NWR: You were an unpublished writer up to 2010 but had accelerated success lately, culminating in the Sunday Times and Edge Hill nominations within a few weeks of each other this spring. How did this come about?
Roshi Fernando: My history as a writer began when I became a reader. My mother was an English teacher, and she and her mother who looked after me when my mother worked, taught me to read and write when I was about three. I was off school: at home for days, sometimes weeks because I was severely asthmatic as a child, and we had none of those wonderful puffers then. So my reading ability was convenient for all concerned. My mother brought home leftover O level texts, and I was reading Dickens, Shakespeare, Eliot when I was seven or eight: completely above my head, and much punctuated by Enid Blyton! I did a BA in Philosophy and Literature, which was torture when I was twenty, but has proved its worth again and again: literary theory is much more useful to a writer than one would think. I applied for an MA in creative writing, but when I met Stevie Davies (based in Swansea University Creative Writing department), she offered me a mentorship for a year, which fortunately was funded by the Royal Literary Fellowship. I completed the first novel I wrote with Stevie as a wonderful guide. I sent it out a few times, but it needed a lot of revision, and I wanted to move on to fresh ideas. I went on to do a PhD in English and Creative Writing at Swansea. I have just submitted this: Homesick, my composite novel was the creative part of that PhD. In 2009, I went in for the Impress Prize, and much to my horror and wonder, I won. Horror, because I had only completed about a third of the book! I went on to write the rest of it in about three months, with revisions throughout 2010, Impress published the manuscript in the same year, and a story from it, “The Fluorescent Jacket” (reviewed here) has just been shortlisted for those Sunday Times and Edge Hill prizes.
NWR: May this broader profile change how you work and what you write about?
RF: Success won’t change the way I write. It has come quite late in my life – I’m in my mid-forties. Children [all four of them], my family, ground me. I have the next three to five years planned out, work-wise. I know what I want to say, and how I want to say it. I think only the outer world and its politics will change the themes and the underlying message. Success simply makes me hungrier.
NWR: How did you judge “The Fluorescent Jacket” to be the right story to submit to those awards?
RF: “The Fluorescent Jacket” is the story that won the Impress Prize too. I cut my short-fiction-writing teeth on it: it took me almost a year of crafting to get to its final shape. Not a word is superfluous, I hope. It is a difficult story, and the reactions I’ve had were sometimes astonishing. A reading of it was staged at the Oxford Literary Festival in April, as part of the presentation of the Sunday Times Award. The actor, Bhasker Patel, broke down as he read it! And people in the audience cried too. I found that extraordinary.
NWR: Homesick is described in its current Impress edition as a “composite novel”. Was there discussion with your publishers about its definition and whether to market it as a collection or a novel?
RF: There was none! I called it a composite novel, and that’s how they sold it. The marketing was mainly based on the Impress prize. Having “winner” of something on your book cover always piques interest. I can’t emphasise enough how important prizes are to the new writer.
NWR: May your recent success affect your attitude to writing short stories, whether interlinked or not, in future?
RF: Yes! I keep going back to “The Fluorescent Jacket” to see how I did it! I love the short story as a genre – the freedom, the ellipsis, the depth, the protraction. How to do it again? It is a precious art, and I do not want to lose my ability to practise it.
NWR: Homesick is about a large, loosely related group of Sri Lankan immigrants to Britain. How does your personal/family background relate to this material?
RF: On reading Homesick, my sister said it was like reading about a community whose lives were happening in parallel to ours a couple of streets away. None of the characters were painted from life. But of course, all of them are from my experience.
NWR: The opening title story, with its preparations for a party and its easy fading in an out of individuals’ viewpoints, reminds me of Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. Was this an influence. Did you realise what a task you had set yourself with such a large and varied cast in the wider novel? Did you ever struggle to juggle viewpoint?
RF: I hadn’t made the connection with Mrs Dalloway – but of course, it is reminiscent. I loved Woolf, and Forster, when I read them in my teens. Perhaps they were a benign influence, when I wrote “Homesick”. I wrote that story last, once I knew how many characters I had developed in the wider novel, and exactly what I was dealing with. I didn’t really struggle with viewpoint. Each story stands alone, and was treated as a separate entity. I treated each one with as much respect and anxiety as I would the writing of a novel. A short story is a whole life.
NWR: A few of the male characters in the novel are engaged in casual work that leads them into great danger (“The Bottle of Whisky”, “The Fluorescent Jacket”). Your ear is finely tuned to nuances in the world of such work, for instance those markers of belonging that a job, however menial, may bestow. Did such aspects of immigrant life involve research or is it something you instinctively understand?
RF: I do instinctively understand them, I think: immigrants work hard. It’s simply what we do. It’s pride, a desperate need to do well, a desire for belonging that legitimate work gives you, the self-respect in a pay packet.
NWR: Sexual abuse is an important theme in the novel: did you find that hard to write about?
RF: Yes. I tried not to dwell on it: sensationalising something like that is simply unacceptable. But it happens in so many families, and it must be faced head on. I was saying, Look: even in these immigrant, hard working, well-respected communities, this happens.
NWR: I read the themes in “Love me Tender” to be bullying, isolation and affinity in children’s relationships. Preethi ultimately moves on from her troubled friendship with the boy the other kids call “Danny the mong” via what looks like assimilation. Are you trying to show in your writing how children and working adults face similar issues, especially if they are immigrants?
RF: I think this story is about how children have moveable loyalities: assimilation is too strong a word. I am exploring how children form their identities and characters from the influences around them, and then make clear decisions about love, friendship and life. Although Preethi knows she is very low in the social strata of the playground, she knows Danny is even lower, because of his arm. Her kindness toward him is similar to her unquestioning love of her father, an alcoholic who beats her. By accepting both people for whom they are, she hopes others will accept her. And of course, she is proved wrong. They both want her to be something else. She “loves them tender’ – but do they love her in the same way? Do they hell.
NWR: “The Turtle” is different from the other stories in that it displaces what I took [wrongly, it turns out] to be a white British family in Oman. It is a very exact and painful exploration of control in motherhood. What is its role in the wider novel?
RF: Control is a good word. Jenny is Mr Basit’s daughter. Mr Basit is a Sri Lankan Muslim who worked for gangsters when he first came to England. Jenny has a fear of Islam, simply because it was her inheritance to reject it as a religion. Jenny sees a move to Oman as a return to Islam. She worries that the Imam’s cries in the morning will echo back through her to a forbidden past, where she will be limited. Jenny equates Lucas’ autism with an unquestioning loyalty to a religion and lifestyle she doesn’t want to partake in, but which is forced on her by her English husband, Mike. It sits within the novel as another story about a second-generation woman who cannot escape her historical make-up.
NWR: There are echoes of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty in “Sophocles’ Chorus”, with its mixed-race teenage characters and references to Howard’s End. Was ZS an influence?
RF: I loved On Beauty, but I don’t think of it as an influence. On Beauty used Howard’s End as a template for the plot, updating it to the modern US. I used a number of texts that Preethi was studying, for her to wander, dream-like, in and out of, when she was in a coma.
NWR: My favourite pair of stories is “Mumtaz Chaplin and “The Terrorist’s Foster Grandmother”. Mumtaz looks destined for a happy ending and a proper family, which I’m so pleased about! His relationship with the elderly Gertie is incredibly touching. Comfortable, perpetually on the lookout for her “lost” foster child, Gertie is the perfect bulwark on the bus on 7 July, big enough to block Mumtaz’ flirtation with terrorism. The image in this story of Jihad as Ribena is unusual. How did the themes of terrorism evolve here?
RF: I’m so glad you noticed the Ribena image – it is a key statement, actually. The British Empire was represented on maps as a large swathe of pink. Al Quaida means “the plan” – an assimilation of Arabic and then non-Arabic countries, to be ruled over by one caliphate. I wanted to write about the fundamental preachers who are finding proselytising fairly easy in this country. There are so many young people who feel disenfranchised because there is no place for them in society. I did set out to write about terrorism – it was the phrase “homegrown terrorist” that inspired me. Why not “homegrown doctor”, baker, road-sweeper or bank clerk? These are all jobs people like Mumtaz do every day. But it suits the combative polarisation of the tabloids to ignore the steady day-to-day life of the majority of immigrants, and since 7/7, it is mainly the young Muslim male who is vilified. I wanted to write about Mumtaz as an individual within a society that lumps everyone together.
NWR: Tell us a little about your new novel, serialised in Issue 92 of NWR (published on 25 May), The Elephant’s Wife. Are the themes, cast, scope, style similar to Homesick or is this wholly new territory?
RF: I can only really write the way I write – so not wholly new territory. The cast will be smaller though: Homesick was an exhausting juggling act. The themes are widening as I type this. It is all still unclear: early days. But also, in my head, the characters are walking around speaking: it is all I can do to scribble down what they’re saying. I’m excited about it – I’m almost ready to plunge in and do the huge amount of work needed to get it written. It’s like getting ready for a six-month circus tour. That’s what I’m doing at the moment – the last minute tyre checks, the canvas repairs. Once I’m on the road, my goodness, it will be fun!