Lee Siegel is a professor of South Asian religions at the University of Hawaii and the author of several books, including Net of Magic: Wonders and Deceptions in India and City of Dreadful Night: A Tale of Horror and the Macabre in India. His most recent book, Love in a Dead Language, tells a tale of love and death in academia through journal entries, news clips, film posters, and excerpts of the Kama Sutra. Writing in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Shashi Tharoor calls it "a work of brilliance and originality... that will delight anyone who cares about love, India, or the pleasures of language."
The author spoke with Asia Society from his home in Hawaii.
Have you always written fiction in addition to academic writing? Do you find it difficult to switch back and forth between academic writing and fiction? How do the two types of writing inform each other? Is there that much of a distinction between the two?
While the challenge for me in academic writing has been to figure out how to be interesting despite having to tell the truth, the challenge for me in writing fiction is to figure out how to be interesting even when lying. I consider scholarly writing as much a literary genre as fiction or poetry. I like fiction that teaches me something and scholarship that entertains me. Each genre has a different set of conventions that deserve continual reconsideration and challenge. In my academic writing I had employed the conventions of narrative fiction in the service of scholarship and, after pushing that as far as I could, it seemed reasonable to try to use the conventions of academic writing in the service of fiction. Love in a Dead Language was the result. The great thing about being able to make up all the facts--all the footnotes, entries in the bibliography, and epigraphs-- was that I didn't have to go to the library or double-check my sources.
I see much of your book as a satire on academia, on a white, male professor's obsession with India and, on a larger scale, with Orientalism and the West's fascination with India. How does satire function in this book? How important is it to know how to make fun of yourself?
In my understanding, satire is moral, acrimonious, and condemnatory; it exposes and, as it comically castigates human folly, it demands reformation. In that sense, my book isn't meant to be a satire especially since I am, after all, a white male professor who is obsessed and fascinated with India. In any case, I'm not interested in morality, denunciation, or changing people. I appreciate human folly and enjoy all that is goofy about us. But I suppose it's because I used parody, lampoon, caricature, and other rhetorical devices that are associated with satirical attack, that many of the reviewers of the book construed it as satire. This has particularly been the case in India where reviews have consistently characterized it as a satire of Orientalism. I'm pleased because, as a result of that, the book has been on the bestseller list there (second for a while only to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire); but in my mind it's about a thoroughly universal human need for fantasies about love, a pandemic belief that there are experiences of sexual intimacy in other times and places that are different from our own (and somehow grander and more voluptuous) and yet possible to be imported and known. The book could just as well have been a satire of Occidentalism, written about an Indian Professor of American literature at Banaras Hindu University who falls in love with an American girl enrolled in one of his classes.
When you were writing this book, who was your intended audience?
When David Brent, my editor at the University of Chicago Press, was asked by a member of the publication board who the audience for the book was, he answered, "anyone who has both gone to college and been in love." My intended audience while writing the book, however, was one substantially smaller than that; in fact it was an audience of one (though someone who had gone to college and been in love), namely me. Before beginning to write I spent a good deal of time trying to imagine reading a book, a book that entertained me enormously, with the idea that, if I could imagine it clearly enough, I might be able to write a version of it down. Once I stopped imagining that the first line was "Call me Ishmael," I started writing the book we're talking about.
I thought the book was a marvelous account of the love-hate relationship many academics have with academia. Do you this think this is an accurate characterization?
A couple of years ago, while working in India on an ethnographic piece about snake charmers, I'd ask each of the many of them that I met if they liked being snake charmers. Every single one of them said that, even though it wouldn't make them rich, they loved their job--that it was fun and easy and they had plenty of free time, that they got to meet a lot of people and show those people something interesting. Although the same things could be said about being an academic, I doubt that every American professor likes his or her job as much as all of the snake charmers seemed to like theirs. I personally have revelled in the 25 years that I've spent as a teacher in the academy. When I say something, people write it down--that rarely happens outside the classroom. And teaching pays better than snake charming.
How much of Love in a Dead Language is inspired by the Kama Sutra specifically and Sanskrit literature in general?
In writing Love in a Dead Language, I aspired to do for the Kama Sutra what the Talmud did for the Torah. It's confusing to refer to the Kama Sutra, however, without distinguishing between the scientific-sexological treatise compiled by a Brahmin moralist in Gupta India and the romantic-erotic symbol construed in the nineteenth and twentieth century and still developing. While the ancient Sanskrit text itself has inspired very little other than a few obscure commentaries, the symbol has inspired a full line of products including massage oils, body dusts, pleasure balms, lingerie, lubricants, condoms, sex toys, plenty of X-rated videos and adult web sites, lots of illustrated sex manuals and compilations of erotic art, a major motion picture, and Love in a Dead Language. The symbol is incredibly powerful--it intrigues me that people who have never heard of Sanskrit or the Veda, who would not be able to name the capital of India, have heard of the Kama Sutra and could tell you exactly what it's about. When Clinton was in India last year, an Indian diplomat gave him a book; the President looked at the cover and, seeing that it was the Kama Sutra, immediately and wisely handed the dangerous symbol back. It's a cheerful thought that with George W. Bush in the White House, Bill Clinton will finally get to read the Kama Sutra.
What is the relationship between yourself and the character that bears your name in Love in a Dead Language?
In real life I am much more handsome than the Lee Siegel in the novel (although, I must admit, he does know more Sanskrit than I do).
What are you working on next?
A new novel about the same old stuff: sex, love, death, and trying to have a good time anyway.
Asia Society interview conducted by Michelle Caswell.