By Selma Carvalho
Janet H. Swinney was one of the first authors we published at the JRLJ with her short story set in Goa, titled ‘Drishti’. Janet’s short stories have been acknowledged in numerous competitions including Fish, Bristol and Ilkley Festival, and as runner-up for the London Short Story Prize. She has been published in major journals and anthologies across America, Britain and India, notably in ‘Best New Writing 2012’ (USA) and by Early Works Press.
This conversation took place on 15 June 2019 at the Calder Bookshop Theatre, London, where Janet’s short story collection, The Map of Bihar (Circaidy Gregory Press, 2019), was launched; an edited version has been reproduced here.
Selma Carvalho: Janet, I must congratulate you on this extraordinary collection. This is what great literary writing is all about — the language is so beautiful, and it’s so observationally precise. The world that your characters inhabit is so small and fragile that they come undone at the most ordinary things. It is this coming undone that we can all identify with as readers. You’ve dedicated the collection to your father, John H. Swinney. Can you tell me a little bit about your childhood and how it might have influenced your writing?
Janet H. Swinney: I grew up on a council housing estate in the North East of England. Most of the families round about were coal mining families, and both my grandfathers were miners. But, having gone to grammar school, my father worked as a clerk with the local bus company until he died at the age of 52. He wrote poetry that was published in the works magazine and in the local press. Mostly, he wrote in the style of the Romantics, odes about life in the local community and vignettes depicting some of its more colourful characters. People enjoyed reading what he had written. I feel I owe him whatever talent I have.
The role of children was just to permanently keep schtum. You did not converse with adults. Parents had no idea about the internal lives of their children. As I was an only child, I think I cultivated strong powers of observation that have served me well since. Whenever we travelled anywhere, I was always glued to the bus window. I developed a great love of rural landscape, and an eye for detail. That imposed silence also means that, to this day, I find it much easier to express myself through writing than to debate something face-to-face with someone. Writing is my preferred mode of expression.
I read a lot, but there was not a great deal of reading material at home, so I read eclectically, my subject matter ranging from a vast botanical volume with fold-out cardboard illustrations to my dad’s works magazine. From this I developed an interest in bogeys and chassis and pantographs and dead man’s handles. My work features sewing machines, knitting machines, cars and disability carriages. Whenever I refer to them, I always have to have the detail right. You can see evidence of this technical interest in the story ‘Leonardo’s Cart.’
In my community, everyone knew who the ‘decent’ working-class and who were the ‘feckless’. The ‘decent’ looked down on the ‘feckless’, who largely survived by nicking coal off the pit heap and selling it on. While the ‘decent’ had well-ordered lifestyles, the ‘feckless’ were wayward and unconventional. To a child, this looked very enjoyable. This is a faultline that I like to explore in my writing.
SC: You have this ability to occupy a space – geographical and social – either in an omniscient narrator’s voice as in the opening story, ‘Private Passions’, or as a flaneur in the guise of a cat, in ‘Degsie’s All-Time Runners,’ or in third-person limited, in the heart-breaking, ‘A Tadge to your Left.’ Is there a geographical or social space you are most comfortable inhabiting?
JHS: In terms of social space, I am generally interested in life near the bottom: in whatever society. A lot of current fiction seems to be about tortured relationships from which one of the protagonists is trying to recover. It’s as though every situation is of your own making and you have it in your hands to resolve your dilemma. This is a sort of psychological perspective on writing.
I’m more interested in the sociological, in how people deal with situations that are thrust upon them; that they find themselves in as a result of belonging to a particular race, or class; or that are the result of being ‘fucked over’ by your government; of being on the receiving end of some insane and merciless policy, or set of values that circumscribes your life. Society or Fate deals you a ridiculous a hand of cards, and you think: what the hell am I going to do with these?
SC: You use regional dialect a lot in your writing. Why is that?
JHS: Language is an intrinsic part of personal identity. When people use their own argot, they’re inventive, witty and humorous. I don’t go in for linguistic homogeneity. People in the North East of England can make me laugh out loud with a simple observation. If you want to create realistic characters, then you have to convey the way they speak and interact.
I’ve always been interested Linguistics: in the changing use of language over time; register; voice; the usages of specific geographical and professional communities, and I studied these things at university while other people were slogging away at tedious tosh like Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queene’.
In my own family, language usage changed over three generations. My grandfather spoke something akin to Scots; my mother spoke something closer to Standard English but clearly of Wearside, and me something closer still to SE, though I would just have to utter one word, and you would know where I come from.
The Scottish writer Lewis Grassic Gibbon showed me that it was possible to write using the vocabulary, cadences and idioms of a specific region in a way that is powerful, beautiful and of value. James Kelman and Roddy Doyle also have a powerful way with the working-class idiom. And I’m impressed by the ability of Amitav Ghosh to reinvent a plurality of historical varieties of English so that you feel the vibrancy of the period he’s writing about. When an author gets that right, you can hear the characters’ voices plainly in your head. You don’t have to strive to make them come alive.
Of course, there are many kinds of varieties of English worldwide now, based on profession, age group and communities of interest, not just geography. I’m very interested in the way these have developed and co-exist within India, in particular. Why write if you’re not going to explore at least some of the possibilities that language has to offer?
SC: As a Goan, I’m a cultural outlier to mainstream India. I find it difficult, if not near-impossible, to write about mainstream India. Yet, as a writer you inhabit India frequently, either introducing Indian characters experiencing Britain as in ‘Leonardo’s Cart,’ or stories set entirely in India, as in the title story, ‘The Map of Bihar.’ How did this come about?
JHS: Generally, Britain is a constipated society when it comes existential questions. People are nervous about discussing them. But India is a society orientated towards the metaphysical. When I first visited in the 1970s, popular culture was saturated with the insights of profound Indian thought, and anyone would discuss the fundamentals of life and the universe with you. I can tell you that, for me, it felt like a homecoming.
Since then, I have had a close association with the country through a forty-five year relationship with my husband, the Punjabi-born composer, Naresh Sohal, who, unfortunately, died last year. Naresh gave me a good drubbing about the shortcomings of the British Empire and an immersion into Indian thought and culture. Together, we saw a lot of the country first hand. I’ve also studied yoga there.
India is a place where life is writ large. The UK is a small, very tightly managed society, where will you be threatened with a fine if you overstay your welcome in a parking space by a nano-second. India isn’t like that at all. There, anything can happen, and probably will. As such, it’s a gift to a writer.
But my approach anywhere I go is to be an observer. And I mean observing without any preconceived idea of what it is you’re looking at. Looking and trying to figure out why things are done in a certain way, which may not be your way. Trying to figure out what the rationale is – because there will be one.
SC: In 2016, the American author Lionel Shriver, an extraordinary writer, said in her keynote address at the Brisbane Writers Festival, and I quote: ‘Taken to their logical conclusion, ideologies recently come into vogue challenge our right to write fiction at all. Meanwhile, the kind of fiction, we are “allowed” to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with.’ She was deplatformed after this speech. Given that you choose to write Indian characters, of whom you don’t have a lived experience, what are your thoughts on cultural appropriation and the moral ambiguity surrounding it?
JHS: I’ve read some of the things Lionel Shriver has said on this particular subject that I could not sign up to, but essentially I agree with what you’ve quoted here.
One of humankind’s most valuable characteristics is the ability to empathise with others. If we abandon that, if we say that that is beyond the bounds of fiction, then not only are we doomed as people, fiction is also doomed. That would be the end of much of the literary canon. That would be the end of Dickens. That would be the end of Rohinton Mistry and other social commentators like Preti Taneja (‘We That Are Young’.)
If we could only write about our own immediate experience, this would be the end of literature. The logical conclusion is that we’d all be nothing more than diarists and bloggers. I think the crucial point is that you have to understand a society or a period of history well to be able to write about it well, and that’s what we should be trying to do.
SC: Personally, I feel the antidote to cultural appropriation is greater representation of writers. And to some extent steps are being taken in this direction. What do you think about the issue of using criteria like race, sexual orientation and gender to promote diversity in writing?
JHS: I do think that there are issues around who gets to have their writing recognised. Personally, I have experienced more discrimination in my life on the grounds of class than of anything else. You leave home mute, then suddenly you’re expected to talk your way into university and then into a job. You have opportunities denied because of the way you speak. Those in power consider you to be without potential. You have no contacts, no allies, no source of advice, no money and, most importantly, no self-belief. In my case, years passed and my creative writing was shelved, while I tried to earn a living.
But I can tell you that identity politics hasn’t worked for me. I write about Scotland, but I’m not eligible for any award there because I wasn’t born there. I write about the North East of England, but I’m not eligible for any award there because I no longer live there, I write about India, but I’m not counted as an ‘Asian writer’ because I’m not brown. I’ve even had a piece of work rejected for a volume of writing about working-class life because the selectors thought the experience I wrote about was ‘too much like fiction’. So that’s pretty much the whole of my life experience invalidated.
These days, many people have multiple identities that are too complex to be sandwiched into a single-criterion category, and these are probably the people we need to be hearing from because they reflect how the world is changing, but that’s not reflected in current judging processes.
The real task is to diversify the range of people who are the gate-keepers to the publishing industry, to broaden their sensibilities. Quite how you achieve that without falling into the same, single-criterion trap, I don’t know.
SC: What are you currently working on?
JHS: A collection of short stories that I would like to see published in India.
A Brexit novel set in the North East of England
Looking for a home for my play based on the short stories of Indo-Pak writer, Sadaat Hasan Manto