Hema Macherla

Could you please tell our readers about yourself and your novel, Breeze from the River Manjeera in no more than 100 words?

When I first arrived from India, I couldn’t speak a word of English. I started learning the language by reading children’s books from the library. With the aid of a dictionary, I moved on from words to sentences, then started to read teenage books before finally managing adult novels.

Breeze from the River Manjeera is my debut novel. It is about an innocent Indian girl, who comes to England after marrying a British Asian. Unwanted by her husband and treated worse than a servant, she escapes in search of independence and freedom. The novel won several awards and French translation rights.

What inspired you to write this book?

I was motivated to write this particular story after hearing some shocking stories about abusive marriages from Asian women who had come to the UK. I was moved and shocked at what I was told and decided to build a novel around character who has a similar experience.

What works so well is that you’ve addressed the topic of a loveless arranged marriage as well the problems with love marriages when the passion fizzles out. What important lesson about love and marriage did you want your reader to be left with?

I didn’t write my book to teach anyone about love or marriage but to raise and highlight the issues that linger in the dark corners of some people’s lives, unnoticed and unrecognised by others. I believe that even in this modern society many women still suffer in silence behind closed doors.

What do you think are the secret ingredients of a successful marriage?

Any marriage, arranged or otherwise, involves a commitment made by two people, to love, trust, respect and care for each other. In an arranged marriage, two individuals need to get to know each other , trying first to form a strong friendship. I think the ingredients for a successful marriage, arranged or not, are: understanding, mutual respect, sensitivity towards each other, flexibility, willingness to create a balance, trusting each other. The ideal is for two people to do all this willingly without resentment or feeling that they have made a compromise.

Moving away from marriage to culture, your novel highlights some of the superstitious rituals and cultural beliefs still practised around the world today amongst Asian societies. How widespread do you think these are in the UK and do you believe they help or hinder progress?

I do not know how widespread these rituals are but some communities are still practising them in the UK. However, the situation has improved considerably even though progress is slow. And if one person is still suffering, that is one too many. I don’t want to paint a completely negative picture of our culture because we also have so many valuable cultural beliefs and practices. We still respect our elders and try to hold on to strong moral values. On the other hand, parents who force their beliefs on their children, like arranging their marriages without the children’s consent and opposing their wishes, is not going to help us move forwards but create antagonism between the generations. Changes do occur from one generation to the next all the time and we need to adapt to the changes.

Your central protagonist finds solace in books and libraries. What do you think about the changing role of libraries in modern times?

Libraries still remain popular public institutions in the UK. Not only are they a wonderful resource for books, but now they have communication, technology, and internet facilities. Modern libraries offer an extremely valuable service. However, I hear that there is a steady decline in the borrowing of books as computers and e-books take their place. It is sad to hear that many libraries are facing cuts and the threat of a closure.

Please tell us more about your involvement in the R+J competition, how it all came about and what it has done you as a writer.

I reluctantly entered my book for the R&J novel writing competition after my creative writing tutor insisted. Not expecting anything to come of it, I forgot about it. A year later, I was surprised to receive a letter from R&J saying that my book had reached the final 26 out of 44,000 entries. It gave me a big boost and the confidence I needed. It helped me to believe in my writing and to take it seriously.

As someone who came to the UK unable to speak or write English, what were the personal challenges writing in your second language, if any?

Yes, it was one of the biggest and the toughest challenges of my life. I found it very hard, especially having to express my thoughts in English. After writing seventy odd pages, I felt I needed someone to tell me whether it was worth continuing. I joined a local creative writing class. There I was told just to write and to worry about the grammar and spelling afterwards. I had to re-write the whole book three times before it was even readable.

You’re published by a relatively small publisher, what has the experience been like and what has it taught you?

Being an author with a small publisher has its benefits. I can say from personal experience that working with my publisher and editor Lynn Michell is a joy. She works closely with her authors and takes their opinions seriously. We formed a very good relationship as a publisher and a writer. We are a good team. With Lynn, you don’t sign the contract and lose every right to your book; she makes sure that the author has as much control as she does. She understood every character in my first novel so I didn’t feel threatened by her editing. Because Linen Press doesn’t have resources that the big publishers have for marketing books, it is at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to sales. Book shops often refuse to stock their books and they demand big discounts. As writers, we are expected to help publicise our own books as much as possible. That’s not an easy task. I often feel I am boasting when I talk about my novel but I have learned that however difficult it is, you have to blow your own trumpet to get your book noticed.

Finally what are your New Year Resolutions?

To discipline myself more and set myself a deadline to complete each chapter. Also, I promised myself to do some physical exercises.

Could you please tell us more about your second novel and where you drew inspiration from?

My second novel, Blue Eyes, is set against the political backdrop of India in the 1920s as Gandhi takes the world stage. It is the story of child bride Anjali, who escapes Sati with the help of her childhood friend Saleem. It touches on the powerlessness of many women and men who are confused about the conflicts between their own traditions and the ideology of white colonialism and the principles of Gandhi.  The inspiration for this book came from a story my great-grandmother told me when I was a child. Then I read The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, and I realised that my grandmother’s story would fit well against the background of the disruption and changes that were happening in Gandhi’s India.