WHAT’S ON YOUR BOOKSHELF
Una Chaudhuri is Professor of English and Drama at NYU and an affiliated faculty member at NYU Abu Dhabi. She is the author of No Man’s Stage: A Semiotic Study of Jean Genet’s Plays (1986) and the award-winning Staging Place: The Geography of Modern Drama (1997). Her current scholarly interests include ecocriticism and animal studies.
What are you currently reading?
I’m always reading several things at a time, from different areas of my interests. So I’ve always got some big scholarly book going, and I like to spend a lot of time with it. I’m also an avid reader of contemporary literature, so I’ve always got a novel going, or sometimes two novels, one of them a graphic novel. Another genre I love is biography, so I usually reading one of those at the same time. The novel I’m reading right now is Embassytown by China Miéville; it’s an exploration of the semiotics of language, but in a science fiction mode. Semiotics was an early interest of mine, and it’s great fun to suddenly find it treated so brilliantly in a science fiction context.
In terms of scholarly books, the book I’ve been spending a lot of time with recently is Deep History [by Andrew Shryock and Daniel Lord Smail], a collection of essays that lays out a new movement in historiography: ways of thinking about history that take into account the geological inheritance of our species and start history not from the time when you had written or artifactual records but when you had geophysical records, like fossils. It is a new way of thinking not only about history, but also about what it means to be human. I’m teaching a Core course [at NYU Abu Dhabi] this semester called “Becoming Human: Literature of Nature-Culture Borderlands.” The field I work in within literature is ecocriticism, and the course has to do with constructions and ideas about the human in relation to the non-human, including animals, landscapes, gods, machines, all those others. Right now, I’m particularly interested in configurations of the human in light of anthropogenic climate change: the fact that we are now realizing that—for the first time in human history—the weather is about us, and how that changes our understanding of human agency, and forces us to rethink the old distinction between natural history and cultural or human history.
Finally, I’m also reading the new biography of David Foster Wallace, the brilliant American novelist who tragically committed suicide a few years ago, very young. The biography’s entitled Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, and it’s deeply absorbing.
Where do you buy your books, and how do you select them?
In terms of contemporary literature, I have certain authors whom I follow. I read everything they write and I wait impatiently for their next book, which I always have pre-ordered on Amazon. My favorite writers are J. M. Coetzee, the Nobel Prize-winning South African writer; Philip Roth, the American novelist, and Ian McEwan, a British writer. I also love Barbara Kingsolver, Jonathan Frantzen, Dave Eggers, and Julian Barnes. I rely on Amazon’s “you might also be interested in…” gizmo, but periodically I also discover new passions in whole new areas and I become deeply involved in them. Most recently, this was graphic novels, which surprised me, because I’d always considered myself an exclusively verbal person, and not a visual person. I hate magazines because I find the pictures distracting and annoying, and even as a child I never read comic books. But I read one graphic novel that was so impressive and enjoyable that I started reading more, and then I took a course on the graphic novel at NYU and I fell in love with the form. The graphic novel that got me into it was Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. Afterwards, I began to devour all the other greats: Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware, Alan Moore, Daniel Clowes.
Nowadays it’s so easy to find good things to read. If I’m interested in graphic novels, I can go online and find a list of “The 100 Best Graphic Novels” ever written! I usually buy books from Amazon for my Kindle, but I still love going to bookstores and browsing; now, bookstores have become so welcoming that you can sit and have coffee. In New York, I love the Strand – it’s like paradise for readers and it’s only a few blocks away from my house, so I spend a good part of my life in the Strand.
Do the authors you follow have some connections?
They do. I’m very drawn to philosophically oriented literature that also has an intense focus on the inner life and on the way in which our relationships to other people, to our work, and to the world shape our inner lives. The most philosophical of the novelists that I love is Coetzee. He exemplifies a deep belief of mine, which is that complex, interesting, important ideas have to be encountered in more than just abstract, intellectual ways. They have to be encountered in life situations, in the body and in everyday experience. In other words, I really do believe that experience is a great mode of philosophy, and the novelists who understand that write novels not just to tell stories but to think about life. These are the kinds of novelists I am drawn to.
Another element that the authors I follow share is that these writers are interested in what it is to be at a later stage of one’s life. They deal—not just with “old age,” but rather with that sense of lateness, the sense of how to manage the feelings that come with knowing that it’s not going to go on forever. The feelings can be of disappointment in one’s self, and regret about one’s choices in life: how does one manage those feelings, and what is the value that comes from exploring those feelings? I am at that stage in my life so I find those questions very resonant and enabling.
But I’m also fairly indiscriminate! I read anything that anyone recommends to me and I am a fairly fast reader. I read about four novels a week. One of my favorite things in life is to sit in a park or a café for an hour or two, reading a novel.
Are there any books that you read over and over again?
I read certain plays over and over again, and there are quite a few that I feel I partly live in—like I have a room in them! Caryl Churchill’s Far Away is one, as are many of Beckett’s plays, especially Waiting for Godot, and Chekhov’s plays, especially Uncle Vanya, and Shakespeare’s plays, especially Hamlet, which I feel I’ve memorized by now! The novel that I read over and over again is Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello. It’s a very unusual novel because it consists of a series of lectures, all delivered by a fictional novelist. The lectures are on various topics – two of them are on animals, which is another area of special interest for me. They are explicitly philosophical or theoretical lectures, but they are framed in such a way that they are equally about people and life and feelings and all the things that novels are also about. Another area of repeated reading is, of course, in poetry. My favorite poet is Emily Dickinson, so I always have a volume of Dickinson with me (on my Kindle) and I frequently dip into it.
What was the last truly great book you read?
I have two answers, one for a scholarly and one for a literary book. The last great scholarly book that I read—and am very excited and inspired by—is Slow Violence in the Environmentalism of the Poor by Rob Nixon. It brings together the fields of postcolonial studies and ecocriticism (and environmental ethics and environmental justice) in ways that are extremely generative. He makes it clear how closely intertwined the basic issues of environmentalism are with issues of class, nation, race, and gender. His readings readings of various novels and films are just so dazzling and illuminating that they changed my sense of possibilities about my field. The other last great book I read is Chris Ware’s amazing graphic novel Building Stories. The title is a pun, because all the stories in there are centered on a building, but the stories also come in many different formats (literally: as in pamphlets, comic books, hard-cover and paper-back books of various sizes, posters—all packaged in a a big box that looks like a board game box), and so the book (if you can call it that) is also about how to construct narrative and how to disseminate and consume it.
What was the last disappointing book you read?
I tend to just forget about them. And I don’t always finish a book that doesn’t grab my attention. One book that I would call disappointing is Life of Pi, though when I started out loving it. However, after reading and teaching it a few times, I began to feel that maybe there’s less there than meets the eye? But that’s interesting in itself: surface brilliance, inner shallowness!
Who, according to you, are some of the most up and coming writers?
I think I’ve been reading the up-and-going writers! It’s such a huge field and now is such an extraordinary time for fiction and poetry. Junot Diaz is one young writer who is getting more and more attention. Zadie Smith is another, and she’s now a colleague at NYU, which is very cool. My favorite poet at the moment is also another NYU colleague, Maureen McLane—also super cool.
What is the first book that you remember reading?
I was born before television. I was born in India, and not only did we not TV then, we also (at least in the places I grew up; I was an “army brat”) had very few movies. So all we had for entertainment were books. I was born reading! But I think that I became a self-conscious reader was when I was a teenager, and my family was living in France. I discovered modern French literature, especially the works of Sartre, Gide, Genet. My mother just made these available to me and encouraged me to read – partly because she thought that they would improve my French, and of course they did, but they also plunged me into a world of adult complexities and emotions that I had not known about.I would date that as my awakening to the power of reading, and of fiction in particular.
What should somebody read before coming to Abu Dhabi?
Well, as I’ve been saying, for me reading is a very inward experience, more connected to exploring my inner world and life. One book that resonated with my experience and fantasies for Abu Dhabi is Dave Egger’s A Hologram for the King. It’s not about Abu Dhabi but it’s about the Gulf and American anxieties about the developments here, and how these are leaving American culture behind; the anxiety of living after the so-called “American century.” If you are going to New York for the first time, you should probably ask Professor Bryan Waterman what to read!
You have written a few books. How does the writing experience differ from the reading experience?
They’re very different. As I’ve said, I’m a huge fan of contemporary literature. But my own writing is exclusively scholarly, and the process of scholarly writing is very different. It has to do with research, discovery, and seeking formulations that one believes to be real contributions to ongoing conversations in one’s field. So in this sphere I am much more focused on these disciplinary conversations, and the ideas of other scholars, whereas when I read contemporary fiction and poetry, I am entirely focused on my inner world. I would love to find a way to bring these two experiences closer together, but I’ve never actually written in a non-scholarly mode. I think I’ve never had the guts to try that, because I am so awed by literature and fiction.
When I was an undergraduate student in India, there was no encouragement to be creative. In American, that’s not the case. Our students are encouraged to try different ways of gaining knowledge, gathering experiences, and developing different skills. There is a lot of space now for a literature major who also writes poetry and fiction. I think it’s very important to try out different kinds of writing. One shouldn’t deny oneself that.
A memorable phrase or moment from any book?
There’s one from Elizabeth Costello. It’s in a scene in which she’s just given a long, complicated, passionate lecture about animals and ethics and rationalism, and at the end of the lecture, a man stands up and says something like “What exactly are you saying? Please clarify.” She replies: “I was hoping not to have to enunciate principles. But if I must, I would say: open your heart.” To say that in a lecture at a university, to a roomful of academics and thinkers and philosophers, takes courage. It’s also, to me, a very funny moment.
Your field is drama, but you are also currently focusing on animal studies in your work. What book would you recommend for someone interested in these fields?
The book that got me into animal studies is The Postmodern Animal by Steven Baker. It’s an art history book, but also a good introduction to the theme and problems of animal studies and its framing theoretical discourses. As for an excellent recent book on drama: I’d recommend The Drama of Ideas by Harvard professor Martin Puchner, about the intersection of drama and philosophy, especially the philosophy of Plato, who was notoriously anti-theatrical.
What are your views on the reading culture in Abu Dhabi?
U: I was recently looking for book groups to join, and I found one online but then realized that it didn’t suit my needs. I know that we have “Abu Dhabi Reads,” hosted by NYUAD, and I think that’s fabulous. I don’t think we have a poetry reading group. In New York I was once in a group called Poetry Aloud, in which you brought in and read out not just your own poetry, but any poems that you love. I am not aware of things like that here, but if they’re not here already I’m sure they are going to develop soon. There is so much happening just on our campus and through the Institute. Also we have a fantastic library and extremely helpful librarians. So I think the reading culture here is going to grow very fast, and in very rich ways.
What would be the ideal plot?
I don’t think there is such a thing, Aristotle notwithstanding! In fiction, the important thing is for the writer to have a deep impulse towards the truth, and that has to be worked out through a fearless engagement with whatever experiences the writer has had. The plot is just the scaffolding; it’s the feelings and the ideas that make great literature.
We will say four randomly selected words and you have to share your thoughts on them.
Widely studied, highly canonized novel, which was recently turned into an extraordinary eight-hour play—entitled Gatz—the brilliant New York based theater company Elevator Repair Service.
I must be the only person in the universe who has not read Harry Potter and has no interest in it. I don’t care for fantasy literature at all, though I adore mythology. I suppose one could make an interesting case that Harry Potter, because it was so successful, came close to becoming a new myth, but for me that word carries a lot of weight, and refers to a kind of ancient story that encapsulates some profound human wisdom.
Dumas’s novel The Count of Monte Cristo has an interesting role in the history of American drama. There were many plays based on the novel, and one of them became a kind of life-long acting job for James O’Neill, the father of Eugene O’Neill (one of the very greatest of American playwrights). As a boy, Eugene and the rest of the family traveled wherever this production of the play toured, and the play—and the title character—became a lens for O’Neill to understand life and relationship. Numerous echoes of it can be found in his plays.
My feelings towards him are close to outright worship! He was an extraordinary and visionary artist, with a true genius for dramatic encounter and tension. He suffered a great deal, struggling with homophobia, family dysfunction and loss, and alcohol. He scored some great successes on Broadway early in his career, introducing a whole new kind of play—the so-called “Southern psychological melodrama” that proved to be a great vehicle for the new kinds of actors and actresses being trained in America. But then the theatre world wanted him to write that same kind of play over and over again, while he, of course—being a real artist—needed to keep moving on and writing plays that dealt with the changing times. So, in the latter part of his life, he was plunged into failure, and poverty, and despair. In the past decade many of his later plays have been rediscovered and staged, and they prove that he never stopped being a dramatic and theatrical genius.
How should one read?
Honestly, you should first find out what gives you pleasure in reading – whether it is reading one novel a year, or one novel a week. Find out what kind of novel, poem, or play gives you pleasure. Take that quest first and take it seriously. Read many kinds of different things, and work hard to identify what feeds you and leaves you feeling enriched and happy. And then keep reading that way.