Isabel Waidner: “There is huge, under-explored potential in 'innovative' literature”

Isabel Waidner on their Goldsmiths-shortlisted novel We Are Made Of Diamond Stuff, marginalised writers, and the Isle of Wight.

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Isabel Waidner was born in the Black Forest in Germany in 1974, and has lived in London for more than two decades. Waidner teaches in the department of English and Creative Writing at the University of Roehampton, and their first novel, Gaudy Bauble, was shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize. In 2018, Waider edited Liberating the Canon, an anthology of innovative literature. Their latest book, We Are Made Of Diamond Stuff, a miniature comic epic about identity in the age of Brexit. The unnamed, shaven-headed, non-binary narrator, who resembles Eleven from the Netflix series Stranger Things but is really 36 years old, works with their friend Shae in a “no-star” hotel in Ryde, on the Isle of Wight. Together, they become involved in strange, occasionally reality-bending adventures, and issue a great many thoughts about class, nationalism, and violence. Boris Johnson rubs shoulders with B.S. Johnson, Robert Rauschenberg with Tonya Harding.

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? For instance, do you think that books characterised as experimental are better-equipped to address questions about identity or to portray characters typically or traditionally under-represented?

In response to the last part of your question: yes, they are. Intuitively, sociopolitical marginalisation and innovation in literary form should go together – but historically, in Britain, they have not. Formally innovative literature has been and continues to be the prerogative of the white middle classes (with a few exceptions), whereas black, POC, working-class and LGBTQI+ writers are expected to serve narrative, confessional, triumph-over-tragedy, poverty porn or genre fiction, which for some reason sit near the bottom of the high/low cultural hierarchy.

To reiterate: there is huge, under-explored potential for re-imagining and expanding what literary innovation might look like if under-represented writers were at the forefront of the conversation. We have only just started tapping into some of this potential.

We Are Made of Diamond Stuff would be very different with any other setting. Its themes seem very tied to the modern history of the Isle of Wight. Could you talk a little about the conception and gestation of the project?

It’s true that the Isle of Wight centrally shapes We Are Made Of Diamond Stuff – but I would argue that the setting lends itself to exploring some of the issues that polarise contemporary Britain more widely. Among the themes the novel interrogates is the feeling of national belonging, specifically in relation to histories of empire, migration and resistance in working class cultures. Shae and the narrator perceive their new environment through their particular lens of displacement and outsiderness. They speak to the experience of queer migrancy into Britain more widely, including my own.

Suspended between the sea, France and the British mainland, the Isle of Wight functions as some kind of border or threshold territory in the novel, holding antagonisms. For example, the place contains the discrepancy between a kind of English Riviera mythology that many of us have grown up with, and the contemporary reality of a dwindling tourist industry, endemic underinvestment and class inequity.

My real-life partner grew up near Portsmouth in the 1970s and ’80s. She used to spend family holidays on the Isle of Wight, winning the disco dance competition at Thorness Bay Holiday Park, and treasuring miniature bottles of multi-coloured sand from Alum Bay. We holiday on the island still, and I write from a place of affection – but let’s say that some aspects of the place are a little less than mythical, including a general suspiciousness towards foreigners which materialised in a high Leave vote in the EU referendum. The island has this redeeming feature though: like many British coastal towns, places of liminality and transgression, the Isle of Wight lays bare barely repressed queer potential, at least in my novel!

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

At a reading organised by students at Oxford University a year or so ago, I heard an early version of Nisha Ramayya’s poem “Futures Flowers”, now published in her collection States of the Body Produced By Love. One of the poem’s images, which I misremembered as two lions vomiting rainbows (!) but which I since learnt are actually elephants, left such an impression that I used it as a starting point to create a psychic, should say poetic, weapon against the border police in We Are Made Of Diamond Stuff!

Other pieces of literature I directly engage with in the novel include NDN (or Native American) poet Tommy Pico’s “Nature Poem”, to think through the violence of naming military aircrafts after Native American populations (think Boeing CH-47 Chinook, or Boeing-Sikorsky RAH-66 Comanche) and South London playwright Mojisola Adebayo’s incredible plays which collide autobiography and Black British history, Peckham life and the literary canon. Generally speaking, I adopted a citational politics that evokes a community of highly innovative, Black, POC, queer and working class writers who are marginalised in establishment publishing and review contexts, but who are among the most important writers working today.

Another piece of literature important to my novel is Life in the United Kingdom: A Guide for New Residents (3rd Edition), written and published by The Home Office. I cannot recommend.

How do your ambitions in this novel relate to the exercise you undertook as the editor of the fiction anthology Liberating the Canon: An Anthology of Innovative Literature?

Liberating the Canon is an anthology of formally innovative literature by Black, POC, queer and working class writers, mitigating against the ongoing marginalisation of these writers in establishment publishing contexts. My ambition in Liberating the Canon was to anthologise writers whose works re-imagine and extend what literary innovation might mean if marginalised writers were leading the conversation.

In my own writing I have aimed to defy the assumption that formally innovative literature should be a rarefied art form, of interest to an elite readership with a very particular educational capital only. We Are Made Of Diamond Stuff is formally aspirational and has the potential to be relevant to a diverse readership at the same time. A strategy I adopted to achieve this is to work across what traditionally counted as high and low cultural registers. I included various references to canonical avant-garde literature in my novel, for example the eponymous character of B. S. Johnson’s House Mother Normal makes a cameo. Simultaneously, I worked with pop cultural references including Stranger Things and the independent film I, Tonya, about the North American ice skater Tonya Harding – a figure I used to dispel the myth of meritocracy in a classed society.

I also worked across distinctions between literary writing and critical theory in We Are Made Of Diamond Stuff. I drew on Jasbir Puar’s notion of homonationalism, for example, to think through some pressing, current issues such as anti-migrant sentiment in supposedly progressive LGBTQI+ communities. Or I used cultural theorist Paul Willis’s work on countercultures in British secondary schools in the 1970s to think about class resistance today.

There's a wildness to the voice and ideas in We Are Made of Diamond Stuff. Do you see comedy or a comic approach as central to your conception of the experimental novel?

If wildness and humour are the opposites of complacency and boredom, then yes, they are central to my conception of the experimental novel. What I will dispel is the assumption that humour is a defence, and somehow inferior to more “authentic” modes of telling the self, such as the confessional. There is a long history of queer literature and performance art, where humour has been mobilised as a profound mode of relating with others, a survival strategy, and a way of making sense of lived oppression and other, seemingly ‘senseless’ realities. I align myself with these traditions.

Why do we need the Goldsmiths Prize?

The Goldsmiths Prize is essential because of its scope to reward and platform novels that ambitiously re-imagine what it might mean to innovate in British literature now; its scope to reward novels, urgent novels, that speak from the frontlines, and that help us envisage societal transformation and the role of language and the imagination within it. If we want literature to stay relevant in a changing society, we need to re-invent literary innovation per se. The Goldsmiths Prize is at the heart of this project.

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

Brigid Brophy, In Transit. A rare example of a queer avant-garde British novel.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.