A writer of real social media fiction, fake news and slow-jamming the world
Amitava Kumar’s new novel, “A Time Outside This Time”, often looks like something other than a novel. The narrator, Satya, is a teacher and writer very similar to Kumar, although we can never read his new novel, “Enemies of the People”, “based on the many false stories that surround us and threaten to destroy us”.
Kumar’s book doesn’t quite fit into the burgeoning category of autofiction, in which writers like Olivia Laing, Jenny Offill, Rachel Cusk, and Karl Ove Knausgaard transfer their own lives – and often their own names – to autobiographical fiction.
It’s not only that Kumar differentiates his protagonist with a fictional name and fictional novels, but that he largely abandons the plot, spending more time integrating journalism into his work. “Time” is steeped in his thoughts on the place of fiction in our new world of truth and lies. “I use what is called real life to create my fiction,” he says. “How is this different from fake news? “
Kumar, 58, came from India in the 1980s as a student; he is the author of over a dozen books, fiction and non-fiction, including the novel “Immigrant, Montana” and professor of English at Vassar College.
“There is a fraud in the traditional novel,” says Kumar. “So I share with the reader that there is art in this artifice and vice versa. I tried to make my handwriting as fresh as blood on a bandage.
Satya is fictitious but contemplates real events, from Donald Trump’s lies to the murders in India. He also frequently cites experiences he learned from his wife, a psychologist.
“My editor said, ‘I want to meet your wife,’” Kumar laughs. “But she’s not real. I’m married but not to Vanni.
When Satya refers to Barack Obama citing Ernest Hemingway and the importance of writing “one true sentence”, it is both sincere and a sham. Even Kumar slips during our video interview saying, “I… sorry, narrator…” before admitting that the line between them can look very good at times.
A similarity between Kumar and Satya is clear: they agree that “a novel is better than news”. He spoke with The Times about technology, Trump and the truth; our conversation has been changed.
Lies and rumors, what you call government “bad fiction”, are gaining popularity through social media. What is the responsibility of, say, Facebook, for spreading these lies and their consequences?
I am quoting a study which says that every time there is a blackout and Facebook is not available, there is less risk of riots. And WhatsApp is a Facebook owned business and dangerous rumors and political lies are spreading so quickly using WhatsApp in India. It is the main provider of fake news.
I think we should hold these companies accountable. Why has there not been a systematic questioning of the standards that determined this app can become a vector of murder – the very technology that allows me to see and talk to you right now could be responsible of our death.
Is it just technology or is it human nature too?
Social media makes it worse, but human nature is worse than social media. [Another cited study found] that robots spread fake news at the same rate as real news, but humans spread fake news six times faster than real news. It’s amazing. An MIT researcher wrote to me to explain, “Fake news is new. I’m like, “Yo man, that word is for what I do. “
Much of your book recounts “real” – or at least real – incidents of ethnic or religious violence and government lies. The studies you cite are also real. Why did you feel the need to mix journalism and fiction to find out the truth?
I read a novel by Olivia Laing called “Crudo”. While someone is getting married, a character looks at their phone and says, “Steve Bannon has resigned”. I thought to myself, “This is the world we live in. There is a massive onslaught of information, the world is coming at you so fast and so crazy that I have to think about how we are looking for some sort of order in this chaos.
I hope my book will make people wonder, “What is fiction? And “Why are your lies and your propaganda not fiction but this book is fiction?” “
Your narrator tells the reader, “I can’t change my mind.” If you can’t change people’s minds, why write?
No, I can’t change your mind, but I want you to know that there is a book. The names and stories of the dead are here. Each of these stories is real and they are written and will not be forgotten. Writing allows me to keep a record which puts order in this incredible chaos and allows us to remember, because it is not only the attention span, it is the memory which is destroyed by a flood. continuous information. Writing becomes for me a way to “slow down” the world.
Why is it important to slow things down?
I forget the name of the person who was killed three days ago because I only remember the name of the person who was killed yesterday, and I will forget the name of this guy because tomorrow there will be another murder. My book becomes a means of remembering.
Can a novel at least help readers understand their own biases? Or are the people who don’t want to open their minds reading a novel like this anyway?
I cite an experience in the book [in which] the elderly who were given plants did better and lived longer than those who were given plants, but said the attendants would take care of them. It’s about being engaged or passive.
If people wrote a journal every day while reading this book, would the quality of their engagement change? Would we have slowed things down enough for them to think? What if they did that instead of passively watching fake news? In the spirit of the book, I think it would work.
Tell me a true sentence.
[Laughs.] At the end of the book, I wrote: “A man who is killed has a lot of life left” before telling the story of a man who was lynched in India. The first anniversary of a lynching was approaching and I thought I would write something about it, just to remind people of what had happened.
The most depressing thing for me is watching these videos of black men being killed by the police – or in India the lynching of people who allegedly ate beef.
The sentence speaks of the erased human being at that time.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.