Writing ‘We That Are Young’ Was Like Being Possessed: Preti Taneja
Preti Taneja works with both words and visuals. As an author, her 2014 novella, Kumkum Malhotra was awarded the Gatehouse Press New Fictions Prize. Her recent novel, We That Are Young, has just been named the winner of the Desmond Elliott Prize 2018. Her debut novel is a determinedly subversive, feminist take on King Lear, set in contemporary India, has an impressive line up of acknowledgements to its telling. It was shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize, 2018 and long listed for both the FOLIO Prize 2018 and the Jhalak Prize, 2018. As a visual storyteller, Preti works as a filmmaker with a focus on human rights reporting in conflict zones like Iraq, Jordan, Rwanda and Kosovo. Apart from this, Preti is also a fellow at Warwick University, the editor of Visual Verse and has been named an AHRC/BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinker for 2014. Born to Indian parents who emigrated to the UK in the 1960s and brought up in the middle-class diaspora of Indian emigrants in the UK, Preti brings to her writing the consciousness of both the cultures she spans.
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Kiran Manral, Author and Ideas Editor, SheThePeople.Tv spoke with Preti about her writing, why King Lear, how art and culture are the first casualties of conflict and how gender and patriarchy inform her work.
With your background in human rights activism, what was it about the story of King Lear that resonated with you? Was it the entire discourse of the patriarchy implicit in the narrative, that made you want to explore it in a contemporary context?
King Lear is a social tragedy in which a culture of ‘divide and rule’ infects state and family and impacts particularly on women, who are pitted against each other to gain economic security and ‘love’. Shakespeare’s plot has parallels in India’s history from pre-Partition onwards, for example in accession, Partition, civil war, and especially in how women’s bodies are understood as ciphers for the moral probity of the family and by extension, the nation state. Despite great strides forward, in India we are still held as possessions under marriage and inheritance laws, though dowry is banned it is still practiced; women’s bodies are policed and silenced with the threat of bringing shame, and speaking truth to power is taken as an insult to family and nation; as a slur on women everywhere. The same is true in diaspora families – where the pressure to be ‘good,’ in fact twice as good because we are also seen as representatives of our communities, is immense. A lot in the play speaks to this. Lear’s deep-seated fear of female sexuality and his instinctive misogyny are striking and reveal that male power rests on the subjugation of women. Shakespeare makes Lear extreme as he rails against women; calling for them to be ‘anatomised’ – understood as no more than bodies or sexual organs with nothing inside. As a playwright,For me the city is a living place he shows us a patriarch’s deep-seated terror of female power so clearly. Enough.
Lear’s deep-seated fear of female sexuality and his instinctive misogyny are striking and reveal that male power rests on the subjugation of women.
You are an Indian girl, who studied Theology and grew up in the UK. What experiences of religion and patriarchy from your growing years came together to find themselves in this book, I see both religion and misogyny as strong underlying currents within the narrative.Tell us about instances and anecdotes that have stayed with you, and informed your work.
I’m a 40-year-old woman…Indian, British Asian…British… categories of identity are complicated by nationalism and communalism and I try to work against that. Having said that, my parents came to the UK from India in 1969 as Commonwealth citizens, then worked in service jobs until they made their breaks. My father is a very private man and his story isn’t mine to tell here. But in general the hurts both my parents felt as in India as young people and then in the UK in the late 1960s and 70s certainly shaped me, since I was born and grew up in the UK. The racism they experienced at work and in their social world made them protective and fight very hard to achieve stability and success, not just in financial terms. But racism and misogyny exist at all social levels in the UK. My mother was an incredible woman and entrepreneur. She just refused to accept there were barriers although she knew there were, and suffered from them. She wore her sari or salwar kameez every day to run her own business. Not easy in the 80s and 90s in the UK. Misogyny was just one part of it.
The racism they experienced at work and in their social world made them protective and fight very hard to achieve stability and success, not just in financial terms. But racism and misogyny exist at all social levels in the UK.
About my degree in theology – growing up, it was obvious to me faith and organised religion formed society. Christianity in all its nuances is in Western classical literature, ancient and modern institutions, public spaces, government, in town planning, in architecture, in the land and its parishes. It’s in the UK’s social and political DNA. I came from a different faith background and navigated both. Later, I wanted to be a foreign correspondent and I felt that a theology degree, for which I studied Islam, Sanskrit and Hinduism, Buddhism and aspects of Christianity, would be the best way to prepare myself for working abroad. I graduated in 1999; UK newspaper editors I met raised an eyebrow at my degree choice. Then 9/11 happened, and religion became the story. I was a junior journalist and senior people were asking me to explain the difference between Sunni and Shi’a. Few had any proper knowledge of Islam and there were just a few Muslim journalists working on the nationals, not that they should have had to explain anything – some were business correspondents or book reviewers, some had faith but weren’t practicing. It felt like a watershed moment.
Then 9/11 happened, and religion became the story. I was a junior journalist and senior people were asking me to explain the difference between Sunni and Shi’a. Few had any proper knowledge of Islam and there were just a few Muslim journalists working on the nationals, not that they should have had to explain anything – some were business correspondents or book reviewers, some had faith but weren’t practicing. It felt like a watershed moment.
Tell us about your work at ERA Films, what have been the areas of human crisis that have affected you the most as you’ve sought to document them, and also how do you see the creation of literature and this exposure to the rawness of human experience feed off each other.
I’ve worked with disadvantaged young people across the UK and Northern Ireland, in prison with men on life or long sentences, and in places such as Jordan with Iraqi and Syrian people fleeing conflict. In Rwandan and Kenyan slums I’ve met women who have survived horrific violence perpetrated on their families and on their bodies. They continue to feel the aftermath of that decades later. In every case I’ve found that life will out. Libraries are set up in slums, by those who live there. Women form collectives to work, to educate and to protect each other’s children. It’s the resilience of people and their own pride in what they do which is most affecting. I’ve worked with Yazidi women who have been raped in Iraq and fled, then struggled against the silencing culture of their own communities; in some cases it fires their determination to make things different for their own children. It’s trite to say it is humbling, but it is.
Human beings do the worst to each other; it’s on all of us to make specific, local change for any of that to be addressed.
Taking all of this and making literature, especially fiction, is a privilege. Getting published is a privilege. Whatever the form, for me culture isn’t there only to entertain; it’s got huge power to shape our awareness of our world. ERA Films works specifically to for NGOs and other organisations to make campaign and advocacy films, including interactive documentaries. One of the projects my partner worked on was about the lives and rights to unionise of migrant workers in Qatar. Watch it, and it will change the way you holiday, think about football stadiums, wear clothes, everything. Human beings do the worst to each other; it’s on all of us to make specific, local change for any of that to be addressed.
The art and culture of a society suffer when human rights crises occur. Have you through your work attempted to bridge the two?
The research I’ve been recently doing looks at the production, performance and reception of Shakespeare plays made by people on the ground in different conflict and postconflict zones; they can be writers, actors, filmmakers, amateurs and professionals, and all the work is in translation – first from Shakespeare into their own languages and then sometimes I have it translated back to English. The people who are making this work do it for different reasons – sometimes Shakespeare is a means of postcolonial critique; sometimes a neutral space where people can work together. Sometimes it’s used to explore mental health issues or gender identity. I’m working on writing some of it up into research articles. I also teach at Warwick University in the Centre for Human Rights in Practice, on a seminar course called Writing Wrongs. It’s a collaboration between the English and Law faculties, and was started by Maureen Freely, writer, PEN Chair and translator of Orhan Pamuk, and Andrew Williams, who won the Orwell Prize for his work on the death of Iraqi civilian Baha Mousa while in British custody in Iraq. That seminar is the most diverse I have ever taught. The students come from different genders, socio-economic backgrounds and parts of the world. We have people from different sides of divides in their own countries, meeting for the first time in the seminar room, talking politics while sharing the work of becoming better writers.
You work with the visual medium to tell stories of displaced, war-torn people, you work with words to create your book and your other writing. How do these two processes become symbiotic for you as a creative person?
When I first worked with ERA Films, I shared a lot of the journalism – asking the questions and gathering research. Now I comment on the edit and drafts for the finished films. There’s an ethics of representation that I try to use to inform that, thinking about how the story gets told and by whom. Documentaries are constructed for argument as fiction is; there’s an element of the author in each. Working on the ground has made me hyper aware of my own freedom of movement and freedom of speech, and the responsibility that brings as a fiction writer. I might not always live up to it, but it’s there in my mind all the time.
Working on the ground has made me hyper aware of my own freedom of movement and freedom of speech, and the responsibility that brings as a fiction writer. I might not always live up to it, but it’s there in my mind all the time.
The patriarchy comes at you hard and fast from the very beginning of the book – the dancing girl mother ‘choosing’ her fate, the daughters serving the food, the ‘dowry’—we have girls who dress completely Western and are even educated abroad, who will come home and submit to the will of the parents in matters as important as marriage. In such an environment, a Sita is a rebel, but yet a good girl. How do you explain these paradoxes?
Have you ever smoked a cigarette and gone and kissed your dad? Repressive environments – what will people say, have you no shame, breed what people call rebels. But even the word ‘rebel’ predicates a status quo that we are all meant to accept. It’s much more complicated than Western influence; which is easy to blame. And what we wear is simply disguise – like costumes on stage. I wonder – is marriage so important? What for and why? Who decided that? How did they articulate it? Why is it so linked to money? Women through time have looked around and seen men doing certain things, while they are told they can’t. Women through time have broken those boundaries and we will continue to until the idea that a real man is equal to a woman at home, in the workplace, in culture isn’t surprising.
You grew up in Hertfordshire, UK, which does have a predominant Punjabi diaspora. Was there any specific reason to set the book in India, rather than, say the UK which does have a number of business behemoths who have emigrated from India? What is it about Indian business families based in India that is unique when compared with other business families?
In the main, the diaspora in Hertfordshire is not wealthy, though my upbringing was middle class. And for the novel, it was less about the particularities of the Indian business family than the possibilities the setting of India allowed. I mean in terms of the neo-capitalist overlay, and mythological underpinnings of the whole world I wanted to create in the book. For the stakes of honour, shame, protest and reversals to feel as high as they do in King Lear, there had to be a family of national importance, and I wanted to draw on the parallels of nations divided and so on. Setting in the UK would have ghettoised it, it had to be a match of equals: Shakespeare as signifier for postcolonial impact, and contemporary India. I wrote against news unfolding and sometimes I just sat back and looked at what was happening in reality and thought – I can’t believe this shit – it’s larger than my imagination but it proves what I’m writing – the novel is intertextual with life.
What are the influences from your years as one with their roots in India and a life lived in the UK that you brought into the book, did Jivan’s return to India echo any emotions that you might have felt on visits to India over the years?
When I’m in Delhi I miss my mother in a particular way that is full of bittersweet gratitude – it’s primarily because of her that I know the city, and have wonderful relationships with friends and my cousins there. I cared for her with my family for seven years until she died when I was 28, so in that sense Jivan’s emotions of grief are drawn from mine. Though his Ma is very different – a total fiction! And Jivan as a character is a mercenary. He has a superiority complex and is deeply insecure at the same time. He’s very ‘alpha’ and he was probably the hardest character to write, but the most fun because his snobbery about Delhi, his desire that it stay as it is in Western depictions – you know, old fashioned, dirty, crowded, colourful natives with funny English – are so different to mine and gave me a chance to show that up. For me, the city is a living place of constant change, full of people with full lives that no one writer can encompass. My nephews and nieces, my friends’ children are growing up into a world we can’t imagine yet, just as our parents could not imagine ours, now.
Kashmir is almost a character in the book. Why did you choose Kashmir to play such a crucial role in the narrative, over perhaps, any other state?
King Lear begins with the division of the country into three, then one-third is divided again between two sisters. The whole play moves towards Dover, where all of that trauma converges to be reckoned with. Kashmir was the obvious parallel. Responsibility for the conflict lies in the hands of the British as well; setting Lear in India and ending in Kashmir is a way for that history to be explored, alongside the soft-colonialism of economic creep, via tourism.
The character of Bapuji could be perhaps read as a metaphor for India, overwhelming, patriarchal, dictatorial? Have we changed at all from the time that Shakespeare wrote Lear to contemporary times?
Yes, that’s a fair reading of Bapuji. I’d say it’s even a polite one! Given the way the novel has resonated with readers, male and female, British, diaspora or not, and Indian – and editors in other countries as well, it makes me think that deep down we haven’t changed, even though we long to.
The strongest thing that comes through from the book, is the intertextual nature of it. Was this a conscious effort, did it happen at the plotting stage, or was it something that came through in the process of writing the book?
In We That Are Young, specific texts are referenced to create a sense of the uncanny in the reader, and all of them have been selected for that purpose. There are lots of writers, Indian, American and English; classical and contemporary, the book borrows from and nods.
Writing is about making choices – everything the writer decides works towards creating a whole world, and for me that world is always in a conversation with other art. The story bleeds into the ‘real’ and into other imaginary landscapes. That’s how art makes us, I think, and vice versa. I like writing that shows its workings, that thinks about writing itself: it’s more exciting to read and write.
The writing in English on India, has essentially been through a prism of the Western gaze. Were you conscious of this gaze coming through in how you treated the material within the book? Was being someone who had lived in the UK all through your life an advantage when it came to a subjective gaze at the territory the book spans?
Jivan’s gaze is exaggerated as Westernised to make this exact point. All other characters are strangers to the world they find themselves in. So their gaze is unique to them, articulated in hybrid language and shaped both by global capitalism and the traditions they have grown up with. In the UK, ‘others’ are exoticised – even those who are born here. I’ve been on the receiving end of that all my life. That intimate knowledge helped me create distance and alienation in the syntax and structure of the book, a sense that is important for the overall affect. It’s a dark, polyphonic carnival, not a piece of realist fiction in the Western classical sense. You can relate to the characters and feel with them; but never ‘fall in love’ with them – the opposite was my ambition. I wanted the book to show up and rage against the whole machine. It’s political writing in that sense – to hopefully inspire an activism for the future.
In the UK, ‘others’ are exoticised – even those who are born here. I’ve been on the receiving end of that all my life. That intimate knowledge helped me create distance and alienation in the syntax and structure of the book, a sense that is important for the overall affect. It’s a dark, polyphonic carnival, not a piece of realist fiction in the Western classical sense.
Gargi, Radha and Sita, of the three female characters who drive the story forward and their parallels in King Lear, are there elements you’ve added to them keeping in mind the movements of feminism that have come through over the centuries?
Each of them is strongly rooted in her counterpoint in the play. But their sex lives, their personal sense of freedom, the way they express their obedience or resistance is of our times. And each one is different according to her generation. Gargi is forced to become the matriarch in manner of her father, Radha has an anonymous Twitter account which is shaping the book’s internal narrative, and Sita has a sense of her own sexuality that the other two can only dream of. They represent classical female archetypes then break them from the inside: the crone, the whore, the saint.
What is your writing process like? For this book, of course, you have the skeleton that you need to build upon as a given. How do you then, paint in the details and the characters, it isn’t just a matter of transposing them into modern India. And how did you go about your research, which as is evident from the book, has been very intensive?
I read endlessly around my settings and for details. I work in notebooks, and do a lot of internet research. When I can, I travel. I talk to everyone who will talk to me, and listen a lot.
Lines of thought must be kept safe. I’ve probably been thinking about the details of We That Are Young my whole life. I write straight onto my computer and then edit, line and word, going over and over it to distil the language to its most crystalline form, to capture the ambivalence in words. It’s probably a standard writing process, and it is solitary and intense. Writing We That Are Young was like being possessed. The characters speak through me; as soon as it was published, they were gone.
And finally, what are you working on now?
The next thing.
Kiran Manral is Ideas Editor at SheThePeople.TV
Feature Image Credit: Louise Haywood-Schiefer