first CD with his youth orchestra, playing two of the most
familiar monuments of orchestral literature, Beethoven's 5th and 7th
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. SCHWARTZ: In the liner notes to the new Beethoven recording, Dudamel
says he's not trying to replace other versions, but to give his young
musicians their own voice. What emerges, just as when I heard him conducting
the more august Boston Symphony Orchestra this past summer, are fresh,
exciting readings, full of youthful energy but also shapely, rhythmically
alert and refined. Small with dark curly hair, Dudamel is very active on the
podium, the music seems to be racing through his veins. Would you believe
this orchestra is made up of 19 and 20-year-olds. But then, who else could
create such passion in a work about confronting one's destiny.
(Soundable of music)
Mr. SCHWARTZ: Of course, not every Venezuelan music student is going to
become an international star, but the youth program, because it's expanding,
is also preparing teachers and administrators. More instruments are needed so
there's a school for instrument makers. And there are some amazing programs
for handicapped children. I was in Venezuela last year and saw all this in
action. The families and neighbors of the young musicians are also getting
involved. Concerts are getting to be as popular as sports events.
Competition between local orchestras get whole towns excited.
There's a lesson for us here, too. By fostering respect for the arts, this
impoverished Third World country is doing more than we are to keep young
people off the streets, off alcohol and drugs and out of gangs. Instead of
funding arts programs in schools, we're cutting them back, and we're already
paying a price for those cutbacks.
GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music critic of the Boston Phoenix and
teaches English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He reviewed the
new recording of Beethoven's 5th and 7th Symphonies led by Venezuelan
conductor Gustavo Dudamel.
I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of music)
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