Veena Gokhale in The Wire:
Anita Desai, three time Booker Prize nominee, winner of several prestigious awards and with more than 17 books to her credit, was awarded the International Literary Grand Prize at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival in Montreal, on April 29. The 10,000-Canadian dollar prize is awarded each year – since 2000 – to a world-renowned author in recognition of a lifetime of literary achievement. Former winners include Norman Mailer, Margaret Atwood, A.S. Byatt and Amitava Ghosh. Desai, known for books like Baumgartner’s Bombay, Clear Light of Day and In Custody, spoke to The Wire in Montreal.
You have been awarded the Blue Metropolis International Literary Grand Prize. You received the Benson Medal in 2003 and the Padma Bhushan in 2014. Do awards matter, or are they incidental to the writing?
This particular award tells me I have crossed a border and am now of an age where I can be given certain awards! (Smiles). Awards are certainly incidental. They are unexpected; they are not something you work towards, no.
What do you think is the purpose of literature? The worth of literature is being questioned these days, certainly here in Canada.
One works on two levels. At the subconscious level one is not working with an agenda, one is working out of a compulsion to tell your story, to put words on paper, to keep something from disappearing. And the joy of using language ought not to be forgotten.
On a conscious level, after you’ve written your work, sometimes it takes you by surprise. You say, oh, is that what it was about? At the end of the book you say, so that’s why it stayed in your mind for so long. What’s the reason for writing it? And invariably the reason is to tell the truth, in a somewhat sideways, somewhat subversive way. You don’t always manage to do that openly, face-to-face, you have to find a kind of a secret way.