Monday, July 03, 2006

Anita Desai

Here's what I've written and submitted to the Bali Adverstiser, in the regular column on the Ubud Writers Festival 2006:

Acclaimed author Anita Desai is guaranteed to add fuel to our theme Desa-Kala-Patra. Throughout her novels, short stories and children’s literature, Desai often focuses on the dilemma of identity and family relationships often in context with India’s recent social changes. Desai has received numerous literary awards and her work is touted by English professors from Princeton to the University of Hong Kong.

A sensitive heart and a bold hand synchronize in Desai’s work, giving the reader immensely rich reading experiences. Her created characters linger on in the mind, sculpted with substance, even in her shortest short stories. To read Desai is not to be overwhelmed in flowery descriptions, but to be allowed to observe salient moments of revelation and transformation. Preferring to reveal truth over sentimentality, Desai isolates the details that matter, with critics and admirers comparing her to some of the best modernist writers, including Virginia Woolf and T. S. Eliot.

Desai’s subjects are often seen captive in the walls of the home, or in a confining social convention, but she lets the reader see their hopes, pleasures, and compassions. Never claustrophobic, Desai’s characters’ domains and inner selves are given distinction and quiet dignity amidst an unyielding world. A tale about a going-away party, in her delightful Games at Twilight and Other Stories, to which many an expat can relate, is full of water metaphors to show a queasy sense of instability.

Having an affinity for both India and the west, Desai has a true familiarity with marginalization and dual ethnicity. Her mother was German, but adapted easily to life in India. The biggest difference between Desai’s parents and those in her neighborhood is that she and her sisters were encouraged to read the best English literature. Even as a 6 year old, she knew she would become a writer. Today, when she teaches creative writing, whether it be in New York or Cambridge, Desai emphasizes practice, in the same way that a musician must practice. But she also encourages reading itself.

Indian society is a popular subject matter today, and there are seemingly countless hot subcontinental writers. What really sets Desai apart is her deft use of language and ease with creating characters which ring true. Her writing is a popular scholarly subject, with just as many books about her work as books authored by her.

We’ll never see her work distinguished in the UK’s annual “bad sex in fiction” literary stakes (Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy have had that dubious honor). Desai has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times and can count Rushdie himself amongst her many fans.

Suggested pre-Festival reading from Desai: Games at Twilight and Other Stories, Clear Light of Day, Baumgartner’s Bombay, and Fasting, Feasting. Desai adapted her novel In Custody for the screen in the Merchant-Ivory production of Hifazaat; possibly can be found on DVD, but don’t bring a pirate copy to the book signing! A Festival lunch with Desai will be a sure sellout this October.

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