Belonging: An Interview with Author Umi Sinha
by Jennifer Harvey Views: 1438
Umi Sinha was born in Mumbai to an English mother and Indian father, and grew up in India in the decade following independence. She has an MA in Creative Writing and has taught at the University of Sussex for ten years. She runs creative writing classes and a mentoring service for writers, and co-runs a performance storytelling club in Sussex. Her debut novel Belonging tells the interwoven story of three generations living through a period of turbulent Anglo-Indian colonial history.
Jen Harvey: I was very impressed with the way you managed to develop three voices and characters to tell the story in “Belonging”. The multiple points of view were very effective in conveying the long family history and I found this also helped me, as a reader, to better “inhabit” the different eras the three main characters live in. It seems like quite a complex way to tell a story. How difficult was it to write?
Umi Sinha: The three stories were relatively easy to write. The first draft is always fun because I am not worrying too much about where it’s going—I’m just letting it flow, discovering who the characters are and being surprised by them. The second stage, of weaving the three narratives together to create a plot, was more difficult. Although it is a novel that addresses very serious issues, I wanted it to be enjoyable to read, like a detective story where all the clues are in place and they all come together in a satisfying and meaningful way at the end. That process involved setting up questions in the reader’s mind in one strand and deciding how and when to resolve them in another, and that became quite complicated. It was a bit like wrestling with an octopus—there was always something I was struggling to get into the right place. It took a long time and there were times when I despaired but the satisfaction when it eventually all fell into place was immense. I think I did my ten thousand hours on this book alone!
Jen: The personal histories of the family, as told across the three generations, suggest that the experiences of our ancestors help shape and form us all, even if we are not aware of it. You quote William Faulkner at the start of the novel: “The past is never dead. It is not even the past.” That’s a very interesting concept and Henry and Lila certainly seem aware that there are things in their past, things they don’t know, which are causing them to act the way they do. The characters are deeply interwoven with one another—I could see Lila’s ancestry in her. Is this something you were conscious of while you were writing “Belonging”?
Umi: I think this theme is one that informs all my writing. Yes, I was conscious of it because I think I have always been aware of how influenced I am by my own family history and the powerful patterns of behaviour it has created in me. In the West people believe in free will, believe that we are free to make our own choices, whereas in the East people tend to be more fatalistic and accepting of the place they are born into (though this is changing). I think we are programmed by our culture, family history, experiences, the stories we are told and tell ourselves, and what is happening around us; and that, most of the time, we are not acting freely but reacting.
It seems to me that our real task in life as human beings is to achieve not outward success but inward self-knowledge, which involves becoming conscious of the things that drive us.
As Edmund Burke said, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it”, and that applies to our personal history too. We do repeat our parents’ mistakes. The challenge was to explore these ideas in an exciting and dramatic way by telling a story and letting the reader take from it what they want to, not by being preachy or dogmatic.
Jen: The title seems straightforward at first, but as I read the book I came to understand that belonging as a concept is actually a very complex thing. Did you always have this title in mind or did it arise only once the characters had revealed themselves?
Umi: The book has had several different working titles over the years. It was originally called “The Chariot of Jagannath” but my then-agent didn’t like it and preferred one-word names. Then it was “Legacies”, which she liked and I didn’t. Later I realised that all the characters were engaged in a search for belonging. It wasn’t till I found the title “Belonging” that the book really started to take shape.
Jen: The history of the British in India—certainly these personal histories—is not a subject we encounter so often. While you were researching “Belonging” you discovered that texts on the role of Indian soldiers in the British Army during the First World War were difficult to come by. Did this lack of information inform the way you told the story?
Umi: Yes, it did. I found it very difficult to find the kind of personal observations that you need for fiction, the details that add authenticity and texture to a story. This applied to the Indian Mutiny or Revolt as much as to the First World War. Almost all original source material for the Mutiny is from a British perspective because Indians did not tend to write memoirs and most of the sepoys were illiterate. In the First World War there were the Censor’s letters, which gave some insight into how the men felt, but there is very little detail about their everyday experiences. I found a couple of novels—John Master’s The Ravi Lancers and Mulk Raj Anand’s Across the Black Waters, based on his father’s experiences—helpful, but I didn’t feel I knew enough detail to be able to write from the point of view of an Indian soldier in a war situation. This was one of two additional narratives I cut out, because it just didn’t feel convincing enough.
Jen: Is there any specific advice you would give to writers when it comes to incorporating research into a novel? For some writers this may seem like a rather daunting task, to mix fiction with historical fact.
Umi: The usual advice is to:
Research as you go along to avoid spending time on research you don’t end up using, and to keep the characters and their stories at the forefront.
However, without having an understanding of the world my characters inhabit—the setting, political background, social mores, attitudes and values, and what is happening around them—I find it impossible to work out a convincing plot. My plots came from the history. Knowing as much as I did about every area of my characters’ background enabled me to pull in details as I needed them. I hope that adds depth to a narrative because the reader feels there is a solid world behind the story, even if they only get glimpses of it. If I had researched as I went along this would be a completely different, and perhaps less convincing, book.
Jen: William Dalrymple wrote recently in The Guardian that the cultural integration that was evident when the British first arrived in India—the curiosity about and acceptance of another culture—is something we can learn from when we try to analyse some of the cultural tensions we see today, particularly between Muslim and Western ideas. I would also say a book such as “Belonging” can go some way towards helping develop such an understanding. Do you think that’s possible? Was it something you were aiming for with this book?
Umi: I feel the book is a lot more topical now than when I began it: there are articles being written about the causes of the current conflicts in the Middle East; research about the effects of childhood trauma in adulthood, and whether it can be passed down to one’s children; people challenging us to try to imagine British people being driven from their home by war, becoming refugees and being refused succour. “Belonging” dramatises all these issues. I personally enjoy books that both move me and make me think, but I don’t think it’s a novelist’s job to provide answers and it would be presumptuous to try to do so.
Jen: You also run a writing clinic. Can you tell us a little about that?
Umi: I taught on the two-year Certificate in Creative Writing at Sussex University for ten years and many of the students who completed the course were looking for support with the writing projects they had started on it. So I began to run follow-up novel groups, then started offering one-to-one sessions and over the years I became a writing mentor without really having intended it. In fact, when I started, the concept didn’t really exist. Now of course there is a lot of support for writers, which is wonderful thing. I don’t believe you can teach writing because there is no prescription, but you can teach technique and you can help writers to uncover their own voice.
Jen: I know from working as an editor that my “critical eye” has been sharpened somewhat and as a result I can better evaluate my own stories (although I always have other people read them and advise me as well). It’s one of the reasons we encourage followers of Mash to get involved with us. How does working as a writing teacher/coach help you with your own writing?
Umi: Teaching is great way of learning. I have learnt a huge amount from my students, many of whom are very talented and have skills that I lack: I don’t write poetry for example, or do humour, and envy people who can. But I love stories in any form and reading other people’s work inspires me. Often when I’m stuck with my own writing I will read a lot because it sparks new ideas, and it’s the same with discussions in class or analysing stories. Although I always wanted to be a writer, before I started teaching there were long periods of my life when I didn’t write at all. Being around writing and writers keeps my attention on it and, as someone who has very little self-discipline and hates routine, this is very necessary for me. Apart from anything else, I just really enjoy teaching and most of my students become good friends and hugely enrich my life. Writers are mostly interesting and thoughtful people.
Jennifer is one of our judges at MASH. Her fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine and Stories For Homes anthology. Her radio drama won the 2001 European Regional Prize in the BBC World Service International Playwriting competition and a commendation in 2009. Her poetry has appeared in The Guardian as part of their poetry workshops series. Contact Jen via Twitter.