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There is an upcoming book we wanted to use this opportunity to highlight and to mark the end of South Asian Heritage Month 2022. We asked the author some questions we all want to know the answers to.
Reshma Ruia is a writer and poet. She has a PhD and Master’s in Creative Writing from Manchester University. Her first novel, Something Black in the Lentil Soup, was described in the Sunday Times as ‘a gem of straight-faced comedy’. She has published a poetry collection, A Dinner Party in the Home Counties, and a short story collection, Mrs Pinto Drives to Happiness. Her work has appeared in international anthologies and journals, and commissioned by the BBC. She is the co-founder of The Whole Kahani – a writers’ collective of British South Asian writers. Her new novel, Still Lives is out now. Set in Manchester, the novel is about love, betrayal and belonging. Find out more about her on her website- www.reshmaruia.com
Your second novel Still Lives has just been published. Tell us more about the book and its themes.
Still Lives is a multicultural family saga about love, betrayal and belonging. The novel is dedicated to the people of Manchester and is set in this city. The central protagonist of Still Lives, PK Malik is a first-generation Asian immigrant, trapped between modernity and tradition, between desire and restraint, between personal fulfilment and conforming to community values. I wanted to set my novel in this city because I wanted to celebrate this spirit of resilience, openness and dynamism that has attracted not just South Asians, but also the Caribbean and Jewish community. Moreover, the Indian community in Manchester is a strong, vibrant presence that reflects the historical links between Britain and India. It is commonly thought that Manchester’s South Asian community developed during the 1950s when people came from countries including Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, as textile workers to work in the mills. Manchester was the engine of industrial growth and has a strong, welcoming entrepreneurial spirit that persists till today and this is reflected within the novel.
How have you developed as a writer since your first novel was published in 2003?
Writing is a journey that continues through a writer’s life. One evolves as a writer continuously, learning about the craft of writing and distilling one’s life experiences onto paper. Since my first novel, Something Black in the Lentil Soup came out in 2003, I have gone on to complete a PhD in Creative Writing from the Centre of New Writing at University of Manchester. The degree undoubtedly taught me a lot about writing-not just the nuts and bolts of it, but also the how important it is to read widely and carve time for it. Writing is a solitary exercise and being in a community of passionate creatives was a wonderful antidote to the task of raising a family! I must give a special mention to John McAuliffe who is co-director of the Centre- he has always been supportive and encouraging of his students. I also co-founded a writers’ collective which again reflects the spirit of collaboration and peer support. I started my writing life as a poet and in 2019 I published a poetry collection called, A Dinner Party in the Home Counties. A poem from the collection, Mrs Basu Leaves Town has been included in the EDEXCEL syllabus of diaspora poetry. I was also fortunate to win the 2019 Word Masala Award for the book. In 2021 , I published a short story collection, Mrs Pinto Drives to Happiness. I have also been commissioned to write poetry. In 2021, I was fortunate to have been commissioned by Manchester Literature Festival to write a series of poems that celebrated the spirit of Oxford Road. Postcards from Oxford Road was filmed on site and shown as part of the digital festival. Performing poetry has been something that I’ve been interested in for some time. Live poetry readings enable a connection with the audience in a way that is true to the oral tradition of the form. I have taken part in open mic nights in the city and earlier in the year, I was lucky enough to be poet in residence at Wordsworth’s house in Rydal Mount in the Lake District, so I’ve had a busy few years.
How did Still Lives come to be published by Renard Press? What have they been like to work with?
In my experience Independent publishers are the champions of underrepresented writers. They are less driven by commercial imperatives and more by a commitment to excellence in writing. Renard Press is a relatively young publisher but it has already built up a formidable reputation in the publishing world. Will Dady, the founder read my manuscript and believed in it. It has been a joy to work with him as he has made every stage of the publishing process transparent and accessible. He designed the stunning cover and organised the reviews of the novel and edited it with an eagle eye, whilst respecting my own authorial vision. A big advantage of going with a smaller publisher is that they give you their undivided attention. What they may lack in terms of big marketing budgets is more than compensated by their dedication to seeing you thrive as a writer.
You write poetry, short stories and novels. Will you continue to write across these different forms or do you intend to focus on one?
This is quite an interesting question to answer – since even though the narrative arc and structure might differ; the themes I explore are common to all three genres- the universal quest to belong and be understood and the choices that shape us. An organic, almost subconscious imperative draws me to one form as opposed to the other. Some emotions can only be expressed through poetry whereas a particular character’s journey can be best portrayed through a novel. All three require research, application, writing, rewriting and are ultimately a celebration of language and the human spirit.
Tell us more about The Whole Kahani and how this supports your and others’ writing.
The group was co-founded by Kavita Jindal and me 2011. Our aim is to provide a supportive, nurturing environment for British South Asian writers to hone their craft, exchange ideas and work collaboratively to produce work that showcases their individual talent. The group’s name means The Complete Story, and reflects the idea that fiction is not the exclusive preserve of a privileged few and must reflect the voices of those who have historically been marginalised. We have produced three critically acclaimed anthologies to date. You can find out more about the collective at www.thewholekahani.com
What are you reading at the moment?
I have just finished reading The Promise by Damon Galgut. The novel won the Booker Prize last year and is a family drama about a white South African family dealing with the aftermath of the mother’s death. It explores the complexities of race, identity and family loyalties in a fractured, evolving South African society. The book is rather bleak and mournful but I absolutely loved the way Galgut uses language and a tragi-comical tone to deliver a powerful message.
Any recommendations for a book for South Asian Heritage Month?
I would have to recommend Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree. Originally written in Hindi, it won the 2022 International Booker Prize and reflects the rich literary tradition of regional languages within the subcontinent. It is the story of a woman who travels to Pakistan at the age of 80 to reclaim her true identity. Another suggestion would be A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam. It is a reflective, sombre novel, set in Sri Lanka following the end of the civil war.
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