Monday, November 26, 2007

An Interview with Pankaj Mishra

I have written here before about Pankaj Mishra. At that time, I had linked to his several years old three-part essay on Kashmir written for the NY Review of Books. In that piece I had been impressed by his evident passion to dig below the surface for truth and his caring and empathetic style. Over the years, he has had a special relationship with the NYRB as his non-fiction writing blossomed under the tutelage of that periodical's legendary editor Barbara Epstein.

Mishra continues to be one of the most thoughtful literary and journalistic voices in contemporary India. I enjoyed reading a detailed interview with him in "The Believer" magazine. (Thanks to Amitava Kumar's blog).


"--- but I think the reporter or journalist is well served by having a responsibility to the powerless, to use a much-abused cliché. The voice of the powerless is in some danger of not being heard in the elite discourses we now have in the mainstream media. This is something that I’ve learned late. Obviously, I write for a very elite audience, but is there something else that I’m also responsible to? People who write about issues like poverty or terrorism are a part of the elite, and the distance between the elite and nonelite is growing very fast. You can move around the world but meet only people who speak your language, who share the same ideas, the same beliefs, and in doing so you can lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of the world does not think or believe in or speak the everyday discourse of the elite. Yet their lives are being shaped by these elites, by people like us. I don’t mean this in a pompous way, but we have a responsibility to articulate their sense of suffering."

"--- some of my students seem to want to be able to write without actually reading, which seems utterly bizarre. When I assign certain readings, they often say, “I can’t relate to this,” which means whatever story we’re reading is so far outside of their experience—which tends to be limited—that they will not make the effort to understand what it is about. I find this a crippling attitude to have toward literature, toward history, toward all sorts of things.
Some of my students don’t have a sense of whether their writing is any good or not. They think it’s good just because it comes out of them and it’s a part of their being. To criticize their writing is to criticize them in some profound way. It’s as if they’ve been taught far too much self-confidence—and maybe not much else."

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