Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Et In Arcadia Ego

By Catriona Troth

credit: Walter White
The young Sunny Singh had a practical approach when she found no representation of herself in books. She rewrote them! So perhaps it is no surprise to learn that the adult Sunny Singh wrote her third novel, Hotel Arcadia, in part in ‘answer’ to Dante’s Inferno.

Last December, I spent an afternoon in conversation with Sunny Singh, author of Hotel Arcadia. In the course of two hours, we managed to take in Dante’s Inferno, Judeo-Christian theology, the teaching of creative writing, diversity politics, gender politics, and the highs and lows of social media. This is my attempt to distil that conversation down into a few thousand words!


Hotel Arcadia is the story of a terrorist attack on a luxury hotel. The premise could be the outline for another Die Hard film, but Singh transforms it into something quite different. Instead of focusing on the battle between the terrorists and the soldiers, she homes in on two people who would be bit players in any Hollywood movie. Abhi, the hotel manager, trapped in the operations room, watching events unfold on the closed circuit television screens. And high up in the tower, Sam, a photojournalist spending the last night of her assignment in the hotel.

In my review, I described the book as a duet. But Singh herself has gone further and described it as a love story.

“Back in university I discovered Dante’s Inferno, and I always go back to it. I am fascinated by the story of Paolo and Francesca, the doomed lovers, condemned to circle eternally but never to reach each other. I always told my professor that I wanted to rewrite the story – because I wasn’t so sure that the idea of eternal longing without consummation was such a bad thing.

“Even the architecture of the hotel is based on the nine circles of hell. Abhi’s lover is in the second circle, with Paolo and Francesca, and below Limbo, the preserve of unbaptised children and the virtuous pagans. The lowest level –where the great betrayers are (Judas / Brutus-Cassius / Lucifer) –is where Abhi is found.

“It’s a strange choice, to place him there. I do realise that. For me, Abhi is the moral core of the book, and yet every choice he makes in his life is a betrayal, often of himself. After all, it is possible to argue [as the Gnostics did] that Judas’s act was not a betrayal, but an act of love, the ultimate sacrifice, knowing he will be condemned to hell for what he has done, but that it is necessary to enable everything that follows.”

The name of the hotel, and thus the title of the book, is deliberately chosen. There are many hotels called Paradiso. But Arcadia represents an earlier, pre-Christian idea of an earthly paradise – “Claiming space,” as Singh says, “for two people who wouldn’t be allowed into Paradise.

But there are echoes, too, of the expression, “
Et In Arcadio Ego”: even in Arcadia I am there – ‘I’ being Death. The earthly paradise of this luxury hotel is under attack. More than that, Singh adds:

“Genocides are planned in very nice places like that luxury hotel. These places are not safe.”

Book Trailer for Hotel Arcadia

My immediate association with Hotel Arcadia was the terrorist attack on the Taj Mahal in Bombay. But in fact, the inciting incident for Singh goes back much further.

“I was travelling in Peru in 1994 or 95, when the Shining Path planted a bomb in the small hotel where I was staying. The only people killed were the receptionist and bellboy – the very people the Shining Path were supposedly fighting to protect. I was outraged by that. But it was something I needed to park and process. I didn’t have the ability to write about it until at least 2002.

“You know, as members of any society we hand over a monopoly on violence to the state – whether it’s to go to war, or to carry out judicial killings. So it shakes us when an individual takes that power, even if we know that the state is unjust. It seems better for the state to kill than some random person to do so.

“I would never qualify myself as a pacifist. But I have huge concerns about how we perceive violence and the extent to which our reactions are conditioned by who practises it and who is victimised, rather than the act of violence itself. This is why we can accept narratives of ‘the good war,’ ‘the just war’. Our boys are noble. Theirs are evil.

“We have a hierarchy, too, of victims that we sympathise with. Women are valued as victims if they are young and pretty, or if they are mothers of young children. We rarely see women as the ‘great brain’ or the ‘heroic fighter.’ Male heroes are always good husbands and fathers. There is little space for queer heroes.”


Singh often challenges – subtly in the book but head-on in conversation - elements of Christian theology that someone from the West might take for granted, or would not even realise are underpinning our ideas.

“It may seem a strange thing for an Indian, non Christian woman. But I grew up attending Catholic schools – so I have a deeply embedded Christian education. There are so many things I can intellectually understand but don’t culturally get. The idea of not being able to be saved – or that the intention of the act is not taken into account - is alien.

“Europe has this idea that its intellectual class is now completely secular. ‘Those crazy people over there follow religion and we don’t.’ So we don’t question the extent to which that long Christian tradition impacts us. As John Gray pointed out [Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions 2004], even the idea of progress as linear is essentially a religious concept! American exceptionalism has grown out of the Calvinist idea of predestination, of a favoured people. Success becomes a sign of your virtue.

“Just because the language has been secularised, it does not mean those ideas are not still there. They impact the way we deal with the world, the way we deal with politics. And we ignore that at our peril.”


Hotel Arcadia is a story that might never have been written. Before she even began writing it, Singh lost a crucial notebook.

“That was hilarious,” she says (with the gloss of hindsight.) “I started working on the novel as I was trying to finish my PhD. I was taking copious notes and I had gotten so lost in them that I couldn’t write. I had everything. I had philosophy. I had architectural plans. It was comforting but also overwhelming.

“Then one night I lost it on the Tube at Earl’s Court. The bottom of my stomach fell away. I was hyperventilating, completely devastated for about two hours. Then I went to sleep. And when I woke up, the book just took off in a mad rush. I wrote the first draft of the novel in about four and a half weeks, while I was still teaching. I had to tell my class, ‘If I’m not making sense, stop me'.

“I think a lot of it had to do with getting locked into a conceptual space. I bring a lot of philosophical, theoretical ideas to my work, and at some point I have to put all that on the back burner and just tell the story. I think because of the way it happened, I managed to bring in all my key ideas, but they were delivered with a light hand, instead of being hammered home. It was a very strange process and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. But it worked.

“There is always a morning. And things look different in the morning.”


Another unusual aspect to the development of Hotel Arcadia was the role of Singh’s Dutch translator in the editing process.

“So many publishing houses don’t have the same editing role as they did thirty years ago. Most books don’t receive that close look from someone with authority.

“In the case of Hotel Arcadia, the Dutch decided to bring out a translation at the same time as the English edition. Dutch is a more restrictive language than English (Most languages, I find, are more restrictive than English, which is why I write in English.)

“I had a very diligent translator, who was sending me long lists of notes, picking up issues like ‘if it’s three hours later, is it still dark?’. She came from a different story-telling tradition, and she needed clear answers on time and place. An English editor, I think, would have let it pass. Willing suspension of disbelief would have carried us through.

“That whole process changed the book quite drastically, made it far clearer and tighter.”


As well as being a novelist, Sunny Singh teaches creative writing at the London Metropolitan University, to a very diverse student group – and she has strong ideas about how appropriate the classic creative writing curriculum is for such students.

“Creative writing courses are based on the idea of ‘finding your voice’. But if you have been told over and over again, by books and by media, that your stories aren’t important, your history isn’t important, and ‘hey, the Empire was great, what are you complaining about?’ – how do you even begin to find your voice?

“I’ve had a global mix of students in my class sometimes realising, ‘we always write stories with white people in them (and not ourselves).’ So we spend a lot of time working on gender and race.

“In that situation, there is an automatic tendency to look towards American authors, which ignores Black British writers and Commonwealth writers. But that’s where most of my students have their roots. They have certain overlaps with the Americans, but also different backgrounds and histories and senses of self.

“Focusing on American writers allows white British people to wash their hands of their own history. Remove Caribbean writing, say, and you are wiping out a legacy of slavery and imperialism and the Windrush generation.

“Lloyd Shepherd [author of The English Monster], is the only explicitly post-colonial white British writer I know, who writes a critique of the self-glorified narrative that ‘Britain abolished slavery.’”


I ask Singh about the strong pressure, coming especially out of the US, to examine ‘white privilege.’

“There are layers and layers of privilege. Race is only one axis. There are multiple others: gender, sexuality, geopolitical. If you are a northern, white working class man, you have a larger set of possible texts to relate to, but not by much. We need to understand both own privilege and our lack of it.

“We do an exercise in my class based on Peggy Macintosh’s ‘Invisible Knapsack’. What that reveals is, yes, we’re all British, we’re all in this classroom, but we are not all equal. Unless you can see that, you are not going to be able to write it. But the moment you break it down, you create a space where it’s okay to tell the story.

“Funny how it’s often the straight white male who mocks the idea of safe spaces – because they’ve never needed one.

“In the American debate, the biggest elephant in the room is how much geopolitical power they have. How much their views are being exported and how much they are shutting down others, like African and Caribbean voices, when they are talking about race. That’s also privilege talking.”


On her blog recently, Singh quoted Tony Morrison: “We don't need any more writers as solitary heroes. We need a heroic writer's movement: assertive, militant, pugnacious.” I asked her what that meant to her.

She cites a series to graduates of her BA programme, including Matilda Ibini (playwright who won the 2015 Alfred Fagon Audience Award for her play Muscavado, set in a sugar plantation in Barbados in 1808); Warson Shire, whose refugee poem, 'Home' was quoted nightly by Benedict Cumberbatch at the end of his performance of Hamlet; Roxanna Donald who wrote a powerful play, Spike, on sexual consent; the children’s writer Lil Chase.

“We don’t have to agree with each other. We don’t have to be friends. But we are all writing consciously and ethically.”


Singh has written about her own feeling of ‘erasure’ when she went from India to the US – which put me in mind of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s well known TED talk, ‘The Danger of the Single Story,’ in which she talks of not realising, as a child, that stories didn’t have to be about white people.

“I grew up in India. I read books in Hindi. So unlike Adichie, the idea that women like me didn’t appear in stories never occurred to me. When I started reading books in English as a child, it would annoy me if there were no people like me in them. So I would rewrite them.

“When I was 11, we moved to Pakistan. That was my first exposure to being a ‘minority’. The idea that one part of your identity – your religion, or your nationality or your colour – could become the most important part was a real shock. But at least we shared a similar language. We watched the same Bollywood films. We looked similar. All those things helped negotiate being part of a non-visible minority.

“I think what the US did was to show me that there was a completely different point of identity, where a visible minority can be deliberately erased. Where we inhabit a liminal space. That sticks out to me as a real culture shock.

“At the same time, I am aware of certain literary tropes that diaspora writers have. That sense of ‘over there is bad; over here is good.’ Like the ending of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane – ‘you can be anything you want.’ Really? As a brown woman in Britain? Are you bullshitting me?

“I can’t write about India as Adichie does about Nigeria or Hosseini does about Afghanistan, because in some ways I feel as much a foreigner in India as I do here. But I can write about in between spaces very well!”


Before the backlash against the ‘lilywhite’ Oscars, came the backlash against the all-white list of authors for World Book Night 2016. How did Singh feel about the Twitter campaigns (first #diverseauthorday and #diversedecember, then #readdiverse2016) aimed at promoting more diverse authors? Was there a risk that these were just another case of ‘hashtag tokenism’?

“There seems to be no winning card. If you speak up, then it’s hashtag tokenism. If you don’t speak up, then you can be ignored.

“The BAME market is worth £3bn a year, and it’s a market that’s not being catered for. So of course BAME readers are going to go online. Of course they are going to buy self-published authors. Because you are not tapping that market at all. You are not even touching them.

“Prize committees say publishers aren’t putting writers of colour forward. Publishers blame the agents. Agents say authors aren’t submitting to them. I look at my agent, who has an extraordinary list, but works twice as hard as anyone else trying to place them. So don’t tell me that the authors aren’t there. In the end it comes down to ‘you are not telling the stories we want to hear.' The ones that will allow us to re-inscribe our stereotypes – Indian women who have arranged marriages; African women who end up raped or killed and so on.

“If I refuse to write those narratives, I’m in trouble. If I write those novels, I am still in trouble, because there is still only going to be one ‘Indian’ book per year, or one ‘Asian woman in Britain’ book per year per publisher. If I don’t critique, I’m in trouble, because I’m not speaking up and it’s my fault. If I critique, then I’m angry and I’m not playing ball, and it’s still my fault. So my logic is it’s too bad. I have readers. I am not in the self-publishing world, but I am doing most of the publicity for my book.

“My first two books were not published in Britain at all. They were either ‘too Indian’ or ‘not Indian enough,’ depending who you talked to. They were published in English in other countries. They were published in multiple other languages (French/Italian/Spanish). But they have never been published in Britain.

“Why can’t we talk about Hotel Arcadia as a terrorism book? Why does the fact that I am a woman change how it is received – not by the reader but by literary festivals. Why am I not being asked to talk about politics? Why must I talk about women’s issues, or diversity issues? Why can’t I talk about literature and terrorism and politics and all the things the book is about?

“It comes back to institutions making deliberate choices. I don’t think it is inappropriate to ask big companies to pay their staff a decent wage. I don’t think it is inappropriate to expect them to hire, deliberately, a wider range of people. But they choose not to do it.

“The publishing industry thinks they can have a little conference every now and again, and we’ll have the same people saying the same things, and then we’ll have done our job and we can park it and go back to doing what we always do. So at least #DiverseDecember, and so on, is getting people talking about the books and the writers. A bit of rattling the cage isn’t going to hurt.”


I first encountered Singh on Twitter, where she has a strong presence. Does that mean she sees social media as something positive, at least in part?

“I see it mostly as positive, especially Twitter. I have made so many friends there, both online and in real life. I have yet to meet anyone from Twitter who isn’t exactly how they seemed online. It’s so immediate; it lends itself to a sort of intimacy. You know someone’s politics – but you also know if they are a dog person or a cat person.

“For example, during the time in Tahrir Square, I followed one woman who was very vocal, very passionate, very political. Around two in the morning, I had insomnia. I was on Twitter. There was a lot going on, so they were constantly updating. She suddenly said, ‘I do realise this sounds frivolous, but I need to get my eyebrows done!’

“We have had every last breath of men over the centuries. But we haven’t heard the voice of women like this before. Women talking about themselves. The quotidian. It hasn’t been recorded before. The image is always filtered, and Twitter takes those filters off.

“On the other hand, as a writer, for the first time, I have the ability of the gatekeepers and reach out directly to the reader. And that is quite special. I had one Twitter follower who invited me to his book club – which meant Skype chatting between Seattle and London. The idea that you can do that is extraordinary!

“So yes, I’m a bit of a Twitter evangelist.”

She did, however, have an interesting experience once with changing her avatar on Twitter.

“One of the exercises I get my students to do is to have first a male character and then a female
character walk into a crowded pub, to describe their body language as they walk to the bar and order a drink.

“You always assume that Twitter and 'real life' will be different. But that is not the case. As a woman on Twitter, I get a certain amount of drive-by sniping – the equivalent of cat calls. Men who insult you or mansplain or tell you to shut up or say something quite sexual. No different to walking down the street. To me that is a structural issue. It’s about keeping women in their place, about saying public spaces are for men.

“Then I happened to change my avatar. I had been diving in Egypt, and there was a photo I really like that I decided to use. And because I had a mask on, you could no longer see whether I was a man or a woman. (Underwater is apparently not a female space – don’t ask me!) And the drive-by sniping stopped. No mansplaining. No ‘shut up you don’t know what you are talking about.’ Male journalists that I had followed for a long time started reaching out to me. Suddenly my opinions had weight, because I was underwater with a mask on!

“To me, that was quite telling. Gender still matters.”

Sunny Singh is an author and journalist. She also teaches creative writing at London Metropolitan University. She was born in India, and has lived in Pakistan, Spain, South Africa, Latin America and the US.


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