The characters in your short story collection Mrs Pinto Drives to Happiness come from widely ranging backgrounds and ethnicities. Was it difficult to make this leap of imagination or do you engage in research?
The characters in Mrs Pinto Drives to Happiness reflect the world we live in- in all its fractured yet glorious technicolour of ethnicities, languages, ages and gender. We are no longer living in self-sufficient silos. What I want to convey through my caravan of characters is the universality of love, rage and longing. All the choices and non-choices that make us human. I was very conscious of the dangers of stereotyping and oversimplifying other cultures and their complexities -so I did engage in background research.
What does identity and belonging mean to you?
I find these to be very fluid and dynamic terms. I have lived across continents, languages and cultures and my sense of who I am or where I belong is constantly shifting. Rather than bricks and mortar, or a physical construct- my sense of belonging depends on my emotional attachment to a place, a sense or a feeling. My identity is like a set of Lego pieces- it is enriched by multiple influences-be it books, music or people. For a writer this state of un-belonging is a gift. It allows freedom of vision and imagination.
You’ve lived in India, Italy, France and England. Where is home?
Surprisingly I have often found a home within the pages of a poem or a novel. I am used to having portable roots. Relationships and emotions define home for me. Home is where I feel accepted and at ease with myself. I’m uncomfortable with tribal loyalties and flag waving and yet I am very proud of my Indian heritage and see myself as a global Indian.
What led to writing?
I have always loved books and the ability of words to make you live other lives. I wrote poetry at school and won numerous awards for it including a trip to Paris and wanted to study literature at university but was dissuaded by my parents, as they didn’t feel it offered secure employment! Writing found me when I moved to Manchester from Paris and did a Masters and a PhD in Creative Writing at Manchester University. It was as though the floodgates were opened-all the pent up ideas and thoughts came rushing out. My first novel, Something Black in the Lentil Soup came out soon after and I have not looked back.
Do you have a writing routine? Tell us what your ideal writing day would be?
A huge proportion of my life has been dedicated to being a wife, mother and daughter so I have come to writing relatively late. Fulfilling these roles meant that writing occupied the margins of my time. I regret that but now that my kids are grown up, I am making up for lost time. I don’t have a routine as such. There may be several barren days followed by frantic writing. An idea has to take seed and I have to be patient while it germinates.
You write novels, short stories and poetry. What is your favourite medium for self-expression?
This is quite an interesting question to answer – since even though the narrative arc and structure might differ; the themes I explore are common to all three mediums. An organic, almost subconscious imperative draws me to one form as opposed to the other. Some emotions can only be expressed through poetry whereas a particular character’s journey can be best portrayed through a novel. All three require research, application, writing, rewriting and are ultimately a celebration of language and the human spirit. Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to good writing.
Who is your favourite writer and why?
I am drawn to writers who devote as much time to the interior landscape of a character as to the externalities. Growing up I was a big fan of Tagore’s poetry and RK Narayan’s depiction of small-town India. Somerset Maugham and F Scot Fitzgerald along with Virginia Woolf and Graham Greene are also writers I admire. An abiding favourite has been Jhumpa Lahiri. I love her sensitive deconstruction of feeling and portrayal of the diasporic life. My PhD thesis was on her writing. I also feel an affinity with her because of her love for Italy and the Italian language and admire her ability to write in Italian. Other writers I admire are Alice Munro, Raymond Carver and Elizabeth Strout. I respect writers who dignify the ordinariness of daily life and are not afraid to engage with and hold up a magnifying mirror up to the imperfection of our lives.
What’s next for you?
I am looking forward to publishing my next novel. It has been a long labour of love and it will be wonderful to release it into the world. It is a literary novel about betrayal and belonging. It is set in Manchester and will be coming out next spring.
In 2011, you co-founded The Whole Kahani- a collective of British South Asian writers. What prompted you to set this up?
Representation and inclusivity matter in literature. We want to see our lives reflected in the pages we read, not as minor footnotes but as central protagonists with our own agency. A strong impetus behind setting up the collective was to challenge the one-size-fits-all trope of BAME writing. The Whole Kahani highlights the diversity of voices within the British South Asian community and promotes new, emerging writers. The collective is ten years old and we have published two critically acclaimed anthologies with a third on the way. Mainstream publishing is still very wary and risk averse when it comes to publishing minority writers. Our biggest supporters have been indie publishers like Dahlia Books and Linen Press.
Which book would you never lend anyone?
I am territorial about my books. I would rather buy a copy than lend it to a friend. A book that I would never part with is Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. It encapsulates the best and worst of humanity from the domestic mundane to the epic.
Reshma Ruia is an award winning writer and poet.Her first novel, Something Black in the Lentil Soup wasdescribed in the Sunday Times as ‘a gem of straight-faced comedy.’ Her secondnovel, A Mouthful of Silence, wasshortlisted for the SI Leeds Literary Award. Reshma’s short stories and poetryhas appeared in British and international journals and anthologies andcommissioned for BBC Radio 4. Her debut poetry collection, A DinnerParty in the Home Counties won the 2019 Word Masala Award. Born inIndia, brought up in Italy and now living in England, her writing explores thepreoccupations of those who possess a multiple sense of belonging. She is the co-founder of The Whole Kahani-a writers’collective of British South Asian writers.
An excerpt from Mrs Pinto Drives to Happiness from the story ‘Be a Soldier‘
It takes the Chens a long time to reach England. After changing planes in Dubai, they board the Heathrow express to Paddington before catching the 451 National Express to their son’s town. The English countryside passes them – a streak of green verges, brown-hatted houses huddled close and blinking neon signs for burgers and sun beds. For much of the way, Mrs Chen dozes, her body folded in an awkward c-shape, arms folded across her chest, her cheek pressed against the grey tinted bus window. Her husband sits straight, shoulders pushed back, his eyes trained on the road. His hands rest lightly on his lap.
The coach stops once at a service station on the motorway but the couple stay in their seats. Mrs Chen rummages through the brown bag lying at her feet and brings out two sweet buns wrapped in cellophane and a packet of sesame nut bars.
‘Sure you don’t want tea or something. Stretch your legs?’ the bus driver asks as he walks down the aisle, bending down to pick up empty crisp packets and discarded newspapers.
‘Thank you, but we will drink tea at our son’s home,’ Mrs Chen replies.
The driver shrugs and looks at them more closely. His eyes narrow.
‘Where are you from?’
‘Guangzhou, Flat 14 E, Sun yet Sen Road.’ Mrs Chen’s voice rises at the end.
‘We have our British visa,’ her husband adds.
The driver smiles. His mouth is crowded with uneven pointy teeth that give him a faintly canine air.
‘Next thing you’ll be telling me what kind of noodles you’re having for tea,’ he says, shaking his head.
Mrs Pinto Drives to Happiness is out now.