WHO HE IS
Aashish Kaul joined the Department in 2017 as an Assistant Professor in English and Creative Writing. Professor Kaul received his doctorate from the University of Sydney in Australia, where from 2012-2016 he also taught/tutored on a number of courses in the fields of English and Australian literature and literary and critical theory. His research interests are in the areas of modernism, narrative theory, phenomenology and literature, hybridity, nature writing, and postcolonial studies. Born and raised in India, he currently lives in New York City. In his spare time, he likes to travel, hike, listen to music, and read books.
IN THE LIFE
Like any other scholar these days, Kaul feels the need to preserve his free time. “I do try to read and catch up on writing,” he said. “It might seem strange coming from a literature professor but aside from the summer holidays I haven’t been able to devote a lot of time to reading and writing. During the terms, I am fully engrossed in the courses I am teaching and other supervisory and departmental activities that require my attention.” He later added, “I haven’t been able to do much writing and traveling these last couple of years, but I hope this will change soon.”
Like any seasoned reader, Kaul has scores of favorite books, and he mentioned two memorable books he read last year: Julien Gracq’s Balcony in the Forest and Guido Morselli’s The Communist.
Kaul studied and practiced law in India before moving to Australia to pursue his doctoral work on an international scholarship offered by the University of Sydney.
In terms of the kind of writing he likes, he says it depends on what he is working on at a given moment. His thesis involved both creative and critical elements, and he believes they feed into each other. “Essentially I wanted to be a fiction writer, and that’s what I am today. But it doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy doing critical or scholarly work.”
TEACHING & DIRECTOR OF SIGMA TAU DELTA
Teaching was not something Kaul had given much thought to before moving to Australia. He explains that compared to the United States there perhaps was a difference in culture and expectations from graduate students in Australia. “Unlike the US, students in a doctoral program in Australia, UK, or other parts of the Commonwealth, are not necessarily expected to teach on the side, partly because the program is viewed as being focussed on study and research, and partly because the average duration of the program outside the US is shorter. But there are always students who end up taking on teaching duties to gain experience and supplement their income/funding. And I believe this would be more common now than a decade ago.”
Kaul, however, was fortunate to gain this experience. “I began tutoring on one of my doctoral adviser’s courses. This experience was incredibly useful. Teaching requires a lot of training, practice and understanding of the complex classroom dynamics. I think my time of teaching during and after my graduate study was extremely important and very helpful.”
Given the lack of stable, long term opportunities in teaching, Kaul was contemplating a number of career options, including a return to law, but to find a teaching and research position in a university always remained his top priority. “Teaching is a very good way to test your ideas. It’s very organic and complements writing well,” Kaul explained. “It’s enjoyable [to teach]. It’s certainly more enjoyable than anything else apart from writing. It’s a good career and it gives you the flexibility without taking away the intensity.”
Kaul was asked what’s the best lesson he’s gotten as an educator. “Often the classroom is the place where you share and test certain ideas that you are working on. Students respond to your ideas in different, novel, ways because they are reading the materials from different points of view, and bringing to bear upon them their own unique experiences. It’s a very symbiotic relationship in that sense. So outside the blank page, the classroom is the best place to test ideas and drive your thinking forward. The process is real and alive and democratic.”
For his writing, Kaul gets inspiration from a number of things. “We all get influenced by the world, by meeting new people and going to new places,” said Kaul. “But, in the first instance, it’s books mostly where I get my inspiration from. However, your environment heavily influences you when you are writing.”
In the University, Kaul is also the Director of the Albany chapter of Sigma Tau Delta, an International English Honors Society, admission to which is open to all English majors and minors who meet the prescribed criteria.
Kaul gives a short explanation on the initiative: “The society operates all over the United States and also overseas. It is a wonderful way for students from the English Department to be more involved in communities both inside and outside the university. There is a service requirement and several extracurricular, speaking, and internship opportunities that can be helpful for future career prospects.”
Kaul’s move from law to literature, from a law degree to a doctorate in writing, was not, at least initially, based on a plan.
Kaul further explains his experience in college: “Law school prepares you to read and write analytically. There is usually a substantial amount of reading and writing involved throughout the courses. I completed a double bachelors in law and humanities, and read literature, sociology, economics, and history in addition to legal subjects. There was a growing awareness at the time that if one had to train and graduate competent law practitioners, legal education had to be truly interdisciplinary. For as a lawyer you often look at cases which require understanding of facts based in different systems, different ideas, different fields.”
In law school, Kaul had early and long exposure to literature and his interest deepened over a period of time. He was a science student but wasn’t certain he wanted to be an engineer or a doctor. “This opportunity to go to law school came about, it looked interesting, it allowed me to experiment in a number of ways early in life. It prepared me for a career in reading, paying close attention to words. Because in law, just as in literature, everything depends on them.” While he admits that his path isn’t necessarily the ideal path to study writing or literature, he believes it helped him to be where he is today.
While working in law for six years, he knew he wanted to write. “I was writing and publishing alongside practicing law. This helped me build a strong portfolio over time which I used to apply to the graduate program.”
Kaul’s father was very supportive of his move from law to literature. “Now that I look back, things could’ve gone wrong. There is no immediate return from what you’re doing, and often times you don’t even know if there is going to be any real outcome of your creative endeavors.”
Despite the subsequent move to literature, Kaul says he enjoyed his law school years. “In law school, I much preferred public law to private law. Subjects such as Constitutional Law and Criminal Law were more interesting than studying Company Law for example. But given that I do not come from a family of lawyers, I began with a firm and practiced corporate law for a while before moving to chamber practice and court work.”
He sums up: “Literature, like any other art practice, is a chancy, subjective business. The objectivity is limited to an understanding of literary traditions and formal and technical properties by which narratives and stories are created, but this understanding unfortunately is not as widespread as one would like it to be. So luck plays a large part in everything. One always feels fortunate for what one has accomplished, where one has arrived.”
Kaul has been thinking and planning a novel now for some years, but he doesn’t have much to say at present. “I write when I can’t hold back, and right now I feel I can still hold back a little,” he said.
Kaul mentioned that he might touch on current issues like climate change and the growing debt problem in the world and the United States. “Once the work is done, the work is so much bigger than the writer. Even if I try to say what I want to do in my book, it isn’t going to come out right.”
Kaul also talks about the importance of being patient and that it takes time to begin. “It’s been a while, but hopefully I’ll be in a better position next year to say something more substantial on what I’m working on.”
“WHY STUDY ENGLISH?”
Kaul was asked why the students should take English as a major, and he replied: “Language and communication is an essential part of our lives as humans, and it forms the core of several disciplines in the Humanities. Today we’re more interconnected and global, so communication is all the more important, and English is one of the world languages. If you learn to use English carefully and attentively, to think and make ideas in it, there is no door in the world that will not open for you.”
“[Language] does something unique, if you spend time with language, it helps you see the world better.”