Suhayl Saadi tackles Mills and Boon

by Suhayl Saadi

SuhaylIn the early 1990s, when I began to write fiction, charting the confluence between realism and mysticism, I’d been reading widely for a number of years and had joined a writers’ group, but apart from occasional performances in bars and arts centres, I’d had no connection with published writers or the wider arts world.

The furore attending the publication, in 1988, of Salman Rushdie’s novel, ‘The Satanic Verses’ had more to do with metahistory, geopolitics and the social class demographics of migration into Britain than it did with either theology or fiction, while the only other visible ‘British Asian’ writer in the UK was the talented realist writer, Hanif Kureishi. Culturally illiterate, all-white commissioning editors in London seemed hungry for more Rushdie, for subaltern neo-Orientalism and the textual affirmation of colonial dominance.
I lived four hundred miles north of London and was a male, Asian inner-city general practitioner the ‘wrong side of’ thirty, and so the chances of being seen as ‘cool’ – the corporate book world commissions and markets its chosen authors as though they are pop stars – were close to Absolute Zero. A prominent sociologist of Asian origin told me that my exploration of white Englishness simply would not be permitted, that there was no reciprocity, that (to paraphrase a later comment made by Guardian journalist, Safraz Manzoor) while white writers are free to be artists, the rest of us can only ever aspire to ‘authenticity’.

Much has happened since, but the axis remains unchanged. This is something about which you will seldom read in the mainstream UK press, but only in academia and on the web. This is largely because writers who are beneficiaries of the publishing-retailing complex are reluctant openly to critique the architectures of power which serve them so well, while those ‘non-people’ on the outside of the monolithic hegemon find it difficult to access mass media platforms in the first place. And it is important to note that some superlative white writers also find themselves marginalised.

So there I was, immersed in the neurotic tedium of life and death and scribbling in stolen moments, being told that I was a talented writer with something quite new to say and saying it in a unique manner, and that there was a potential readership for my work, and yet still I was facing a brick wall.

My frustration drove me to imagine myself penning a soppy women’s romance, a ‘Mills and Boon’. This was in the days when these saccharine novellas – ‘Nurse-Meets-Doctor-And-Falls-In-Love’ – did not permit even a proper kiss in print. And so, one day I emerged from the public library with a pink brace of Mills and Boonses, bookended by two very large, very dry chemistry texts – the glances from the (female) librarian were priceless! Yes, I read all twelve. Well, read one and skimmed the rest. They are formulaic fantasies aimed at the proverbial ‘bored housewife’.

So, in my existential psychosis, I decided that if I couldn’t get one of these published, it would mean that I couldn’t write. I would set it in contemporary London and the protagonist would be a white lower-middle class woman who, while on holiday on the Med, would fall in love with a sophisticated Portuguese gigolo.

I started the story in as anodyne a way as I could imagine: Lucy leaves the typing-pool at the weekend and discovers a letter on her doormat…

But if these novels are tedious to read, they’re utterly mind-numbing to write. The characters rebelled on page thirteen. It was nothing to do with me. They refused to adhere to Mills and Boon’s rules. What can one do? And as the book progressed, the narrative descended (or ascended, depending on your point-of-view) through the muscular glitz of Jackie Collins and on, and on, deeper and deeper, until it embraced the foetid darkness of the Marquis de Sade and the art bizarre of George Bataille (‘The Story of the Eye’), Anaïs Nin (‘The Delta of Venus’) and the works of strange, cultish Spanish writers who, in a final act of sado-masochism, burn themselves to death in Madrid hotel rooms.

But it was also necessary that I explore the pubescent mundanity of those glossies enveloped in blue plastic that one can buy in most Desi corner-shops in Britain. Dear readers, imagine, for a moment, the vignette of my embarrassment at having to walk into a store in an area where I felt I and my family would not be known and purchase six of the best of these from the jovial Faisalabadi shopkeeper only to discover by the time I reached the till that I was short of change, and consequently having to leave the long queue of amused fellow-customers for an excruciating few seconds in order assiduously to restore one third of the magazines to their allotted and rightful positions on the top shelf.

Naturally, I had to modulate the beginning of the book to accord with the more torrid tone of the remainder. Lucy – named after serpentine Lucifer, Angel of Light – becomes a pornographic acolyte of the Algarvian albino, Bartolomeo and finally, in a definitively pagan, shape-shifting climax, herself becomes the magus of this ex-pat English erotic cult.

The prose style hovers disconcertingly between literary eroticism and straight pornography, but is written in an empowering manner from the point-of-view of the female protagonist. As well as post-C18th texts I drew on older classics such as Sheikh Nefzawi’s ‘Perfumed Garden’ and then reversed the perspective (so to speak). I discovered afterwards that during the 1990s, there were a number of women authors working in this parodic and often misogynist genre who were attempting to write alternative, arguably feminist, narratives.

I penned the first draft of ‘The Snake’ – around 55,000 words – in around five weeks. This was done partly on my first PC and partly longhand sitting outside in the back garden of my suburban house during the uncharacteristically hot summer of 1995. Then it went through nine months of multiple drafts. Then I – or rather, ‘Melanie’ – sent it off.

I’ve seldom had such effusive responses, before or since, such as the one from a London literary agent who, abjectly apologising for not taking the book on, wrote that the prose was of such a high standard that he thought that I must be a famous writer working under a pseudonym. I’d decided to use a nom de plume to distance myself from the disturbing narrative, because I thought I’d have a much better chance of placing it as ‘Melanie Desmoulins’, because I really didn’t fancy the tabloids creating problems for me at work, and lastly because I enjoy semiotic games.

‘The Snake’ was accepted ‘overnight’, by which I mean that the editor read it one night and wrote to ‘Melanie’ the next morning. I hadn’t lied by commission; I simply had stated that ‘Melanie Desmoulins’ was a pseudonym. But I suspect that the impression gained was of some sultry dame in her twenties, sitting on her own in a room, writing hot prose.

I revealed my true identity only at the point of signing the contract. Not that there was much money in it. And just imagine taking ‘The Snake’ along to your mother: “Hey, Mum, this is my first novel! Want to read it?”

To my knowledge, ‘The Snake’ was the first published novel to have been written by a non-white Scot. Somehow, I suspect this factoid is unlikely to turn up on the tourist board website any time soon.

But I’d proved that I could write, and have published, a novel. Whether through Eros, Thanatos or the art of the Muses, I had developed substantially as a writer, and subsequently was able to apply this praxis to future works. Furthermore, I am able to conjure up a mean sex scene!

There are deep structural problems with the commercial book industry, and neo-colonialism, cultural illiteracy, fundamentalist capitalism, liberal racism, systemic corruption and blind worship of the imperative to dumb-down are but a few. I know the brick wall so well, there is an indentation in my brain where the bricks turn red. If enough writers refuse to pander to power, we just might be able to enlarge the lacunae which do exist, though today’s writers in the West, by and large, are a timorous lot and the bursting of the dam will be contingent on changes incompatible with the publishing-retailing complex as we know it.

Melanie D still appears on occasion, as a footnote or a reference, or indeed, a ‘research assistant’. But really, she is visible, audible, tactile, in every piece of fiction and drama that I have written since ‘The Snake’. My forthcoming novel, ‘Joseph’s Box’, features a quite different female protagonist. But Melanie is there, somewhere, everywhere. Actually, I wouldn’t mind meeting her someday.

Suhayl Saadi is a Scotland-based novelist. ‘The Snake’ (Creation Books, 1997) is available second-hand on the web. Suhayl Saadi’s new novel, ‘Joseph’s Box’ will be published by Two Ravens Press in August 2009. This article was first published in The Friday Times, Pakistan, and has been reproduced here with the author’s permission.