DG: Your novel, ‘The Things We Thought We Knew’, follows a girl from a council estate in Leicester, bed-bound by chronic pain, living in her bedroom with her mother and… slugs. Did you feel you were different, growing up? Do you feel separate from mainstream culture, today?
I’m a British-Bangladeshi girl who lived with my single-parent mother on a council estate in Leicester, so you could say my life is pretty similar to that of Ravine in The Things We Thought We Knew.
This made me feel separate from the mainstream in many ways: not seeing myself reflected on T.V and in magazines, feeling the stigma of coming from a council estate and a single parent family, and even coming from the Midlands which can often be forgotten in the national narrative. But, as well as feeling separate from Western culture, I felt separate from Asian culture. I went to a very white primary school and then moved onto a predominately Guajarati Hindu secondary school with kids from working-class or middle-class backgrounds, but my family were Bangladeshi Muslim and living on a council estate, so even in that environment I was an outsider. I was an artsy fiction nerd who loved listening to Tori Amos, whereas my Asian peers were into academic subjects and 90’s RnB. I never quite fitted in anywhere, which I hated as a teenager as I so desperately wanted to be ‘normal’. But now I appreciate that normal doesn’t exist, and that my differences made me the person I am today.
DG: What might be the benefits of being estranged from society, either due to one’s origins or one’s personality?
For me, being an outsider is vital to being an artist. You’re more inclined to examine and question the status quo, you find new angles and ways of looking at things that other people might not otherwise. I’ve met lots of people who fall into the professions of their parents; teaching, health care, building work, but very rarely do I meet artists who say their families are full of artists. They are always an outsider in some respect, whether it be class, ethnicity, sexual preference or gender.
Of course, you do get artists who come from white, middle-class, straight backgrounds but even they have often been an outsider at some point, being bullied at school, having mental health issues or simply not following the expectations of their parents. As well as being intriguing and entertaining, great art comments on society as it is now or has been in the past, and it’s very hard to do that when you’re in the mainstream because you’re less likely to question it.
DG: Do ghosts inhabit your creative process? As Hindu Bengalis, my family lived for centuries on estates in Bangladesh. We had an ambivalent relationship with the British. When they left, the ensuing slaughter forced to leave our homes and move to Kolkata, despite close friendships with our Muslim friends and tenants. My parents were both tiny children at that time, yet my upbringing was peopled by the bloody carcasses of Partition, the loss of wealth and status. I’m an only child and it’s a hell of an inheritance, being the sole heir, expected to salvage this destruction.
My mother never talked about her experience of Partition, even though she lived through it. Whenever she talked about Bangladesh, which wasn’t very often, it was quite a nostalgic view, talking about paddy-fields, swimming in the lakes near her home, and kids climbing the trees by her house to steal starfruit.
When I personally dug into my heritage, I came to realise Bangladesh’s bloody history. Its flag is a literal symbol of this, the red disc against green representing bloodshed on fields during the fight for independence. I’m still learning about these ghosts, but yes, they do follow me and hearing about your family’s Hindu experience is fascinating because I only really know about the Muslim experience and the people who stayed. But of course, I also have the experience of being born and brought up in Britain which resulted in me being called ‘The English relative’ when I’ve visiting Bangladesh, making me feel displaced from that heritage as well. I suppose in a way I have many histories but I don’t feel weighed down by them. You can only tell the story you’re writing about at the time, and for me that story can be about absolutely anything if it’s researched well enough. That doesn’t mean I won’t explore the history of family’s origins, but more that I don’t feel obliged to.
DG: What was it like revisiting a novel you’d first written at 16, as an adult? What would the 16 year old Mahsuda think of you?
Revisiting the novel was a very natural process for me. I needed those years in between drafts to perfect my craft, to make mistakes and to become a better writer for it. Also, because the novel was based on my upbringing, I needed to actually become an adult and leave the council estate before I could write about it with that outsider view I talked about earlier. They say you only really appreciate home when you leave it, and I think that was definitely the case for me.
As for your second question, if I told the 16-year-old Mahsuda about my life now, she would tell me I was fantasist! All I’ve ever dreamt about since I was a child was being a published writer but I was naïve. I thought pure passion and my love of writing would get me there. I didn’t see the hurdles of class, race, gender and the expectations others have of you, but I was definitely more aware of that when I was 16. I was also incredibly shy and insecure back then so if I told myself that I was not only going to be a published writer, but going to go on book tours reading extracts from my novel and discussing my work, I would not have believed it. I was very secretive and protective of my writing, and just speaking in front of my peers was difficult let alone talking about something that’s so personal to me. I was always told that people don’t change, but from my experience people can’t help but change. We are constantly evolving, not just as people but as a society, and it was that evolution that has got me to where I am now.
Thankfully for me, my blind determination and love of writing paid off. That doesn’t mean it was easy, those hurdles are very much there, but I think if you can push away the voices that say this isn’t possible and think about how you can make it possible then you’re already half-way up the mountain.
DG: I was disabled for 3 years through unusual levels of pregnancy hormones. My world shrank. Beached on a blanket on a hilltop with my baby, I saw slugs as powerful creatures, glistening like furled silk. Can you tell us anything about the significance of slugs, in your book?
Slugs are a very pertinent symbol in Ravine’s world. She raced slugs with her friends Marianne and Jonathan when she was a child and was jealous of Marianne’s prize slug who won all the races. For this reason, slugs symbolise Ravine’s playful childhood, nostalgia but also jealousy and regret. I think I chose slugs because they aren’t typically pretty creatures, but children don’t really care about that, which is wonderful. But as you’ve said, they are powerful and incredibly beautiful when viewed from a different perspective. I love playing with perspective in my work as well as society’s norms of beauty. This is reflected in the character of Walter, a wonderful, gorgeous human being, who happens to be overweight.
It’s interesting that you mention disability. Ravine’s chronic pain limits her world drastically, in a similar way. She’s isolated in her council estate room and bed, with few friends and only her mother to keep her company. As you’ve indicated, it’s the little things that bring joy in such situations, and Ravine discovers this herself as she starts to re-enter the world.
Motherhood is another topic that resonates with me. I got the book deal for The Things We Thought We Knew in the last few months of pregnancy. In fact, the press release about the deal was sent out on the day I was due to be induced! This was a crazy time for me. I had complications and lost a lot of blood during childbirth and became both physically and mentally unwell. Nobody really talks about the negative side of childbirth, as if talking about the negatives somehow means you aren’t as a good a mother. As with many things, it’s better to have a more balanced view and to accept that not everything is wonderful all the time. This is a lesson Ravine learns on her journey of healing: to accept the bleak and joyful parts of her life.
Mahsuda Snaith (Twitter @mahsudasnaith) was in conversation with Soma Ghosh.