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Hopefully we write against ourselves: an interview with Preti Taneja

Interview by Jacinta Mulders.

I was originally attracted to the work of Preti Taneja because of her interests in fiction and in human rights. She has authored reports for Minority Rights Group, and co-founded ERA Films, a collective that produces documentaries with a human rights focus. Her research has examined Shakespeare productions in post-conflict zones, and has involved working on a Kosovan-Serb co-production of Romeo and Juliet. In her fiction, she engages similar ideas: her debut novel, We That Are Young, a rendering of King Lear set in contemporary India, was released last year to wide critical acclaim. In December it was longlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize, which rewards literary fiction by small presses.

As a human rights activist and someone who is familiar with and deeply invested in issues of global inequality, Taneja is uniquely placed to talk and write about society with this framework in mind. Her passion for Shakespeare has led her to use it as an architecture with which to critique, among other things, gender disparity, corporate power, and the ways systems fail their citizens.

One afternoon last spring, I caught the train to Cambridge to meet her for a meal. As fiction writers, we discussed how to translate culture, the indivisible quality of prose, and whether it matters if an author is a good person.
—Jacinta Mulders

3:AM Magazine: In the author’s note to your novel, We That Are Young, you write about your experience of reading King Lear as a teenager:

 I began to feel that Shakespeare had somehow been to India, and had seen what damage despotic uncles and an enforced sense of honour, shame and the upholding of the family name could do. He understood the power struggles that take place in extended families, in cultures where marriage to a suitable, family approved match is the best achievement a girl can make, only topped by the production of a male heir to continue the line. Where boys are privileged with more personal and political freedom of movement, speech and authority by dint of gender, and where the making of money was synonymous with being a family, supporting and protecting each other no matter what secrets they hide.

 I feel there’s an undercurrent of rage in the way you talk about the position of women and generational damage.

Preti Taneja: In terms of my fiction writing, you’ve really put your finger on the two things that I put at the core of what I do. For me, generational damage is the thing that just enrages me the most. The impact of that particularly on women is—in the Indian context—just so insidious. The fact that it’s passed down is perhaps the most difficult thing of all for people to accept and then get past. Really, those are the two main things that make me want to be a writer. And the Lear story is one of intergenerational damage, there’s no doubt about that.

3:AM: I studied Lear in Year 12 in Australia so as I was preparing for this interview I enjoyed having a refresher of the plot. But it was difficult to keep track—after a certain point I was like, right, who’s killing whom?

 PT: The good question in Lear—who is killing whom?

3:AM: Everyone’s killing each other. When you are writing, how do you translate the nuances of a different culture into English in a way that doesn’t dull the force of those nuances while ensuring it is simultaneously is accessible enough for any reader?

 PT: Growing up British Asian and living in two languages, my language of intimacy is Hindi and my language of intellect is English. As a writer, there are people whom I count on to guide me on deciding how much information needs explaining and when I should just tell it the way I see it. So for me there were questions like—if I’m talking about really mainstream things in India, for example I’m mentioning an airline like IndiGo (the equivalent of EasyJet) do I have to say in my prose ‘this is the equivalent of EasyJet’? I don’t want to do that, actually. It’s my job instead to make sure the reader trusts that I know what I’m doing.

3:AM: You have to assume that your reader is intelligent.

PT: Right. You have to trust yourself, have the confidence to say: ‘I’m not going to assume that no one will get this’, because if you write it well enough, they will. Of course there are things you do have to explain. In King Lear for example, the whole of the love test turns on this idea of dowry. In India, dowry is one important flashpoint in the politics of gender relationships. We don’t really think about it in the UK. It’s not a big deal: your future mother-in-law doesn’t say to your father, ‘what’s the dowry going to be?’ So from that point of view, those things have to be explained, otherwise the significance of translating this play to contemporary India is lost. And I do want readers to understand that things like dowry or violence against religious minorities are very much alive and well there.

3:AM: In relation to what you said about dowries, and also thinking of the idea of ownership, I found your choice to frame the power relations of Lear around a company to be very interesting. Your character based on Lear is a company founder. Does this tap into any larger insights you have about how society is fiscally controlled? Why was including the corporate element necessary to you?

PT: King Lear is a play in which, first and foremost, Lear is the King of his country. We don’t really have that same kingship, control stuff going on anymore. For me, I just wanted to find something that had the same kind of influence over minds, and for me that definitely was corporate life. India was a kind of socialist economy until the mid-nineties, and it has now become a free market capitalist economy with lots of people coming in to trade from the outside. Before the mid-nineties, international companies were not allowed into India. Opening this up has created a middle class that wasn’t there before in the same way. I don’t have a comment to make on whether people should or should not have white goods in their homes; this is not about standards of living. Whether and how they’re organised in hierarchies of power—how the people in the middle tier and the bottom tier are kept in a system—that’s really what’s interesting to me. How that works, not whether it should be or should not be. Corporations are the new Imperial force. I do think equality is missing in society today. It’s not fucking rocket science, you know.

3:AM: In your author’s note you refer to a new India of “malls, metros, luxury apartment blocks and offices” as being built by “men, women and children with no shoes, carrying stones on their heads in time-honoured Indian fashion.” To what extent do you think that inequality is part and parcel of living in the society that we do, in this capitalist structure?

PT: Capitalism can’t survive without that. I mean, if I had another five years to write this book, I probably would’ve added an extra dimension to explore how this culture I’ve written about is intertwined with the rest of the world; supporting hierarchies of power all the way to the White House and Westminster. It’s not just an Indian problem that the poorest of our world are forced to live as they do.

3:AM: Everyone supports it.

 PT: Right. So, you know, when people say to me, ‘oh, India’s got great wealth, but, oh the poverty,’ I say to myself, ‘okay, are you wearing anything that comes from a high street store with a history of supporting bad practices in its Asian supply chain? Are you smoking cigarettes? Do you support the football and want to go to the Qatar World Cup, built by migrant workers with few workers’ rights?’ I mean, use your brain, it’s not just those people in India, it’s you too.

3:AM: That’s what’s great about the novel, and also a lot of contemporary literature that I admire. It strives to demonstrate that the world is indivisible, in many senses of the word.

PT: I really hope that We That Are Young says that.

3:AM: I feel like it comes through in your style as well—the sentences slip into each other in a way that suggests indivisibility.

PT: Well, if you got from the style that I am trying to write about some kind of connection to a wider global problem there, then I’m doing okay. I think that was what I was aiming for. In a book this size, people tend to concentrate on plot rather than form, whereas for me, the form is always doing the work and the politics are embedded at the sentence level.

3:AM: Did you worry that you would risk losing some of the specificity that often makes a piece of fiction really sing?  

PT: Yeah. That is why form is so important—it gives that specificity. In many ways I feel like when you use Shakespeare you’re making a comment about empire, because Shakespeare is the language of the Empire, Shakespeare is the iconic export—it is part of the colonising mission. Cultural colonisation is so much more insidious than military—that’s its nature.

3:AM: The style of the novel is very different from the style of your novella, Kumkum Malhotra. Do you want to talk about that at all?

 PT: We That Are Young is divided into five chapters which are each told from the perspective of five different young people. Even though the voice and tone of Kumkum is quite elegaic, sad and quiet, that little book was kind of a testing ground for me to think about getting inside character, so the novel shares some DNA on that level with Kumkum. Kumkum is about a loss of being—the central character, Kumkum herself, does not exist anymore. That person in Indian society is an anachronism that was on its way out even as she came into existence in the world of the book: that’s why she disappears at the end. The fast forward energy of my novel is the next phase of her.

 3:AM: Your novel departs from the end scene of Kumkum, I suppose. I have, then, another question about the prose. I felt like, within it, time collapses on itself. Was this your intent?

PT: Yes, absolutely. King Lear has an epic time structure. No one can tell you over how long the play takes place. There are no days, no months, no weeks, no hours, no years. Some of it is set in pre-Christian Britain whereas some of its motifs are very Christian, that is, rooted in their time of writing. Shakespeare had a space-age imagination—he could place someone in the future talking about the prophets of the past in a time which was yet to occur. He could also place all of these people on the ground who were trying their best to do something with their lives: just struggling and failing, struggling and failing. The epic tragedy of that play is that it has no time. It’s now, it’s then, it’s in the middle. We That Are Young tries to capture that structurally, building on circular ideas of time as Hinduism understands it. It is not a realist novel, nor was it meant to be—it is mythic rooted in a recognizable world, a ‘time out of joint,’ just as Lear is.

3:AM: Shakespeare constantly erupts, doesn’t it?  Why do you love his work so much?

 PT: Maybe it’s because I have a colonised mind [laughter]. I was lucky to have the most incredible English teacher who taught me Shakespeare at school—but I mean, obviously not everyone who learns Shakespeare in school ends up living their lives inside it, like I do. I love the plays because I think at heart they are not constrained. Shakespeare wasn’t afraid to be funny about the worst things. He had this capacity to imagine anyone from any background or class or culture into the position of the other. And I think that it takes an extraordinarily compassionate soul to do that.

3:AM: Have you speculated about what he was like as a person?

PT: No. The ‘did Shakespeare write Shakespeare?’ question doesn’t really interest me. Unless it turns out to have been his sister.

3:AM: That’s interesting. You’re really living in the text then, I suppose.

PT: Yeah. I’m all about the text. There are very good scholars who are working on Shakespeare’s personhood and the early modern period. I really respect that work but I don’t get into it, apart from being an interested reader. I am really interested, for example, in the work scholars such as Ian Smith in the US are doing on representation of ‘the other’ on the early modern stage. He writes about how theatre makers ‘created’ black bodies for the plays; perhaps using black-face, but also a gauzy fabric covering the face, arms, hands—literally stitching a black skin-suit. He makes us thinks about how race was imagined and enacted in that time, and what implications that still has for us today.

3:AM: Are you interested in authors’ lives in general?

 PT: Yes, but I am more interested in the work itself. For example—not a popular thing to say perhaps—but, you know, I am a great fan of Philip Larkin, and he was a misogynistic, old curmudgeon and probably a bit racist too. There are people who can criticise Larkin ’til they’re blue in the face but the England he bore witness to in his work is like a roadmap to me: a second generation immigrant. He’s given me the clues I need to work out what the fuck’s going on around here. The historic attitudes, the rituals, the institutions. And then, maybe we write against ourselves. Hopefully we write against ourselves.

3:AM: What does writing against yourself mean?

PT: To write against the instinct to judge others, and instead present life in all its banality and extraordinary complexity, wherever and whoever we are writing about.


Preti Taneja was born in the UK to Indian parents. She studied Theology, trained in journalism, then worked with disadvantaged young people across the UK for the charity ChildrensExpress (now Headliners) and as a human rights reporter and activist on minority rights worldwide. She currently teaches writing and human rights at Warwick University and holds an honorary fellowship at Jesus College, Cambridge. We That Are Young, her debut, was a book of the year in The Sunday Times, The Hindu, Media Diversified, the Spectator, and the Guardian. It is published in India by Penguin Random House and is forthcoming from A.A Knopf in North America in 2018.

Jacinta Mulders is an Australian, UK-based writer. In 2015 she won a scholarship to complete her MA in Prose Fiction at the University of East Anglia. Her writing has appeared in Meanjin, Seizure, Oyster, Pollen, and The Bohemyth. She is a qualified lawyer and lives in London. 

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, January 18th, 2018.