Preti Taneja’s first novel ‘We That Are Young’ has debuted with a splash. It has caught the attention of international publishing and literary stalwarts, including Sonny Mehta of A.A Knopf, who will publish it in the United States.
Taneja recasts Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ in modern day Delhi, where a mega-rich business family unravels because money has come in the way of love
Five young characters tell their stories — Jivan, the bastard son, is back from America and is quick to undermine his father’s relationship with his half-brother, Jeet. Gargi and Radha, daughters of the patriarch, struggle to take over the empire even as their father descends into madness.
Taneja speaks to us about her writing journey, how she created her characters, and how feminism can manifest itself in different shades.
Why a re-telling of King Lear?
I had a gut feeling that a translation of the play to India would work as a way of talking about the move from feudal to capitalist economic systems, about colonial legacies and neo-colonialism, patriarchy, toxic masculinity and the rise of right-wing nationalism linked to religious belief. And Shakespeare’s language, which is so brutal and poetic, his take down of male hubris, his exploration of gender and social hypocrisy, is thrilling for any writer to get into. It was my way of exploring the legacies of the two worlds I grew up in, India and the UK.
You follow the story of a typical Indian business family, where relationships are transactional, and money has come in the way of love. What was the process of trying to uncover such a multi-faceted story in a complex landscape like India?
There’s so much information out there that feeds a story like this. Just walking in the streets, or sitting in a mall or a cafe yields ideas, and I did a lot of that! I also spent a lot of time reading a range of articles and books written over decades, I went on social media a lot, and spent even more time talking to people from all walks of life about their lives.
Every single person I spoke to told me some story of a family split apart, a love they were not allowed, and had something to say about politics and corruption. Everyone had their own way of negotiating the demands of daily life, from girls dressing like boys to go out safely at night, to a boy’s secret visits to an Ayurvedic doctor to make his best male friend fall in love with him. Everyone was trying to survive inside the system the best way they could
And then there was the news: Poisonous smog, devastating floods, drugs through Kashmir, Princesses living in crumbling hunting lodges in forests; sometimes it’s not that you can’t make it up — it’s that you don’t have to!
The women in the book are trained to follow their husbands’ leads and though in positions of power, are constrained by their gender. How difficult was it to give them agency? Would you describe them as feminists?
Yes, absolutely they are feminists, though, apart from Sita, they might not say that themselves. They each belong to a different generation and have a different style. The sad thing is the way they are kept from forming that community of women that can nurture each other and celebrate each others’ difference. They are always compared and asked to compete with each other and this makes them unable to trust each other, even though they want to. Giving them agency was imperative to me, but it took time.
The scene where Gargi masturbates took a lot of drafts to get right — to take her from a fantasy of a man to one of herself. And Radha — I know so many women from all backgrounds who are abused for years by family members or close family friends. Everyone knows but no one admits it to themselves, or does anything about it. Where is all that silent pain and rage to go? Radha’s twitter account happened quite late in the book as if she had finally found her voice after so many drafts, and it was great to write that into her story. Sita is an eco-feminist, for her, the environment is absolutely the most important issue we are facing.
How should readers understand your novel? What would you want them to take away, think about, understand?
That fiction is the future of reality, unless we can change the story. I think (I hope) we can.
Which character did you personally find most compelling? Which did you find hardest to create?
They all took possession of me in different ways. Jivan’s voice was hard to get right because he thinks of himself as an alpha American male but I also wanted him to be vulnerable. Compelling — definitely Jeet. He’s based on Edgar, one of the most complex and largely misinterpreted characters in Shakespeare. In ‘We That Are Young’, he’s got this chance at true love, but the status quo, and his desire for power and status — to be even more than the men around him who have brought him up — just gets the better of him. Radha always left me feeling very sad.
How would you describe your writing process?
My writing process begins with ideas in notebooks, until a character or a line or a title hooks into my brain and won’t let go. Then it’s surreptitious for a while. I’ll be working on something else, or sitting somewhere on a bus or whatever, and scribble a paragraph or a line of dialogue, a setting, or try out characters’ voices and points of view until I think it fits. One night, it will just happen — the beginning of writing ‘the thing’. When I get going, I research and write alongside. Sometimes that involves travel and interviews, sometimes it’s just sitting there until there is something on the screen. The real work is revision, and then I’m at my desk for hours. I have to be reminded to get up and to eat.
Given that this is your first novel, I am sure readers would like to know how you got started..
I’ve always written fiction, but I felt I had to get ‘a proper job’ after university. I was the first Asian female editor of my student newspaper and I went into journalism for a year or so, and then worked with young disadvantaged people across the UK and then into reporting and editing for a human rights NGO. I took a night class to get a portfolio together to apply for an MA in Creative Writing, which I completed over two years, part time around work. When I won a fully funded scholarship to do a Creative Writing PhD, I quit my job. It gave me time to commit and write the first draft of ‘We That Are Young’ . When it was finished, it got a lot of rejections, UK publishing is a tough place for British Asian writers and other writers of colour, (though that is very slowly changing.) In India, the book was considered too close to the bone by some.
I’m lucky to have a lot of people around me who wouldn’t let me give up, and I’m also very determined, which I got from my mother. So I kept working on my manuscript while beginning an academic career. Galley Beggar Press, who champion rule-breaking, avant garde writing in the UK, published it in August 2017 and it has since found brilliant editors and publishers around the world, including India, France, Denmark, Israel. Sonny Mehta, at the legendary A.A Knopf, who will be publishing it in the USA in 2018.