Confused, Day-to-Day Lived Realities: Interview with Deborah Baker

Photo by Julienne Schaer

Deborah Baker’s most recent book, The Last Englishmen: Love, War and the End of Empire, defies easy description. It performs mini-biographies of half a dozen figures involved with Himalayan mountaineering in the interwar period, but also explores the situation in Bengal at the close of the Raj. It is both exciting and enormously detailed; it connects many disparate ideas, and makes the reader believe that, in fact, every idea in the cosmos may be connected. Her previous books have been shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, among other plaudits, and she has long exhibited a knack for writing complex factual nonfiction. Katharine Coldiron, a writer based in Los Angeles, conducted this interview with Deborah Baker.

Katharine Coldiron (): Did you take a different approach to The Last Englishmen as opposed to writing a standard one-person biography?

The Last Englishmen book cover Graywolf 250w.jpgDeborah Baker: I started out as a conventional literary biographer but became frustrated with the linearity and predictability of biographical narratives—you always know how a biography is going to end. The omniscient authority of the biographer’s voice also seems to foreclose a more open-ended approach to narrative. Novels leave more up to the reader. It seemed to me that there was no reason nonfiction couldn’t operate the same way.

: Can you say more about this? Are you talking about suspense, or enigma, or something less definable?

Baker: From a craft standpoint, it meant letting the voices of primary materials like letters and journals speak for themselves, not dropping in chunks of quotation framed by me. Instead I paraphrased, not in the often-denatured writing of paraphrase but more in the way that translators capture a narrative voice. Then I went about shaping that material so that suspense, ambiguity, and those details that reveal character development, would drive the narrative.

…letting the voices of primary materials like letters and journals speak for themselves…Deborah Baker

I also didn’t want the story to be directed by the hindsight of historical outcome, like the defeat of the Axis powers or India’s eventual independence; I wanted to capture the confused, day-to-day lived reality. I also wanted to figure out what a biography of a generation—the intersecting lives of Oxbridge-educated Indians and Englishmen—would look like. So this book was an experiment in what is possible in “creative” non-fiction. It is novelistic without being fictional.

: Was there a single spark or personality that inspired this book?

Baker: I wanted to write about Calcutta during WWII, because no other part of India was more deeply affected by the war than this city. There have been hundreds of fictional and non-fictional narratives dramatizing London’s war experience but most Indian histories and memoirs of this period focus on the Freedom movement led by Gandhi and Nehru. These works stint on the war, partly because both men spent it largely in prison, isolated from what the rest of the country was going through. My hope was to find a Calcutta war story I could set against the broad canvas of India’s struggle against the British Empire.

Calcutta in particular and Bengal more generally largely rejected Gandhi’s non-violent approach to resistance against the British Raj. The region had a long history of violent insurgencies and schoolgirl assassins. In the 1930s communism gained a foothold in both the countryside and in the munition factories. So when Bengal became the staging ground for the Allied war against Japan after America entered the war in 1941, it became a target of both Japanese and British aggression. The Japanese conducted aerial bombing raids over the city. At the same time the British ordered a military crackdown on those districts of Bengal where sabotage and unrest were most prevalent. Churchill and his war cabinet’s vengeful withholding of grain and rice during the Bengal famine of 1943 and 1944 was to their mind justified by Bengal’s refusal to meekly submit to its role as part of the Allied war machine.

It took me a long time to find the “characters” through which to explore this period but one of the first to jump out at me from her letters was the voracious Nancy Sharp, the love interest of Michael Spender and John Auden. Nancy was a London painter mired in a rather parochial bohemian scene centered in Belsize Park. She would have been hard pressed to find Calcutta on a map.

: I admit I’m slightly obsessed with Nancy. She reminds me of Patti Boyd, who was married to both Eric Clapton and George Harrison.

Baker: Male readers are appalled by her, but women readers are more intrigued by the obvious power she exerted over the men in her life, both the ones who were attracted to her and the ones who shied away in outright hostility or fear.

The few letters I found from Sudhin Datta to John Auden were also immensely moving. He not only became the means by which I could draw Calcutta into the narrative, but he also embodied the ambiguities of the relationship between India and England, between Calcutta and the nationalist movement led by Gandhi and Nehru.

: Did you write and rewrite, assemble and reassemble, or did you have an organizational scheme in mind for the book early on? Did you have other people in mind to semi-biographize that needed to be cut for space, or did you start with one figure and find the book spiraling out into a dozen directions?

Baker: All of the above. If you can believe it, the manuscript was originally twice as long with many more subplots and characters. There was a lot, for example, on the circle of London painters Nancy Sharp belonged to. I went way overboard.

: I’m sorry this stuff landed on the cutting room floor. What you ended up with seems like it was more important, more about global forces, but as a reader I’m more arts-oriented.

Baker: I am too generally. But eventually I realized there needed to be parity between the London and Calcutta narratives. Unfortunately, while the circle surrounding Sudhin Dutta included some extraordinary personalities, they didn’t leave behind the kinds of diaries and letters that the London crew did.  So I added more about the Freedom movement, which I had originally felt had been covered enough elsewhere. I needed that as a through-line, at least for the Western reader unfamiliar with how the Freedom movement unfolded in the 1930s. The mountaineering chapters enabled me to contextualize the proxy wars taking place in Europe at the time, as well as spotlight the Auden and Spender brothers and how they chose where their loyalty and duty lay when war was declared.

: What did you want to achieve with this book?

Baker: By portraying India’s experience of the war I wanted to undercut or at least complicate the triumphalist portrayal of WWII as a clash between liberal democracy and fascism. We need new WWII narratives to compete with Saving Private Ryan or Dunkirk. We have read too many spy novels like All the Light We Cannot See set in Nazi-occupied Europe, but not enough like The English Patient, set in Cairo and the North African desert.

By portraying India’s experience of the war I wanted to undercut or at least complicate the triumphalist portrayal of WWII as a clash between liberal democracy and fascism.Deborah Baker

I wanted to fashion a non-fiction narrative that drew sympathetically on both English and Indian sensibilities. The most sensitive English writers of the 1930s—W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender, the younger brothers of my mountain climbers—were considered Leftist writers, yet as far as India and their country’s empire went they were blind or silent. Much like the silence of contemporary American writers on America’s vast and destructive imperial reach, they couldn’t seem to wrap their minds around it. Perhaps it was just too big or they didn’t feel up to grappling with the implications. Even Orwell came to his understanding of the insidiousness of Empire rather late, despite his direct participation in it (as a policeman in Burma).

Similarly, the Bengalis I wrote about struggled to see England and the English clearly. They resented the fact that the English writers they admired did not take up the Indian freedom cause as passionately as they had Republican Spain’s. I imagine there were colonial subjects elsewhere in the British empire similarly distressed that their countrymen were being used as pawns in a war against countries they had no argument with.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this book was the Bengalis’ sense that the art and literature of the Empire was valuable, but did not leave room for Bengali art and literature. That contradiction is so important to tease out at a time when underrepresented literatures are finally coming to the fore.

Baker: Bengal has an extremely rich literary, intellectual, and visual culture. In my portrayal of the Parichay group I was able to at least name-check a famous painter like Jamini Roy, or an intellectual like Susobhan Sarkar. I can count on Indian readers to know Auden and Spender’s writing, but the reverse is not true as far as western readers go. Sudhin modeled his literary magazine on T.S. Eliot’s Criterion, a mainstay of London’s Bloomsbury. They even referred to themselves as the Bengali Bloomsbury. And, like Bloomsbury, Sudhin’s immediate circle felt the heat of a rising generation of more politically engaged writers.

How do you think the book’s topics are relevant to the current political situation?

Baker: This is a really good question and one I’ve thought about a lot. WWII still has a powerful hold on how both England and America view the world and their benevolent pride of place in it. Churchill worship is a bellwether here [in Britain]. Despite his stellar anti-Nazi credentials, we are apt to overlook the fact that he was a stalwart white supremacist, deeply admired by Hitler. Hitler modeled his vision of the Third Reich on the British Empire. So whenever someone talks about the 70 years of peace and prosperity which has attended the post-WWII European order as a means of criticizing what our dreadful president is up to, I always wonder how that sounds to Latin American ears, or how that message lands in Viet Nam and the countries of the Middle East. We got ours. They didn’t.

This is definitely a function of having spent the last 30 years listening to Indians talk about those whose experience of American or British power has not been an altogether happy one. If you don’t take these perspectives into account, you are not getting a three-dimensional understanding of either that era or our current one. Hence my obsession with the technology of stereo-photogrammetry in the book; it was a useful metaphor for what I was trying to do.

At the same time the 1930s paradigm, aided by the resurgence of antisemitism and the proliferation of Nazi paraphernalia, can be distracting. It is safer to follow the money. Today Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon are the new empires, untethered to any nation state or any deeper value than money making. These companies determine, albeit passively through pernicious algorithm, what news we imbibe, what images we see, what products we buy. They also have access to our most intimate thoughts, our most private moments (a biographer’s dream).

I hadn’t considered this, that the parallels between our current era and the Nazi era are actually distracting rather than helpful.

Baker: As the impact of climate change becomes more a part of our daily lives, the social divisions we are seeing now will, it seems likely, be intensified by fake news, generated by both state and non-state actors, hosted by these immensely powerful platforms. Global elites can try to control for content, but as that task is comparable to cleaning the Aegean stables, they have shown little appetite for it.

It is hard for me to imagine who will ever be answerable for the fate of those on the wrong end of this power. The presiding worry is another global war, a la the 1930s, but civil insurrection will doubtless come first.

Like in photography, the objectivity of factual biography is an illusion. But the subjectivity of a book like this is a little obscure, compared to something like a memoir. The little touches of personality that exist—like the last line of the postscript, “Winston Churchill may be living still”—make me wonder what you think about your objectivity/subjectivity as an author. Do you enjoy being behind the screen of biography as a writer?

Baker: In The Convert, my last book, I was right there in first person, articulating my struggle with the material in ways I imagined a reader would. I used first person to become a proxy for the questions and assumptions I wanted the reader to grapple with when considering the life of my subject, a woman of Jewish descent who converted to Islam in 1959. Though most of the story was set in the 1950s and 60s, I was writing it in the thick of the “war on terror” and all the questions that raised about “the West” and “Islam.” Having myself in this narrative was uncomfortable (I can’t imagine the courage required to write a memoir), but I was helped by the fact that I doubted the book would ever see the light of day.

The reader’s challenge in The Last Englishmen is having to contend with conflicting points of view largely without an adjudicator. While my hand in the book is ever present, my authorial voice is used sparingly and indirectly and never in first person. Sometimes I thread it through the perspective of someone else, to enhance or emphasize their point of view. It becomes more visible in Part III when the war arrives in Calcutta and London.

It’s funny you mention “Winston Churchill may be living still.” It originally read “Winston Churchill is still alive” and my Indian editor gently suggested I might doublecheck that. This was a useful reminder that it is possible to be too subtle.

This book is primarily about men who want to climb mountains. Do you think the urge to climb Everest is gendered?

Baker: The Everest expeditions of the 1930s were more of an imperial undertaking, though London drew on gendered metaphors of national virility and manly potency to sell the quest for its summit to the public. Of my two Himalayan explorers, only John Auden used the climbing of high mountains to prove his manhood to himself, but it was a fleeting proof. Michael Spender eventually concluded that the rhetoric of conquest and empire surrounding Everest was complete bunk. The language surrounding Everest summiting has since changed, though national flags still feature in summit selfies. Given the cost of permits, these days Everest seems to be largely a means of enhancing one’s brand rather than anything gendered. 

What’s your next project?

Baker: Oh Gawd! (as Michael Spender would say). I wish I knew.

More About Deborah Baker

Deborah Baker is the author of The Last Englishmen: Love, War and the End of Empire; Making a Farm: The Life of Robert Bly; In Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Biography; A Blue Hand: The Beats in India; and The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. She lives in India and New York. www.deborahbaker.net/

About the Interviewer, Katharine Coldiron

Katharine Coldiron‘s work has appeared in Ms., the Times Literary Supplement, the Washington Post, LARB, Bitch, The Rumpus, and many other places. Her novella, Ceremonials, is forthcoming from Kernpunkt Press in 2020. Find her at kcoldiron.com or on Twitter @ferrifrigida.

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