Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Talking Out of Turn #44 (Podcast): Bharati Mukherjee (1985)

Author Bharati Mukherjee in 2011. (Photo: Jennifer Roberts)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show On the Arts at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the Eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

Tom Fulton, host and producer of On the Arts.
For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (e.g. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

In 1984, Paul Mazursky made Moscow on the Hudson, a poignant comedy about exile and homesickness, which starred Robin Williams as a Russian musician touring with the Moscow circus who spontaneously defects in New York City. The movie ostensibly deals with the complex set of emotions set loose when he finds his freedom. His actions trigger a mixture of homesickness, sadness, and the longings for a sense of place that come when (for political and ethical reasons) you are forced to leave home. With those themes in mind, I devised a chapter called Exiles and Existence where a number of artists (including authors Jerzy Kosinski, Josef Škvorecký, Neil Bissoondath, and Ariel Dorfman) examined what it means to find yourself in a new land while looking back at the home you abandoned. 

In 1985, one of those interviewed was author Bharati Mukherjee. Already the author of two novels and a memoir (with partner Clark Blaise), her first collection of short stories, Darkness, had just been published. Born in Kolkata and educated in India and the U.S., Mukherjee had lived in Montreal and Toronto for over a decade before returning to the United States to accept a university teaching position. To date, she has written eight novels, including Jasmine (1989) and most recently Miss New India (2011). 

In this interview we explore the idea of those sometimes necessary (but painful) trade-offs immigrants have to make in order to become a citizen of another land. The stories collected in Darkness are a living, breathing testament to those conflicts. She tells us, "I'm a comic writer who chases the darkness."

– Kevin Courrier.

Here is the full interview with Bharati Mukherjee as it aired on CJRT-FM in 1985. 

Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams, 33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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