‘Plots are for dead people’, but voice – oh, voice is how you know you’re alive.
Mars Blackmon, played by Spike Lee, in She’s Gotta Have It saying, “Please baby. Please baby. Please baby, please baby. Please, please. Baby, baby.” I had arrived in the US the same year the movie was released, in 1986; I was a new immigrant, a graduate student, when, soon after it came out, I watched She’s Gotta Have It. The idea of language as excess. Language not just for writing academic papers. Language of desire but also language as desire. This was an early lesson about voice.
Years passed. I was producing academic essays and exercises in critical theory, and my writing had the consistency of freshly mixed cement. But I was dreaming of escape. There is a clipping from a newspaper that I stuck in a notebook – an exchange between a journalist and the literary agent David Godwin. The journalist asks Godwin what turns him on in a book, and the literary agent replies, “Voice, not so much story.” Godwin says that he has been reading a book about a woman’s childhood in Botswana. The first twenty pages are dull, and then there is a wonderful scene. “Her grandfather is sitting on a veranda, surrounded by masks, drinking red wine. Two little red drops hang on his lips. Suddenly the masks come down, sit on his mouth in the half-light, sip, and speed away. You know that’s where the book begins. It’s so arresting, so different.”
Godwin wasn’t my agent yet. But when I began writing something to show him, I thought, that’s what I will do: something “arresting” and “different”. I wasn’t worried that I didn’t really have a plot ready; I’d have voice. What was I hoping to catch? I was hoping to avoid that hushed tone of TV commentators at Wimbledon – public but with a false intimacy – that is adopted a few moments before a difficult second serve: “Venus has appeared frail, but she can summon an inner reserve. Let’s see if she can do it here.” “Seventh double fault. Her task will be uphill now.” This also meant I wouldn’t have green grass or white lines or players in fashionable skirts. No strawberries and cream. I’m from the Hindi heartland, and I thought a prison would be rather nice.
My first cousin had been arrested and jailed around that time. The state of Bihar, where I’m from, was described then as having only one growth industry, kidnapping. A doctor, or a businessman, or their kid, would be kidnapped and a call would come for a ransom. One such call had been traced to my cousin’s phone. My sister believed that the police had made a mistake. It is true that my cousin had suffered. I chose to believe that my cousin had suffered for literature. In that first novel, Home Products, my narrator, Binod, visits his cousin in prison. This cousin, Rabinder, is full of plans. He tells Binod that he would like to sell an idea to some big mobile phone company. It was an idea for a commercial, but Rabinder’s real scheme was to get into film-making once he was out of prison.
The commercial would begin with a shot of a blue-green planet afloat in dark space. Then, with instant thousandfold magnification, the camera would digitally zoom into the part of the landmass in the northern hemisphere that lies above the Indian Ocean, the subcontinent flecked closer to the top of the screen by the white crest of a wave representing the Himalayan snow peaks. The camera would veer right, coming closer to the ground to reveal, for one five-hundredth of a second, the muddy expanse of the Ganges, then panning above it to a city visible only as a dirty wash of miniature rooftops, their colour a uniform grey. The camera’s eye would pick out a large yellow building, the state’s prison. There would be a short pan along the length of a tall wall before it paused at a barred room in which sat a solitary man. The film would cut to a shot from above: the top of the man’s head and, pressed to his right ear, a mobile phone.
“What do you think?” Rabinder asks Binod.
Binod says that the idea is a good one but asks why the prison is necessary.
Rabinder says, “Honestly, can you think of any place where a mobile phone would be more needed than in prison?”
My cousin was released from his jail cell; soon, he started building a luxury hotel. And David Godwin didn’t take me on as a client for that book. That would happen later. I think I had mistaken a scene – the masks coming down from the wall to sip wine – as an example of voice. It was just a scene. A surprising scene, no doubt. So, too, the man in the prison cell. Voice is something else. Maybe the next novel I wrote had it, this element of voice, because Godwin decided to represent me and sold Immigrant, Montana. For this novel, I had picked up another lesson in voice.
I had read Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir, Speak, Memory. Nabokov’s writing was for me a wonderful example of a desirable voice for writing because it was alert to the fact that art is always also artifice. When I learnt later that he had published parts of Speak, Memory first as fiction in the New Yorker, I felt doubly delighted. I didn’t for a moment think that he was being false or meretricious; instead, he was announcing that the text was fabricated, made up through labour and a love of words. This is the most honest thing a writer can do.
In Chapter 3 of Speak, Memory, Nabokov tells the reader about his distinguished family tree, his affluent ancestors and their role in history, their eccentricities, etc. At one point he talks about his mother’s brother, his Uncle Ruka, who left his enormous wealth for Nabokov to inherit upon his death at the end of 1916. Of course, the revolution came and divided Nabokov from his inheritance. A lovely little description of the property follows before Nabokov breaks off and inserts a new section which is no more than ten lines. He directly addresses the reader: “The following passage is not for the general reader, but for the particular idiot who, because he lost a fortune in some crash, thinks he understands me …” More than anything else in the memoir it was this turn that demonstrated to me the writer-as-magician stepping out of the job of pulling rabbits out of hats and revealing the true magic, the secret of how it is all done. I carried this voice in my head for years and then sneaked it into Immigrant, Montana. Nabokov’s sense of command, or maybe it was just his grasp of artistic freedom, also gave me permission to directly address my reader and take them into confidence. This was another lesson in voice. I included commentaries on my writing process and also pictures of clippings from my notebooks.
Excerpted with permission from The Yellow Book: A Traveller’s Diary, Amitava Kumar, HarperCollins India.