Guy Gunaratne

‘The fight for free expression has to be maintained’

Print edition : February 28, 2020

Guy Gunaratne. Photo: www.guygunaratne.com

Guy Gunaratne. Photo: www.guygunaratne.com

Interview with the writer Guy Gunaratne.

Guy Gunaratne’s debut novel, In Our Mad and Furious City, won the International Dylan Thomas Prize and the Jhalak Prize, was long-listed for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, and short-listed for both the 2018 Gordon Burn Prize and the 2018 Goldsmiths Prize. The gritty, intense novel follows the lives of three boys in the underbelly of London for two days. Gunaratne commits to paper the inner life of the city in the vernacular of his characters.

Through alternating perspectives between different generations, Gunaratne’s novel pulsates with fury to lay bare the patterns and cadences of racism, anti-immigrant hatred and ethnic violence. The protagonists, who are second-generation immigrants, see themselves as belonging to “a young nation of mongrels” bonding over grime music and football. They respond to the tinderbox tenor in the novel in different ways that reveal the dynamic fissures and chasms in contemporary society that we all too easily grant categorical labels and names to.

Born in London in 1984 to immigrants from Sri Lanka, Gunaratne made films about strife-torn areas around the world, including Sri Lanka, before writing his first novel. At the Jaipur Literature Festival, where he was part of several sessions, he spoke to Susan Haris about his book, language and his fascination with male violence and its entrenchment in contemporary society. Excerpts:

The urbanisation of the world also makes the city more important. Your novel “In Our Mad and Furious City” has been called a “city novel” and often classified under urban fiction. It also makes a strong case for multiculturalism. How important is the city in that schema?

Yes, the city is important to the novel. My novel can be read as tracking London’s city in terms of its inheritance. As a writer, the city is linguistically interesting. You can hear dialects that are a mix between all the basic influences of the culture. The West Indian patois, the Bengali slang, with some Irish thrown in. When I was younger, I was aware that some of the words I was saying were from Jamaica or from elsewhere, but [they] were also totally my own. So, for me it was just interesting to trace them back.

James Joyce does something similar for Dublin. The Multicultural London English, or what you call “road dialect”, is one of the most striking things in your novel. Apart from being an exact or almost exact reproduction of what you have heard, how does it capture the reality of the place?

Well, London has been a city that has been multicultural for a long time so that it’s almost impossible to render the voice of the city in a singular or a pared-down language. It is an extreme city, it is an abrasive city, and in language we need to have those elements. For me, the road dialect, with its abrasiveness, its dissonance, its depth, and its almost kitschy contemporaneity, is apt. It is a weird, funny throwback. It is a mongrelised language but it is not a broken language. It’s a new form of English.

Annie Zaidi recently won the Nine Dots Prize for an essay on the question “Is there still no place like home?” How would you like to respond to that question, considering your Sri Lankan roots?

For a long time, I always resisted this assumption that if you have roots elsewhere then it must be such a struggle. For a long time, British literature, and wonderful authors like Hanif Kureishi, also captured that story of dual heritages and that was really the only story. Of “the only brown person”. But the idea of being the only one in a class, a workplace or an environment, couldn’t be further from my experience. I grew up where everyone was from somewhere else. They were like white English kids, too, but they were also half Irish, Scottish, there’s always some kind of multiplicity in their identities. There are other people, other artists, who claim that unbelonging.

And what more interesting place to be a writer than in between identities because then you could have your best vantage point? It comes with issues and conflicts of identity, but to me it’s always been very liberating. Grime music for the characters in the novel celebrates this idea that we’re gonna make art from where we feel we belong—it is not made to a place but to each other.

So what would you say are the striking differences between a city in North London and a city in Sri Lanka that is not merely sociological?

With Sri Lanka my engagement has been always in terms of journalism. It’s a very different thing to write creatively. The question is, how would you go about writing fiction about Colombo? I think then I will always turn to language and language itself has been very interesting in how it’s been politicised and racialised.

It’s funny, I can only think of similarities where I wouldn’t have thought of before. When you pose the question all I can really think of is how similar some of the violence in existing language is, and these cities are sorted by the same human impulses.

Are you a practising Buddhist?

That is a hard question to answer.

Are there any particular Buddhist motifs in your writing?

I grew up in a Buddhist household and my parents are practising Buddhists. But it became very clear to me once I saw and heard how Buddhism is depicted in the West that it was a very skewed version of it. Everyone thinks Buddhism is a very calm and collected, easy-going religion.

But for me, when I grew up, what I was taught was a very confrontational, a very hard part, that is quite unforgiving. It’s a strange thing to talk about, but, for example, conceptually when they make you think about things like death you think about them head-on.

But you do not go to hell, right?

Right; but what goes on in Buddhism, you cannot fight those things that are the hardest parts of who you are and what you have to deal with. What it teaches you is to stare it down. You have to be thoughtful of yourself, aware of yourself and that means confronting the sides of yourself that are ugly, conflicted. Yeah, it never struck me as easy-going.

As a journalist, a lot of the subject matter I was interested in was human rights. So, whenever we were interviewing someone who told me some horrific story, I think I was taught not to flinch when I was asking the hardest questions. I think I really learned to, again, stare it down. Actually, I do that same thing when I’m writing. Maybe I’m writing about difficult subjects. You have read the book. I have to really again not flinch. But really doing that doesn’t mean I am a practising Buddhist.

I was just wondering if the postcolonial experience and sensibility are relevant in a multicultural world because how is the immigrant subject’s fragmentation different from the kind of fragmentation that the modern subject necessarily undergoes?

I don’t know. I honestly think if you were to write on those terms today you would come up with a novel that would be out of date and lose relevance even as you are writing it. For me, again, I can’t help but be very intuitive in terms of writing. Maybe this is too much of an assumption on my part, but it seems that it’s almost too easy for new writers to worry about a sensibility and write from that viewpoint. Most of the time this sensibility seems to come from an established literary gaze.

In terms of whether we like writing in the wake of the generation of Salman Rushdie and Hanif Kureishi, it’s a very different space now to write about the same kind of experience or perspective; though I know our books are coded by what came after them. Generally speaking, I think writing, almost regardless of the perspective that you feel, might be more and more liberating.

But I do think it’s an irrelevant position to write from. For example, my personal situation is that I live between places. In Sweden with my wife and baby, and half of the time I live in Cambridge. But also, it is interesting to be between places and in between homes. I also think there are more interesting spaces to explore and those spaces aren’t necessarily colonised yet by analysis.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Act that has caused such uproar in India arguably discriminates on the basis of religion. The incredible thing about it is that a lot of students have been protesting in universities. So, what role do you think the state and associated structures of the state with regard to India or even Sri Lanka have in marginalising communities and promoting this kind of sociopolitical alienation?

I would like to turn again to language to address this. If the language, with aid from the state, does not allow us to define ourselves, then what it means to be a citizen in that state is a limitation. It is in that narrowing of the definition that real violence lies. This means that when people express themselves, they begin to express themselves very narrowly. This is not the truth because people can correlate with many things at many times. But they deny themselves that multiplicity. It becomes then a culture of one voice. So, when it comes to this Bill or Brexit, there is no room for feeling or expressing in any way other than what you are supposed to. Instead, we should emphasise nuance and places in between, however unfashionable that may be. Because, to narrow language is to narrow meaning.

I remember this line from your novel that “history is not a circle but a spiral of violent crimes”. Do you think trauma necessitates violence?

Of course, it shouldn’t.

Is it possible to respond to trauma in language?

Yeah, there’s a reason why young men are the individuals who are the most vulnerable to respond to such trauma. While it may look like trauma leads to violence or terrorism, I think it’s more important to see it from the perspective of these young men because it’s on the other side. It’s a difficult thing to look at. Does one thing lead to another? That is irrelevant because that is how it is used by terrorists and radical groups. Our own responses should follow that. These isolated young men are targeted to commit atrocities. My novel tries to see this certain type of young man who is suddenly thrust into a world of violence.

Reading about London’s “scowling youth” in your novel reminded me of descriptions of frustrated youth elsewhere. What do you think activism should look like? Often people tell youths that they should be in colleges, studying instead of outside protesting.

In a way it is the most ludicrous thing to tell an activist to stay in school when the most famous activist right now is Greta Thunberg. In many ways the point is to leave school. Because it’s no longer relevant in a world where climate change is accelerating. But is youth the model? I think it, sadly, necessarily, needs to be. Maybe it should be changed, but it’s almost an act of false humility or dismissal to say you should go back to school. That’s a very feeble response to something very powerful. It’s always been youth.

You have previously worked as a journalist on media oppression in Sri Lanka. There has been a lot of media censorship in India lately, like Internet lockdowns and suspension of mobile services in States such as Jammu & Kashmir and Assam. What do you think is the connection between human rights abuse and media repression?

It is almost the first flag of the downward spiral, which is always why the fight for free expression has to be maintained. We have to remain vigilant around this very difficult question of protecting what seems like such an easy thing to defend in the first place but becomes so difficult to preserve in situations like these. The craft of the state and purpose of the state is to construct the singular story. Art and media challenge and produce many stories.

You talk about fury in your novel. Is it a collective emotion or a personal one? And how closely related is it to dignity?

That is an interesting question. In a situation where there is fury there is also loss of control. Fury is the inability to control yourself. The anger that comes out is serious, and I think it’s very dangerous and horrible but also beautiful. Fury is a response to something. Whether it’s justified or not, it tends to be an action where you tend to cause harm but it is also self-harm. The loss of control erases dignity.

What do you think that fiction can do that real life reporting cannot?

While working as a journalist, it became increasingly clear to me that you can offer as much fact-based evidence, accounts, narratives as you want but it’s not going to achieve or offer the necessary correction. This is not to say that activism is ineffective, but I see the novel as a form which is a space to explore conflict in a slow, measured way and in an anti-modern way, when being modern is all about being fast.

Sometimes it feels like your novel is a boy’s novel like “A Clockwork Orange”, which also follows a bunch of very violent boys. Why did you choose a male voice?

Yeah, there is Caroline in the novel, but I know what you mean. I think the reason I looked at these male voices was because I was interested in understanding male violence. There is a reason why contemporary manifestations of extreme religious violence come from young men, and I think that was worth exploring. Extremism, whether it is directly religious violence or sexual domination, there is something gendered about extremism and terrorism. I kind of go where the voices go. There is something masculine about violence that we see today, and I needed to interrogate that.

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