Indian writer Pankaj Mishra is one
of eight writers from seven countries winning a $150,000 Yale University prize
each in recognition of their achievements and to support their ongoing work. Mishra,
an Indian essayist, memoirist, travel writer and novelist, won the Windham
Campbell Literature Prize in non-fiction category, The Beinecke Rare Book &
Manuscript Library at Yale announced.
categories are: in fiction, Aminatta Forna (Sierra Leone), Nadeem Aslam (Pakistan), and Jim Crace (United Kingdom); in
non-fiction John Vaillant (United States/Canada); and in drama, Kia Corthron
(United States), Sam Holcroft (United Kingdom) and Noëlle Janaczewska
His father was a communist, poet and film producer. Through his family,
“I learned about political commitment and the life of the mind, and that
an artist is never poor.” His mother’s side were “money-makers, factory
owners – and very religious,” some versed in storytelling, music and
The adult in Season of the Rainbirds
who destroys children’s playthings as idols, was based on a maternal
uncle, an adherent of a “strict, unsmiling sect” of Islam, who smashed
his nephew’s toys. As Aslam later wrote in “God and Me”, a fragment of
memoir in Granta in 2006: “My uncle’s version of Islam was the same kind
practised by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan three decades later.”
That first novel was a child’s-eye view of a violent shift in society,
and the spread of extremist sects, compounded by a crackdown after an
attempt on the life of the ruling general – as happened in Pakistan in
Aslam was 11 when General Zia ul-Haq seized power in a
military coup in 1977, with a drive for “Islamic values”. “He changed
the entire texture of Pakistani life,” Aslam recalls. “People began to
give children Arabic names. There were public floggings and hangings.”
His mother’s family approved. His father’s were appalled….
“Whatever Zia did before
Christmas Eve 1979 was condemned. On Christmas Day, he became a hero.
This is how things spiralled and the jihadi mindset emerged. My father
and uncles, radical communists, were among those who said don’t do this,
don’t encourage this mindset.” As Zia clamped down, “journalists and
writers were arrested, or had to leave the country in fear”. One uncle
was “taken away and tortured”.
Once the Soviets withdrew, and US
interest waned, the Taliban rose. As Aslam sees it, “10 years later 9/11
happened and half the planet woke up. They had no idea it came out of
the cold war.” Later, teaching at George Washington University in 2009,
Aslam would pass the White House, and think “how words on grey paper in
the 1980s became fists, electric wires and instruments of torture which
broke members of my family and friends”. When he said as much in a US
interview, “it was seen as anti-American. But these were the results
of the cold war. These decisions, with the collusion of Pakistani
rulers, ended up breaking and killing people.”
[ref. wiki] His debut novel, Season of the Rainbirds (1993), set in rural
Pakistan, won the Betty Trask and the Author’s Club First Novel Award. He
won widespread praise for his next novel Maps for Lost Lovers (2004) which is set
in the midst of an immigrant Pakistani community in an English town in the
north. Aslam’s third novel, The Wasted Vigil, is set in Afghanistan.
On 11 February 2011, it was short-listed for the Warwick Prize For Writing . Aslam’s fourth novel is The Blind Man’s
Garden (2013). It is set in Western Pakistan and Eastern Afghanistan and
looks at the War on Terror through the eyes of local, Islamist
characters. It contains also a tender love story loosely based on the
traditional Punjabi romance of Heer Ranjha.
[excerpts from an interview with N.A.] Somebody once said about Picasso that in the Soviet Union they hated
his art but they loved his politics, and in the States, they loved his
art but they hated his politics. When my previous novel, The Wasted Vigil, was
published, I ended up giving readings in New York, Lahore, and New
Delhi, within a period of twenty days.
In New York, someone stood up,
after I read a sequence and said “You are a pro-jihadi. It’s clear from
what you’re saying that you support jihadi violence. You should be
ashamed of yourself.” I went to Lahore and I gave a reading from the
same passage and someone stood up and said, “You are an American agent.
You work for the CIA. You should be ashamed of yourself.” I went to
New Delhi, and after reading the same passage, someone stood up and
said, “You are a conservative reactionary. You think of capitalism and
conservatism as the pinnacle of human achievement. You see no other
alternative. You should be ashamed of yourself.”
I never lose hope — I am not a believer but I do remember that in
Islam it is a sin to lose hope. You are not allowed to despair. This is
why suicide bombings were such a problematic issue for the
fundamentalists — suicide is a sin. So they have circumvented it by
saying they are not “suicide bombings,” they are “martyrdom bombings.”
So I can’t lose hope about anything — East-West, Islam, USA. But
that doesn’t mean you will find conventional “happy endings” in my
stories. I am puzzled when I am told that my books are dark or bleak. I
think to have gained knowledge of why things went wrong for the
characters in the stories, why things go wrong in real life for us, is a happy ending.
So I dropped out. I didn’t finish my biochemistry degree and I began
writing my first novel, which took 11 months to write, and I didn’t
have any idea of how to have a book published. But the writers I loved
were John Updike, Gore Vidal, V.S. Naipaul, Cormac McCarthy, and they
were published by a firm in London called Andre Deutsch. So I picked up
a copy of Naipaul’s novel, A Bend in the River, looked at the
copyright page and got the address. I sent them the manuscript and 10
days later I got a phone call inviting me to have lunch. And I said “I
can’t,” and they said, “why not?” I said, “I have no money,” and they
said, “we’ll give you money and we’ll have lunch.” So I borrowed £20
and I got on a coach.
After the book was accepted I thought because I couldn’t do my O
Levels, A levels, BA, MA, and PhD in the subjects I was interested in,
I’m going to educate myself. So over the course of the next 10 or 11
years I read everything. I would go to person A and say, “Tell me,
who’s a great writer?” William Faulkner. So I read everything by
William Faulkner. I would begin with the first novel and end up with
the last novel. I would go to person B and say, ‘Who’s a great writer?’
Thomas Hardy. I read everything by Thomas Hardy, sequentially. Who’s a
great writer? D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov,
And then I wanted to know, how much thought is allowed in one
paragraph? How many images are allowed per page? What is a comma? And
so I copied out the whole of Moby Dick by hand. I copied out the whole of As I Lay Dying by Faulkner by hand. I copied out Lolita. I copied out Beloved. I copied out The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz, Gabriel García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch.
And the inevitable: now that Garden has been planted throughout the world, what are you working on now? I am writing a novel about Pakistan’s blasphemy laws — One Thousand Miles by Moonlight.
After this, would you write a novel set in England again? And where is “home” for you now?
Yes, I’ll write a novel set in England again — I hope to return to
the English town of Dasht-e-Tanhaii which I created for my novel, Maps for Lost Lovers.
England is “home,” in inverted commas. Emotionally, I think of a map
in which Pakistan and England are fused. The Grand Trunk road passes
through Lahore and Peshawar, drops down into the Khyber Pass, and
emerges into Newcastle in the north of England. That is the “country” I
live in. Having said this, I wish to set a novel in the United States one
day, and in India also. Ultimately a writer’s only homeland is his
desk, his stories, and his language.
writer Pankaj Mishra is one of eight writers from seven countries
winning a $150,000 Yale University prize each in recognition of their
achievements and to support their ongoing work.
Mishra, an Indian
essayist, memoirist, travel writer and novelist, won the Windham
Campbell Literature Prize in non-fiction category, The Beinecke Rare
Book & Manuscript Library at Yale announced.
standards of literary style, Pankaj Mishra gives us new narratives about
the evolution of modern Asia,” the New Haven, Connecticut based
“He charts the journey from the Indian small town to the metropolis and rebuffs imperialist clichés with equal verve.”
delightful news!” said Mishra. “As a freelancer obliged to make a
living from writing, you are always scrounging for bits of time in which
to write the next book, and this wonderfully generous prize will help
me secure a long undistracted period”.
Mishra’s work “expands our understanding of the encounter between Western and Non-western culture,” the announcement said.
prose is distinguished by a melli?uous yet precise phrasing whose
generous intelligence speaks to the general reader and specialist
In addition to a novel, “The Romantics”, Mishra has
published four works of non?ction: “Butter Chicken in Ludhiana: Travels
in Small Town India”; “An End to Su?ering: the Buddha in the World”;
“Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet,
and Beyond”; and “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade
“From the Ruins of Empire”, his most recent book, attempts
a re-visioning of the geo-politics of the late nineteenth and twentieth
centuries from multiple Asian perspectives.
His literary and
political essays and long-form journalism regularly appear in The New
York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, The Guardian, The
Hindu and elsewhere.
Other winners in the three categories are: in
fiction, Aminatta Forna (Sierra Leone), Nadeem Aslam (Pakistan), and
Jim Crace (United Kingdom); in non-fiction John Vaillant (United
States/Canada); and in drama, Kia Corthron (United States), Sam Holcroft
(United Kingdom) and Noëlle Janaczewska (Australia).
writers will accept the prize in person at a ceremony at Yale on Sep 15.
The ceremony will be followed by a three-day literary festival
celebrating the work of the prize recipients.
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