Writings of the general word's body

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Kiran Desai

Funny, I was at Waterstones Piccadilly with a Nigerian poet on the night of the Booker (Tuesday 10th October). We stopped before a section stocked with Booker short-listed books and said: gosh, tonight is the night. This led to a short discussion on the likely winner, weighing Kiran Desai's chances against the hot favourite, Sarah Waters. We sort of concluded that Waters was unstoppable, though we'd have loved to see Desai win. The conversation came to interesting light with news of Desai's triumph when I heard the next morning. Waterstones has now gone ahead and slashed the price of her prize-winning book by £7 and according to this newspaper report (right), it's even cheaper at WHSmith. Anyway, my short report on the Booker....

Nine years after Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, India is once again celebrating a Booker Prize winning novel set in the sub-continent. Kiran Desai beat five other writers on the Booker shortlist last week to win the £50,000 prize with her second novel, The Inheritance of Loss. At 35, she is the youngest woman to win, and the latest in what is now being called a tradition of Indian-born Booker winners.

After the critical nods received by her first novel, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard (1998), Desai dropped off the literary radar, so that when she turned up on the shortlist of this year’s Booker Prize, she did so as a virtual unknown. Being noticed in her own right was never going to be easy, since the name ‘Desai’ would lead most people to think only of her famous mother, Anita Desai - an author of 14 novels.

Announcing the Booker long-list in August, chair of the judges, Hermione Lee, said: "It's a list in which famous established novelists rub shoulders with little known newcomers." Of those that made the short-list, Sarah Waters was widely tipped to win (for The Night Watch). In the end, Kiran Desai, the relative outsider, won. “I think her mother would be proud,” said Lee.

Arriving in London from this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair (which focused on Indian Literature), Desai may have been a first-timer in the Booker razzmatazz, but it was not entirely new to her. She had experienced it vicariously in fact, since her mother Anita has been short-listed three times and failed to win. With the daughter also in the run for this year’s prize, some might have wondered who was living vicariously through whom.

When Desai won on the night, someone would have had to dash to some remote outpost in India to inform her famous mother. Anita Desai - mindful of her own bad luck with the Booker and worried for her daughter - went as far away from means of communication as possible. She was said to be holed up in a small village with no television and no telephone. “I hope she has heard,“ was all Kiran Desai could say, the day after her win.

Born in India, Kiran moved to England with her mother at the age of 14. They eventually relocated to the US, where the new Booker-winner is based. Hardly surprising, the solitude and dislocation endured by migrants are the main themes of The Inheritance of Loss, which took the novelist eight years to write. Her first novel was written in four years; she jokes that, going by her standards so far, the next book could take 16 years.

In the eight years of writing, Kiran Desai found that, not only did publishers and agents lose faith in her (as can happen when the achievement of the first novel is not quickly followed by a second), so did everyone else. “Everyone in my family… was saying, ‘It’s awful, you really have to be responsible, you must get a job,” Desai told the British Press. She praised her mother as the only one who stood by her.

Desai retains her Indian citizenship, though she has lived in the US long enough to become an American citizen. George Bush is one reason why she has hesitated in applying for US citizenship; writing is another, perhaps more fundamental reason. Not only is the younger Desai not enamoured with the American style of writing, she has come to the realisation that: “I see everything through the lens of being Indian. It’s not something that has gone away - it’s something that has become stronger… I have realised that I can’t really write without that perspective.”

The author returned to India to write parts of The Inheritance of Loss. Although she would be heading back to America after her Booker win, Desai indicated that she would have preferred to celebrate where it matters most - in India.

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