Saturday, November 07, 2015

On Teaching Creative Writing as a Woman of Colour

Ten years ago, I took up the challenge of leading a BA: Creative Writing in the UK.  At the interview (and in the decade that has followed) I kept one secret. I was deeply sceptical of Creative Writing programmes, although I could not have articulated my discomfort at the time. This post is an attempt to begin to do just that: explore why I had been sceptical of Creative Writing programmes, how I confronted that discomfort and tried to find solutions, and - in doing so - stumbled upon on something very unique.

When I first began my teaching job, I had inherited the curriculum and syllabus and in the first years I had very little leeway. Yet it was apparent in the very first class I walked into that neither were adequate, appropriate, or indeed to use management-speak, 'fit for purpose.'

I teach one of the most diverse (British and international) groups of students possible. But beyond that simplistic term lies a whole range of experiences and identities: my students are often from economically and socially disadvantaged sections of British society. They are often the first in their families to pursue higher education. Many juggle multiple jobs with family responsibilities for parents, children, siblings, and are often primary carers for more than one person. In many cases, they are first or second generation Britons, with complex migratory pasts, cultures and histories. Institutionally, many are classified as 'mature students' which flattens the life experiences that they bring to the classroom. All of this makes their decision (especially after the fee changes) to study Creative Writing even more risky (and brave).

Yet none of the course that I inherited ten years ago reflected the reality of students we were teaching. Junot Diaz's brilliant 2014 MFA vs POC essay was still years into the future but I was in a strange situation of living out the dilemma. Albeit from the other side! I wasn't a PoC writer participating in a workshop (An aside: I never did an MFA in Creative Writing. The very few workshops and writing groups I have experienced were enough to turn me off them. And for all the reasons that Diaz details). I was instead the course leader and tutor who could - perhaps, just perhaps - make a difference.

My first changes were discreet. I couched them in pedagogically acceptable language of familiarising students with the canon, with critical theory, with contemporary writing.  Surreptitiously writers like Leslie Marmon Silko, Wole Soyinka, Mourid Barghouti, Alice Walker, Nawalel Saadawi made into my reading lists, as did bell hooks, Edward Said and Frantz Fanon.  The reading list has steadily grown and expanded over time to include writing in translation as well as newer writing (Alex Wheatle and Ta-Nehisi Coates are two of the more recent additions).

Then a couple of years ago, when I got a chance to redesign the course as part of a university wide exercise, I decided to expand the curriculum to include more critical fiction on the grounds that you can't write it if you haven't read it.  And I expanded the syllabus to be focussed on aspects of not just writing as a craft but also research skills, critical thinking, and most importantly critical writing (Critical Fictions is now a set text and I wish someone would republish the volume).  Then I fought to include modules that gave students a chance to learn about the publishing industry, to devise query letters, book proposals, elevators  pitches. I wanted to discuss publishing not in a NYC/London-centric way but open it up to global changes, markets, and developments. It makes sense when my students are from as far away as Brazil and Burma, and want to write and publish for their own people.

In the past ten years, my students have gone on to do amazing things. They write, perform and publish powerful, critical imaginative worlds. They work in publishing, media and cultural industries across the globe. Many teach, mentor and nurture, hopefully paying forward some of what they acquire during their degree.

Teaching Creative Writing has also helped me recognise and articulate my own discomfort. Junot Diaz is right in flagging up MFAs (and in the UK, MAs and BAs in Creative Writing) for their inability to support and nurture PoC.  From the other side of the line, my conclusion is perhaps more distressing: Creative Writing courses are by definition imagined and designed for writers who are primarily white and middle class. The courses are designed to not confront or engage in the necessary emotional, psychic, intellectual, critical and yes, political, work that is required when writing from the margins. It isn't just the workshops that exclude - as Diaz astutely notes - but the very structure, design and conception of these courses.

This is why Creative Writing courses don't - and can't - serve those of us who are PoC, queer, non-binary, differently abled, or in multiple other ways structurally and historically disadvantaged. Even the token getsures towards nonconformist, challenging writing are designed to channel the writer on the margins into more conformist spaces. This coerced conformity is not limited to PoC experience in just workshops but at all levels, including the prescribed readings, the forms and themes considered culturally valuable (and thus worthy of being written), and the critical engagement (or lack thereof) with not only words on a page but also literature as a whole, forms and barriers to cultural participation, and thus with the world beyond.

In the past ten years, I have tried to find ways to circumvent thees design flaws and subvert the underlying premise of teaching Creative Writing. I must admit that it is a draining, exhausting task that often means I finish leading my workshops (and academic terms) feeling shattered. Yet it is also the most rewarding job I have ever held because I am - hopefully - widening the ladder, smoothing the climb, extending a hand to pull in yet another fellow writer from the margins.

Toni Morrison said recently that 'We don't need anymore writers as solitary heroes. We need a heroic writers' movement: assertive, militant, pugnacious." I keep hoping that with each graduating cohort, I am contributing a little to this possible heroic writers' movement.

But damn...I wish it were not so exhausting, draining, and all too often so very solitary!

PS: if the above speaks to you, or sounds familiar, or you'd like to swap ideas, please get in touch.

PPS: I hope to blog more about my reflections on my experience of teaching Creative Writing so watch this space.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

While Murdoch Media Focusses on Labour 'Problems', Can We Talk About The Tories?

Every morning I wake up to read the Murdoch press, only to be told that the Labour party are at the brink of collapse. I don't know. They may well be - after all, party politics often happen beyond the public eye. However, I rarely read anything about the post-election internal dynamics of the Conservatives (beyond fairly superficial pieces on the various politicians jockeying for party leadership). This may be - I concede - because there is an assumption that the party has won quite decisively, and need not consider voters (or potential ones) at all for a bit.

If so, it doesn't quite chime with the growing tetchiness and fumbling in the behaviour of many in its rank and file, both in real life and on social media. I recognise that many - especially on the left - would simply write this off as 'Tory arrogance' but I believe it is more complex. The party's higher ranks may well be clueless, as demonstrated for example by the poor optics of laughing just as Jeremy Corbyn was speaking at the last PMQs of poverty in Britain.  The behaviour on social media of accounts of more junior Tory party members seems just as dissonant with a clear combination of irritation, arrogance (or perhaps more accurately, bravado) and an odd reluctance to answer questions.

While I have been watching multiple socmed accounts and party members flounder, here are some examples (that I have directly experienced):

1. The rather ineptly branded @LGBToryUK account went on a blocking spree on twitter during the party conference. While blocking is indeed a useful function for individuals, an institutional account that blocks en masse - and not for abuse but simple questions - is demonstrating both lack of social media savvy and incredible ineptitude.

I was blocked for a single tweet responding to an all-white, all male panel on queer issues at the party conference (my response was a rather mild 'oh dear'). Interestingly, I didn't notice for days until multiple LGBTIQ activists and freelance journalists began complaining of being blocked. On checking, I found I too had been blocked. And then, on raising a fuss, I was quietly unblocked. The administrators then claimed that I hadn't been blocked at all, despite screenshots, and have since refused to either apologise or explain how this magical block-unblock happened.  To be quite precise, they are pretending they need not engage at all with me.

2. A stranger version of this is unfolding at councillor level in my area. Last year, after I experienced a racist hate crime, the local Tory councillors were fastest to mobilise and reach out. A year later, this has changed (the MP is again Labour so perhaps the councillors have decided there is little to be done until an election is closer?).

When questioned on issues ranging from immigration and the refugee crisis to tax credits and Brexit, the councillors are locked into a pattern. They predictably share the party line on their accounts but when asked for their own stances, are unable and unwilling to answer. When pushed, all they can offer is: 'we have no input into the party policy.'

Now this may well be true, but - for example - when the Home Secretary declares that 'immigration harms social cohesion,' a voter living in one of the areas of highest immigrant densities in the country can only be concerned. Surely it is then up to the councillors to soothe (or exacerbate) fears, and explain that the area is not (or is) facing a clear and present danger of social strife.

3. The local party office appears just as incapable of answering questions about how government policy - now decided entirely by the party as it is no longer in coalition - is impacting daily lives of residents, taxpayers and voters in the area. All queries are answered with a standard, 'please contact us if it is about council services.'

There may well be a party edict asking the rank and file to not comment on any policy matters. Given that most of the mainstream media appears invested in keeping all questions of politics at their most superfluous, this may even be a smart and reasonable tactic. However, in an age of social media, this is as poor a response as the optics of MPs 'laughing at poverty' during the PMQs.

However, I believe the reasons go beyond party edicts or arrogance. There is - I believe - a growing disconnect in whatever is decided at cabinet level and how it is communicated to the rank and file. Although party members fall in line with stating similarly worded, mechanical explanations, they are also left incapable of defending the government's policy decisions in any substantial way. They are also left floundering because the government policies are often increasingly indefensible - not only on moral grounds - but on logical, even small case conservative, pro-business grounds.

There is also - I have learned in the decade of living in Britain - an oddly feudal attitude to politics (and this cuts across party lines). As Indian politics practices a less subtle, more in-your-face version of this, I am quite familiar with it. Elected officials - from MPs to councillors in Britain - hold an implicit attitude of bestowing largess on their constituents. So an active and effective MP (or other elected official) will often respond instantly and immediately to small, personal grievances raised by individual voters. At MP surgeries, issues of council services or policing or individual difficulties can be raised and resolved. And there is a not so covert expectation that the voter thus being helped will then be grateful and suitably reward the party/officer with future voting loyalty.

This is really a modern version of a feudal lord handing out tit-bits to keep peasantry from revolting!

The principle that a democracy requires its elected officers to be held responsible not as feudal lords bestowing favours, but for service to voters appears non-existent.

In some ways, this is also why the Conservative party rank-and-file appears bewildered. Accustomed to abuse by opponents and assuaging individuals with supposed help is all they know. The very idea that a voter may question them on matters of policy or ideology appears almost entirely foreign. It is for this reason that @LGBToryUK blocked any who asked even the simplest of questions. They have nothing to 'bestow' on the voters. They have little explanation for why their tag erases the T in LGBT, or indeed why policy discussions on LGBT issues are being handled entirely by a very narrow set of people.

This is also why a local councillor - Hampstead's Oliver Cooper - can tetchily declare that politely albeit repeatedly questioning him about 'social cohesion' and anti-immigrant rhetoric from senior members of his party is 'insulting and harassing' him. It is also why he believes simply saying 'I do not accept the premise of your question. Fin.' is an adequate response to a voter.

However, social media and the changing demographics in Britain is demanding a new kind of politics (unlike many, I don't see Corbyn as a substantive harbinger of this). This form of politics will require more than a few elected officials 'resolving voter difficulties' by calling up a bureaucrat or contacting an office. As a voter, I am not interested in receiving 'gracious help' on an individual basis. I want to see efforts made for structural changes so the difficulties faced by me are not passed on to the next voter, and the next generation. (As an aside and this is material for another post, the Conservative party would do well to examine the Republican implosion across the pond. The final crumpling of the 'Southern strategy' holds lessons for the Tories who want to solely pander to an ever-shrinking and ageing 'base.')

Of course any kind of politics is hard to effect. At the same time, it is necessary that politicians in all parties began to learn this. If any politician or party believes they only need to deal with the voter to bestow favours, or can summarily dismiss their concerns, they are profoundly mistaken.  If members of any party - but Conservatives in particular - feel that they don't have to go back to the electorate any time soon, simply because the next national level elections are far away, they are again mistaken. There are multiple other elections coming up before 2020 where the MPs may not bear the brunt of voters' discontent, but that may be borne by other elected officials.

Before ending, and perhaps this is the compassionate side of me, this also may be a reason for the current fumbling behaviour of so many in the Conservative party. Unable to defend the ridiculous rhetoric emerging from the upper ranks, they are just battening down the hatches, hoping that the questions - and voters - will go away.

And that's where they are wrong.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

MORE books added to the #wherebooksgo giveaway

First of all, a HUGE thanks to everyone who has been sending in photographs of #HotelArcadia from all over the world for #wherebooksgo. Currently, we have 151 photographs from 28 countries. We have also had FOUR winners from three different countries who have won copies of bookss by novelists from Korea, Australia, and Scotland! This has truly become a global reading, travelling and book-loving enterprise.

We also have a NEW winner: the 150th photograph for #wherebooksgo won a copy of Paul Hardisty's debut Yemen thriller, The Abrupt Physics of Dying. And funnily enough, the book is flying its way to fellow writer, Chris Chalmers!

Many of you will know that #wherebooks go started as a both sentimental as it was what I wished to do while reading Paul Sussman’s  novel, The Labyrinth of Osiris, after he had passed way, and romantic as I have always wanted to know where books went with their readers.  So when Hotel Arcadia came out, I requested readers to send in their photographs; I love getting a glimpse into their lives, and minds, which is both a joy and a privilege and one that would be impossible without technology and social media.

From the very beginning #wherebooksgo has been a fun crowdsourcing project to trace my new novel, Hotel Arcadia's travels around the world with its readers. It is really simple: readers take a picture of the book wherever they read the book – at home, travelling, somewhere familiar or exotic – and post it on Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag. Or they send it to me on Facebook, or email it.  I share the pics further on my website and social media. 

Readers have been sending pics from across the globe and the hashtag looks a lot like my dream list of places where I – not just my book – long to go. And I am getting to know readers from across the world who are so disparate and diverse and yet connected by their love of reading. Somewhere along the way, I realised that #wherebooksgo could also help share books that I have enjoyed reading with readers. So I have been reaching out to writers and publishers to ask them for copies of books for a #giveaway. 

Over the summer, we added the lovely Princess Bari by Hwang Sok-yong to the #giveaway thanks to Periscope Publishing. And the lovely Orenda Books contributed copies of David Ross's hilarious Last Days of Disco. We still have ONE FINAL COPY for the #giveaway.  And while, a copy of Paul Hardisty's CWA-listed, debut thriller set in Yemen, The Abrupt Physics of Dying has been won by the 150th photograph, there is a SIGNED copy (exclusive first edition hard back) of Ragnar Jonasson's Snowblind waiting for a lucky winner!

But we have some exciting news: Today we add TWO MORE books.  First up, we have two copies of Kati Hiekkapelto's FIRST Anna Fekete novel, The Hummingbird (Arcadia Books, 2014).  Defenceless, has just been released to FAB reviews. When caught up with Kati on her promotions tour, I just HAD to get her to join. As you can see, I really had to work to convince her (it involved tea and cakes...and books!)
As I had not yet read Kati's new novel, I cheekily asked her to contribute the book I had read earlier in the year and enjoyed very much: The Hummingbird.

It has been one of my favourite thrillers this year and am really pleased that we've been able to include the book that started it all!

And SECOND, by a complete coincidence, turns out that Chris Chalmers has ALSO just released a new book. It is HOT OFF THE PRESS which makes its addition to #wherebooksgo even more exciting.

Light From Other Windows explores the unravelling of a family when the youngest son goes travelling around the world and gets caught in a tsunami. The lovely book blogger Jackie Law has a review of it here.  Am SO pleased Chris agreed to contribute two copies to the #wherebooksgo #giveaway.

Chris's book is poignant, moving, and despite a grim topic, very life affirming.

SO keep those pics coming. And watch this space. We'll be working updating the pics, adding more books and finding more ways to share books we can all love! 

Friday, July 10, 2015

Hotel Arcadia and the AMAZING #wherebooksgo Give Away

UPDATE (#2), September 10, 2015: Doh! Nick Nakorn also sent this lovely pic of his copy of The Last Days of Disco, complete with the appropriate soundtrack. I LOVE all the places books go!

UPDATE, September 10, 2015: I have been terribly remiss in updating this blog entry and I can only blame writing assignments and deadlines. We have a NEW winner for #wherebooksgo for this lovely photograph from Devon by Nick Nakorn.  Nick wins a copy of David Ross's wonderful debut novel, The Last Days of Disco.
The #giveaway isn't over yet. There are MORE books to be won, and we are adding books all the time so keep those pics coming. There is still one FINAL copy of David Ross's hilarious Last Days of Disco. We also have a copy of Paul Hardisty's debut thriller set in Yemen, The Abrupt Physics of Dying as well as a SIGNED copy (exclusive first edition hard back) of Ragnar Jonasson's Snowblind. And keep an eye out as we're adding one of my favourite Finnish noir writers to the #giveaway next week!

Winning is easy: just take a pic with your copy of Hotel Arcadia wherever you are and tweet or instagram it with the #wherebooksgo hashtag. Or email it to or send it in via Facebook here.

UPDATE, August 17th, 2015: Winner of Princess Bari by Hwang Sok-Yong is Monika Thakur who sent in this amazing photograph from the Himalayas, India (along with some gorgeous ones from Turkey that you can see here):

UPDATE, July 29th, 2015: NEW BOOK added to the #giveaway: 

We have added the Princess Bari by Hwang Sok-yong to the #giveaway thanks to Periscope Publishing. I am particularly pleased because Periscope is a fabulous new indy publisher and I absolutely LOVE this book.

It is my favourite read of 2015 so far. Not only does Sok-Yong create a wonderful resilient heroine but also weaves in magic, fable and politics with lyrical ease. The novel is both timeless and topical as it follows the migrant heroine from Korea to London, and is both poetic and hardhitting. If you haven't read it yet, you SHOULD!

UPDATE, July 24th 2015: We have just hit 125 pics and have our very FIRST winner for the #wherebooksgo giveaway. Allen Anderson wins a copy of David Ross's hilarious Last Days of Disco for this glorious photograph from Shorre Acres National Park, Oregon, USA.

And thank you Allen Anderson for all the wonderful pics that you sent through. So many beautiful places that Hotel Arcadia visited out in western United States.

UPDATE. July 13th 2015. We have hit 120 pics though the protagonist of the photograph should not be reading any of the books on our giveaway list. Instead she gets a copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, probably far more appropriate for her.

#wherebooksgo is a fun crowdsourcing project that traces my new novel, Hotel Arcadia's travels around the world with the readers. It is really simple: readers take a picture of the book wherever they read the book – at home, travelling, somewhere familiar or exotic – and post it on Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag. Or they send it to me on Facebook, or email it.

The idea behind #wherebooksgo is both sentimental as it was what I wished to do while reading Paul Sussman’s  novel, The Labyrinth of Osiris, after he had passed way, and romantic as I have always wanted to know where books went with their readers.  So when Hotel Arcadia came out, I requested readers to send in their photographs; I love getting a glimpse into their lives, and minds, which is both a joy and a privilege and one that would be impossible without technology and social media.

Over the last few weeks, readers have been sending pics from across the globe and the hashtag looks a lot like my dream list of places where I – not just my book – long to go. And I am getting to know readers from across the world who are so disparate and diverse and yet connected by their love of reading. The project remains is simple: send in photo of Hotel Arcadia for the #wherebooksgo collection, but now there are PRIZES!

For the most fun, wonderful, gorgeous photographs to come in, there are fabulous books to be won, including THREE copies of David F Ross’s AMAZING The Last Days of Disco 

The 150th photo wins a copy of the CWA-shortlisted thriller The AbruptPhysics of Dying by Paul Hardisty, set in Yemen as is some of Hotel Arcadia.

And the 175th photograph wins a signed copy (exclusive first edition hard back) of Ragnar Jonasson’s bestselling Snowblind.

There are more wonderful books for readers by LOTS of amazing writers coming up as #wherebooksgo takes Hotel Arcadia to more places (see on-going updates above). 

Saturday, March 14, 2015

A Chat With The Artist Taxidriver: Politics, Structured Bigotry and Life In General

So last month I was approached by the Artist Taxidriver - the performance artist Mark McGowan - to have a chat about structural prejudice, future of Britain, and life in general. I was quite surprised when he reached out to me on Twitter but found myself very intrigued. The interview was the most unusual one I have done. We sat in the car chatting while the iphone mounted on the dashboard recorded us. Here are the videos of our chat:

For the record, I was totally impressed by how well prepared Mark was for our chat. He had pages of notes and had probably researched everything but my tax records! As a former journalist who was trained to research thoroughly, I felt an instant kinship with his preparation. Also having been on the other side, I have to say that Mark was more prepared than pretty much any journalist that has ever interviewed me.

It was also a unique interview because Mark pretty much uploads the videos without editing which gives the conversation both an honesty and added pressure because there is really no going back from one's statements. On the other hand, the format also means the discussion can be more in-depth than the 'sound bite' formats available on mass media.  

As we discussed all sorts of issues, from sexism and racism, to general elections, the strengths of Mark's preferred format became clear. Discussion could be both far ranging and in depth: we were not limited by the issues that plague the infotainment that has over-taken our screens. I can see why and how this format could provide a viable and interesting alternative to discussions in mainstream media. Once again socmed FTW!

Apparently we enjoyed chatting so much that we kept going for nearly an hour. Mark said it was the longest interview he had done. But I take the blame for that....I am chatty even at the worst of times.

Mark also warned me that I should not look at the comments below the video as youtube can be a 'cess pit.'  For once and probably given my own experience of misogynist online abuse, I have followed the advice extended to me. I recommend you do the same! 

All in all, it was the most unusual but interesting interview I have done and thank you Mark for inviting me.  You should also check out Mark's other work

Thursday, February 26, 2015

On Memory, Writing and Learning Stillness

This post was written in the run up for the publication of the Dutch translation of Hotel Arcadia. The Dutch and English editions are now available for pre-orders from the links above. I wrote this current post for so you can read it in translation here.  I had a quite an unusual childhood and it continues to impact my writing today, in terms of themes, styles and content. I hope the customary readers of the blog will find this post interesting. And perhaps new readers will get a little insight into my life and my writing.

One of my earliest memories is of sitting near a bonfire, amidst mounds of snow, watching Tibetan soldiers clean their weapons.  Even now, in my mind’s eye, I can see the eerie brightness that snow creates at night, the orange-red licks of the flames, and the glint of metal against the olive green of the uniforms. Over the fire, a massive petrol can had been repurposed for a cauldron into which all leftovers were chucked, and its perpetual bubbling yielded the most delicious ‘everything’ soup.  And most of all, I remember the terror and sorrow, although I only understood it as an adult.

The year was 1971, and the soldiers were part of a specialised unit of the Indian army that my father led. They were heading to war and many – and I have never stopped missing them – never returned.

Another memory rises. From later in the decade. Of a bamboo hut with dirt floors and a freshly dug snake trench.  At night, I would peer through the green mesh that formed the walls, watching for the wolves and foxes that came to forage in the garden.  When we came home from playing, my mother would make us stand beyond the snake trench and empty out our pockets before letting us into the shack. With no toyshop for miles, wildlife – often of the creepy-crawly kind – tended to be our playthings.

Much has changed since those early days of living in cantonment towns and remote border posts.  By the time I entered my teens, my father had changed his job, albeit still within the Indian government. Instead of isolated villages on the Indo-Tibetan border, we started moving to places like Islamabad, New York, Windhoek.

Yet some things remained the same as the family grew, and moved. My parents were always most excited about travelling, exploring, learning, and these are loves they passed on to me. I remember learning basic Swahili by candlelight with my father in that bamboo shack because he was being prepared for a posting that never materialised. And then doing the same in light of a storm lantern for Urdu, and then in the brightness of an camel skin lam, and with greater difficulty, for Xhosa.

For many years now, I have travelled on my own, although my parents get perhaps more excited about my trips than me.

I used to think that those early days had been left behind, that I had outgrown those early memories. But increasingly my writing goes back to those impassive, kind faces that I loved and lost as a child. I want to know those lives, if only in my fiction, and learn about what they loved, wanted, feared. And I want to understand where they found that silent, unending well of courage.

A final memory. I am five and the Tibetans are teaching me to remain still. They are soldiers and monks so the lesson is two-fold, for physical survival and spiritual progress. I protest that stillness is frustrating, difficult, may be even futile. They tell me I can only master the enemy, the world, and myself when I learn to be still.  In my writing, and my life, I am still trying. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

On Hotel Arcadia: Disaster Can Bring Out the Best In Us

As many of you know, my new novel Hotel Arcadia will be published in March (bit of a sales plug, it can be pre-ordered here with a discount off the cover price). The Dutch edition of the novel is planned for the same time and can be pre-ordered here. It is my very first translation into Dutch so am particularly excited. This week I wrote a blogpost at (translated into Dutch - my language skills don't stretch that far!) about what inspired the book and what I hope I have achieved. Below is the English version just in case: 

I have studied and analysed political violence for over twenty years and have long been aware that ‘bad guys,’ ‘heroes, and ‘victims’ are never quite simply so.  I have always been struck by how so many of the people who survive, even live in, violent situations are also amongst the most generous, compassionate, hospitable, and kind.  Through Hotel Arcadia, I wanted to explore this amazing human contradiction where our best qualities seem to go hand in hand with the worst living situations. 

In every violent, awful situation, the heroes – in my experience at least - are ordinary people doing extraordinary things. They don’t want to be heroes, or even think of themselves as such, but given extreme circumstances, find amazing strength, courage and self-lessness.  For Hotel Arcadia, I drew on these everyday heroes to create the character of Abhi.  He has never wanted heroics, has walked away from any chance of it, and created a comfortable life. However, when he is forced by circumstances, he rises instinctively to the challenge, motivated not by glory or reward but vast compassion.

At the same time, with Sam, I wanted to put a thoroughly modern woman on the pages, and see how she copes with the pressures of balancing career, love, ambition.  I also wanted to write about the women I know and love – the ones who seem to be towers of strength and yet terribly fragile all at once; the ones who must juggle all the myriad aspects of the modern life.  And of course, I wanted to explore how love rarely follows boy-meets-girl, fantasy wedding, dream home, babies pattern. I wanted to explore modern love in all its messiness, where it must play tug-of-war with all the other things we want, love, and pursue. In that sense, Sam is the character closest to my heart: she cares too much. About everything. 

Of course, there were other ideas I wanted to explore in this book. I wanted to investigate how we look at violence. We see so much of it on our screens, between news, films, video games that I wonder if we are able to distinguish between these anymore.

Finally, as a former journalist, this book is very personal. How do we cover war and violence? Is bearing witness enough? As a journalist, I always struggled to balance the distance required for reportage with my worry that I should have been helping instead.  I stopped being a journalist because I could not retain the distance that was demanded from me.

As a novelist, Hotel Arcadia, was my opportunity to explore this moral dilemma more intimately. I still don’t have an answer for myself, but am glad Sam and Abhi found theirs.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Where Books Go: Crowdsourcing the Travels of Hotel Arcadia (and Other Books)

So I had a crazy idea this morning and am reaching out to see if you can help. It hasn't been terribly well thought through but it just feels great to launch right into it. It's a crowdsourcing plan to figure out where books go and who reads them. It isn't about reviews or reactions, but a simpler - and for me - a little fantasy I have clung to since childhood. 

You can probably guess that I was a rather bookish child - or a kitabi-keeda (bookworm), as was the term in my family. I also had a hyperactive imagination which meant I got into constant trouble for daydreaming (letting the milk boil over while I was 'watching' it was a particularly regular crime), had regular and terrifying nightmares (though I blame my father's military exploits for that one), and came up with way too many odd, whimsical ideas.

Early on I realised that the books I read - or at least the stories in them - came from far off places in the world - Mumbai, Delhi, London, Paris, New York, Moscow.  I wondered constantly if the writer knew I had their work, if they knew I held a piece of them. And yes, I was pretty clear quite early on that a book was a piece of the writer, perhaps even a little shiny bit of their heart, a visual reference I probably picked up from Mera Naam Joker

In those pre-internet days, and growing up in a small tiny town in India, it was pretty impossible to find out much about authors, or to get in touch with them. And even if I had tracked down an address, my pocket money wouldn't have gotten far enough for the postage to America or Soviet Union or Britain. Especially not with trying to buy more books at the same time. 

Regardless, I wrote many letters to my favourite authors, in the back of my school notebooks, or in the many diaries I started and never filled, and in my head. In some precocious cases, I offered them advice - mostly about not having sappy women/girls, or expanding parts for the characters I loved, or writing me into the narrative (an early recognition of the lack of nonwhite characters and stories, I guess).  In those letters, I explained how I hid under the bed to read because my grandmother worried I didn't play enough, that I covered them in brown paper to resemble text books so I could sneakily lose myself in the pages during a boring school lesson, and how much I loved the weight of them in tucked into the sash of my dress. But for most part, I wrote the letters just to tell the writers how much I loved the stories, and in doing so, let them know that at least one little piece of their heart was safe - and cherished. With me. 

This is why I always wondered about the people who pick up and read my books. Not only for feedback and reviews, but those little glimpses into their lives and homes. To wonder if they read the books in the park, or by seaside, or tucked into a favourite chairs. In my mind, each reader is a story, and stories are always magic. So I am constantly wondering how to share in a little bit of that magic.

Fortunately, internet - and social media - have made that magic a little more possible. I realised earlier in the week, when I received the first copies of Hotel Arcadia, that I may be able to figure out where some of the copies would go. I posted a snap I took at my publisher's office, and later from home as we toasted a copy with bubbly.  And this morning, I logged on to twitter to be informed that one of the first - if not the very first - review copies had arrived. Dave Hardy had kindly posted a photograph on twitter for me:

Suddenly, someone I don't know in real life, and have only recently met on twitter, had given me a little glimse into their life. The edgy, night city-scape backdrop to their twitter account, the monochrome bed-linen in the photograph, and the careful, thoughtful framing of the correspondence - the addresses of all concealed, but the compliments slip just peeking out - evoked an entire life and character in my mind. And to me, that's magic! 

And from that comes this rather whimsical idea. I am starting a hashtag for twitter and instagram: #wherebooksgo. I will also use it for my FB page posts to upload, RT and share photographs that readers send me, and hopefully at the end of it, there will be a big shiny, magical, red heart that all of us share - one that holds the magic of reading, and writing, stories. 

So may I please request anyone reading Hotel Arcadia to please send in a pic with the #wherebooksgo hashtag? Tag me or the book and I'll find it. If you want to share another book, by another author, simply tag them instead (makes it easier to find).

If you are author, please feel free to use the hashtag for your own books and readers. It would be so wonderful to create a big celebratory magic that comes from sharing stories and our love for them.