Q. Tell us about your first book, In Spite of Oceans?
In Spite of Oceans: Migrant Voices is a collection of stories of south Asian family life inspired by real events. It’s a window into the quiet lives of others and the way we choose to both show and hide our real selves in our closest relationships. There’s the story of an Indian father caring for his son with a severe mental illness; the story of a Pakistani mother and daughter with different expectations of life; the story of a young Bangladeshi bride navigating life in an unknown country. Mostly, it’s a book about family and about how it’s not just our inherited culture or heritage that shapes us, but the choices and decisions we make.
Q. What interested you to write about migrants and share their experiences in this documentary style – which is oddly like a short story – beautiful and captivating.
I have always been a people watcher, and I am constantly thinking about the backstories to people’s lives, about how they have got to where they are (emotionally, literally). That’s why I wanted to write this book. For each of the ten stories, I spoke to people who opened up about elements of their lives and told me all sorts of things that had happened to them. It’s very apt to describe it as ‘documentary’ style, because I felt like I was observing them, really watching them, as much as just talking to them. So it made sense to me to write the book in that observational style. It was important to me to capture all the tiny details.
Q. What research did you do to capture the lives of migrants and when did you know you had enough stories for a good book?
There were originally meant to be 15 stories, but I had to stop at ten – purely for practical reasons. I managed to write half of the book while pregnant, and the rest I wrote after my baby was born – I simply didn’t have the time to make it to 15 stories. My publisher had always said, ‘Get to ten stories, then we’ll assess. By the time I did, I was exhausted and didn’t feel I had it in me to write more. For research, as I’d said, I’m always thinking about how people have got to where they are, and what makes them who they are, and in my position as a journalist I had come across some fascinating people. I knew that their stories went deeper than a 800-word feature would allow, so I got in touch with some of them and asked if we could talk some more. Other stories came through chance meetings, people telling me about someone they knew that I should talk to.
Q. How well did you get to know the people that you were writing for – there’s some real tender moments, quiet careful detail that are almost intimate. Have they read the finished story and were they happy?
Some people I know well, others I met only for the book. As a journalist, you have to be able to make people open up to you and that is a real position of trust; I used that skill for the purpose of acquiring stories. I learnt quite early on that it wasn’t entire life stories I was after; it was moments that shaped them forever, so we honed in on those moments and memories, and I tried to bring them to life. Not everyone has read their finished stories, but I hope they understand the essence of what I was trying to do. Of those who have, one of them called me to say their story moved them so much, they cried.
Q. Why did you choose this style over say, simply documenting their words in an interview?
I wanted to bring some truth to the old adage that everyone has a story to tell, so I wanted to tell these experiences like stories. I wanted deliberately to write these in the style of a short story because I felt it the most touching way to create a sense of vividity. I don’t think the same intensity of emotion would have come across in a series of interviews.
Q. Reading snippets I got the sense that you were trying to break away from the journalism that you’re better known for, and venture into something that is more creative. Is there a fear factor that comes with making that leap?
It’s very true that I was (and am) trying to break away from my journalism work and of course there is a huge fear factor that comes with that. I’m constantly second-guessing myself and doubting my self-worth and when you venture into something more creative, you have even less assuredness that what you are doing is right or even vaguely good. I may have succeeded in having my first book published, but I’m still not sure I’m good enough to keep going even though I want to.
Q. Tell us about the fictionalised bits you mention when you say you ‘filled in the gaps with your imagination.’ How important was it to get these bits right and true to life?
I describe the book as being like a film which is ‘inspired by true events.’ What was most important, I felt, was to always preserve the essence of the individual stories, to try and capture the message the characters conveyed over the course of the interviews and make them work for a reader. Some of the interviews were quite long, and we knew the reader would not have as much time with all the characters as I had. In some cases this meant that certain parts, dialogue and conversations for instance, or sometimes timelines, had to be imagined or adjusted to express the meaning of the story well. When any adjustments were made or dialogue introduced, the aim was to always try and find the voice of each individual, and to use the facts of their experience as the bedrock for each story. Creative non-fiction is very much becoming a genre in its own right, and I think it adds beauty to the traditional non-fiction form.
Q. Tell us about the publishing process. How did you go about securing a publisher and what did the process involve?
I was very fortunate. I was contacted directly by a publisher who had seen some of my work in the Guardian and liked my writing. He asked if I had any ideas for a book, and my idea for having stories of families, linked by south Asian heritage, tumbled out. We worked on the detail of it for a few months, and then I was finally offered a book deal. A few months later, I was approached by an agent and was signed up by Bell Lomax Moreton literary agency.
Q. Are you planning to write a novel or hoping to write more fiction?
Most definitely. I’ve been writing short stories for a while, some of which have been published and won prizes, and I’ve always had an idea for a novel. I’ve started to map it out a little bit more than simply just holding it in my head now – completing my first book has given me the confidence to not give up on it. Now that I have an agent, I feel like I have someone who can help me with my direction. But I really feel like In Spite of Oceans has helped me find a descriptive writing style that I feel is mine, that suits what it is I want to write, and I’d like any future fiction or novel to follow that same observational, quiet tone.
Q. Finally what advice would you give to a writer attempting to write from life?
Watch the tiny details and capture them. They are just as important if not more so, sometimes, than big calamitous life events. It’s the small, un-showy things, the less obvious things, that become meaningful – the way someone tucks a strand of hair behind their ear, the way someone absent-mindedly shifts their gaze – and it’s this slow sort of subtlety that can add a layer of meaning to your words.
Huma Qureshi is an author and freelance journalist. Her first book, In Spite of Oceans: Migrant Voices, a collection of stories of south Asian family life, was published in October 2014 by The History Press. In Spite of Oceans won the John C Laurence Award from The Authors’ Foundation for promoting understanding between cultures. Huma’s short stories have been published in Mslexia and Psychologies. In 2014, she placed second in the national Ink Tears Short Story Competition. She is now working on a novel.