Sun, Sep 24, 2006 - Page 18 News List

Kiran Desai and her literary inheritance

The shortlist for the Man Booker Prize, Britain's most prestigious award for fiction, is dominated by newcomers, which has riled critics. Kiran Desai is one of the upstarts in the running

By Ed Pilkington  /  THE GUARDIAN , NEW YORK

Author Kiran Desai and the front cover of her book The Inheritance of Loss.


Kiran Desai can pinpoint her re-entry to the world almost to the minute. It was at about 11.30am New York time on Thursday and as she was getting slowly, creekily as she puts it, out of bed, the phone rang. It was her publisher. When she put the phone down, another call came in swiftly behind it, this time from an agent. And then there was another call, and another, and another, about 20 in all. And that was when she knew it. Almost eight years of literary hermitage were over.

“For all those years, nobody calls you,” she says. “You get no attention from anybody; completely forgotten. The publishers forget you and move on... . And then suddenly it’s actually useful to have a phone for one day in your life.”

The trigger for this unruly scramble to talk to her was the decision, taken 4,828km away in London, to place her on the shortlist for the Booker prize. After the surprise culling of several of the big-name favorites from the long list, such as Peter Carey and Howard Jacobson, Desai is now down to the final six for an honor that carries with it a ?50,000 (US$95,000) check and instant literary recognition.

The book that has brought her thus far, The Inheritance of Loss, has been a long time in the offing. Her first novel, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, was enthusiastically received by the critics, but that was way back in 1998. Desai was all too aware of the pressure on her to ride the success and strike rapidly with a second novel, but it simply didn’t happen.

“The publishers and agents always tell you that you must do something in two or three years. It’s the general knowledge that floats overhead, that you had better do something in a few years or else you are not going to get anywhere,” she explains. “I didn’t do anything in three years, four years, five years, it was almost eight years! I was living in a completely different time frame, completely isolated. It was my entire life. I wouldn’t answer the phone in all those years; I was scared of it. I was too terrified to pick it up.”

The news that she has been Booker short-listed may have come as a rude re-awakening, but the sensation is not exactly unfamiliar. Desai has been here before, caught in a flurry of phone calls and the rush of public approbation. She has experienced it three times already — vicariously, through her mother, Anita. Three of Anita Desai’s 14 novels — Clear Light of Day, In Custody, and Fasting, Feasting — have reached the Booker shortlist, though she has yet to win the prize.

That gives Kiran Desai a degree of sangfroid: “It is nice, but I don’t take this hugely seriously. I have seen my mother go through this three times. It’s not startling for the family at all.”

Although Anita is mentioned only once in the book, in the dedication, she played no small part in the lengthy creation of The Inheritance of Loss. Prosaically, large chunks of it were written in Anita’s house overlooking the Hudson river at Cold Spring in upstate New York, and on five or six long writing trips to Mexico that mother and daughter made together.

The younger Desai has also inherited if not a style, then at least a technique of writing from Anita. “I grew up well aware of her reading taste, and surrounded by her way of writing, and I find that I write very much in the same way. Our styles are very different, but the way I work and think feeds so much off her.”

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