NM: First of all, congratulations on Psychoraag, a wonderfully ambitious and enjoyable novel. What was your inspiration for telling the story of Zaf?
SS: Thanks very much, Nick. It’s great to be talking with you. The inspiration for writing Psychoraag primarily was music and song, both in the sense of songs and in the sense of the musics of people’s lives/ life stories, etc. In this respect, the author is a kind of griot and shaman, combined. Also, a feeling for of history and place – Glasgow/ Scotland and Pakistan/ India – something I’ve wanted to write about in full-length fictional form for a long time. Plus, states of altered consciousness, overlappings of the self, this kind of thing. An efflorescence of liminality.
NM: To my mind, this is the first significant literary expression of Scottish-Asian culture. Did you find the role of ‘trailblazer’ especially challenging, or was this of little consequence to you in the writing process?
SS: Psychoraag was the first ‘Scottish Asian’ novel. However, it wasn’t my first novel. In the early 1990s, I had tried to write a novel around some kind of ‘Scots Asian’ nexus, but I didn’t have the craft then to be able to do that. I became interested in other areas and wrote around those for a while and honed my craft. Then, in 1995-96, I wrote The Snake under the pseudonym, ‘Melanie Desmoulins’. ‘Melanie’ means ‘black’ and Desmoulins was after Camille Desmoulins, the C18th French Jacobin poet and revolutionary, so: ‘Black Desmoulins’. The novel was a literary erotic fiction and was influenced by Bataille, Nin, Aragon, Appollinaire, Reyes, De Sade, Kosinski and others, as well as by classic erotic texts like The Perfumed Garden, the Kama Sutra, etc., except I tried to turn it around (physically as well as metaphorically!) so that it would be from the woman protagonist, Lucy’s point-of-view and with her being able to influence events. It was published by Creation Books in 1997 and is still widely available second-hand on the web. I’d also begun a much longer novel around the late 1990s, which I’ve only recently completed and so Psychoraag was penned in fits and starts within that scenario, between 1999 and 2003. I try to do something new with everything that I write. I find this fun!! That’s why I write, basically because it’s fun, although it’s damned difficult and complex and yet like love perhaps it doesn’t feel like work. So I am a trailblazer to myself, always. Whether or not society views me as that doesn’t bother me overly. However, I see little point in attempting to mimic what’s already been done very well by others. But I mean, I didn’t write Psychoraag thinking, “Halleluia! Now I’m going to write the first Asian Scottish novel!” No, it was an exploration as it always is. I was conscious that I wanted to evince viewpoints that perhaps had not been put onto the page before. Discomfiting things about which polite society avoids talking, or even thinking. It’s something I’ve thought about, that another Scottish writer, Alexander Trocchi also wrote erotic fiction – although he went to France to do it! But back in the mid-1990s, I wasn’t aware of this – or of him.
NM: Psychoraag is a roller-coaster of moods and sensations, veering from euphoria to dejection and soul-searching. One of the most powerful scenes, I thought, was Zaf’s encounter with junkie ex Zilla. Were you wary of the novel being labelled ‘cult’ or ‘alternative’ because of the drug references?
SS: Yes, I was wary of that. This kind of creative tension has as much to do with tone as with actual narrative and tends to come up particularly during the editing process, I mean both while I’m writing it and simultaneously thinking about what I’m writing and also when I’m actually editing various drafts of a text before anyone else has seen it. I wanted to avoid a kind of hip approach. There was also the ‘Trainspotting’ ambience, especially around the late 1990s, which was quite different from the one I was trying to conjure and I was conscious of this, too. I wanted something emotionally and intellectually engaged, not distanced, but right there, in the flesh and blood and brain. I wanted to push things to their logical (and illogical) conclusions, into the realms of paradox and to see what emerged. Maybe some kind of truth, who knows? I didn’t want to have this ‘cool’ attitude. I wanted a wild poetry. Without glorifying the whole thing, to use a jazz parallel, I was aiming at a late-Coltrane feel, or a Bitches Brew vibe, or an Albert Ayler solo duende and not at a polished, Kind of Blue package. There are drug abusers in all communities and sometimes in South Asian communities the problems tend to be swept under the wall-to-wall carpets. There are many reasons why someone might abuse and degrade themselves and I wanted to explore that desperation through a character. Of course, Coltrane destroyed himself, didn’t he? So did/ do many black artists. Self-destruction and creativity, what swings this see-saw? The answers lie in society/ history/ the economy/ spirituality and also deep within in the human brain. I wanted to deal with the unspoken things. For example: the long dynamics behind some mixed-race relationships; racism in Asian society; self-hate; the Indo-Pak thing; the Muslim thing; the class thing. I also wanted to voyage through the links between various musical cultures and evince some of the exciting historical and contemporary diversity within South Asian music and song. On another level, the psychedelic references allow another route to exploring states of altered consciousness through fiction. Pushing realism to its limits and almost – but not quite – bursting the seams can be a powerful way of delivering fictional prose. I wanted to puncture pre-conceptions. I set Zilla’s entry to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.
I understand you were born in England but call Glasgow home, and the Glaswegian accent featured in Psychoraag is both convincing and unrestrained. In this respect, the most obvious influence on your work would seem to be James Kelman. How important has he been for you in freeing the use of the vernacular in literature?
SS: Kelman is very significant in this regard, as have been other writers like Alan Spence, Raymond Soltysek, Margaret Fulton-Cook, Graeme Fulton, Jim Ferguson, Duncan McLean, Brian Whittingham, Jeff Torrington, Marion Sinclair, Agnes Owens, Janet Paisley, Stephen Mulrine, Tom Leonard, Liz Lochhead and many others, for example, countless live performers whose names I cannot recall, shame on me; Scotland has had a very vibrant and ‘unrestrained’ literary scene, what I call a ‘stand up’ scene and I don’t mean comedy; writers here often stand up to do their readings or at least project their voices as though they standing up; one cannot underestimate the effects of live (breathing, singing) voices, pouring into one’s head.
It’s always struck me as a very egalitarian scene – there are fewer barriers than perhaps exist elsewhere in this field. And I think that may arise from the nature of literate discourse in Scotland going right back to C18th and the Enlightenment as well as from strong (past) trade union and other radical political streams. I mean, you just sit and listen to someone like Alasdair Gray talk (a joy in itself, by the way), and you could be right back there, in Tom Paine’s kitchen (that’s a good title: In Tom Paine’s Kitchen). In this respect, I think Scottish literary discourse comes closer to the certain mainland European literary discourses of ideas (French, Italian or Spanish, for example) than perhaps to the post-nineteenth century, mainstream English version. And many of these writers were, and are, intensely political in their overt lives as well as in their literature.
Right through the 1990s, I was privileged to have been able to listen, watch and read many of these artists in Glasgow especially and this must have had an influence on the development of my abilities in the use of the vernacular in fiction. Of course, people like Kelman, Lochhead and Leonard pioneered the field from the 1970s onwards. And I don’t know it’s at all connected, but during the 1970s I had some very enlightened and exciting teachers of English and History at school, I mean we studied contemporary Scottish texts like work by George Mackay-Brown, for example, and also some left-field stuff, as I recall.
We also studied revolutionary, trade union and industrial history and Scottish history – I mean the colonial Highland Clearances as well as the older stuff, and all of that was invaluable in expanding my mind and also helping it take root. This was important, partly in developing my sense of an infinite canon. There was also a sense of societal change, which actually by that time, we rather took for granted – foolishly, as it turned out, because it all got rolled back during the succeeding decade. I’ve worked with, gone to school with and lived among all social classes in Scotland and am familiar with various West of Scotland accents and this helped, too. I have a broad and deep lake of human life on which to draw. Yet in some senses, I have always felt on the outside and this is probably good for the development of an artistic sensibility, a kind of hyper-awareness. To quote John Lennon: “Your inside is out and your outside is in!”.
In fact, when I started writing, I was partly reacting to the accents all around me, not wanting to just ‘parrot’ the machismo urban style which even then was becoming a little hackneyed in places; I mean, at readings sometimes it was like a fuck, fuck here and a fuck, fuck there, here a fuck, there a fuck, everywhere a fuck, fuck…!!; to some extent it just seemed adolescent and gratuitous and ultimately denuded of any power it might have had, whereas I was exploring more mystical areas and trans-continental stuff, stuff that would take me out of my head. I mean, I was reading people like Gustav Meyrink, Julio Cortazar, Herman Hesse, Vladimir Nabokov, Mikhail Bulgakov, Yukio Mishima, Jorge Luis Borges, Primo Levi, Juan Rulfo, Ben Okri, Naguib Mahfouz, Italo Calvino, Juan Goytisolo and Thomas Mann as well as Sufi and other mystical/ wisdom literature (Hafez Shirazi, Sheikh Saadi, Jalaluddin Rumi, etc.) and old, old stuff from Arab Andalusia. Also, some experimental and political writing from the USA and elsewhere.
This lot also played well with my love of psychedelic music, which goes back quarter of a century to the Winter of Hate: 1979. I then came back (as it were) to urban Scotland and used some of this mental experience when I wrote Psychoraag and the fiction which preceded it, e.g. some of the stories in The Burning Mirror – you just have to look at very different stories like ‘The Queens of Govan’, ‘The Dancers’ and ‘Solomon’s Jar’ to appreciate this. I once delivered a Burns Immortal Memory speech in which I drew comparisons between themes in ‘The Dancers’ and ‘Tam o’Shanter’. So there you go, whether or not Kilroy was up here, on the Devil’s Bridge, Robert Burns – or at least Nannie the Witch – certainly was, along with all these other people I’ve mentioned and lots more!
NM: Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari once wrote (in reference to Kafka) that a ‘minor literature doesn’t come from a minor language; it is rather that which a minority constructs within a major language’, and that, in a minor literature ‘everything is political’. I think this is very relevant to a writer like Kelman, a working-class Glaswegian writing in English, but in your case there is the additional factor of your Asian identity. Would you say that your use of Glaswegian demotic and Urdu subverts the values of ‘literary’ English to an even greater extent?
SS: I agree. It’s called ‘neologistic thought’, well that’s what I’ve called it just now anyway. Every tongue is a universe, so allowing them to dance with one another is like travelling through worm-holes: a raag of lunacy. As Barthes tells us, all language and text is unstable. I’m very aware that writers like Rushdie (not just Rushdie, I mean most mainstream Anglophone writers) cannot seem really to meld languages very well, cannot seem really to grasp that jouissance that is the instability of language, seem incapable, really, of engaging in the dance! I mean, you look at Rushdie, he’s a good writer, no question. Midnight’s Children was ground-breaking in Anglophonia and I really respect some of his other work, including his non-fictional work, but he can’t do dialogue! Especially not demotic dialogue. I reviewed his latest novel, Shalimar the Clown for The Independent (by the way, I’m very grateful to Boyd Tonkin, the literary editor, for asking me to do this and for publishing my review, uncut; Boyd is a very erudite and also a very affable guy) and it’s a good novel, I enjoyed it and it makes some very powerful points, politically – I gave it a good review – but one of its weaknesses resides in Rushdie’s very obviously ineffectual use of demotic. I mean this is a guy who was brought up in India, for God’s sake! As far as I know, he can speak Urdu, though I’ve never heard him actually speak it, or Kashmiri for that matter. I mean, my French is probably better than my Urdu, in terms of speaking – and that’s not very good. My comprehension of Urdu, while better than my speaking, remains very limited. So Rushdie is more multilingual than I am, but tragically he seems unable really to draw on it. It limits his writing. You see, language is everywhere political, but in Britain we have the added ontological nuance that language is very much a mediator of social class. And the dominant groupings, anthropologically speaking, are the white southern English upper and upper-middle classes, what I call the über-class. This class was the driver of empire and across the spectrum it remains in the driving seat. This is what ‘Big Brother’ means, as a concept on the subliminal level. So you start playing around with that and in some sense, you’re playing around with the class and imperial systems. I have never seen a class analysis of Rushdie’s work. There probably is one, somewhere in a literary journal on a dusty shelf in a high tower of academe, but I’ve never seen one in the mass quality press. Nowadays, it’s class, class everywhere, but not a word to read! Of course, as David Crystal, John Stotesbury, Melvyn Bragg and other linguistic and literary luminaries make clear, the burgeoning varieties of English around the globe, various almost musical syncretisations of language, represent hugely exciting developments in the evolution of consciousness. Every language is a set of peculiar takes on the universe. So broadening the range of the sextant enlarges its possible horizons. People like Kelman are like captains of ships – not imperial ships, mind you, more like pirate submarines – they’re always charting new courses. Then maybe, in this ocean of words, I’m a wee bathyscaphe, trying to go ever deeper! Ships? I see no ships!
NM: Why did you choose to include a glossary of non-Standard-English words? Might this not undo some of the equalitarian work of the language?
I know, I know. It’s a long story: I put in a glossary, then I took it out, then I put it in, then I took it out. Then I put it in. Various editors (due to mergers and other gremlins, the book passed through a variety of hands over the several years of its gestation) had opposing views on the matter. In the end, I figured that as most readers would be likely to be unfamiliar with at least some of the non-Standard English words in the text, the glossary would be there if they needed it. At the same time, I’ve written the novel to minimise the need for use of the glossary. But the other point is that the glossary was a fun way – for me, at least – of expounding a little, both etymologically and on the various multilingual expletives as well as it acting as a kind of hypertext. Right, so you’ve got ‘hijaab’, the Arabic word for a Muslim woman’s headscarf (but more correctly, the word for a protective spiritual ‘veil’), next to ‘hijerah’, the Urdu word for ‘transvestite’, or ‘khotay ka lun’ (‘you’re a donkey’s prick’ in Punjabi) nestling up alongside ‘Khuda hafez’ (Farsi and Urdu for, ‘God go with you’) next to ‘khuserah’ (‘an effeminate homosexual’ in Urdu). These juxtapositions are not deliberate, simply alphabetical and I’ve just picked these examples at random – but you see what I mean. Furthermore, there are little digressions and things in the glossary which can be fun to write and to read, little outlets from the psychotic intensity of the narrative itself. It’s not quite Borgesian though, that would be for a different sort of book. Also, I did not want non-Standard English words to be italicised, I felt very strongly about that, but when my publisher sent the book round various booksellers, etc., they all wanted the words italicised, said it would help them understand the text better (as well as being just a formality). So I figured, well, it’s a challenging text already and if they’re representative of readers who, unlike me, are not familiar with many of the words then I’ll go with that – reluctantly though, I have to say!
NM: Moving onto Psychoraag’s reception in the media. I thought it was remarkable how little attention it received in the English broadsheets, given its numerous literary awards and recommendations. Can you fathom as to why this might have been?
SS: Methinks I hear a hobby-horse a’comin…! My kingdom, my kingdom, for a hobby-horse! The crucial thing to remember, Nick, is that colonial hierarchies of power – linguistic, racialist, class-oriented, geographical – remain operative, indeed, remain definitive, even though they are far less obvious than in the past and are seldom acknowledged as existing. Because of this, they are commensurately more difficult to fight. Censorship in the UK today is not monolithic, okay, there’s no wee man with a blue pencil, a group of guys ‘n’ gals doesn’t sit down somewhere and decide: Right, we’re gonna block out this book! Remember, I’m talking only about fiction here, not non-fiction books by, for example, Official Secrets whistleblowers, where there really is a wee man with a blue pencil-and-rubber sitting in Whitehall. Just as, in the internal world of world of fiction, one is constantly shadow-boxing, so it is on the outside as well. I tend to think of it as a series of filters and these are reflective of and intrinsic to the nodes and flows of power in our society. I don’t think there’s any real deliberation involved, it’s just how society is. And that’s depressing, because not only is it far trickier to get a handle on, it’s also much more difficult to change. With the ‘wee man in Whitehall’, once you get access to power (!) and want to change things, you just re-assign him to parking tickets. I guess, in the current climate, being a Muslim male from what statistically is one of the most despised, uneducated and excluded minorities in the UK, that is, the Pakistani minority, living in what is seen (from the point-of-view of the Thamesian elites) as a ‘peripheral’ region of Britain, who writes narratives which sometimes challenge both liberal imperial and multicultural metropolitan received wisdoms and who is neither foreign enough to be deemed exotic nor tamed enough to be seen as ‘one of us’, is pretty close to being at the bottom of the neo-colonial slushpile. Out of sight, out of mind, the British way. It’s like with the bogeyman: “If we ignore him enough, he might just go away”. Well, sorry folks! Don’t fall asleep just yet – Freddie’s baaaack!
And it’s true, the Managing Director at my publisher’s described the process of trying to get the English broadsheets interested in Psychoraag like “bashing one’s head against a brick wall”. This went on right through the trade chain: from pre-publicity, through uncorrected proof copies for reviewers, to hardback and then paperback editions. The situation in Scotland was the diametric opposite; the broadsheets and other print media outlets here were very interested indeed. One might expect that large, corporate publishers would have cosy relationships with large, corporate media outlets. But some of the Scottish broadsheets are also owned by large corporations – The Scotsman, for example, is a Murdoch paper. And some of the English Asian web and print media covered it, too. The Times of India reviewed it, even though it’s not available in bookshops in India, while The Times of London did not, even though it is available in England. So there are other filters at work here. It’s multivalent, complex. But rather than me rambling on, I would strongly advise you to read the following articles, all on the web:
1) M. K. Chakrabarti, Marketplace Multiculturalism, Boston Review, Dec 2003/ Jan 2004. www.bostonreview.net
2) Ali Smith, Life Beyond the M25, The Guardian, Dec 18th 2004. www.guardian.co.uk
3) Chris Dolan, Book Launches – the closest Scotland Gets to Café Society, The Herald, 1st May 2004. www.theherald.co.uk
I’ve pulled out some quotes from these articles, because readers might need to pay to access the entire pieces on the web (additions in square brackets are mine): “That writers as – at the very least – interesting as [Saadi] have to wait so long to get their novels published, despite success in short stories, poetry, articles, is worrying. Have we categorized ourselves into such tight little boxes – ‘Beat’, ‘Political Realist’, ‘Thriller’, ‘Scots’ – that those whose natural element is fusion, synthesis, or something entirely new, no longer have a slot on bookshop shelves? Or, more worrying still, that the name Saadi might be hard to market; or ‘Psychoraag’ too challenging, unconventional, for a literary scene that has become a little staid and predictable?” Chris Dolan, The Herald, 1/5/04.
“How many thousands of books get published a year? How few make it to the top of the publicity slushpile and into the national broadsheet reviewing pages, which all tend to review pretty much the same books. And does the old charge hold true after all these years, that the London papers are naturally metrocentred, or at least England-centric, with little regard for what’s happening in the rest of the United Kingdom when it comes to what gets reviewed? Maybe the new quarterly Scottish Review of Books will even up the score a little, or at least indicate in a loud voice how uneven things still are. Its first edition has a good variety of features and reviews by and about writers who tend to be overlooked in the south, like Kenneth White, Peter Burnett or Suhayl Saadi, whose ambitious first novel, Psychoraag, an intimate 400-page sprawl covering six early-morning graveyard-shift hours in the life of an on-air Asian-Glaswegian DJ, came out earlier this year and, apart from the TLS, received no reviews south of Scotland. ‘Salaam alaikum, namaste ji, good evenin oan this hoat, hoat summer’s night! Fae the peaks ae Kirkintilloch tae the dips ae Cambuslang!’ Psychoraag ‘s back-of-the-book glossary has the definitions for Gaidhealtachd and Ganga Jumna side by side; and the critical silence that met it down south is an interesting reaction in itself to a book about race and invisibility, voice and silence, whose central theme is the question of whether anyone out there is actually listening. Ali Smith, Life beyond the M25, The Guardian, Saturday December 18, 2004.
“This same publishing industry has turned a cold shoulder to other, less marketable writers. Very little has been told about Suhayl Saadi’s challenging short story collection, The Burning Mirror. Seventeen major publishing companies rejected The White Family, a frank, disturbing portrait of British racists by white author Maggie Gee, before it was taken up by Saqi Books, a small, specialist [Arab] UK publisher. (Gee was named to the 1983 Granta list and The White Family was later shortlisted for the Orange Prize. However, Gee’s Granta accolade wasn’t enough to prevent 17 rejections by the industry, and the Orange Prize nomination would have never happened if Saqi hadn’t put the book on the shelves.) Above all, neither of these books achieved a fraction of Brick Lane’s sales. Even the means by which Monica Ali’s British publisher, Doubleday, marketed Brick Lane sought to obscure the multiculturalism of her own life. Doubleday granted first interview rights in a national newspaper to the Guardian, but when the paper decided to assign its respected literary critic, the South Asian Maya Jaggi, to the story, Doubleday requested a different journalist, preferably a non-South Asian one, because Monica Ali preferred to be seen as a writer first and a ‘coloured person’ second. The Jaggi byline, it seems, might have ghettoized the review. Jaggi protested and Doubleday promptly issued an apology for the ‘misunderstanding’, but the point had already been made. Another writer did the interview for the Guardian. This, then, is the publishing industry that brings us today’s supposedly multicultural authors. And it is this industry’s efforts and enthusiasm that shape the overall commercial presence and success of today’s ‘multicultural’ books.” M. K. Chakrabarti, Review of ‘Brick Lane’, Boston Review, Dec 2003/ January 2004 [Please also see my response to the question-one-after-the-next.]
NM: When Kelman won the Booker Prize in 1994, Simon Jenkins referred to him as an ‘illiterate savage’ (The Times, 15th October 1994). Why do you think the mainstream media is so scared of books written in the demotic?
SS: God! I didn’t know that. That’s disgraceful! And Simon Jenkins, having been editor of The Times and a long-time columnist for that paper, now writes for The Guardian, supposedly a left-of-centre rag. Well, if that’s left-of-centre… You see, this is the problem. Jenkins’s comment is racist, imperialist, vicious, it’s like something from the nineteenth century. If he’d said it of a black person, he’d have had to resign. Yet I’m a writer and I hadn’t even heard of what he’d said. Actually, someone who says that kind of thing is themselves the ‘illiterate (and ignoble) savage’, an ‘attack-dog’ of the English über-class. But obviously that idea still holds sway, if he felt able to write that in a mainstream newspaper so very recently, if the southern English elite think of Jim Kelman, a British white man who hails from, and generally writes about, the working classes, in that way, then what would they think of me and my work? People like this govern the discourse, what they write – and the way in which they write it – millions read and are influenced by. Is it any wonder they are resistant to giving a novel like Psychoraag any coverage? Kelman and his work represent the epitomy of civilisation and are a glimpse of what real democracy in literature could be like. However, at least Jenkins was being honest. This is the class system in the raw. And it’s not a pretty sight. But it’s the quiet savages you have to watch, the polite ones, the dissemblers. The ones who think they have clothes on. All of this illustrates the attitudes which emanate from and contribute towards the war economy, the dehumanising and killing of other peoples throughout the world and the dispatching of British working-class young men and women to die like, well, like the ‘savages’ which the ruling class thinks they are. Fiction is politics, but politics is not fiction. Every letter is a bullet, every word, a bomb.
NM: How do you explain the huge success of ethnic minority writers such as Monica Ali, Hanif Kureishi or Zadie Smith? Do you think their novels adhere to certain value systems that yours doesn’t?
SS: Like most things in a complex society, this is likely to be multi-factorial. Actually, as a kind of chimaera between Job, Jacob and Methuselah, I’ve been rabitting on about this for many years, even back when many of these authors were just twinkles in their editors’ eyes. I remember being interviewed by Sanjeev Kohli (later of Chewing the Fat, Goodness Gracious Me! and Still Game) live on BBC Radio Scotland, yeah in early 1998 it was, and even then I was talking about the same sorts of things. Perhaps this just means that I’m hopelessly obsessed and somewhat deluded: Sisyphus and Don Quixote. But much blood and ice has flowed beneath the bridge since that time. I’ve have much more concrete experience of the whole scene, so my perceptions now are probably based on better authority.
1) The writing has to be of a certain standard and I congratulate any writer who manages to get a novel published and especially black writers. It’s super when black, oppositional or wildly imaginative writers win prizes, etc. – and I’ve won or been short-listed for some myself, so I can only say that I’m glad this kind of thing is happening. Good on them!! I mean, us.
2) Individuals: Most people are fine as individuals, when you meet them and get to know them. I always believe in seeking out the good in people, the common humanity, that is my personality and that is how I deal with people. So this is not an attack on people. My comments below represent an assault on institutions, imperial and economic structures and the power manifested thereby. There are many wonderful people working in these structures and yet still, little changes where it really matters. It’s really a plea. Free your mind and your books will follow! Or maybe it’s the other way around.
3) London: Many of these writers have set their fictions (at least their initial ones) in London. London is iconic in the world; it has a big, very multicultural population, is central to the economy, politics and culture of the UK and the potential readership is more obviously already formed and is enormous. To target this is very sensible of the writers (not like me!). I mean, publishers are into money, of course, they’re big businesses, it’s their raison d’être. So a London novel is a safer bet for a good rollover than a Glasgow one. Also, as with the various US accents, with which through film, popular music and television most of us are familiar internally, in our brains, so it is with London-speak. In spite of all the Scots in London (ah yes, that old chestnut!), it is not so, with Scotland-speak. Stainds ta reason, dannit? The publishing industry and media are situated largely in London. As is the case with New York City, it’s actually a very small world within these circles. As with all walks of life, networking is important.
4) Oxbridge: many of the black and Asian writers who’ve made it big went to Oxbridge (or Ivy League). Check it out yourselves. I mean, again, good on them. Many of the elite, the movers and shakers, in the literary/ cultural/ political/ publishing/ media worlds did, too. More networking is therefore possible. Also, a good education, which is what you get at Oxbridge, really does help, assuming someone is already talented. Plus, I do think that there is a danger that people can emerge from such august institutions holding similar sets of preconceptions and that they may not even realise it. It’s not unlike the process that occurs in private schools. Incubators of imperium. I’m not saying it’s inevitable, but it happens sufficiently frequently for it to be a major dynamic in society. For a black/ Asian person, especially, in whatever field you’re in, a bit of privilege can help you up that greasy pole. It’s not a guarantor of success, of course, but it all adds up. I’ve written about this in Ninety-Nine Kiss-o-Grams, a story from my book, The Burning Mirror, where one of the thoughts of the (dysfunctional) protagonist could be paraphrased as: Study white, marry white, act white – become white. Ever seen the film, Crash? I’m thinking particularly of the scene where the black TV drama director is pressurised by the white producer to make the black actor sound more ‘black’. Well, that’s about the USA in general and LA in particular, but not dissimilar dynamics are at work in the UK, too. This is very risky ground, I know, but it’s the kind of thing my fiction grapples with. The world over, personal contacts are not everything, but they go a hell of a long way. I speak from experience, not prejudice. There are no chips on my shoulders, only one-eyed djinns, and these can see for miles and miles and miles and miles and miles.
5) Standard English: Well, we’ve covered that one already, right? Linguistic Decorum rules OK. Hail Caesar! Well, too bad, Spartacus is here! We’ll come back, and we’ll be millions!
6) Basic Liberal Assumptions: Most novels do not question these. Elites like to think of themselves and their views as being epitomes of tolerance, objectivity and truth, when really, they are simply paragons of power. I say to them: Please, if only for a moment, turn and look into the (burning) mirror!
7) Risk Aversion: a pathological condition, this, requiring Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (e.g. reading Psychoraag backwards in Aramaic). The cartelisation of the publishing industry and of retail bookselling means that innovation (= risk) tends to be avoided, unless of course one has other advantages going for one, in which case it is likely that one will be allowed to write almost anything and be published. It is highly unlikely that the previously unknown groundbreaking equivalents of, say, Kelman and Gray would be published today by ‘major’ publishing houses in the UK.
8) Demographics: A Chinese literary figure told me recently and probably very sensibly: “You know, Suhayl, you have to appeal to white, middle-aged, middle-class Englishwomen as, in the UK, these are the people who buy books”. Well of course, it’s not true that all people in a particularly constructed demographic cohort will think and read the same way, but marketeers tend to behave as though it were an iron law of the universe, and in a kind of quantum mechanical way the thing then tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Interesting though that the overwhelming majority of the people in positions of power in the publishing, bookselling and national print media are drawn from a single social class and a single ethnic group.
9) It’s like this, see: Let’s cut to the uncomfortable quick. Assuming that you have the talent and the craft of writing and that you’ve written something of a certain basic standard, the five essentialist totems/ rate-limiting steps seem to be: Class, politics, ethnicity-faith group, language and location. If you and/ or your work have three or more of these on your side, then you’re in with a chance. If you have none (and aren’t, say, married to the commissioning editor, in which case, given the demographics of commissioning editors, you’re likely to have most of them in any case), then regardless of the quality of the writing and the potential saleability of the book, you’re fucked. I’m fucked.
10) In spite of all this: In spite of not having the muscle of a major corporation behind them, Psychoraag and The Burning Mirror have been widely reviewed in Scotland, Pakistan, India, in a couple of literary magazines in England and on the web, and Scottish book groups, schools and universities have studied them and much else good has happened. I’m very grateful to have been invited to so many literary events in Scotland (including the Edinburgh International Book Festival) and also to some far beyond the shores of Albion (Singapore, Ukraine, Pakistan, NYC, Canada, Germany, France, Portugal). Well done, the Lancaster Litfest for being the first ever England-based literary festival to have invited me to read (note to other festival programmers in the Land of the Raven: the world as we know it and ‘our way of life’ did not come to an end as a result). And to Saqi Books (an Arabic publisher) and the British Pakistani Psychiatrists Association for hosting readings in London and Coventry, respectively. And to Brendan McPartlin, of the Leeds-based Wicked Words for kindly agreeing to me reading there, to Sunny Hundal of Asians in the Media, Asjad Nazir of Eastern Eye and to Will Buckingham, editor of Birmingham Words magazine, for writing reviews of Psychoraag. Also, the various London-based specialist medical magazines, who did the same. I have only praise for my small but dynamic publisher and my energetic agent, both of whom are Edinburgh-based and who do take risks, thank goodness. Interestingly, the state, via accountable (and this point is key, they are at least on some level, publicly accountable) bodies like the BBC, the British Council, various Scottish local councils and libraries, the Scottish Arts Council and the Scottish Poetry Library, has been very helpful to me over the years. This is beginning to sound like an Oscars’ acceptance speech! In a sense, and at the risk of drawing a even more ludicrous parallel, it’s a little like the micro-credit given to small, cottage industries run by women in the economic south. The social payback is enormous. But it goes to show that if there’s the will on the part of agents, publishers, librarians, festival programmers, arts officers, booksellers, etc., a book – even a challenging book by a challenging author like Psychoraag (‘n’ me, haa-haa-haa, hee-hee-hee) – can do things out there with readers, with people, can even turn some sort of tiny wheel, and this again proves that too often corporate entities have their heads screwed on the wrong way, their mouths wide open and their minds tightly shut, waiting for the latest Bollywood dream vindaloo sensation to come along and spice up their taste-buds. What this demonstrates on their part is a lack of knowledge, ambition and imagination, a deep-seated political regressiveness and a tendency to patronise writers and readers alike. Nonetheless, incremental (yawn!) progress does occur. I mean, now at least some black and Asian writers are being published and are making it big. After all, beggars and whores, which even after Mahatma Gandhi, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Nawal el Saadawi, Che Chevara, Angela Davis and Jim Kelman is still what most of us are at the end of the day, can’t be choosers. So let’s keep on pushing, sisters and brothers! One day, we may even be able to kick out the jams!
NM: Does the lack of publicity surrounding Psychoraag dampen your spirits as a writer, or does it make you more determined to make your voice heard?
SS: Every time I hit this particular brick wall, I get angrier and more determined to kick it in. Trouble is, this cultural war impacts damagingly on all aspects of one’s life. I’m no longer twenty years old and I have a family to support. I can’t just go off to a monastery or sleep on friends’ floors for seven years, or help the natives in some exotic locale, or live in a garret while I pen the masterpiece, or do any of those things about writers put out by romantic publicity departments. You know how much work – blood, sweat and tears – goes into writing a novel in all its drafts? A hell of a lot! No wonder, historically, so many black (and other) artists have self-destructed. I know some of them and have watched them implode, mentally, physically, artistically. But I mean, in many countries today, writers lose their jobs, are poisoned, go to jail, are tortured, get executed. I am hugely privileged to personally know some of these writers, too, people who’ve been locked up three, four times by different regimes. My little travails are nothing compared to all that, absolutely nothing. I try to put it all in perspective. It’s just words, right? Well, then, never have so few done so much with so little for so many. And I shall fight them on the beaches, I shall fight them at the wine parties, I shall fight them on the web, I shall fight them on the bookshelves… now, where did I put my blasted cigar? The (spikey!) point is, as I indicated in my Foreword to a recent anthology which I co-edited of South African and Scottish writing, Freedom Spring: Ten Years On, you have to struggle, and keep struggling, for freedom. It is never just given to you on a plate. Paine, Desmoulins, Fanon, Du Bois, Abbie Hoffman and the rest all knew this. And once the freedoms are achieved, you have to fight on all fronts to keep them, use them and extend them! This is happening, right now, in the UK, with the struggle being waged both outside and within the establishment (I mean, the judiciary and The House of Lords, for goodness sake!) against the current government’s attempt to roll back historic liberties in the name of (that old, hoary chestnut) security (for which, read the war economy and the engendered state of permanent war).
NM: Finally, what are you up to at the moment, and what are your plans or ambitions for the future?
SS: As I say, working 100 hours a week at non-writing stuff, just to make ends meet. If I get a chance to write again, I will try and finish a novel I’d begun in 2002. Quite different from Psychoraag, it aims (among other things) to re-define what we think of as fictional narrative. Before I sank into incipient financial ruin, I penned two new stage performances. One, a pro-peace song-and-dance extravaganza for all the family, draws on folk tales from many cultures and will be staged by Peace Arts in Glasgow in September 2006, and the other, a very dark and potentially extremely controversial, anti-war, expletive-laden, sex-riddled, God-mocking, four-handed black box production, may or may not be staged in (initially) Glasgow in either late 2006 or (more likely) early 2007. Some Pauses for Thought for the Sarah Kennedy Programme on BBC Radio Two and a book review or three. Plus some other miscellaneous stuff like co-organising the Pakistani Film, Media and Arts Festival (www.pakistanifilmfest.com). Thing is, right now I’m listening to acid rock from Turkey, Brazil, Japan, Cambodia, Greece… so hold onto your hats, people, we’re going for a ride!!
Feel free to check out my website: www.suhaylsaadi.com for more information.
It’s been my pleasure, Nick, Spike and everyone! Peace and love be upon you all.