Every year Dahlia Books hosts students from the University of Leicester for a 10-week placement. The scheme run by the university provides students with an opportunity to gain work experience in a small press to enhance their learning. Students often work remotely and are supported by editor Farhana Shaikh to pursue a personal project – something where they can channel their interests and make a difference. During the 2020/21 academic year we were joined by Dhavina Contractor and Amelia Haycock. As part of their placement, they worked on Mona Dash’s short story collection, Let Us Look Elsewhere and interviewed her. We’re thrilled to publish this interview in full below.
Winner of The Asian Writer 2018, Mona Dash is a celebrated writer from London, who writes fiction and poetry. Her memoir, ‘A Roll of the Dice: A Story of Loss, Love and Genetics’ won the Eyelands Book Award. Earlier this year, Mona’s debut short story collection, Let Us Look Elsewhere was published by Dahlia Books. The collection had already achieved critical acclaim when it was shortlisted for the 2018 SI Leeds Literary Prize. We spoke to Mona to find out more…
When did you first realise your passion for writing?
I wrote the occasional poem as a child. I remember one of my first published poems – aged about ten or eleven – in the children’s section of The Telegraph India. It was about the rain, and I still remember the first line ‘Sometimes I wonder, isn’t the rain like a mother?’! I really loved to read, and I had assumed the writing seemed a little offshoot of my love for books. Gradually, when life took over with personal challenges and work pressures, I wrote lesser and lesser.
We can call something a ‘passion,’ when we want to pursue it irrespective of how busy our life is, and more importantly, we feel a sense of dejection and purposelessness when we aren’t pursuing it. Some years ago, I was enveloped with this sense of yearning to do more. I tried to complete the novel I had started to write and abandoned. I had all these ideas and wrote a lot of new poems and stories. I started sending them around, each rejection making me feel despondent, yet charged to try harder. Work and family took up most of my day, so it wasn’t that I had spare time and was bored. Rather I was very busy! That is when I realised, writing wasn’t a passing fancy or something I liked to do occasionally. ‘Writing’ was standing right there and getting impossible to ignore! It was a part of me and the only way out was to write and see how it might evolve.
What do you like best about writing short stories?
Writing short stories offers a wider sense of exploration of characters, places, and greater experimentation with the form, the POV, the structure. It is like poetry, in terms of variety and the endless possibilities available.
I also like the fact that they need to be short, and that space is a constraint. I am very used to deadlines at work, so I seem to work better in a set-up where a compact format is defined and imminent!
How long have you been working on Let Us Look Elsewhere?
This is a collection of stories written over the past six to seven years. Many were listed in competitions or published previously in journals. It was only when a slightly longer version of this collection was shortlisted in the SI Leeds Literary Award in 2018 and was the only short story collection to make the final list of six books, that I realised that I had a potential book.
What was your main influence or inspiration when writing the collection?
I wrote each story as it ‘arrived’ in my head, so the influences and inspirations are varied. Human frailty is at the heart of this collection, since the characters are not complete or content. They are each on a quest, whether it is to find love or self-fulfilment. Place is also an important theme in these stories, since I believe our surroundings make a difference to our own ideologies and personality constructs.
Some of your stories focus on characters with obscure narratives, such as ‘Sense of Skin’, can you tell me more about it?
This came about at a work lunch! Someone spoke about how she had met an animal skinner from Finland, travelling in the basic sleeper class trains. I was fascinated by the whole juxtaposition of a person used to working with animal skin, in a very cold country, travelling in the heat and crowds of India. I also had to research fur farming to eventually come up with the story.
The rest of the collection features a multitude of characters. How important was it for you to represent a diverse range of voices?
Multiple, diverse identity is very important to me as a person, and as a writer. I wanted to explore situational belonging and identity, which is about race, gender, nationality and more. The same travesty of belonging and feeling an outsider can happen to many people.
Do you have a favourite story?
As a writer it is hard to choose a favourite! Some have been more difficult to get into a final form) some have been more appreciated by being listed in competitions) and some have arrived fully formed, some I have been experimenting with the structure, POV, and some are more personal to me and my identity. So each of them is special to me. Which one is your favourite?!
What sort of challenges did you face when putting together the collection?
Perhaps the main challenge has been to decide which stories should feature in this collection. It has to be varied enough to make it interesting, but also have an interconnectedness. On a broader note, as an Asian writer living in London, one usual conundrum is addressing the expectation. Whether it is to write about ‘suitably Asian’ topics in a way that suits the expectation of the Western world and gaze, or to represent a specific type of narrative, as social responsibility and in keeping with the expectation from the (British) Asian world. Both of these viewpoints often prove challenging if someone wants to write for the sake of writing and storytelling since there is an inherent expectation to conform to both. This is what I am writing about in the introduction to Let Us Look Elsewhere.
Mona Dash is the author of A Roll of the Dice: a story of loss, love and genetics, winner of Eyelands Book Award 2020 for memoir. Her other published books include two collections of poetry, A Certain Way and Dawn-drops, and a novel Untamed Heart. She has been listed in various competitions, and published widely in various journals and anthologies. She is part of the British South Asian writers collective, The Whole Kahani. With a degree in engineering, an MBA, and a Masters in Creative Writing, she works for a global tech company. Mona lives in London.