Monday, August 24, 2009

Aimless Reading: The D's, Part 21.1 (Kiran Desai)

Desai, Kiran
The Inheritance of Loss

This came from the publisher in anticipation of Kiran Desai's appearance in Buffalo in 2008. I got to spend an afternoon with her driving around Buffalo and out to Niagara falls. She was was quite charming and she gave a great talk/reading that evening in the Babel series. I am not feeling terribly imaginative today, so here is the introduction I wrote for her then.

We’re very proud to present Kiran Desai this evening. In addition to being the winner of the 2006 Man Booker Prize for her novel The Inheritance of Loss, she is the daughter of novelist Anita Desai, herself a three-time nominee for the Booker. Having spent the first 15 years of her life in India, she moved to the United States on the trail of her mother’s teaching career at U.S. universities, finishing high school in Amherst, Massachusetts and college at Bennington in Vermont. In 1999, she published her first novel, Hullaballoo in the Guava Orchard. She then spent the next seven years writing The Inheritance of Loss, which many in Buffalo have been reading for the past month. She now has the additional distinction of being the first woman and the first author under the age of 55 to grace the Babel stage.

The Inheritance of Loss is a novel at once local in its attention to the minute rhythms of a particular place, in this case the West Bengal region of India, and yet global in its tracking of the journeys of several West Bengalis outside of India and into the world at large. It is a novel about displacement, violence and identity on the one hand, and about family, home and romantic love on the other. It further provides the reader with a window looking into a part of India with which few Americans are familiar. Kalimpong, where the novel is set, is a region with a historically porous border with Nepal and which is comprised of a population that is 95% Nepali. An insurrection of Indian Nepalese, or Gorhkas as they are called, forms the backdrop to much of the action in the novel.

Immigration also plays an important role in the story. The Judge left India to study in England, only to return a stranger to a newly independent homeland. Sai has lost her parents and has traveled from Russia to live out her adolescence in Kalimpong. And Biju, the native of Kalimpong, travels to America, where his particular American dream goes unfulfilled. Each in his or her own way represents a kind of dislocation common to a globalized world, never quite fitting in, never quite knowing the rules of the game. Of her own experience as an immigrant, Kiran Desai writes:

I think there's always a degree of loss in being an immigrant. It feels as if one will never be able to tell an entire story ever again. There'll be an aspect of living half a life, having only half a story to tell. We tend to hope for a simplicity of truth, a wholeness which is rarely delivered us.

The Inheritance of Loss asks us to ask ourselves what it means to live in a world that is economically interdependent yet socially divided, what it means to live in a world where the idea of a homeland or simply a place to call home seems to disappear in the swirl of global commerce, and finally what it means to love across cultures, time zones, and class structures.

We began this first season of Babel with a writer from Turkey whose worldview attempts to reconcile a national identity caught between European secularism and Middle Eastern Islam; our next writer brought from South America a bi-lingual and bi-cultural perspective to the discussion of political relations north and south; our third writer made beautiful poems examining the possibilities and failures of multiracialism in the west. Our final author in this year’s series in many ways brings all of these together by seeing the world through a truly global lens, one that registers the shifts and tides of history from within the mundane and local details of everyday life.

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