Amitava Kumar is a prize-winning author and the Helen D. Lockwood professor of English at Vassar, but he’s taking this year off of teaching to write. He’s been awarded a fellowship by the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation for a project he calls “Every Day I Write the Book.” This year, the Foundation awarded 175 fellowships to scholars, artists and scientists from a group of nearly 3,000 applicants. His book “Lunch with a Bigot” was included in a list of “10 best books of 2015 published by university presses”; “A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm A Tiny Bomb” was judged the best nonfiction book of the year by the Page Turner Awards in 2011; in 2007, “Home Products” was short-listed for India’s premier literary award, the Crossword Award; and “Husband of a Fanatic” was an “Editors’ Choice” book at the New York Times.
The idea for “Every Day I Write the Book” came to Kumar eight years ago. It arrived, fueled by prosecco and the company of academics, at a viewing party for President Obama’s inauguration. That morning, Kumar remembers telling his colleagues, “My book is a meditation on writing. But I’m also talking to people who are writers. On one hand, novelists, essayists, you know, Jonathan Franzen, Marilynne Robinson, Junot Diaz, Rivka Galchen. And on the other hand, academics, whose work I think challenges conventional academic writing … Who, on one level have a broader audience, but at another level do work that is artistically innovative and challenging.”
Kumar is no stranger to academia. He studied at three universities, taught at the University of Florida, Yale and Penn State before Vassar and expresses sincere respect for academic work. But he has also worked as a journalist in the field. Kumar has interviewed murderers, fanatics, people accused of terrorism and victims of tragedy. He says that he has gotten to know the people he writes about on a personal level, a vital practice he believes too many academics forgo. “[In ‘Every Day I Write the Book’], I want to say that there are many academics who arrive at their sense of the world, and unfortunately many of our students do too, without ever stepping out of the classroom. I want to say no. If you have an idea, go out and test it in the real world! If you have a certain view about how some people are suffering, go to some people and talk to them about it,” said Kumar
Kumar cites sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh’s book “Gang Leader for a Day” as an example of the kind of academic work he’s looking for. When Venkatesh was a first-year graduate student, he befriended the leader of a crack-dealing gang in Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes. He lived with this gang for almost seven years before publishing a book about them. This is the kind of bold, personal academic writing Kumar covets. He explains Venkatesh’s work as having an urgency that has taken eight years to grow. Now, with the Obama’s second term coming to an end, Kumar is haunted by the thought of disappointing his tipsy and excited 2008 self. He can’t resist the idea of finishing this project, born on Obama’s first day as president, before his last. So he’s working frantically. “I’ve done some books in between, two books. I’ve written a novel recently. But, you know, I still feel… damn! I’ve got to get it done before Obama’s out of office, that’s my deadline,” Kumar said.
Kumar does his best to work by a list of rules. Kumar began using his idol V.S. Naipaul’s list about a decade ago before writing his own. He now passes this list on to his students and published it in Lit Hub last year. Kumar’s first rule, by his own admission, is a cliché: “Write every day.” So, given the title of his current book, I asked Kumar if he follows his own idealistic rule. If “Every Day I Write the Book” is a meditation on writing, what has it taught him about the process? He smiled and said, “For stretches I [write every day], and then I don’t. And that’s the most frustrating part of being a writer. When I’ve sent my children off to school, that’s the best time for me to sit down and write. But today I had to see you, and I have to see that other former student.” But he remains optimistic, “Life happens. And you can’t say no to life because it opens things up. It opens you up to experience.”
He continued, launching into an anecdote, “Two days ago, I was at the Brooklyn Book Festival reading from [“A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of his Arm a Tiny Bomb”], a book I wrote about terrorism. And if I had said no because I’d just wanted to sit in my room [and write], I would not have met a woman on my panel called Masha Gessen, whose last book was about the Tsarnaev brothers who were the Boston Bombers … She advises journalists to talk to academics so that their ahistorical views can be challenged … I’m mentioning this little detail to you because I think I’ll use it in the book I’m writing. I’m interested in academics being more like journalists, going out into the world, exploring. And then when I encounter someone who says no, journalists should be more like academics, I get a little bit of a corrective.”
The student Kumar mentioned is Sunil Yapa, author of “Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist,” a globally successful novel about the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle. Yapa is in the middle of a six-continent book tour. and he used a rare day of downtime between trips to South Africa and Montana to meet Kumar to ask for advice on writing profiles. It’s been over two decades since Yapa was in Kumar’s Penn State classroom, but the two have stayed in touch. They’re at ease with each other, they laugh a lot. Yapa asks a few questions about profiles, but the conversation eventually drifts back to the Guggenheim. To explain “Every Day I Write the Book” to Yapa, Kumar turns to another example; Geoff Dyer’s book “Out of Sheer Rage” about D.H. Lawrence. Kumar said, “I am enthralled by Dyer’s ability give us D.H. Lawrence while pretending not to give a fuck about D.H. Lawrence.” For example, “[Dyer] goes looking for [Lawrence’s] house during the time when D.H. Lawrence was in Mexico. He doesn’t find the house. Still, he tells us a lot about D.H. Lawrence, Mexico and how D.H. Lawrence thought. Subterfuge.” Dyer expresses the frustration at the heart of Kumar’s book, “That is the hallmark of academic criticism; it kills everything it touches.” With “Every Day I Write the Book,” Kumar is trying to unite the two sides of his professional self: the lively writer and the thoughtful academic. He only has a few months to do it, it’s why he’s in such a hurry these days.