Jeffrey J. Williams in Public Books:
Amitava Kumar’s recent novel, Immigrant, Montana, tells the story of Kailash, an Indian graduate student who has immigrated to the US to study at Columbia University, and his education in love as well as in academe. The novel was a New York Times Notable Book of 2018, and it has been compared to the autofiction of Teju Cole and Ben Lerner. In this interview, Kumar talks about how the novel is and is not autobiographical.
Kumar has also published several books of criticism and of reportage on India and Pakistan.
Jeffrey Williams (JW): Your new novel, Immigrant, Montana, has been widely reviewed and most of the reviews have touted it as autofiction, although it strikes me that it is not really autobiographical. Having known you for a long time, I’d say you conducted a skillful ruse, giving it the air of autobiography.
Amitava Kumar (AK): I worked very hard both to invent things and, at another level, to make it appear as if it were my story. For example, the narrator is called AK-47. I was on a train somewhere, and I thought, he must have a provincial name, Kailash, which is not a name you will hear among many Indians. And then I thought up the idea that an Irish friend of his calls him Kalashnikov, and that becomes AK-47, so it promotes the illusion that it’s about me.
But, of course, so much of it is fabrication, so I had never thought I was doing autofiction. I was very much open to invention, but at the same time I wanted it to read like it was a report from real life. It therefore attempts to insert personal details in a way that people understand as autofiction. For example, as you know, I never went to Columbia, I never studied with Said, I never knew this man called Eqbal Ahmad, on whom the main character, Ehsaan Ali, is based. But they were a great inspiration to me.