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24 October 2022

Mona Arshi: “We unexpectedly stumble over memories like trip wires”

The author of the Goldsmiths Prize-shortlisted novel Somebody Loves You discusses Antigone, Michaela Coel and putting language over a Bunsen burner.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Mona Arshi was born in London in 1970 and worked as a human rights lawyer before becoming a poet. Her debut collection, Small Hands (Pavilion Poetry), won the Forward Prize for best first collection in 2015.

Her first novel, Somebody Loves You (And Other Stories), is shortlisted for the 2022 Goldsmiths Prize. It is written from the perspective of Ruby, the daughter of Indian migrants to suburban Britain. She has decided not to speak. “Everything worth saying can be written on your fingernail or on the seam of an unshelled almond,” she explains. In a series of short vignettes, the reader follows Ruby’s time at school – where she navigates difficult teenage friendships – and her home life – where her mother is mentally ill but finds solace in gardening. In lean yet exacting prose, Arshi interrogates not only the power of silence, but also the adequacy of language to communicate during life’s toughest moments.

Ellen Peirson-Hagger: 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? 

Mona Arshi: I wonder if it’s better to talk about novels rather than “the novel”. The novel itself, which comes from a particular historical space, is not an inert, dead thing; it has to keep constantly moving and growing. The conventions of a novel are important, and we need to know what they are, but we also have to accept their limitations and of course it depends on what kind of story you are telling.

Why do we need the Goldsmiths Prize?

It showcases what a novel can be. It centres books that are striving to be something else but at the same time have a relationship with the past. But then these books are also poking at the past and looking to both the present and future. All the books I’ve encountered on these lists care about language acutely.

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Somebody Loves You is described as a collection of short stories in some places, and a novel in others. To what extent do you see those forms as separate, and what is this book to you?

I really see it as a collection of vignettes or prose poems alongside the more novelistic parts where there is a bit more linear progression. I very much hope they are working together as a whole. The main reason for this was that I was trying to think about how to write about Ruby’s trauma memories, which interrupt the linear flow. The reality is that often that’s how memories work; we unexpectedly stumble over them like trip wires and the short prose parts were “air dropped” in at those times. I do think that the reader might feel wrong-footed on occasion, and might ask “where am I, exactly? Is it poetry, prose and what will be next?” I don’t mind this, and in fact it’s probably necessary. I gained a lot from reading Lydia Davis in this regard, to stop thinking of genre and worrying less about those lines and more about the effect on the reader.

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Your first two books were poetry collections. How did you find your transition into writing prose – and why was prose most appropriate for this story?

I’ve said a few times quite flippantly that I am a poet that  “accidently” wrote a novel.

But I’ve been thinking about the role of the poem and the novel and the relationship between them. I love that quote by Jean Cocteau: “The poet is a liar who always tells the truth.” We are all striving in the end as artists to tell the truth in our work but in different vehicles. Anne Carson also famously says that if prose is a house, poetry is a man on fire running very quickly through it. I do think they are in the same house, but they are occupying different parts of it. 

Novels (or the novels I have read) can contain the pluralities of human experience whereas poetry is capable of holding something else, a sort of empathising with the universal as voice is made abstract. What then are the poet’s tools in the prose landscape? Compression, yes, syntax, music (in the lyric tradition), another, and then that curious relationship we have with the white page and silence (which of course my novel is obsessed with). The prose allowed me to stretch my legs and create this fictional character and orbit around her to say something about language and the form itself, which was pushing against the linear drive and was trying to think of a way of transmuting trauma memories on the page. Relying on those small prose poems to puncture the story was my attempt to do that.

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

There are so many things that exerted their influence on this book. The primary one was the short story by the poet Elizabeth Bishop called In the Village. I read it a decade ago and it floored me. She manages to travel in two lanes in this one piece, through the eyes of an eight-year-old girl. There is Bishop the poet and then Bishop in this prose mode and it feels unfamiliar and foreign, as if you’re in some strange borderlands and the reader’s senses are sort of hijacked.

Ruby makes it clear that she finds speech an inadequate method of presenting herself accurately to the world. What drew you to make the narrator of this book a character who does not speak?

It started off as a little experiment. I tended to this voice, and the interior world of Ruby is what really gave me a buzz. It was a thrill for me to see this voice and character develop, something you rarely do in poetry of course. What was really illuminating was the fact that although her speech is shut down, language itself is put under pressure, as if it’s over a Bunsen burner. Something quite strange happens: her antennae are highly sensitised; language is aroused in a very different way.

As they grow older, Ruby and her sister, Rania, experience racism and sexism more frequently. One event close to the novel’s end is particularly devastating. To what extent is this a feminist novel, and, in a world where women are increasingly encouraged to “speak up” against wrongdoing, how is Ruby’s silence an effective way of resisting injustice?

Yes, it’s a feminist novel. I hope all of my writing is read that way, though that’s up to readers however much I desire it. 

It’s a really important question and one I think about a lot because some of the ideas around silence are quite counter-cultural. We are undoubtedly in a culture that insists on particular women that were historically marginalised to speak our truth. Am I advocating (through Ruby) to use silence as a form of protest? It’s not something I’m doing overtly. One of the most interesting things said recently by a public figure was Michaela Coel: “In a world that entices us to browse through the lives of others to help us better determine how we feel about ourselves… do not be afraid to disappear… and see what comes to you in the silence. 

I suppose we could reverse the question and ask: what is the answer to entrenched systemic structural power? Is silence a form of action? I am re-reading Sophocles’ Antigone. She is famously the mouthy sister who argues against Creon, but she acts first, she understands that it’s futile to use arguments against a state that doesn’t even recognise her or give her locus standi. She rejects these imposed structures; she frees herself from their legitimacy. It’s similar to the ideas that Rebecca Solnit makes in her essay “The Mother of all Questions”, when she talks about some women’s speech being akin to “internalised instructions”. I think it’s fair to ask what, in a world where tech companies are constantly vying for our attention, is effective speech, how is language abused and wasted, what’s the best way of getting heard, and what are the other tools of resistance we must use alongside them?

Ruby’s reaction to the world is an extreme one, but it’s one she makes actively and seriously. It’s a sort of philosophy for her, she’s beginning to understand and read the world in a different way. I’m not saying I agree with her – she’s a fictitious character – but it’s her response.

“Something on the shelf of my mother’s heart died when she came to England,” Ruby observes. Could you tell me about the relationship between her mother’s mental illness and her sense of place and belonging – and how this weighs on Ruby too?

I was keenly aware that Ruby’s mother’s dislocation and alienation as an immigrant caused her much harm, and that her mother’s melancholia is the silent storm that wraps around so many of the characters of the novel. Ruby is under-mothered but both she and her mother have no language for what is happening to them other than the language of plants, of course. On the other hand, I was consciously resisting providing any more specifics of the nature of that migration journey. It would have been a very different book if I had done that, and this isn’t that kind of novel. So that one line carries the emotional freight, much like a poem.

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

It’s an obvious choice but it has to be Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. So many writers, including me, owe her such a debt for that book which pushed the novel form to its raw edges.

Read more about the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist here. The shortlisted authors will read from their works at an event on 26 October, and the winner of this year’s prize will be announced on 10 November. The winning author will appear at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 19 November.

Read interviews with the other 2022 Goldsmiths Prize shortlisted novelists here. You can purchase the shortlisted books from Bookshop.org here.

[See also: Helen Oyeyemi: “My favourite stories leave me looking like a shocked face emoji”]

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