Stephen Alter is a man of many places who is not at home any place. It is this sense of discomfort and the ensuing search for understanding that connects him to readers. It makes Alter a writer-in-residence well-suited to MIT.
The author of eight books, Alter has spent his life journeying between Indian and American cultures. His latest book, Elephas Maximus: A Portrait of the Indian Elephant explores the mythology and natural history of India’s elephants. He recently won a Fulbright grant to research folktales in the Himalayan mountains –– a project that grew from the local stories he heard while on a pilgrimage several years ago. He will spend much of 2005 walking similar paths and chronicling the tales from contemporary India, Pakistan, Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet.
His bare office is at the center of the thriving creative writing scene at MIT. But his prose makes it easy to superimpose the wet mountains of India and the faces of the itinerant sadhu, the ascetics, on his blank walls. MIT has served almost as a spirit house for his insightful literary wanderings over the past nine years.
He writes from the unusual vantage of a man of wildly contrasting cultures. The son of American Presbyterian missionaries, Alter spent a happy childhood in the Himalayan foothills of Mussorie, India, in a post-colonial world, among mountains “stretching all the way to heaven,” among stories of the One God and many gods. When he finally returned “home” for college in the early 1970s, America was in a fevered state of rebellion. Those cultural counterpoints, along with years teaching at the American University in Cairo, shaped him.
Both cultures exert their influence in his writing. On the 2001 travel-memoir Sacred Waters he set out on an arduous solitary pilgrimage up the Ganges River. Although he is not Hindu, he adhered to the strenuous limitations of the journey, eschewing the main road for meandering footpaths.
“I had to keep reminding myself that it wasn’t just about the athletic challenge. My intent was to be a pilgrim, not a mountaineer. There is no simple, straightforward route when you choose this path,” he says.
KNOWS HOW TO LISTEN
Equal parts poet, journalist, and social commentator, he knows how to listen without intruding, how to collect fragments for storytelling. He would make the perfect dinner guest but would probably decline the invitation in favor of camping in the dense forests of India, even during the rainy season.
As a colleague pointed out, there is a lot of perspiration in Alter’s books. That’s because he returns to India when he is able, usually during summer. His novels, memoirs, and works of non-fiction explore themes of taking journeys and crossing borders. They are personal without being self-confessional.
One of his favorite questions to students is Where do you put yourself in the story?” In his novels Neglected Lives, Silk and Steel, and The Godchild, his characters are all connected to India. In most cases they are living between cultures. In his disquiet and vivid searching, he creates a sort of dharamshala, a rest house for anyone who has ever felt like an “expat” in his or her own land.
For Alter, both India and MIT share a certain unpredictability. Because MIT students don’t necessarily come with the same “literary canon,” Alter’s workshops are often astonishing, even to him. Indeed, two of his own books came out of a class assignment.
For to be a writer-in-residence also means to be teacher –– a role Alter unabashedly treasures. “Writing and teaching complement each other,” he says. “Unfortunately, some professors don’t seem to believe that you can do both at the same time.”
NO WRITER’S BLOCK
Alter has taught undergraduate workshops in fiction and non-fiction writing. Although his work has spiritual aspects he cautions his students not to expect divine inspiration to bless them with fully-formed short stories.
For, very much in the MIT mode, he believes writing is all about process. “Wear a beret and drink all the espresso you’d like, just get up and write on schedule. At MIT, that could be 3 a.m.” To him, there is no such thing as writer’s block.
Four of his eight books are novels, the first written as an undergrad. He admits more are on the shelf. Just because you have an agent and just because you are the resident writer at MIT, doesn’t mean that there is a publisher for all you write. That means you must love the journey.
In Sacred Waters, Alter writes “I see myself as a pilgrim who does not follow the prescribed tenets of any particular faith, but seeks to find the subtle and mysterious connections between human experience, mythological narratives and natural history.”