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Isabel Waidner: “The British novel reproduces white middle-class values and aesthetics”

The author on their Goldsmiths Prize-shortlisted book Sterling Karat Gold, humour, and why the novel has to change.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Isabel Waidner was born in the Black Forest, Germany, in 1974 and now lives in London. They teach as a senior lecturer in creative writing and performance at Queen Mary University of London, and host the Institute of Contemporary Art’s online literary chat show This isn’t a Dream. Waidner is the author of three novels, Gaudy Bauble (2017), We Are Made of Diamond Stuff, which was shortlisted for the 2019 Goldsmiths Prize, and Sterling Karat Gold, published by Peninsula Press in June 2021 and nominated for this year’s Goldsmiths Prize.

Sterling, the novel’s protagonist, is a non-binary migrant cleaner. One morning they are attacked by bullfighters on a London street and arrested. Waidner’s wildly experimental novel, which takes in time travel, football and the history of Iraq, confronts issues of state violence and inequality with an unending appetite for humour and the surreal.

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 have come to think of the British novel as a – if not the – technology for the reproduction of white middle-class values, aesthetics and a certain type of “acceptable” nationalism. So it has to change, and not just subtly either. In my experience, readers are more than prepared to encounter new and unfamiliar forms of writing with curiosity and a sense of adventure, rather than apprehension and defensiveness as is often presumed.

Sterling Karat Gold confronts some really serious issues – the prison and judicial systems, detention centres – but does so humorously, even ridiculously. Why was that the best register for you to confront these themes?

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I have arrived at the view that the purpose of the contemporary novel is to engage with reality critically while offering creative escape routes. Writing state violence and inequality through humour and ridiculousness allowed me to do that.

On an autobiographical note: life as a queer trans working-class migrant in the UK has had its challenges, at times ridiculously (!) so, but I imagine it has been a lot more exhilarating compared to relatively protected lives. This breadth of experience has shaped my approach to writing.

Your previous novel, We Are Made of Diamond Stuff, is set on the Isle of Wight. In a previous interview for the NS, you described the Isle of Wight’s “general suspiciousness towards foreigners”, which resulted in a high Leave vote in the EU referendum. Sterling Karat Gold is set in London – a city that has a very different reputation with regards to politics and welcoming migrants. How did that change of setting alter the expanse of the novel?

Not as much as I would have liked it to. Like the eponymous Sterling, I came to London as a very young adult precisely to get away from the conservatism usually associated with rural settings, certainly in the mid-1990s. I would argue that, recently, the ongoing normalisation of xenophobia and transphobia in UK politics, including on the left, and the mainstream media has led to a provincialisation of London, and that’s despite our extensive histories of immigration and global status. The public mindset has changed. Now, we do not just have to contend with reactionary policies, but also with xenophobia and transphobia in everyday interactions with strangers – which have risen to levels I have not seen previously, not in London. Sterling Karat Gold stages some of these complexities, with added UFOs.

Yours is the first novel I’ve ever read to include mention of a Fairphone! Why was it the appropriate device for Sterling, and, more generally, what do you enjoy about using such hyper-specific references in a work – particularly brand names?

Full disclosure: Sterling’s Fairphone was an iPhone in earlier drafts. Turns out a Fairphone is one of the few contemporary phones that still has a battery that’s easily removable and replaceable, a feature that became relevant for the novel’s narrative. Also, the Fairphone dovetails with that very particular indie-literature Labour Party-activist environmentally conscientious Dalston or Peckham-type person – my editor Samuel Fisher at Peninsula Press has one! – which I find funny and strangely moving. Sterling is working class, trans and showboaty: to be honest, they are far more likely to have maxed out their credit card for an iPhone than to be seen with a sensible Fairphone! Long way of saying, brands signify. Everything does. On this occasion – poetic license! – I let signification, its accuracy, slip in favour of funny and narrative context.

Football is an underlying theme of the book too. In our society, it’s a troubling topic: football is seen as a hugely important international “language”, yet in England it is also associated with hooliganism, domestic violence and racism. How do you see those elements with regards to how football functions in Sterling Karat Gold?

I understand that, to many, football means [a] sense of community, belonging and class solidarity, but in Sterling Karat Gold it represents one of the patriarchal, racist and homophobic cultures Sterling is part of whether they like it or not. For example, I employ the story of Justin Fashanu – the first and so far only major British footballer to come out as gay – to play out some of the ways in which various systems of oppression such as race and sexuality intersect and shape people’s lives.

Time travel is also an important component of the book’s plot. Science fiction is often (and often snobbishly) siphoned off from other more “serious” forms of literature. What is it about the genre that fascinates you, and what can we learn from it?

Sterling Karat Gold deliberately works against the limiting distinctions that position sci-fi against literary fiction to disrupt traditional hierarchies related to genre, and to “unrepress” what years ago Raymond Williams called the “multiplicity of writing”.

Secondly, I ask myself all the time whether to write in order to understand and critique the real-life discourses that largely define the present, or whether to focus on imagining alternative, more equal societies and worlds towards better futures; the answer has to be both. Black, queer sci-fi and speculative fiction has been instructive in this respect: Orion J Facey’s The Virosexuals, Huw Lemmey’s Unknown Language and Irenosen Okojie’s Nudibranch are recent examples, and Samuel R Delany’s work historically.

Tell me about a piece of art, literature or music that was important to you when writing this book.

At the time of writing, fashion designer Nasir Mazhar posted, and later deleted, an image of dragon-inspired outfits on Instagram, including the beige puffer vest with foam-rubber spikes on its back that came to play a significant role in Sterling Karat Gold. That, and I’m sorry to say the Beach Boys’s cover art for their 1967 Smiley Smile album depicting a junglescape in a style described as Henri Rousseau-reimagined-by-Disney features heavily too.

Why do we need the Goldsmiths Prize?

We don’t just need the Goldsmiths Prize, urgently, to promote new ideas regarding the novel, but also the conditions in which the prize and similar interventions can emerge and be sustained, in other words Goldsmiths college and its longstanding research and teaching cultures in the arts and humanities. Solidarity with all staff and students resisting the vandalous “restructuring” plans pushed through by the current senior management team of the college, in the context of the Conservative government’s relentless and ideological attack on the higher education sector since 2010.

What past British or Irish novel deserves a retrospective Goldsmiths Prize? Why?

Harry Josephine Giles’s Deep Wheel Orcadia deserves to win next year: a sci-fi novel in verse set on futuristic Orkney and centring transgender characters.

The winner of this year’s Goldsmiths Prize will be announced in an online ceremony on 10 November and will be in conversation at the Cambridge Literary Festival’s virtual Winter Festival on 18 November.

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