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10 November 2021

Natasha Brown: “It’s important to celebrate difficult novels”

The author on her Goldsmiths Prize-shortlisted debut, health inequality, and the influence of bell hooks and Jane Austen.

By Leo Robson

After graduating from Cambridge University, and before becoming a published author, Natasha Brown spent several years in financial services. The narrator of her first book, Assembly, published by Hamish Hamilton in the summer, is an unnamed black British woman with a high-flying career in finance, a private healthcare plan, and a flat of her own. We follow her over the course of a couple of days during which the narrator gives a talk to a school assembly, receives a cancer diagnosis that she decides to do nothing about, and attends a lavish event to celebrate the parents of her white aristocratic boyfriend. Written in a staccato present-tense first person, the novella – exactly 100 pages in length – teems with impressions, sensations, and observations about racism, assimilation, colonisation, and national mythology, as well as more run-of-the-mill subjects such as the horror of Mondays and the awkwardness of unwanted kisses.

The narrator of Assembly makes a decision not exactly to kill herself but to allow herself to die, as an act of refusal or defiance. Was the idea of accepting the diagnosis always at the thematic heart of the book?

It can be interpreted in a lot of ways, but my intention was primarily literal. In the UK and US, black women have higher breast cancer mortality rates than other groups; there is a significant “excess mortality” that is not explained by socio-economic background, co-morbidities or other known factors. The excess mortality is greater for younger women in the UK. A similar disparity in health outcomes is present in many other areas – the death-in-childbirth rate is especially heartbreaking. This is a society-level phenomenon, and it haunts the narrator. Whatever she decides to do, it doesn’t change this broader situation – perhaps that’s the thematic heart.

A striking central element of Assembly is what the reader isn’t given – name, precise age, and contour for the protagonist, as well as much of the filler and background (and punctuation) we are to some degree accustomed to in novels. To what extent were you aware of the novel as an exercise in reduction?

I approached it as a construction, really, starting from the narrative’s “first principles”. The novel form has conventions, but no hard and fast rules, so the question of what’s missing is highly personal – though informed by expectations set via the cover, blurb and author bio. The gap between those expectations (ie what’s noticed as “missing”) and the actual text reveals, I hope, the conventions of the unstated genre Assembly necessarily sits within.

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[see also: Claire-Louise Bennett: “The brink of adulthood is a very uncomfortable time”]

It’s clear that the book is in some sense an attack on British society. Were you expressing a particular implicit attitude to British culture as well?

An “attack on British society” – I wouldn’t agree with that characterisation. Assembly treads familiar ground; it explores ideas, places and characters that are wholly conventional within the English novel. And it treats those subjects gently. Nothing bad happens to any of the characters, none are subjected to harsh criticism or even unkind dialogue. Instead, the narrator emphasises how much she understands the people around her. I’m an admirer of Austen, whose books no doubt influenced my approach.

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Do you think it’s possible to separate questions of race from questions of class?

I think such meta-questions are crucial. Why are particular concepts frequently paired together? How often does an answer’s presentation note the question’s association? To whom are such questions directed, and why? In my writing, any interest in race and class is limited to an extremely specific context: how the growth of the quaternary sector in the UK and US economies undermines the guarantee that “race” once provided to the class system. I’m primarily interested in the resulting shift in journalistic rhetoric, as well as the concurrent (and, possibly, reactionary) trends across literature and other media.

It seemed to me that one of the things the book is doing is validating the novel as a vehicle for a certain kind of discourse – allowing the protagonist to express things (albeit in the third person) she cannot say at a careers talk, and perhaps allowing you to make arguments and associations that would be harder to accommodate in a polemical essay. There’s a moment where the protagonist talks about just this subject – the right form to tell this larger story. Is it fair to say that you are implicitly celebrating the novel as a form?

Not at all, actually. The school assembly scene is mostly a metaphor for the novel itself. It is an invitation to consider the broader context of a traditionally published novel, and the likely concessions within this particular one, when interpreting its contents. The rest of the novel is not an alternate message that the narrator would like to deliver. It’s just another story, constrained and directed, this time, by the current literary expectations associated with the narrator’s identity. If anything, Assembly demonstrates the impracticality of attempting to use the novel in the way you describe – at least, by someone who is not considered capable of irony.

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

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

The essay “Postmodern Blackness” by bell hooks helped to shape my approach to writing this novel, in many ways.

Why do we need the Goldsmiths Prize?

“Difficult” novels, weird novels, novels that don’t conform… I think it’s important, and just plain nice, to have a prize that celebrates these sorts of books. Even beyond the winner and the shortlist, I think the Goldsmiths Prize is stimulating a broader cultural interest in unusual novels. To me, that’s a win for readers and writers alike.

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

Exquisite Cadavers by Meena Kanadasamy. It’s an exquisite novel. Beginning as an oulipo which promises to state every authorial influence in a margin running parallel to the narrative, the novel subverts both that conceit, and the literary restrictions placed on women of colour more generally. It is provocative, smart, and touching, exploiting the unknowable gap between “the author” in discourse and a real-life writer. Plus, the prose is gorgeous. If you enjoy the sort of fiction championed by the Goldsmiths Prize, but haven’t read it yet, please do.

[see also: Keith Ridgway: “There is an instinct in people for solidarity, connection and laughter”]