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16 November 2022

Natasha Soobramanien and Luke Williams: “Writers are subject to a sustained assault from the political class”

The 2022 Goldsmiths Prize-winning duo on Chagos, capitalism and collaborating on their mould-breaking novel Diego Garcia.

By Tom Gatti

Diego Garcia, which has won the 2022 Goldsmiths Prize, is a collaboration between two writers. Natasha Soobramanien, British-Mauritian, and Luke Williams, Scottish, met while studying creative writing at the University of East Anglia; their collaboration on Diego Garcia began in 2011 and took ten years to complete. Drawing on Soobramanien and Williams’s time in Edinburgh (they now live in Brussels and Cove, west Scotland, respectively), the novel begins as a portrait of two writers whose haphazard routine is interrupted when they meet Diego, a poet named after Diego Garcia, the largest island in the Chagos archipelago of the Indian Ocean.

The Chagossian people – including, in the novel, Diego’s mother – were expelled from their homeland by Britain between 1968 and 1973 so that the island could be leased to the US government for the construction of a military base. (On 3 November 2022, six months after the publication of Diego Garcia and a few days after my conversation with Soobramanien and Williams, the British government reversed its previous position and announced that it will negotiate with Mauritius over the return of the Chagos Islands.) As the two narrators get more interested in the facts of the Chagos case and its tragic legacy, the novel’s form develops: vivid and witty Edinburgh scenes are interspersed with their texts: research, works of fiction, email exchanges. Diego Garcia is a ceaselessly inventive novel with an urgent question at its heart: how do you tell a story that is not yours to tell?

Tom Gatti: 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? 

Natasha Soobramanien and Luke Williams: It is hard for writers to identify and explore what Anne Boyer calls “the direct trial that is today” using a form that, at least in the Anglosphere, remains broadly similar to its 19th-century variant. We need new forms to account for contemporary experience and thankfully there are more and more publishers who recognise that readers are hungry for novels that rethink form.

The novel begins with an authors’ note laying out the facts of the Chagos expulsion, and throughout the book you incorporate the testimony and research of real people, as well as autobiographical detail from your own lives. How did an enterprise with such a strong non-fictional element emerge as fiction?

The project grew out of our conversations. Through my [Natasha’s] Mauritian heritage I was aware of the forced exile of the Chagossian people and the British government’s continued illegal control of their homeland (Chagossians were exiled to Seychelles and Mauritius, and Mauritius claims sovereignty over the islands, a claim that is recognised by the UN). Through my father’s 22-year career in the British Air Force I was also aware of the military base on Diego Garcia. So Luke and I would talk about this and became obsessed both by this event and its legacy, and how few of our coworkers or friends seemed to know about it.

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When we were no longer living in the same country, writing became a way for us to continue our conversations, and from these, the novel emerged. From the start we were committed to writing this as a novel, a fiction, with stone cold facts at its heart: “fiction” is the word that British and US diplomats used to describe their conspiracy to dispossess the Chagossian people of their homeland – a US government memo proposed “the creation of a fiction” that the islands were not inhabited by a community established over generations, while a British memo confirmed that not only should this fiction be created, it should be maintained.  

With our novel, we wanted to refute this idea of fiction as a strategy for manipulation, coercion and dispossession, and to reclaim it as a space to imagine other possibilities.

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[See also: Books of the year 2022]

What is sagren and what role does it play in Diego Garcia?

Sagren” is the Chagossian word for the fatal sadness, or heartbreak, that has led to the deaths of Chagossian people through their experience of deracination. Those who have died by suicide, or similar deaths of despair, are deemed by the community to have died of sagren, and in this respect it is an individualised response to a collective trauma.

While the experience of sagren is specific to the Chagossian people, we wanted to connect this to deaths of despair under capitalism (specifically in relation to the death of Luke’s brother by suicide which occurred while we were writing the book). There is an explicitly political and collective dimension to sagren which we wanted to affirm. We were motivated to make this connection through the thinking of Fred Moten, who we quote at the beginning of the book:

“The coalition emerges out of your recognition that it’s fucked up for you, in the same way that we’ve already recognized that it’s fucked up for us. I don’t need your help. I just need you to recognize that this shit is killing you, too, however much more softly, you stupid motherfucker, you know?”

Co-authored novels are unusual: can you describe how the writing process worked? Were there any texts or authors you used as a model for your approach?

The writing process was dialogic, the result of conversations between the two of us, but also between us and other writers, other works (all writing is, in the end, but this process is part of our storytelling).

We were influenced by a huge list of books including polyphonic novels by single authors – Svetlana Alexievich, Roberto Bolaño, Bernardine Evaristo – but in terms of co-authored books we were intrigued by how novels by Wu Ming, a collaboration between multiple authors, spoke with a unified voice as though written by a single author. We wondered how it would be for our writing to bear the traces of our collaboration, which is how we ended up with the we/she/he voice we use in the book. Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, which contains a collaborative element, was a huge influence on the book. Chris went on to publish the US version of our book with Semiotext(e).

[See also: Diego Garcia is the first collaborative novel to win the Goldsmiths Prize for fiction]

Among many other things the novel offers a vivid account of the financial precarity of being a writer in the 21st century.

We think that the situation for writers is no different from the majority of workers in Britain today. Our incomes, as well as psychic and material wellbeing, are subject to a sustained and vicious assault from the political class and their cheerleaders in the media, whether of the neoliberal or soft liberal variety. Because of this onslaught we have less time to think, socialise, improvise, care for our families, colleagues, friends and communities – and, of course, to write.

The novel’s writer-narrators refer to realists who write like politicians, and writers of supposedly experimental fiction who are in fact entirely unoriginal. Is your writing partly driven by an impatience with the state of contemporary fiction?

It’s not an impatience with contemporary British fiction as such but with the institutions which seek to define this. They rarely embrace the formal radicalism we see in comparable institutions in the art world, for instance.

The book questions the idea in Anglophone literary fiction that the author has “unimpeded extractive rights to the world’s narrative resources”. In writing Diego Garcia how did you navigate the notion of cultural appropriation?

We wrote the novel in part to help do the work of circulating the story, always mindful that this was not our story to tell. Prepositions are important here: we do not wish to speak over anyone, but beside, or in Trinh T Minh-ha’s formulation, “nearby”.

We made the consideration of our respective positions in relation to this story part of our narrative, and shared this process with the reader.

The novel refers to “fiction as a political tool for putting possibilities into language”, and as an “attempt to reimagine the structures of our world”. Do you think the novel as a form can effect political change?

A novel is just one form through which to communicate and receive information about the world. A novel can create space to reflect on this information, and we do think that this reflection can inspire people to act for political change.

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

There is so much to tell! The whole book is in conversation with works of art, literature and music and is asking what these works can do to console, educate, inspire and activate us. But to pick one of each: the paintings of Clément Siatous, Shenaz Patel’s novel Le silence des Chagos and the music of the Velvet Underground. Film is also important in this book, in particular, the documentary Chagos Ou la Memoire des Îles by Michel Daëron.

Why do we need the Goldsmiths Prize?

Anyone committed to literature and the novel as a living form will want to read books that challenge received ideas in and around writing: the Goldsmiths Prize judges, organisers and administrators do valuable work to bring such books to our attention, and to encourage conversations around these. We’re so grateful to have been shortlisted for this prize, and are really excited to continue to discover the work of our fellow nominees.

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

Since we’re a duo we’re going to be cheeky and nominate two books, both of which have shaped our own: Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia and Alasdair Gray’s Lanark.

Innovation in writing is not restricted to the finding of new forms but can involve filling a new form with people and stories that it has historically excluded: Kureishi does just this with a political coming-of-age comedy full of irrepressible queer brown joy. His sharp comic takedown of British fascism, nationalism, white supremacy, colonialism and heteronormativity is set in the 1970s and was published in 1990, but feels more alive than ever. 

Gray’s Lanark was published in 1981, a landmark work of Scottish/world literature, epic, undaunted, strange, visionary. While giving a playful account of its own making, Lanark, unlike other contemporary novels in the postmodern tradition, refuses cynical moral relativism. It’s a generous, vulnerable, open book that pushes through the abstractions of fiction and fiction-making to offer its readers a visceral purchase on the world.

“Diego Garcia” is published by Fitzcarraldo.

Read more about the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist here, including interviews with the shortlisted novelists. Natasha Soobramanien and Luke Williams will be in conversation with Tom Gatti at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 19 November.

You can purchase the shortlisted books, including “Diego Garcia”, from Bookshop.org here.

[See also: Why Diego Garcia won the 20222 Goldsmiths Prize for fiction]

This article appears in the 16 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The state we’re in