Kia ora all - Lawrence & Gibson are pleased to announce our second publication of the year will emerge on September 15. The book will be called Sodden Downstream and will be the fifth by Brannavan Gnanalingam. Below is an interview with Mr Gnanalingam from one of the interns at the publishing collective. We'll have a cover image up shortly!
Sodden Downstream is a novel but it seems to deal with issues that are very politically salient right now. Was that a coincidence or something you thought would happen in an election year?
It's a coincidence that it's going to be released at the same time as the election, and, at the same time that Metiria Turei has made inequality and poverty a major election issue. However, I don't think it's surprising being politically minded that my book's themes are election issues. The current situation, in terms of homelessness, the rise of preventable illnesses, poor housing options, rising rent / food prices etc., are clearly having an effect on a large portion of New Zealand's population. Also the ruthless scrutiny given to Turei matches the exact same scrutiny that is given to poor people – i.e. you have to be this perfect, deserving individual in order to get state support, and even then, you're made to feel worthless. The idea that we shouldn't help refugees because we need to help our homeless people first is also deeply problematic – it shouldn't be an either/or situation, it should be both. This is a book about compassion, and I think it's tapping into conversations that other people are having
As a writer, would you ever publicly back a political party? Or are there other ways – beyond the writing itself – that you think writers can best be political?
No I never really want to be associated with a political party. I have no interest in being a cheerleader or being forced to put aside parties' shortcomings for the "greater good". I mean it's no secret where my sympathies would lie overall. However, as a writer, I'm interested in how power manifests itself and in the means, not the end – I don't want to compromise those obsessions with the need to be helping a party out. There is much more to politics than our Westminster system. That said, I think writers ought to be political - I'm probably in the minority here. I guess my views of writing are influenced by what I read. The overwhelming majority of what I read are written by women or people of colour or other minorities, so I suspect an everyday 'political-ness' feeds into what I consider interesting in books. I think writers with causes are great and I think there's some great stuff being done with specific political campaigns. Doubling the refugee quota, for example, is a great campaign run by Murdoch Stephens, who incidentally is part of Lawrence & Gibson.
You said 'writers ought to be political'. Is there anything, right now, beyond the themes in this book that you think are also incredibly salient politically?
I think there's plenty of areas to cover - I'm planning my next book to be about toxic masculinity in the context of a private boys' school. There are other issues of inequality, racism, sexism, homophobia / transphobia, environmental issues such as climate change and overfishing, class segregation, the refugee crisis, etc. etc. I could probably have written a book on the issues that ought to be examined in art but that'd get quite earnest.
Kim Hill infamously suggested there would not be enough subject matter in the story of an office cleaner trying to get into a flooded Wellington to make for a novel. If she said the same thing in an interview today, how might you respond?
To be fair to Kim Hill, I didn't do the best job of explaining what the book would be about. I explained the coda, rather than the fact the book would be about the journey itself. I would say it's a love letter to Lower Hutt, it's an account of people who have been forgotten in New Zealand, and it's about a refugee persisting.
There is a lot of mutual aid and solidarity in the new book – people being willing to drive many kilometres out of their way to help others, other people offering a couch for the night. What would you say to an interviewer – not me of course, a fictional interviewer – who insisted that you'd overplayed the positive character of people from the Hutt Valley?
My book is based on a true story, and the person who recounted a cleaner's experience on a day when the motorways / trains weren't operating, told me that people rallied around to help. Some of the stories are based off hitchhikers' stories to me. The mechanic who stops is based off a mechanic who stopped to help me out at 2am on the Hutt motorway. Whenever I've travelled, people with little have gone out of their way to help me. If people want to be cynical about the kindness of everyday, working people then they probably need to get out of their bubble.
There were two myths that I was trying to critique in this book. One, that Wellington is a "white" city. People who say that basically erase my existence, and the Tamil community that forms an integral part of it. I grew up in Naenae, which is brilliantly multicultural. My friends growing up weren't particularly white, and even if they were, they were kids of South African apartheid protesters, cousins of Gaelic harp champions, they were immigrants themselves from England or Wales etc.. I spent a lot of time in Wainuiomata and Porirua with sport, and so yes, I never thought of my childhood city as "white". Second, I wanted to attack the myth that the working class were racist. For starters, the working class – those doing manual work, cleaners etc. - isn't white. Second, there's nothing that suggest white working class people are more racist than middle-class / upper-middle class white people, and I think it's a convenient way for middle-class people to disavow their own collusion in structural racism by instead blaming people who are deemed "stupid" or "poor". I mean, for example, the average Trump voter earned $72,000, while the average Hillary Clinton voter earned $56,000.
That's an example from the US in terms of voters - how do you think that plays out in Aotearoa New Zealand? That is, are the intersections of class and race more of less the same here, or are there also other salient factors?
Someone talked about how New Zealand's egalitarianism plays out by attacking people who seem to get something for nothing. It can be an extremely ugly thing when people ignore historical / social factors behind why a person might be getting helped. This perhaps explains why there is so much opposition to things like beneficiaries being treated like humans, Treaty settlements etc. I think there are some major issues with class and segregation in New Zealand, and a real refusal to understand how difficult a lot of people are finding it. I think it's relatively similar in terms of problems to the States, albeit perhaps less dramatic in its extremes. I think there's also a major shortage in compassion in New Zealand too.
For your last book you described a little bit about how you developed your characters by writing out life stories of each person before getting started, including all sorts of factoids that don't necessarily get included. Did you also do that for the current book, and if so, what is one of the more interesting things you might let us in on that didn't make it into the book about any character?
I didn't to the same extent. Unlike Briefcase, where the characters had to be embedded in their location, for the most part here, the characters only briefly interact with Sita. I wanted to get a sense of how she might view them, how they'd have no backstory for her.
I'd say 80% of the conversations are based on conversations I've had with people in real life. The character who was recently released from prison for example, told me (when we picked him up hitchhiking) about how he had to sleep in a digger the night he was released. He had had nowhere to go, and was simply dropped off outside Rimutaka. With those stories, I didn't feel like it was fair for me to add too much of a backstory. However for him, I did talk to a friend at the Howard League about how prisoners would have been treated, in order to expand some of his backstory. It was similar with other characters. The character called Branavan isn't based on me at all, because he only has one 'n' in his first name.
Your last novel was long-listed for the best novel of the year in the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. What do you think of the book's reception and were there any particularly new occurrences for you as a, now, 'award nominated' author?
I was stoked to be long-listed, and I think it helped get my book to a wider audience. It was super-nice to be on the list with some amazing names.
In terms of reception, I was intrigued that Briefcase was essentially about white defensiveness, and not one single review talked about race (except in the Wellingtonista). It was also about how we have created a system that says Muslim lives aren't "deemed grieveable" (a term of Judith Butler's).
My focus on Islamophobia barely got touched on in reviews. In fact, Briefcase was pretty much the plot of Hit & Run and how it would play out in the New Zealand media, except the events were set in New Zealand. I took no satisfaction in how accurate Briefcase proved to be. I very rarely get critiqued on the ideas that I'm trying to work through in my book. If anything, the critiques focus on form. I couldn't care less about form. Content is what I'm way more interested in and form is merely how I structure my arguments.
In terms of new occurrences, I sold a tonne more books through bookstores, so that was fabulous. I sold some in Auckland too, which is a market I've never really been able to crack, so thank you Ockhams (and the Auckland Writers Fest).
After the Ockham awards nominations, I'm curious why you are still publishing with a smallish publishing collective. Is this because of an allegiance, broader views about publishing as an industry or something else?
There are a few reasons why this book had to go through Lawrence & Gibson. I wanted to express solidarity with Murdoch Stephens' Double the Quota campaign, and this was my contribution towards that campaign. Second, my last book sold plenty, got good distribution, was long-listed for the Ockhams, and I participated in some great literary festivals. What more would a bigger publisher have given me in New Zealand? I'm happy with what I get at Lawrence & Gibson. Finally, this book is particularly political. Lawrence & Gibson seemed by far the best publisher to deal with that content and it's a natural fit.
Thank you for the solidarity! I love it how in this book it is the story of a refugee that is never imploring – not that a moral dimension is absent. Is that a fair thing to say and if so what was your intent with the tone of the book around morals and moralism?
I knew the book would be relatively obvious in its politics, but I wanted to keep a distance and also to add some humour so that it wouldn't be too earnest. I didn't want it to be a sermon either, because that can be alienating to a reader. So yes, I think the tone is a bit cool. I guess ultimately it's simply about a woman persisting, so she'd probably tell me off for turning her story into something more imploring.
While your last book deal with institutionalised Islamophobia, this is your first novel dealing with a community closer to your own experience: Tamil people from Sri Lanka. What was the most interesting thing you learnt in writing and researching a Tamil character?
I had never felt particularly close to my Tamil side growing up. I don't really speak the language, although I completely understand it. I haven't been back since I was thirteen. I always felt like I straddled two worlds.
What changed was becoming a parent, to be honest and getting a sense of what my parents went through. After I was born, my Mum looked after me by herself for my first year (while Dad was stuck in Zimbabwe). In the middle of a warzone where she almost was killed. While she was also looking after her dying parents. This makes me sound callous, but I don't think I had quite appreciated just how much my parents scraped and sacrificed for my sister and me. They also moved to New Zealand, literally not knowing a single person. With all of the bullshit anti-immigration rhetoric, I kinda wanted to pay tribute to first generation immigrants. Want to blame them for infrastructure problems? They're probably keeping the infrastructure working.
I also wanted to get a sense of my own cultural background, as I want my daughter, similarly, to have a sense of her cultural background. In recent years, I've also got a sense of my family solidarity – cousins, second cousins etc. – and I wanted to pay tribute to that. This idea of a people dispersed all around the world who have this shared bond / trauma.
I also didn't quite appreciate the full horror of the Civil War. As part of my research, I read survivor account after survivor account, which was such a heart-breaking experience. It really was a forgotten war, and I knew I had to do some justice to it. And given the anti-refugee rhetoric, it made sense for my protagonist also to be a refugee.
You wrote an article for Stuff about the experiences of your family in the civil war in Sri Lanka. What kind of reactions did you have from various communities to you telling that story in a public forum?
Not much, we're a taciturn, stoic bunch. Also, it was probably telling a story that almost all of the Tamils would be aware of from their own, or their families', experience of the Civil War – so it didn't necessarily need commenting on. In some respects, I'm writing for audiences who know nothing about it.
Finally, you've often spoken about the positive influences of other arts and performers in Wellington in creating the conditions for your work to exist within. Is there any artist since we last spoke that you'd like to gesture towards as being quintessential to the capital city today?
I really struggled initially with tone for this book. In my last two books, I focused on satirising the powerful, or satirising powerful ideologies. This meant I could take a pretty scabrous Juvenalian tone. This one however, was almost entirely made up of characters who were struggling and it's about trauma. I couldn't use that tone. It wouldn't have been fair and it would have been punching down. I was heavily influenced by Svetlana Alexievich's approach to just letting stories play out (particularly in how she presented trauma). However, it was only after I read Ashleigh Young's Can You Tolerate This? that I really got a sense of how to approach my book (not that I would in any way want to suggest that my book is at that level). I thought that book was a marvel. It featured barely any external conflict, yet it was so compelling. It was also probably the saddest book I'd read in a long-time. Young's real skill though was how generous she was to all of her characters and their struggles. It was one of the most compassionate books I've read. I think in my previous books, I hadn't shown a lot of compassion to my characters in my other books (as much as I loved them). They were quite cruel, intentionally so. Can You Tolerate This was such a helpful thing to read and helped shape the tone of Sodden Downstream. I wanted compassion to be the abiding response to what are horrible situations for most of my characters.