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 Hebban.nl 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 Hebban.nl (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.