Rajeev Balusubramanyam interviewed by Jagdeep Ryatt and Kevin Ryan for Kala Kahania in 2001
KK - For people new to your work what would you describe as your key themes?
RB - Key themes...fantasy and reality; dreams; racism; identity my first novel is about loss of innocence, and how to live with the harshness of reality. I'm going deeper into this with my new book. both have a common theme, about drawing deeper into the imagination and the self to escape reality, and about how, ultimately, this isn't possible. But, at the end of the day, I just see myself as a story-teller. Telling good stories comes before theme, and it's only afterwards that I, or other people, notice themes.I don’t really think in terms of themes. I just write stories. With my first novel, I realised I was writing about the divide between fantasy and reality; the use of fantasy to escape the harshness of life. And I developed that in my second novel where the central character attempts to disappear into his own head to escape reality.
Social issues are important to me, particularly racism, especially as I'm now starting to write about Britain. Self-hatred fascinates me, and hatred in general. Also imperialism, but from a British perspective rather than a third world one, in that I want to write about imperialism to reveal truths about British society.
KK - Have you looked at the effects of Imperialism on English society historically? How it has affected the British working class for instance?
RB - No. I haven't written anything about that. I'm looking at things from an Asian perspective. I think that to understand who I am, as a British-Asian, I have to understand the history of British imperialism, because I feel kind of constructed by it.
KK - Has you own experience and background influenced your work in this way?
RB - Yes, my own experience has drawn me to this. Grew up in an all white area in Lancashire, and then went to Oxford university. In both places it seemed that lots of people had all kinds of ideas about me, most of which weren't true. I wanted to see where these ideas came from.
KK - How have you been influenced by oralcy - has the telling of stories in a live context influenced you in any way? Do you think that this society in Britain recognises the cultural importance of this?
RB - Yes, I think story-telling is seriously underestimated in this society. When I was a child I was told stories, of course. I suppose most children are. Mainly the Ramayana and The Mahabharata, but also things like Robin Hood and some fairy tales. But I continued to love the epics as I got older, though it was only as an adult that I realised they were 'literature',and realised that the usual definition of literature that you hear is actually quite ridiculous. I remember when I was working on my first book, someone in the literary industry described the stories from Hindu mythology my narrator tells as 'folk tales.' This annoyed me, and later I read a poem called White Magic by Derek Walcott. The last lines are, 'Our myths are ignorance, theirs are literature.' Literary prizes seem to work in the same way. Books that win prizes, or are endorsed by literary establishment figures, are 'serious literature'.'
KK - Is television the live storyteller for adults these days. How does this form of storytelling influence the work of the modern author?
RB - I don't know about television. I try not to watcit too much. But movies definitely retain a strong storytelling aspect, though this was also broken down in some European cinema. I don't care how clever something is technically; I tend to get bored if there isn't a good story! There's a connection I've tried to establish in various things I've written between movies, stories, and dreams. I've written short stories about all of these things. They should all be fairly similar, I feel, and if they're not, if stories and movies become too'conscious' and lose that dreamlike quality, I usually feel there's something wrong. I think a lot of television is simple brainwashing. These things can get to your subconscious very quickly, constructing your ideas about relationships, love, right and wrong, society, and racial stereotypes, of course. Today's youth TV is particularly bad, actively encouraging young people not to think or question, to be attracted by kitschy trivial things, to be conformist. And then there's the adverts, particularly the ones directed at children. You have to be seriously vigilant not to be affected by them, and you can't expect that from a child.I heard on the radio this morning that some senior figure had recommended children watch plenty of television because it helps them to relax and to understand society. I find TV exhausting because I find I'm constantly fighting for control of my mind! That's irritating, because it should be relaxing. It isn't the medium. There is good television, but it's getting crowded out. It's as easy to relax with good tv and cinema as with the bad stuff, in fact, it should be easier.'
KK - Which other authors are sources of inspiration for you? Are you inspired by works in other art forms - e.g. film, visual art etc.
RB - Dambuzdo Marechera; R.K. Narayan; Haruki Murakami; Ralph Ellison; Angela Carter; Dostoevsky; Kafka. Lots of other probably. Murakami is the living writer I like best. But beginning to get excited by all kinds of Japanese literature. I think because they combine 'traditional' storytelling and mythology with modern day conditions.I like films and paintings, but don't get much time for them. I definitely get lots of ideas from films. I really enjoyed The Matrix and Twelve Monkeys, and loved this Chinese film I saw last year called The Road Home, directed by the guy who did Raise the Red Lantern (which I didn't like as much).
KK - Earlier you said that you felt constructed by (the consequences of) Imperialism and that peoples ideas about you seem to have come from this source - how much do the characters in your work promote and reflect this process?
RB - In my new novel, The Dreamer, the central character is an Asian actor, married to an English woman. He watches his own films late at nights while drinking very heavily, and in the end he has a nervous breakdown from watching himself play murderers and rapists and thieves and terrorists. He kind of becomes all these things himself and doesn't knowwho he is. His wife doesn't understand why he's so upset, and they start to hate each other.
KK - Where do you feel these questions (of cultural definition/construction) are going in Britain today?!
RB - I think self-hatred was essential for Indian elites to climb the ladder in the colonial administration and get top jobs, and I think it's essential in Britain too.
KK - As an Asian writer what are your thoughts about the market for your work? How easy has it been for you to publish?
RB - The publishing part worked out in the end because the novel won a Betty Trask Prize before it had a publisher (they accept unpublished manuscripts). Before then it was hard. I'm worried about marketing. It's still too early to say. The thing is, I don't really know the answers to questions like this because it's all uncharted waters. Black British and British Asian work is emerging now (that is, by writers born and brought up in Britain).And there's a lot of good work coming very quickly. But who knows where it's going to go, which markets it will reach? Just to early to say.There's a lotof good black and Asian writers around. Stephen Thompson, Nadeem Aslam, Courttia Newland, Alex Wheatle, Leone Ross. Very good writers doing very original work. Exoticism and the 'celebration of multiculturalism are ways to divert attention from the reality of what'shappening with Black British literature. The danger is of the same thing happening with this literature as happens with TV. Icounted hundred copies of White Teeth in a book shop the other day, but Alex's Wheatle's books weren't there. That's the system pushing a Blairitedream of multicultural Britain and hiding reality. With this level of concentration of capital, there's no way you can talk about a free market. Instead we've got censorship and monopoly capitalism. The only form of resistance is for we, as consumers, to think and not to accept everything we're given. But that isn't easy without vast quantities of information that most people don't have the time or resources to acquire. But that can't happen forever. This society has to change, but, as we've seen from Brixton, Oldham, the behaviour of police and press...it isn't going to change without a fight. But, as I said, who knows what's going to happen? Anything could happen really.
KK - Do you write/think in English as a first language yourself - or do you find yourself translating between languages?
RB - No no, English is my first language. Don't speak any other language very well. And can't read or write any Indian language.
KK - What are you currently working on?
RB - Finishing my new novel, The Dreamer. A few short-stories (but won't have enough for a collection for some time). Some rhyming narrative poems (only have a few). Some essays too. And have an idea for a screenplay. But novels come first these days. Have an idea for a third novel. But will need a break between finishing the final draft of The Dreamer (very nearly finished) and starting that, so that I can work on some of the other projects.
KK - In 'The Dreamer' two of your central characters are a British Asian actor and an Anglo-European English woman - do you see inter-marriage as one of the ways in which society might change positively or are we destined to develop seperately?
RB - Aaaahhh...difficult, difficult, question.I don't know. I really don't. I think mixed marriages are very powerful metaphors for relations between social groups, and that's why I like use them in fiction. Personally, I find mixed relationships very difficult, but not impossible if the two people are sufficiently committed to each other. It'll be difficult as long as we live in a racist society, that's all. And, like I said, I don't know if society is going to get less racist, though I'll fight for it to get less racist. I hope so. Do mixed marriages help society to change positively? Possibly, yes. But I think a lot of mixed race children are in a very difficult position. 'The dividing line between the personal and the political is wafer thin, but we have to fight for the right to be individuals.'
Rajeev Balasubramanyam was born in Lancaster in 1974, and grew up there. He went to Oxford University and studied politics, philosophy and economics, then Cambridge, where he studied Development Studies (with some postcolonial literature). He then wrote his first novel ‘IN BEAUTIFUL DISGUISES’ published June 2002 by Bloomsbury. It won a Betty Trask Prize and was nominated for the Guardian First Fiction Prize. He is about to go on a tour of European festivals, representing Britain, starting at the Hay-on-Wye in May. He has almost finished his new novel, THE DREAMER. Rajeev’s father is Telegu and his mother Tamil, both grew up in Bangalore, Karnataka, and came to Britain in 1969.