Guy Gunaratne: “As a Londoner, it feels natural to write toward multiplicity”

Guy Gunaratne on his Goldsmiths Prize-shortlisted novel In Our Mad And Furious City, “authenticity” in fiction, and why you can’t write about London today without understanding how the city sounds.

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Guy Gunaratne is a journalist, filmmaker and novelist from Neasden, north-west London. His debut novel In Our Mad and Furious City follows three young Londoners, all second-generation immigrants – Selvon, Ardan, and Yusuf – and two older characters (both first-generation immigrants). Set around a single estate in north-west London, and told over 48 hours, the story was sparked by the 2013 killing of Lee Rigby by extremist Michael Adebolajo. The book was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2018 and has been shortlisted for the 2018 Goldsmiths Prize.

Why do we need the Goldsmiths Prize?

Well, there can be this notion that the most interesting questions concerning the novel have already been answered. But to assume that is to believe that the novel exists outside of all else that changes in society. This prize reminds us that as we move on, so does the novel, so do the questions, and that there is so much more that remains unsaid and unsettled. Every year this shortlist feels like the continuation of that conversation

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’m not sure what’s meant by “innovation” when it’s used in these terms. I think the sort of books that are often described as innovative just offer different ways to explore or animate an idea or a feeling. And that’s not nothing. These books find new keys to open you up. I have a sense that this is embedded into the heart of the novel, though. Maybe some novels are more attentive to this than others, I don’t know.

Perhaps the most striking element of In Our Mad and Furious City is its command of voice. The three young London men who narrate much of the novel speak in voices which are both colloquial – peppered with slang – and commanding in their authority. How important is voice for you in fiction? How did you ensure that voice felt authentic?

Yes, voice was how this novel shaped itself. Writing this book often felt like an act of listening. Is that a strange thing to say? I was only concerned with making sure I gave each voice it’s due care. But “authenticity” is one of those words that needs challenging. Authenticity in relation to whom? It’s a word that needs to be released. I wasn’t so concerned as to whether or not the voices measured up to “accuracy”. They needed to sound true to the place, but that was more to do with making sure the rhythm and cadences worked well on the page. There is an interplay between each voice that I was more interested in. The dialects have their own logical internality which then ripple and echo against each other. A word or a phrase used by one voice is then passed over to another, across generations in some cases, which I hope imbues a sense of an inherited multiplicity. That feels like London to me, a place of many voices, many threads of story, all tangled together.

Alongside these three young men, the novel presents us with the perspectives of two older, first-generation immigrants, who are around the age of these men’s parents. Why did you want to write an inter-generational novel?

I suppose I wanted to treat each voice like a variation of a theme. One of the themes in the book is how compulsions toward extremism manifests in various forms over time. Yusuf for example, deals most directly with contemporary religious extremism in the form of the radicalisation of his local mosque. Selvon has to confront his personal compulsion toward the physical, his own body and the bodies of others. Ardan has a powerful need to channel his anger into fits of expression while the other voices offered me a way to frame these compulsions historically. Caroline deals with her experience during the Troubles in 1980s Belfast while Nelson recounts his experience during the Notting Hill Race Riots in 1950s London. Along with the inheritance of language and dialect, it was interesting for me to explore how each voice, within different contexts, can confront inherited social conditions too.  

The novel opens in a voice that feels collective: “We were London’s scowling youth”. How important was finding an expression of community in writing this novel?

This is perhaps what I’m most interested in exploring in my writing. As a Londoner it feels natural to write toward multiplicity, even with the sense of constant dissonance that comes with that. I’d like to see if it’s possible to write from the location of liminality. Writing from an in-between place, both within and without, beyond identity and all the rest. This seems immensely attractive. What better vantage is there than to write from the point of transgression? 

“I got Lethal B, got Jammer. Bit of Wiley, bit of Bashy.” There are several references to the London grime scene – why did you want to put that genre, and music more generally, at the heart of this book?

I think at this very moment, grime is as significant as any British music scene that has come before it, including punk. You simply can’t write a book about London today without making reference to how it sounds. It wouldn’t have a pulse. 

Though it covers ground spanning a far wider period, the immediate events of this novel take place within just 48 hours. How did you come to a decision to constrict your timeline to that period?

There is a line in the book, “history is not a circle but a spiral of violent rhymes”. I wanted to construct the novel somewhat like a spiral, a story in motion that builds as it progresses. A time constriction felt natural enough in that regard. Anything that aligns to the pattern of “rhyming”, in this case structure, but also language and theme, helps speak to that.   

One of your characters says of London: “doing anything for love in a city that deny it, is a rebellion”. Do you see London as a city that denies love?

I can really only consider my own experience growing in London. It can be an unkind city for some, that’s for sure. Another line from the novel describes London as “a place that you can love but it won’t necessarily love you back”. As for love itself, I’ve recently been reading the work of [the Croatian philosopher] Srećko Horvat and [the French-Algerian political activist] Houria Bouteldja. They write about radical, revolutionary love in a way that forces you to rethink the word. Love is a word that sounds so feeble in the face of all the lunacy that currently surrounds us. But having read Horvat and Bouteldja, there’s a rebellious, potent model for love that we may come to need soon enough, who knows?

In Our Mad and Furious City is marked by an impending sense of catastrophe. Do you think violence is an unavoidable consequence of the political moment, particularly in London?

It’s been fascinating to see how readers respond to the ending of this book. It’s true that the story has a tension throughout that leads to catastrophe, but it also maintains a resolute sense of hope that survives beyond it. Likewise, I don’t know if our political moment will lead us unavoidably toward violence (though it doesn’t look good). But perhaps, just as is case with this book, hope is there if we choose to recognise it. I don’t know if we’re prepared to look so hard for it, that’s the trouble.

When the plot eventually clicks into place, the direction of events, as in many great novels, feels inevitable. Which writers inform your approach to plot?  

It changes from book to book, I think. For this novel I looked for voice and the internal richness of character in the work of William Faulkner. David Mitchell for the interplay between sections and how certain thematic elements come together. James Baldwin and Junot Diaz for the generational relationships between characters at different times. With Saul Bellow I could see a way to infuse some of these voices with the weight of religious imagery and idiom. That sense of the ancient and modern in a single city evoked through a single voice is so much a part of the immigrant experience.

In your acknowledgments, you write: “Listen, sometimes beauty is found in the downright ugly, hard, painful and most neglected of spaces.” What were some of the surprising places you found beauty that informed this novel?

I think when growing up in a place like Neasden it’s easy to slip into a sense of isolation and despondency. But you soon realise that art, wherever it comes from, represents something that doesn’t so much as offer an escape than a kind of openness. I found beauty in the music that came out of those places, the writing, the language. In Ardan’s voice I recognise that sense of yearning to turn something ugly into something else. That “something else” doesn’t even have to be beautiful, the act of creating alone was what was beautiful to me.   

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

I’ll give you a book and a song. The song is by Young Fathers and is called “DIP”. It’s a strange, beautiful, elegiac thing that sounds like a miracle to me. The same could be said for when I hear Ali Smith’s Hotel World in my head. I read Hotel World for the first time during the writing of this one. Everything instantly became more difficult because I understood that I had to reach for something more.

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

How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman is due, surely. The Lonely Londoners by Samuel Selvon is another. 

The winner of the Goldsmiths Prize, in association with the New Statesman, will be announced on 14 November. “In Our Mad and Furious City” is published by Tinder Press.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.