Hope Reese | Longreads | December 2018 | 11 minutes (3,036 words)
“We were London’s scowling youth,” is how narrator Yusuf, whose family came to the city from Pakistan, introduces himself and his peers in Guy Gunaratne’s debut novel In Our Mad and Furious City. Depicting the struggle of city life from the perspectives of three young second-generation immigrants from the Caribbean, Pakistan, and Ireland — Selvon, Yusuf, and Ardan — and two of their parents, the novel investigates precisely what those “scowling youth” experience in London — a complicated and sometimes hostile place.
The fictional work, which takes place over a 48-hour period, was inspired by the 2013 murder of Lee Rigby, a soldier, by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, Islamic extremists. Gunarate tells me he was struck by his “perverse identification” with the killer, and set out on a journey to explore the way violence and extremism can develop in a multicultural city.
Gunaratne tells the story as an insider. As the son of a Sri Lankan immigrant, he grew up in northwest London and has seen firsthand how the city can be viewed from the perspective of the two generations. And in his work as a documentary filmmaker and journalist, he has also become interested in exploring human rights issues, which he says have taught him the habit of “zeroing in on the parts of… stories that most disturb you and provoke a response within you.”
In Our Mad and Furious City has been long-listed for the Man Booker Prize and called “one of the best debuts of the year” by acclaimed novelist Ali Smith. I spoke to Gunaratne — who splits his time between London and Malmö, Sweden — on Skype, as he was preparing for his book launch. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Hope Reese: Your novel depicts life for a handful of characters in different neighborhoods of London — the Estate, the Ends, the Square. Why did you choose this setting?
Guy Gunaratne: The book itself is structured with different voices overlapping; with certain vernaculars and dialects, and words shared between each [character]. For me, London has always been about language. It was interesting for me, having grown up in the part of London that I did, that was a mix of different languages, cultures, smells, to try to evoke that sense of multiplicity. There is something about my experience of growing up through that, having to experience a global city like London, that I wanted to address — the frictions inherent in that multiplicity.
It’s sometimes an unkind place to grow up in. I wanted to interrogate the friction, or the dissonance, inherent in growing up around so much difference. I was trying to evoke that on the page, with the different vernaculars and dialects rubbing up against each other; to create an experience of reading that felt like my experience of living in London.
You’re not supposed to identify with monsters. But people are rarely disturbed by things they don’t already recognize in themselves.
When I read the story of Nelson — [a character in the book who] immigrated to London from the Caribbean — I think about how it relates to the “American Dream”: the promise that anybody can make it, and the difficulties with that concept. Is there a parallel in London? Especially for that older generation?
Perhaps. A lot of the experiences of immigrants who came over when Nelson came over, during the ’50s and ’60s, are very much synonymous with the “Windrush” generation. That’s the generation of Caribbean immigrants who came over at that time. “Windrush” [comes from] the name of the Empire Windrush — the ship [on which many of them] came over. And that generation is indicative of the influx of immigrants into Britain around that time [and how that] was quite racially charged. It was interesting to place that experience next to the experience of second-generation immigrants today.
Perhaps there is a parallel in terms of the reasons behind a lot of those journeys. My father was an immigrant during that time from Sri Lanka. He would tell me those stories about the grind, the experience of just wanting to make a living here. But perhaps there’s a difference in that immigrants who came over were subjects of the empire, of the commonwealth. For them, journeying over, the narrative was “England is the motherland.” If Britain is calling the immigrants in, there is a kind of obligation, an attractiveness, for an immigrant from island nations like Sri Lanka — Montserrat, in Nelson’s case — to buy into that narrative. But as depicted in the book, the narrative sometimes falls apart with the actual experience of having to live within cities like London, which were quite hostile during that period.
In a piece for The Guardian, you write about your father, who emigrated from Sri Lanka, and how your version of London is different. What are the differences?
There’s a way in which my father, who is 85 now, talks about Britain, and his experience — and the friction he experienced coming over here. He’s in love with the idea of Britain as a place where he made his living, came over as a teenager, made a life for himself. A very romanticized experience. Probably if I dig into his story and what he actually experienced, it might not have been as rosy as he made it sound — which is the same case for many of those [immigrant] stories. There are elements of Britain today that retain that sense of hostility. And the book tries to articulate that in the way that violence and extremism manifest over time.
There’s a line in the book about how “history is not a circle, but a spiral of violent rhymes.” There are certain things that my father might have experienced in the ’50s and ’60s as an immigrant in Britain that might not look exactly like what is happening today, in terms of hostility toward immigrants; but it rhymes. Those are the traces I was trying to pick up.
You’ve lived in different countries, including Germany, Sweden, Finland. As somebody who grew up in London and has lived elsewhere, do you have a new perspective on your upbringing?
They always say that writers need to be away from a certain place to write about it. I think that’s true. There’s a certain detachment, almost — some space from which to write. I wrote this book mostly outside of London. It was mostly written in Berlin and Helsinki and California. The fact that I was moving around so much added to the propulsiveness of the language in the book. It made me appreciate the multiplicity that’s inherent in a city like London. You don’t really appreciate that when you’re growing up. It’s only when you go to other parts of Europe — especially places that are homogenous — that you appreciate that there are many different languages and cultures on the same streets that you live on.
That’s the wonderful thing about a novel. You’re able to go to places that you might not want to in your everyday life. It’s a safe space to think about that side of yourself that is unkind.
You’ve spoken about wanting to “raise the bar” for your audience. In this novel, what would you like the challenge to be for your readers?
Well, having a background in human rights journalism and the kind of subject matter I immersed myself in during those projects — those documentaries — you learn the habit, I guess, of zeroing in on the parts of those stories that most disturb you and provoke a response within you. For me, confronting the parts of those stories, and interrogating the most difficult parts of whatever you’re exploring, I think, is carried through with the book. The way I write, it’s quite speculative in the very beginning. I’m just exploring a theme, extremism and compulsions towards violence. In exploring that, there are things that came up that felt disturbing. The habit of really going right there, instead of veering away, was something I brought through.
With this book, for readers, I hope to evoke that same sense of confrontation or willingness to confront parts of themselves that may not be as comfortable to interrogate. You’ve probably read about the killing of Lee Rigby, a British soldier, in 2013. An off-duty soldier was killed by two Islamic extremists. Lone wolf terrorists. There was a phone video that came out; some woman had walked up to the killers just after the incident, Michael Adebolajo, and asked him why he’d done what he’d done. He explained his reasons behind why he killed Lee Rigby. What was shocking to me was [my] perverse identification with him. The way he was dressed, the way he was speaking. He spoke in the same dialect I grew up with, dressed in the kind of gear I dressed in as a teenager. The way he carried himself — he reminded me of everyone I went to school with. That identification is far too close to home. A line in the book is “terrorism never felt so close.” You’re not supposed to identify with monsters. But people are rarely disturbed by things they don’t already recognize in themselves.
For me, it was interesting to interrogate those parts of you that are capable of extremes, or “small theories,” as they’re called in the book. We’ve all done things, said things, that hurt other people. Our capacity or compulsion toward those extremes is worth interrogating.
That’s the wonderful thing about a novel. You’re able to go to places that you might not want to in your everyday life. It’s a safe space to think about that side of yourself that is unkind, that may feel a compulsion to stray or veer towards extremes. Each of these characters has an extremism that they have to confront — whether that be the physical, with Selvon, or the creativity with Ardan, or Caroline having to deal with proximity to violence with her family, or, quite directly, the religious extremism with Yusuf. Each of these characters have to guide themselves. It hopefully will allow a reader to reflect on their own sense of those compulsions.
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I’ve often heard novelists speak about how characters have “a life of their own” — and how the story may go in a direction that the writer had not intended. As you wrote this, did a character pull you in an unexpected direction?
Oh sure. I try to articulate something that is fundamentally mysterious to me. Writing this book was almost an act of listening. These were quite insistent voices that just turned up. I began with intellectual curiosity toward the nature of extremism. Consequently, the language washes through with these thematic parts. For example, if I know that I’m writing within that framework, that the themes are violence and extremism, I let that go and let the voices guide themselves. And trust that a character may say something or act in a way or behave in a way that speaks to the theme.
I wouldn’t recommend that process to anybody. It can be frustrating and daunting — you don’t really know where it’s headed. I’m talking about that first draft, where it’s exploratory. Afterwards, there’s enough there that looks and feels and sounds like a novel. But with multiple voices, I did need to allow those voices to breathe and really guide me as to where they wanted to go. Especially with the darker strains in the book. I had to make a decision whether to go there or not — and my inclination is always to go there. On the other side, Ardan’s character — I wasn’t sure how his character would link into the theme. But I knew there was some kind of anger that he channeled into his creativity. My favorite rappers and artists always do channel some kind of rage in the way they approach the mic. I didn’t see that coming, with Ardan. So many times the voices would surprise me, but many times it seemed to make sense.
What’s interesting is… how many similarities there are between the intentions behind the kinds of violence that we saw in the past, and what happens now… We tend to dismiss the violent intent behind the words, because the words are different, or slightly adjusted, away from the recognizable.
The novel, which explores the immigrant experience, and attitudes toward immigrants, feels very of-the-moment. As someone who grew up in the UK, a country now facing Brexit, how does this story tie into what is currently happening?
That’s really difficult. It’s so strange how certain things are in the book that seem topical. When I was writing, the murder of Lee Rigby was one of the first lone-wolf attacks in London, or across Europe. But as a writer, there’s no way you can sit down and say “oh yeah, this will be a thing in a couple of years.” What’s interesting is, for all the research I did, with Nelson’s story, and Caroline’s, seeing how many similarities there are between the intentions behind the kinds of violence that we saw in the past, and what happens now. Conflicts stay the same, but language certainly does change. What’s difficult is we tend to dismiss the violent intent behind the words, because the words are different, or slightly adjusted, away from the recognizable.
The same sort of narratives were peddled by the far right in England, and across Europe — [they] might look and sound very different, and come from different places across society, but the intent and the compulsions stay the same. They might sound uglier in the past. If you look at the violence behind the race riots in the 1950’s in London, the language is stark. It’s right there. They talk about racial mixing. That kind of thing. Things that don’t ever fail to shock you. You don’t hear those words now. But it’s intensely clear when you draw a thread between what’s happened before and what’s happening now.
When I read about Nelson seeing the sign “Keep Britain White,” it made me immediately think of “Make America Great.”
I learned about “Keep Britain White” in school. I remember going to a reading [recently], and someone made [your] point. It speaks to this. It’s different words, but it all rhymes, man. I try to insist that history is not a circle, it’s a spiral. There’s forward movement. Things don’t shake up in the same shape.
You’ve talked before about the complicated relationship between a victim and a perpetrator of crime. How does this apply to your characters?
I think it’s to do with words, but it’s also about the interpretation of certain words. I use the image of Yusuf’s father and how his father’s voice intimately returns to Yusuf throughout as sort of a reminder of an interpretation of certain ideologies, or religions, that tends more towards beauty and humanity. [But] words can be used to be moved towards violence and humiliation. For me, just exploring that multiplicity within religion was a way of speaking towards multiplicities within identities. I mean, Yusuf is an individual who, much like me, grew up in London, and had to deal with multiplicity being normal. It’s basic in a way that can be quite confusing and difficult to navigate your way through.
But perhaps Yusuf’s story, and more generally Nelson’s also, is a reminder to always seek clarity around your individual sense of where you want to head as a person. I think for me it’s important to insist upon not denying an individual’s multiplicity. ‘Cause when it comes to religion, all the context, the people around you, the stories around you, the narratives that sway you this way and that, the words and stories that are around you — it’s incredibly difficult to maintain a sense of individuality; and to insist upon your own path in spite of that sort of push-pull of ancestry and meaning.
I do like how you write about these two versions of some of the characters, like the pack of bullies wearing skull caps and holding the Quran. That what we see on the surface may not reflect the other side of the characters.
I enjoy readers being quite conflicted about who they like within the book. People have come up and said they really loved Selvon’s character. But then I sort of question, I mean really, have you read the whole book? Gotten to the end in terms of how these guys’ stories play out? But if every book I write has that sense where readers come away not really knowing how to feel about certain characters, that for me is wonderful, because that’s how people are and that’s how the world is. And it is messy, and it is a mulch, and that for me is very, very much London.
It’s difficult, I love London, but again it can be an unkind place for a lot of people. There’s a line in the book, “London’s a place you can love, but it won’t necessarily love you back.”
Caroline is one of the primary characters, but the novel is mostly centered around three young men, and around Nelson. Are there particular pressures on young immigrant men? How is their experience different from those of young women?
There is a gendered way to look at extremism. A lot of the so-called lone wolf attacks, across Europe and elsewhere, have been perpetrated by young men. And the pathology around young men — there seems to be a link between people like Michael Adebolajo and school shooters in America. Similar sorts of profiles. And that for me was an interesting way to frame the story, given the themes of extremism and violence.
That for me was what I was looking at, in terms of a story. It’s not a thing a lot of people point to, when events like this occur. Why is it always young men? Is there something to do with a certain stream of violent masculinity that could be attributed towards mass violence? There’s always been a link between domestic violence and mass violence, for instance. And domestic violence is a part of Caroline’s story.
In a book where all I’m really doing is exploring, it’s really interesting for me to explore and make connections and threads between these two things. Between a certain strain of masculinity and violence. That was what I was interested in.
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Hope Reese is a journalist based in Louisville, KY. Her work has been featured in The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Village Voice, Vox, and other publications.
Editor: Dana Snitzky