“A writer’s work should stand on its own and not with labels” – Reshma Ruia
By Anjana Parikh
She read one of her short stories from Love Across a Broken Map during the recently held Manchester Literature Festival held in Manchester. Reshma Ruia is a British Indian writer based in UK. She is the author of Something Black in the Lentil Soup. The Sunday Times described the book as “a gem of straight-faced comedy”.
Born in Motihari, India, and brought up in Italy, Reshma’s short stories and poems have appeared in various international anthologies and magazines such as “Too Asian, Not Asian Enough”, and was also commissioned for BBC Radio 4. Reshma is also the co-founder of The Whole Kahani — a collective of British fiction writers of South Asian origin.
Reshma speaks to Kitaab about the challenges faced by British Asian writers, and their effort to break the glass ceiling.
British Asian writers are struggling to get their works published, or adapted for TV or movies. Is it due to a lack of infrastructure or interest?
I think the main reason is that publishers are afraid to market and publish the works of British Asian writers. The publishers aren’t much aware that there’s an appetite for the kind of fiction that writers like us write.
Publishers would prefer something that is mainstream. These days, publishing is determined and governed by the marketplace.
What is your take on the dwindling situation of British Asian Minority Ethnic (BAME) in the creative industry?
I agree with this. In an ideal world, a writer should be recognised as a writer and not with a label like BAME or South African.
A writer’s work should stand on its own. We don’t need to be pigeon-holed; however, I believe that some positive discrimination is necessary to break through the glass ceiling. Having said this, publishers are waking up to the fact that minority writers are under-represented in the mainstream. These days, some publishers are actively encouraging BAME writers to apply for mentorship or to submit their works for consideration.
Books like Good Immigrants by Nikesh Shukla broke the boundary because it was crowd-funded. Therefore, BAME writers are becoming more proactive; they’ve realised that they can’t just wait for the handouts. Moreover, with social media, we feel that our voices can now be heard loud and clear.
Is this the reason for starting “Whole Kahani”?
“Whole Kahani”, which is a collective of British fiction writers of South Asian origin, started with a group of like-minded people. When it started in 2011, we felt that we weren’t getting the exposure or opportunity we deserved. You need an audience, and writing is a lonely existence. So, in “Whole Kahani”, we set deadlines for our stories; shared opportunities and ideas. There’s no competition or jealousy among the members. Our aim is to publish as many anthologies as possible. In January 2017, we’ll start a whole collection of short stories which will be based on the issue of migration and the debate surrounding the refugee crisis. It will also tell a tale of how the diaspora perceives the issue of migrants.
Asian writers struggle to shake off cultural stereotypes. Is this true?
Yes. There’s a general perception that we aren’t qualified enough to write, and that, BAME writers should just stick to our topics like identity or status of a woman which is very frustrating.
I admire writers like Hari Kunzru who write on various topics.
Is there any particular story in your collection that has remained with you?
I’ve recently submitted a draft of my next novel A Mouthful of Silence to a publisher in India. I feel the story resonates with anyone who feels displaced. It’s a first-person account from a male perspective. Displacement emotional or geographical is a modern predicament of our times. We are more interconnected yet lonelier than ever. Set in Bombay (present day Mumbai), the protagonist is trapped in his bygone days in terms of the expectations his father had on him, and the present, where he’s in a loveless marriage. His relationship with his child is equally disappointing. His character is very complex with flaws. The story breaks the facade of a happy Indian family.
It also encapsulates the dilemma of immigrants in modern Britain who may have done well and reached a certain age, after which they’re faced with an internal squabble between what they owe to the community and, the desire to rebel to make their dreams come true. So, it’s about tradition, family and hierarchy versus individuality. In a nutshell, the story is about the internal and external conflict with a tragic ending.
Tell us about your most recent book, and what were you trying to say or achieve with it?
My most recent writing project is Love Across a Broken Map. It’s an anthology. Spanning London to Goa, Manchester to Mumbai, the reader can expect to hear stories of love, girl crushes, obsessive fans, astrological mishaps and unfulfilled dreams.
The anthology is written by 10 writers who’re a part of The Whole Kahani — a collective of British fiction writers of South Asian origin.
In this, the story I’ve written is called “Soul Sisters”. It’s about a woman Suman Bakshi who’s obsessed with a writer she has never met, until one day she does, and things don’t look good right from the beginning.
BBC radio approached us to write stories giving a fresh angle to love. In the book, each writer has given a distinctive picture of love. Actually, we wanted to break the myth that in our Asian culture, it’s not just about arranged marriage, but there’re different shades of love which also exists in the community.
As a writer, what social issues both you?
I am concerned about women writers and I feel that it is important to have the ability to balance the role of a mother, wife and a daughter, and the need of being a writer. Although it’s a challenge, we need to be a little selfish also.
Sometimes being creative becomes a footnote to your other life. That’s one of the reasons why we have less women writers. The battle is still not over even at this time and age.
Do you do research work before writing or is it purely based on imagination?
It starts either with an imagination or a word/phrase followed by research work.
How effective is travelling for your writing? Do you write while travelling?
For me, travelling is very important as I’ve lived almost a nomadic life — born in Motihari, later moved to Delhi, and then to Rome and Paris.
Travelling sustains my creativity. I am always fascinated by people and their life’s journeys.
Is there a certain space or time, or an environment where you feel you write better?
I need to be at home to write. I’ve to sit in front of my desktop; only then, I can write without any interruption. While writing, you’ve to dip your toes and refresh your memory.
When will Reshma Ruia be known as a widely-acclaimed author, and not just as a British Asian writer?
One lives in hope. I am looking forward to that day, and it’ll happen as the world becomes more close-nit and the society advances. A book should stand on its own feet without being put into a bracket. I hope that day is not too far when we become more aware of the need for less label and more stories.