Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Unsilenced - In Conversation with Preti Taneja

Preti Taneja - photo by Louise Haywood-Schiefer
We That Are Young is a darkly comic study of a monstrously dysfunctional family that is also so much more. Directors of Shakespeare’s plays can suggest settings in time and place the give context to the drama. But in transporting the story of King Lear to India and fleshing out the location through the rich medium of the novel, Preti Taneja has at once breathed entirely new life into a classic text, held a mirror held up to the faults and frailties of modern India, and created a powerful metaphor for greed, cruelty and corruption everywhere.

We That Are Young has been longlisted for the Jhalak Prize and shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize. Here, Catriona Troth talks to the author, Preti Taneja, about the writing of the book.


Hi, Preti. Thank you for talking to Words with Jam. You have a background is in film-making, and We That Are Young is a very visual book. Can you tell us first about your work with Ben Crowe at ERA Films? And how would you say that film-making has influenced your writing?

ERA Films was Ben’s idea - he’s a self-taught filmmaker from Whitely Bay, in the North East and he’s from a family of grassroots educators and political activists in Labour and the Co-op party. He began the collective in 2008 because he could see that small and medium sized NGOs and education organisations could use film for advocacy, but didn’t always have the in-house knowledge or capacity. We had worked together on his first short fiction film, the man who met himself, and I’d always worked in the charity sector – first at Children’s Express, (now called Headliners) training young people from disadvantaged backgrounds across the UK and Northern Ireland in media skills, where I made participatory films, and then as a journalist and editor for an NGO. One of our first commissions as ERA Films had us following the journey of books donated by publishers in the UK to libraries in Kenya, including one in a vast slum that provided a safe space for children of all communities during violent clashes in the 2009 elections. I was always a writer first but maybe filmmaking as a practice and with its own ethics made me want to write about, and in the style of the powerful, persuasive and all consuming nature of visual media, with its influence on our perceptions of the world.

It was to India that you turned for this novel based on Shakespeare’s play. Why King Lear and
why this very specific point in modern Indian history? 


I was born in the UK – my parents came here in the late 1960s and the state classifies me as ‘British Asian (Indian)’. I grew up on the white side of a small town in Hertfordshire. I did Shakespeare at school, and at home we had this other life: language, attitudes to family and money were different to my friends’. We had Indian family in different parts of the UK and went to India for holidays to see family as well. Sometimes it felt like navigating many worlds and trying to pass in each one; like putting on a uniform or costume according to what place I was in or language I was speaking. I always wanted to be a mix of all my identities, in any way I chose to express that. Don’t we all? I remember challenging my school uniform policy to be able to wear a navy blue salwar kameez instead of skirt, and having fights over being allowed to wear denim at home. They were small battles then, but they meant a lot.
Shakespeare was part of the Empire’s arsenal of cultural colonialism; Empire is at the root of why Asians live in the UK. Bringing Lear to bear on India is my way of bringing those two sides together and showing what comes out now: hybridity of people, language, attitudes. It’s a critique of how dominance impacts all of us, but out of that a literature can emerge and grow. I’m writing from the UK about India – both are part of who I am; and that can stand alongside writing about diaspora experience, alongside Indian writing from India. It’s a hybrid literature in response to UK/Indian colonial history. It’s made through syntax, aural puns, language, play between myths: by bringing different perspectives and identities together in one story. 


Once you’ve read the book, the pairing of Lear with modern India seems pre-ordained. But I am sure a great deal of craft went into making it look so inevitable. Can you tell us something about the process of creating that fit?

I’ve always read a lot about India in fiction and non fiction I got in India and in the UK, as well as different magazines and so on, online. All of that went towards my research. Some of the novel is based on childhood impressions of Delhi – a certain critique of nostalgia is there. I went to Delhi and Kashmir in 2012 to work specifically on the novel, and that involved going to as many marches and slum areas as I could to meet people, and to as many elite events as I could wangle invites into. I eavesdropped, I interviewed people in hotels at all levels of society. In Kashmir, people shared their homes and took me around some of the parts of the city hardest hit by the long conflict, which began with Partition in 1947. Everyone I spoke to was so generous with their insights. I was also able to pick up books in Srinagar I couldn’t get anywhere else, and all that went into the novel. It took about seven full drafts and infinite work on each sentence until I ran out of time and had to give the manuscript up to the publisher – about two weeks before it was actually published!


The novel format gives you space to explore the points of view of the five members of the younger generation. To begin with the novel gives a voice to, and elicits sympathy for, Gargi and Radha and Jivan – the counterparts to Shakespeare’s villains, Goneril, Regan and Edmund. But then, superficially, the narrative appears to turn against the two women in particular. Did you intend this as a way of showing how society turns on women as soon as they begin to exercise power or agency?

You’ve put it so well – that the narrative turns against the women. I wanted to tell to the story as a social tragedy, impacting all of us. You’re right - I wanted to stick to seeing the horror of patriarchal capitalism, and neo-colonialism, and the price it exacts against those trying to simultaneously conform and to escape. I couldn’t change Shakespeare’s ending – how could I when in 2012 we could see where we were heading: that there was a rise of toxic masculinity in power, and of religious fascism across the world? My experience of being silenced and watching my mother’s struggle, and my grandmother’s pain from her losses in Partition went into my decisions about the ending too.

As women we can exercise power and we have agency; some do that by fighting for space and then replicating existing structural violence and racial or class discrimination when they get through. The real threat in Lear is the idea we can join together and not do that. That sisterhood across all of that is actually possible. It’s the most terrifying thing to Lear. And so he perpetrates a ‘divide and rule’ strategy on his daughters at the beginning of the play. In the novel they are always trying to reach each other - the social world prevents them. To me, that’s where the real struggle is. There’s an awesome power rising in the world now, calling out misogyny and sexual violence – I hope the choices I make at the end of the novel – showing the danger rising – fuel readers to action, towards that.


Clever and unexpected to have Bapuji’s mother, Nanu, take on the role of Lear’s Fool – the one person who can speak truth to him. How did that choice come about?

I was actually worried it would be too obvious! Indian grandmothers are the centre of many families – and yet remain curiously invisible within and outside the home. They are expected to be the carriers of culture, expected to pass down morality in traditional families – and police other women’s moral goodness. But without any economic or reproductive value they are treated as beings to respect, then ignore. She’s the only character who could speak to the patriarch that way; he has to seem to listen, at least.


The one character you did dispose of from the play was the King of France. Did you ever toy with the idea of keeping him in the narrative, or was it always clear that he needed to go, in order to give Sita (Cordelia) autonomy and a voice of her own.

Yes, there is an early draft in which the King of France and Duke of Burgundy make an appearance. In that, Jivan watches the love test from the bunker in real time hours after he arrives in Delhi. But structurally that wasn’t working – and then Sita developed into more of an activist and the myth of her sexuality, the other characters’ fear of it; became more powerful to explore and the suitors had to go.


The Company is surely richer and more powerful than any actual company or family. Is that intended as a metaphor for the role of private wealth and power – in India and in the world at large?

It’s so fascinating to me that in the UK some readers have found the wealth outlandish – when all you have to do is think about the Ambani family, the Tata family – they are just as wealthy and have a much bigger reach than my Company – because they own international interests in petroleum, steel and manufacturing; they influence and work within political and cultural elites across the world, from the USA to the UK and Russia. The level of wealth implied in We That Are Young is real and exists – but I actually held back quite a lot – you know – there’s no gold plated elevators etc - remember Nigel Farage at Trump Towers? Except for Jivan– he’s the character who provides the Western gaze – I didn’t want the text to gawp at this wealth because it’s written from insider points of view. The metaphor of the Company is easy to track back to Empire, the British East India Company. Here it is in its latest iteration – capitalism unchecked in its power to own everything and everyone; (the word also has theatre references) so in that sense it’s a comment on the rich owning the rest of us, it’s a comment on freedom.


You keep many of the iconic plot points from King Lear – e.g. the chaining up of Kent, the blinding of Gloucester. How did you manage to use them in such a way that they retain their shock value?

It took a lot of drafts to get away from Shakespeare’s text, and yet stay near enough to suggest how that influence operates in culture. With the violence, I think it’s about building enough of a world around the characters so those moments seem organic. It’s a brutal society. Radha for example – she’s violent because she’s learned to be from her husband and father and ‘Uncle’ – she’s learned violence to survive. And she’s had great violence done to her.

The real social world seems a violent place to me though it certainly contains absolute kindness and community. What we see on the outside – who we think we know, and how people behave – what shocks us about others, and what we are capable of ourselves – and what the roots of that are in our literature, culture and mythology – that’s what I wanted to explore. 

I loved the ‘take it or leave it’ way you sprinkled the text with untranslated Hindi and other languages. Were you ever tempted to go soft on your monoglot readers and offer in-text translations or a glossary, or did you always intend them to make to work at it?

Explanations wouldn’t work in a world where multilingual Indian characters are speaking to each other and I had to be true to that. The main languages in the novel are Sanskrit, Hindi, English, Hinglish and Napurthali (which is made up). I love that you use the word ‘monoglot’ rather than ‘English’ or ‘Western’ like some have – because of course a lot of ‘English’ and ‘Western’ readers are Hindi speakers too. Lots of monoglot readers have told me, like you, that they love this aspect of the book because its so immersive, and others who speak both languages have said how glad they are to see it written like this, the way they speak, without that sense of having to explain themselves.

I’m OK with readers having to ‘work at it’ and it certainly was a political and aesthetic decision. There are so many registers of language in English – for example – a kind of dialect code that if you don’t know it, you won’t get it. I’ve had to navigate that all my life. We all do. Language and the way we use it makes us both familiar and strange to each other, and we have to be alive to that hybridity – it’s exciting and I think not knowing makes us honestly more equal.

Doubt - especially about what we think we know is fundamental to my work. That’s what I want to get to on the page and into the reading experience. Self-doubt is such a powerful emotion since it’s based in fear of our own mortality. We have to embrace it – it makes us braver, more willing and able to work things out for ourselves and find empathy for what we don’t understand.


In addition to your writing and film making, you are also the founder of Visual Verse – can you tell us a bit more about that?

Kristen Harrison and I started Visual Verse in 2013 – she knew I needed a project to get me out of a creative slump. She runs The Curved House, a small publishing and digital media company; she came up with the concept and brought in the wonderful designer Mr Pete Lewis who contributed his skills for free. Visual Verse is an ekphrastic writing prompt site – people submit 50-500 words, written in the space of an hour, in response to an image we post. We change the image each month, and kick start things with three or four pieces by lead writers I commission beforehand. Then we open it up to the public – and that means writers from all over the world. We read every submission, and post the ones we like best: we run it around our jobs, we publish writers of all ages and backgrounds, and it’s totally free. It’s four years old now and it’s gone from 30 subs a month to over 250. We’ve had kids, written books, changed countries, had health issues, got dogs, lost them – and yet it keeps going – because the community of writers is so fantastic. We publish big names, emerging voices and first-timers together. The site makes me happy every day! 

You must be still in a whirl of activity round the publishing of We That Are Young. But do you know where you might venture next?

It’s been brilliant to publish We That Are Young with such an avant garde press in the UK as Galley Beggar Press. The book has now been picked up by some incredible editors and publishers in different parts of the world. The next thing is going to be set in the UK; that’s all I can say. I’m very glad to be working on it while We That Are Young makes it’s voyage out.

Thank you, Preti.

Thank you!

You can read Catriona Troth’s review of  We That Are Young on Bookmuse here.

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