Author Q&A: Aravind Adiga, Amnesty

Author Q&A: Aravind Adiga, Amnesty

14 February 2020

Priyanka Mogul, Literature Programme Manager

Most of you will know and love Aravind Adiga for his debut novel, The White Tiger, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2008. But the author has produced a body of work that is just as spectacular – including his most recent novel Amnesty, which follows the story of a young Sri Lankan, “Danny”, who has overstayed his student visa in Sydney and rendered himself an illegal immigrant. 

The novel has already found its way onto The Guardian, Financial Times, The Millions, Vulture and Buzzfeed’s most anticipated of 2020 – and has been described as a “forceful, urgent thriller for our times” by Lit Hub.

Ahead of publication on 20 February 2020, we spoke to Adiga about his upcoming novel, what it was like to win the most prestigious literary award, and what advice he has for budding writers. 

We’re all really excited about Amnesty.  How long have you been working on it and why did you choose to write this story now?

I began working on Amnesty five years ago, even before I’d finished my last novel, Selection Day. I’ve been going to Australia since 1989, when I flew there with my mother, who was being treated for cancer. Because I’ve visited Sydney regularly over the next three decades, I’ve seen the city change for better and for worse. One of the things that bothers me now is that Australia’s famed lifestyle- coffee, koalas, yachting- is increasingly dependent on exploited South Asian labour. In the last fifteen years, there’s been a massive influx into Australia of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Nepalis, many of whom have arrived on student visas. Most of these South Asians do very well for themselves. But Australia is now a two-tiered multicultural society. There is a top slab of white Australians and successful immigrants. But the city has also developed a sprawling underclass of brown male labour- students who are lured into Australia by dodgy colleges which take their money and leave them with worthless degrees. They end up cleaning tables, delivering food on cycles, or picking fruit in the countryside. Some of these exploited South Asians are now illegal immigrants, having overstayed their visas; all of them are pretty much invisible. Drawing in part on a real story, Amnesty is the tale of one of these invisible and illegal brown men- a Sri Lankan Tamil named Dhananjaya or Danny- who has to make a terrible choice in the course of the day, when he realizes that he alone, in all of Sydney, knows the identity of a murderer. Does he go to the police and tell them what he knows- thereby revealing that he is illegal, and liable for deportation- or does he stay silent, and let a killer walk free?


You won the Booker Prize back in 2008 for The White Tiger, which is now being adapted for Netflix. How has the success of that book impacted on your writing?

In my life, The White Tiger is like that Indian relative who suddenly visits from far away, is tremendous fun for the first few weeks, but then stays on and on, and never leaves. But I am looking forward to the film, which has been directed by Ramin Bahrani, the Iranian-American filmmaker to whom the book was dedicated in the first place.


What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given as a writer?

Studying the literary career of Amitav Ghosh is the best thing any young writer can do for herself. Not only is Ghosh brilliant and consistent, but he’s also very generous to other writers- as I well know. In Dante’s Inferno, the philosopher Aristotle is described as ‘the master of those who know.’ Ghosh is the master of those who write. Read all his books, and read everything he has ever said about the art of writing.


What are you currently reading?

One of the most compelling essays I’ve read about being a South Asian male in the West- an essay about how British or Australian societies routinely emasculate brown men- is Nikesh Shukla’s ‘The wanking foreigner from The Big Bang Theory.’ When I finished it, I read it a second time right away because I couldn’t believe someone had had the courage to write it. I hope to find more work by Shukla whenever I visit the United Kingdom next. The South African academic Jonny Steinberg, who teaches at Oxford, is one of the world’s great nonfiction writers. I’m reading and loving his new book, One Day in Bethlehem, an attempt to reconstruct a crime that happened in the apartheid era. I’m also reading The House of Snow, an anthology of Nepali novelists and poets. I visit Kathmandu a fair amount these days, and I’ve discovered some gifted writers in Nepal who should be known better around the world- people like Samrat Upadhyay, Rabi Thapa, and Prawin Adhikari.


Amnesty is published by Picador in hardback on 20 February 2020. Find out more and buy your copy here.