Today Amit Chaudhuri gave my cohort a masterclass on the theme of aesthetic decisions in fiction writing. I like to hear writers talk about what brought them to the place they’re now in, and Amit spoke a lot about the thought-processes he’d gone through as a young Indian writer in London. He had worked out quite early on that what he was really interested in writing about was the commonplace. This was at odds with the contemporary expectations of what an English-language Indian novel could or should be: Amit did not want to write a vast cultural panorama in the style of Midnight’s Children, and furthermore the ideas of Empire and post-colonialism weren’t concepts he felt the need to challenge within his writing. ‘I never felt peripheral,’ he explained.
I really liked the emphasis he put on being at the centre of one’s own story. The feeling of belatedness – the desire to have been writing at the same time as Lawrence or Wordsworth or Milton – is not useful. As a new writer you need to ‘confront the fact that the political or aesthetic moment you wanted to occupy has passed’, and to write wholly from your own position in space and time. What’s more, to ‘delight in life’, and thus to let writing be about the real experience of living.
I think I have been foggily formulating these same ideas for some time, but I couldn’t have expressed them so crisply. Also my focus is still definitely on interrogating the past and its objects. So I asked him how literally he meant his advice to ‘write from where you are’. Was it possible, I asked, to accept this philosophy and still write fiction set in another time or place?
Considering that he had never met me, his answer was exceptionally well-suited to my interests. He said that he had once gone as a tourist to the Konark Sun Temple, with its carvings of colourful copulation, and mostly felt ‘a sense of disjunction’: he did not recognise the people who had built it as anything to do with him, and certainly nothing to do with the prurient guide who took him to look more closely at the sculptures but excluded his wife and daughter. Even though the temple was part of his own national and cultural heritage, he felt no connection to it: he was unable to deduce why it had been built or what importance it might have held to his ancestors.
I agreed with his point that ‘history is not an unbroken lineage’. Even aside from situations in which people are actively prevented from accessing their own cultural heritage, very few of us have much in common with our own great-great-grandparents. We are all estranged from our own past, however strongly we might feel about it. I also agree that even with the most painstaking research it is almost impossible to put together a picture of the past as it really was, and that the mind capable of doing this probably doesn’t belong to a writer of fiction.
‘History is not as available to you as you think it is,’ he said, and he is right that it is not possible to dredge it up whole from the depths of the past. I can see that trying to write with historical accuracy is the very opposite of ‘delighting in life’. If (as in his approach to writing) I bury myself in the quotidian and accept that ‘true realism is always strange’, that this is where the magic lies – then placing my writing in a world I have never personally inhabited will mean it never feels fresh. Why write about a situation I am inevitably ‘estranged’ from?
I can see his point. Absolutely. But I think my idea of historical fiction is different from his. Writing with the consciousness that it can only be from my point of view is a very deeply ingrained part of my practice, which I suppose comes from my museum/archaeology background. I gave up a long time ago on trying to wholly get inside an authentic (say) 17th-century mind: I don’t see that as an achievable challenge, or an interesting one. I want to write about the past while acknowledging my own position. When I write I think constantly about how I am constructing a picture, and the ways in which people before me constructed it differently: I am always conscious that the meaning we attach to objects, places, people, is mutable. This is what fascinates me.
Still, I am thinking very hard about how to proceed from here. I have never found a completely adequate way of making my intentions clear in my fiction – that I am more interested in turning over certain ideas rather than achieving historical accuracy in every word – particularly because I get so worked up when other writers’ historical fiction gets it wrong. I only really work anything out by getting my hands dirty, so in terms of experimenting with how I use history I have two projects in mind. One is a novella called The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, which I abandoned about six months ago precisely because it was too complicated for me. I wanted to set it in the eighteenth century while making it explicit to the reader that it was a version of the eighteenth century that existed only in my head. I wanted it to be dense and convincing whilst also being an obvious confection. I think I have more of the tools to do that now.
The other project is what might be a series of short stories – I don’t know yet – which is probably more up Amit Chaudhuri’s street because it could really only be written by a person of my age, background, and geographical location. I conceived of it very recently: after I started this MA, in fact. It’s to write fiction about Deptford and Lewisham as they are now, and as experienced by me, or somebody like me. So much of my thoughts while living in the borough of Lewisham were caught up with what it might be like to experience it as somebody else: as a recent immigrant; as a local; as a person who lived long ago. A lot of this is inevitable given the layers and layers of social change that have piled up there even over the last century. But I always attempted to inhabit one or other of those layers, and it has only recently occurred to me that my own version of Lewisham is as authentic as any other. Being able to see all those textures is something special in itself: they don’t need to be disentangled. That penny took a long time to drop, though. Fortunately it happened not long before this masterclass.
I am not the world’s greatest DH Lawrence fan, but Amit quoted this today and in relation to writing I find it exhilarating:
“Whatever the unborn and the dead may know, they cannot know the beauty, the marvel of being alive in the flesh. The dead may look after the afterwards. But the magnificent here and now of life in the flesh is ours, and ours alone, and ours only for a time”
It’s funny how this got me going in the way that ‘write what you know’ never could.