The age of the fanatic: Sheena Patel

The Demented Goddess [DG]: Sheena, in your debut novel, I’m A Fan, the idea of fandom is metaphor.  Why might we be wise to be wary of fandom? Have you ever been a mad fan of an artist (musical or from the other arts)? How did that fandom serve you?

We’re in the age of the fanatic. Extremism has defined this century. We can only wholesale love or hate something or someone, there is no space for nuance. This need for entertainment has infiltrated our political systems, we want big personalities and drama. Figures like Trump and Johnson aren’t foisted upon us, there is a need for them, even if it horrifies some of us. Fantasy has entered the chat, essentially. Even Brexit is a fanatical project, as was Trump’s denial of the vote, as were the attacks on the Capitol and Johnson’s wrecking of every establishment and ideal in this country. Look at us: living in a toxic, fantastical Aragon. We’re leaving the Human Rights Act. The enemy is within and it’s us.

I have been a mad fan of Michael Jackson when I was a child, a wall plastered with his face and listened to nothing but his music for most of my childhood. I couldn’t really absorb the allegations made against him for years, then I watched the documentary a few years ago about the boys and within a minute I knew it was all true and I felt sick to my stomach, I haven’t played his music since. That I loved him meant these kids were harmed, even from a distance I played a part. Everything is systems and we’re all interconnected.

DG: Historically, perhaps because passionate females are seen as uncontrollable by patriarchal societies, female obsession has been demonised in film, TV and books. Lately, there’s been a tendency to justify and revel in it, especially in revenge stories against men. We’ve moved from the bunny-boiling stereotype of Fatal Attraction (currently having second heyday with a theatrical version) to Killing Eve, Promising Young Woman and Elizabeth Moss’ recent psychological horror, Shining Girls. What’s your favourite story of female obsession, and why?

I like Jennifer’s Body, it’s a great film and it is full of longing and envy and lust and turns the vampire teen story on it’s head. It’s about blood and menstruation and power – girly things.

DG: The love interest, for your heroine, in I’m a Fan, is a married man who compulsively makes women attached to him then withdraws and evades. Do you think there’s a certain type of man – or womxn – who, lacking the inner tools to connect deeply and responsibly, gets a kick from preying on passionate people: a type of emotional vampire? I’m thinking of the Wickhams and Willoughbys of Austen, or Carrie Bradshaw’s Mr. Big. What’s the motivation for such a character?

Our culture venerates emotional unavailability because it’s ultimately quite sexy and if you’re the one who is the source of the want, it’s a very virile place to exist. Where people want a piece of you, and any piece of you, even if what they get is some glint off your reflection, they are grateful. Imagine being in such a position. It’s lonely, ultimately, but perhaps they don’t feel it.

DG: In your novel, objects are as much as source of obsession as people (Farrow & Ball paint, a John Baldessari exhibition poster from 1988, a Carmen D’Apolloino lamp). This is partly because the protagonist’s rival is a lifestyle influencer, selling objects for the home on her feed. But is there something, in real life, about the objectifying of a person, through a snapshot or a Tweet, in Social Media, that particularly encourages obsession?

I think we have commodified ourselves to such an extent that everything is ready to be consumed, in bitesize portions. We decide the worth of someone based on their social media following. The algorithm doesn’t like photos, so we learn how to make reels, because Tik Tok is taking over the market. The market dictates how you consume information. Instagram and most social media make us look happy, successful and in love, it’s our Greatest Hits compilation. Sometimes you meet people and they aren’t as happy as their Instagram and you feel deep when you think, wow, you just never know a person. We’re in a hyperreal environment where the internet, this powerful amazing tool – has put us in unchartered territories as Homo Sapiens – it affects everything, creates other worlds and personas. So it’s ripe for obsession.

However, I also wanted to write about ambivalence which I think is an emotion which is far closer to us than obsession. The narrator doesn’t know how she feels about anything, both wants and doesn’t wants. If she got what she wanted, what would she do with it? Ambivalence is a very interesting state to me, it’s as full as any emotion and is the shadow to decision making, a lot of decisions we make are decisions we don’t make, we let things happen to us so we’re absolved of blame if it doesn’t work out. 

DG: The man who the protagonist “wants to be with” seems to text our protagonist with whatever he’s thinking (e.g. asking her why women take so long to get ready, when he’s with his wife). This is perhaps another form of his thoughtless incontinence, which can seem like charming intimacy, or just a habit bred by texting and DMing. Was it a deliberate decision, to write this relationship as one that takes place substantially (or insubstantially, unsatisfyingly), on the phone? To what extent does is there a deeper lack of wholeness in phone culture that gets us hooked on fragments?

Yeah. Well, this relationship has all the immediacy of a relationship but none of the body, none of the comfort or everyday which ultimately makes a relationship real and ultimately makes it less sexy too. The body forms the basis of all connection, which has been something we’ve not been in relationship to in the last couple of years. Through a phone, the body can be forgotten. Half of the intimacy and immediacy can be constructed, so the other half can be fabricated in the mind. That’s an intoxicating thing. Everyone has been tied to a phone waiting for a text which can make or break your entire life. It’s not just text messages that has us hooked on fragments – our daily and political lives feel like they are breaking apart unless it’s because we have arrived at the end of the American empire and which is why it feels so end of days.

Sheena Patel was in conversation with Soma Ghosh. I’m a Fan is published by Rough Trade Books and is out now.

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