Babel allows Kiran Desai to finally see The Niagara Falls

Just Buffalo Literary Center ended their inaugural Babel series with a wonderful speech from Indian novelist Kiran Desai about her work “The Inheritance of Loss.” After a good two years speaking in front of auditoriums, relaying her manifesto to bore those in attendance to sleep, she decided to just come in and “talk in every which way” from the seat of her pants, anecdotally. Beginning with tales of her grandparents and their influence on her novel, Desai tells of how we are now all being “brought up to leave” our homes straight from birth. While her country saw Britain as an oppressor, it was their involvement that allowed her grandfather to leave and become a judge, to take it upon himself to “learn the dictionary by heart under a streetlamp” and educate himself. England gave her family a means to become better than those around them and in turn made them manifest a sort of inferiority to the rest of the Western world. Raised to feel shame for her heritage, the family eventually decided to leave India and head for America, the place where Desai would begin her writing career.

It was her bookshelf of “Huckleberry Finn,” Truman Capote, and “Death of a Salesman” that exposed her to the reality that she was not alone in the world. People everywhere feel ashamed of their past and the places they come from, it is not a terrible thing to want to get out and become someone to be proud of. This instilled a discovery of the world’s contradictions hiding everywhere. Her gift is the ability to meld and weave American culture with that of India. Desai admits that she could never be successful with narratives from one world or the other; she is not fully comfortable in either. However, when using both, she is allowed to grasp the concepts put to paper into fully formed ideas.

Desai is a very entertaining and affable young woman, infusing humor whenever possible. The speech as a whole was a good mixture of what Babel has offered this year. Between the anecdotes and ideological inferences into her work, she not only read passages from her novel, but also excerpts from some writers that she respects. Listening to her read aloud her own words, breathing life into the characters that I had myself just become acquainted with, was a wonderful experience. She would speed up her words and laugh along, hitting each moment with the right rhythm to show us that it all was meant to be funny despite the political strife happening around Sai and her family in Kalimpong—a place she now will not go back to after their protests of her handling of the region and subsequent calls for book burnings.

Very comfortable and informative, Kiran Desai entertained for a little over an hour, bringing a bit more to the table than our previous speaker. Unafraid to delve into her past and speak of her grandparents, her love of her mother’s own writing, the undisciplined process she utilizes to write without a clear plot for 8 years, and how her first draft of 1800 pages was said to be the worst piece of literature that a well-known editor had ever read, she really allowed herself to become highly accessible to the audience. Her joy was contagious and it didn’t hurt that she showed her pleasure for a local Indian duo on the sitar and thabla during the preshow, her excitement at finally seeing Niagara Falls, and a genuine interest in seeing the collection of “Huck Finn” drafts at the Buffalo library. This was a great way to end Babel’s first year and only helps show what could be an even better effort in 08/09.

Visit for next year’s lineup, ticket information, and—just learned tonight—mp3 access for all of this year’s author’s talks, (although I can’t find where this is on the site, please help). Oh, and it was nice having a bit of a Buffalo Spree fan club cheer upon our sponsorship mention. Could it have been spearheaded by our own editor in attendance? Maybe.

Courtesy of Bruce Jackson.

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