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Nicola Barker: “I’m a niche writer and see no harm in it. I like niches”

The author of H(A)PPY on dystopias, Henry James, mindfulness and cake.

This is the fourth in a series of interviews with the writers shortlisted for the 2017 Goldsmiths Prize, run in association with the New Statesman

“The banal is a warm blanket,” the protagonist in H(A)PPY is encouraged to believe. Yet banal is also the last thing anyone could level at Nicola Barker’s strange and puckish new novel, now shortlisted for the 2017 Goldsmiths Prize for fiction.

In the book's post-apocalyptic world, a society called The System offers its inhabitants a life free from the strains of ageing, sexual desire and individuality. This alone would be enough to ring Orwellian alarm bells in many readers minds, even before we learn of the emotion-tracking graphs and Neuro-Mechanical pets.

But as Barker’s narrator, Mira A, struggles to tell her story, the text ventures into all together more spiritual and shape-shifting space. In the words of Mira A: “I can’t bear it! I must tell the story of myself!”

Already the author of 11 novels and three story collections, Barker’s own compulsion to tell stories has gifted her a wealth of insights. She shared some of them with us here.

In H(A)PPY, Mira A becomes desperate to tell her own life story – to chaotic effect. Was the process of writing the novel also a disorientating one?

H(A)PPY is one of my small “interrupting” novels. I generally interrupt bigger novels with small ones. I have interrupted a bigger novel (Elmwood), twice now (this is always a nightmare because you forget all of the research you’ve done for the big book). The first time was for The Cauliflower - which was structurally complex – and then I began writing this one only a few weeks later. Kind of spontaneously. The first paragraph popped out of me at random. I was already quite physically and mentally exhausted and then I stopped sleeping all together for about ten months. This had never happened to me before and I was somewhat mystified. But I was full of a strange nervous energy. I didn’t know if the thing would ever be published. I realised, very quickly, that I would need to co-operate with other people to fulfil the vision of the book – artists, designers etc which was a great challenge because I am so anal and controlling.

Mira’s impulse to narrativise also puts her at odds with her society’s singular and totalitarian worldview. Do you see this as a timely political struggle, as well as a story for all time?

Ha! I never see my work as having any kind of shelf-life. I write for the moment and that’s it, really. I take my engagement with the work seriously but nothing else. It’s kind of like chewing on a toffee, ferociously, and then swallowing it and thinking, “Hmm. What next?” Over the years I’ve lost all ambition. It’s something I’ve gradually taught myself – not to be ambitious. I’ve never been eager to please, that comes naturally. I’m inherently perverse. I think this allows me a greater sense of freedom, somehow.

There’s much in H(A)PPY that could be described as dystopian. Do you think there’s a reason why readers and writers are turning to this form at this particular moment?

I actually think of H(A)PPY as utopian. I suppose it all depends on how you choose to look at it. The reason writers and other artists are thinking about dystopias so much is because in a very short amount of time huge technological advances have completely transformed how we engage with the world. Narrative is now perpetually being interrupted by information and dis-information, by possibility and impossibility (and this poses huge problems for the novelist).

Everything is both within reach and out of reach. That’s why city planners are adjusting the shape of our pavements – to accommodate the fact that people always walk while looking down at their phones. We see freedom to information as our natural right, and the price we pay for this is that we must also submit ourselves to the idea of being totally seen. You can’t really have one without the other. Of course the fundamental truth is that we build our own prisons and then choose to live in them.

Your use of typographical oddities, erratic fonts and changing colours has echoes of Tristram Shandy and the early days of the novel. But is an awareness of how form can shape thinking even more important in a world of social media and smartphones?

I suppose at some level I’m saying that people construct meaning and they also construct chaos – now more than ever before. The idea of technology feeding an already very partial and compromised sense of self – feeding the ego in ways that aren’t remotely good or healthy – is something that preoccupies me. In some ways I like to think of the design and colour of the text in H(A)PPY as being comparable to an ancient, hand copied medieval manuscript.

I have always written in an unjustified way – the shape of the text informs the narrative for me and always has. But H(A)PPY is an extreme example of that. The book really was a nightmare for Heinemann to produce – ridiculously expensive. I found this bewildering because it took me mere seconds to create most of the effects on my old Apple laptop. I generally “see” my books on a screen, not on a page, so the transition into print has always been an uneasy one for me. I really do owe so much to my editor and the incredible team working at my publishers. They poured so much effort and love into this crazy, little book.

The Goldsmiths Prize was set up to reward fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. What can an “innovative” approach offer the reader (and writer) that a more conventional novel might not?

I never consider that I am innovating. I’m not entirely sure that I do. All I feel when I work is a sense that the story must be told in a particular “shape” so I simply try to find the best way of doing that. Writing is something dimensional for me. Like a 3D puzzle. I’ve long felt that struggle is at the heart of transformation – transfiguration. Henry James is the person I always refer to: the way his sentence construction (for me, at least) is so ludicrously inhospitable. You have to launch yourself into it. It’s not cooperative, more combative.

I discovered while reading James in my late teens that although I couldn’t understand everything I was still being taken on a profound emotional journey that went way beyond mere comprehension – it was spiritual. James engaged with my unconscious. What a brave but dangerous thing to do. As soon as I realised this I became interested in what the possibilities were – often trying to use an almost invisible palate made up of holes and gaps to try and get my point across.  

Is the contemporary trend towards mindfulness a concern to you, with its echoes of The System’s emphasis on emotional control?

Readers tend to presume that I am attacking The System in the book, but I’m not. I have practiced transcendental meditation for decades and think it promotes creativity. I’m fascinated by cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness, neuro-linguistic programming, all of that stuff. If you are obsessive-compulsive-y by nature (which I am) I think they are all wonderful, fundamentally empowering tools.

You suggest the book should be read while listening to the music of classical guitarist Agustin Barrios. How did Barrios’s work and the history of his country, Paraguay, become so key to your thinking?

I suggest Barrios as an accompaniment to the text, but not just any old Barrios, particular recordings of Barrios playing his music himself. These recordings are highly compromised: scratchy, distant, and Barrios is playing on his weird metal strings. I actually never listen to music while reading because I focus too intently.

The initial idea that generated the writing of the book was a report I heard on the World Service about a 9 year old Paraguayan girl who had been abused by her stepfather, had fallen pregnant, was refused an abortion and then her mother was imprisoned, unfairly, for trying to help her. I became intrigued by this small child who was so alone, and also by the role the Catholic Church was playing in this unfolding drama in a country I knew nothing about. I began to research it and became completely fascinated. It truly is one of the most extraordinary places on earth. Barrios is their greatest export - a genius whose inner demons and profound contradictions seemed to mirror the country of his birth and the cultural and linguistic struggles that existed – and still exist – there. 

At a recent Goldsmiths Prize event it was argued that the novel has lost its cultural centrality and is destined to become a niche artform. What do you think – and if you agree, why do you think that has happened?

I think this is absolutely true, but it doesn’t really upset me because I’m a niche writer and see no harm in it. I like niches. I also see the world as a series of ongoing narratives – eternal conversations – expressing themselves, perpetually, through all of the art forms (painting, dance, music, fashion, TV, film). All these forms bleed into each other and enrich each other. It’s a big patchwork quilt. Why should one form be dominant? Everything flows, borrows, nudges. That’s exactly as it should be.

What past British or Irish novel deserves a retrospective Goldsmiths Prize? And is there a formally interesting novel you love that you think has been under-appreciated?

Prizes are marvellous things (they have saved me from virtual penury over the years) but that doesn’t mean that I think it’s right or natural that art should compete. If Kevin Davey wins the Goldsmiths and Sara Baume doesn’t does that make her work intrinsically less significant or beautiful or important? Of course not. In the past I might’ve felt a sense of injustice at an author not winning a prize. Now I don’t. I have systematically killed that impulse in myself – rooted it out – because it’s an emotional and intellectual dead end. Books win prizes because they represent something about that particular moment in the judge’s minds. And that’s perfectly good and utterly valid.  

It’s a bit of a cheat, but it would be nothing short of criminal for me not to use this as an opportunity to strongly recommend former poet (and patent lunatic) Augusto Roa Bastos’s superb first novel I, the Supreme. The book is completely brilliant and very funny. Roa Bastos is to Paraguayan literature what Agustin Barrios is to Paraguayan music.

In his speech accepting the Man Booker Prize, George Saunders suggested that in a political climate of fear and division, fiction can act as a form of compassion and resistance. Do you agree?

Absolutely. But art can also promote misery and hatred. A cat can kill a bird or be a kind companion to an invalid. It’s a cat. Art is art. Life is paradoxical.

Do you see religion, as Mira appears to experience it, as a revolutionary force?

I’m interested in the spirit, the soul. And in suffering and transcendence. Above and beyond everything else I’m interested in paradox. It’s my thing. Hinduism embraces the idea of contradiction through Kali Worship. The Black Goddess represents The Pair of Opposites. She is both creation and destruction at the same time.  I think people are full of contradictions. It’s partially to do with the division between the conscious and the unconscious mind. We are mysterious beings. A mystery to ourselves, often. We are full of hypocrisies but are psychologically resistant to accepting it. We crave wholeness and coherence. But we happily see these same dreadful weaknesses – these inconsistencies – in others, and often fixate upon them. This is why wars start and flourish. We are incapable of seeing our own hypocrisies and accepting that they are not only okay, but natural.

What makes you h(a)ppy?

I see a strong demarcation between pleasure and joy. One is fleeting, the other is infinite. Sometimes I’m at my most happy while doing without. Desire can often be the enemy – although I rarely say no to a dark chocolate digestive biscuit, a warm scone, or a thick slice of coffee and walnut cake.

“H(A)PPY” by Nicola Barker is published by William Heinemann

Read the New Statesman's reviews of all six novels on the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist here

Will Self Q&A: The nostalgia of the “heritage novel” leaves me reaching for my gun 

Kevin Davey Q&A: “TS Eliot was far more than the sum of his prejudices”​ 

Gwendoline Riley Q&A: “Human beings are incorrigible. This is a source of humour and pain”

Listen to The Back Half podcast’s special episode on the Goldsmiths Prize nominees, on iTunes here, on Acast here or via the player below:

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist