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The Interview: Preti Taneja on her Desmond Elliott Prize-Winning Novel We That Are Young

Posted on 21st June 2018 by Martha Greengrass

As we celebrate Preti Taneja's We That Are Young as the winner of the 2018 Desmond Elliott Prize, we present a special interview with the author.

A spellbinding novel of family, power, corruption and desire, We That Are Young breathtakingly reimagines Shakespeare’s King Lear for present-day India. Here, Preti Taneja discusses a novel that confronts the most pressing issues of cpontemporary society and identity and explores why Shakespeare's universal tragedy still resonates for modern readers.

We That Are Young is based on King Lear, a play often described as Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy. King Lear has been performed more times in the past 50 years than in its entire prior performance history of 350 years:  what drew you to the play as inspiration for a very contemporary novel? 

I studied King Lear at school when I was 17. For the first time I saw, in the classroom, in English literature, in the most highly regarded work in the canon, an example of what my parents had been talking to me about at home: the Partition of a country, huge turmoil; a civil war. I saw daughters being made to perform a kind of perfection for family honour – a pressure that girls carry with them from childhood, and immigrant daughters perhaps doubly so. It was as if the history of Empire and its impact on India, as well as the family dynamics I felt working under the surface of my world were finally being talked about through Shakespeare.

Later, when I was ready to write a novel, the idea was still there. Times had changed – there was even more resonance between the play’s deeper themes and contemporary life, including how I could use it to explore the neo-colonialism of big business and relations between India and the UK. I also discovered Shakespeare’s place in the cultural colonisation of India, which added another layer. The play is a social tragedy; it has so much to say about the banes of our time: patriarchal nationalism and toxic masculinity; ingrained misogyny, the lack of care for the people at the bottom of the economic pecking order, deep state corruption and media collusion in that. By creating complex characters and by drawing on epics such as King Lear, I could show these canonical, universal stories have specific things to reveal about a particular context, forged by Empire.

How did you go about transforming a timeless story into one that resounds with a very immediate urgency?

Research, reading. A lot of listening. I lived and worked on the book in different parts of India including Kashmir, hearing from so many different people in different walks of life about their daily realities. So much of what I saw resonated with parts of King Lear. Everything from toxic smog and dust storms to water shortages, to the women activists fighting an almost impossible system to create social change, often risking their own lives and their safety within the family on a daily basis. People I met filled me with that sense of urgency - sometimes it felt as if I was just there to witness and transcribe. I also backed it up with news articles, books on constitutional and business law, academic research, non fiction and fiction – We That Are Young tracks very close to reality – even the more outlandish parts of Lear – such as violence against women, brutal blinding, or devastating storms, found resonance in contemporary events as I was writing.

In interviews you’ve said about your novel that ‘India as a setting can handle elements of the real and the mythological, the psychoanalytical tradition of the West and a circular sense of time in ways other settings can’t’. When you were constructing the novel, did you have a sense of wanting to create a tapestry, interweaving these different and sometimes competing influences and traditions to get a sense of the multifaceted character of India? 

All countries are multifaceted; in the UK we put great effort into pretending that this doesn’t exist in the mainstream. We create elite, dangerous environments by treating difference as exceptional. That kind of blindness, the insistence that there is a ‘normal’ or desirable way to be, is a scourge of our society. Lear is a revelation of a different Britain: there are appeals to pagan gods of the sky, the stars, there’s a Christian undertow, there’s a sense of the demonic world responsible for the nature of ‘bad’ characters – right there are the mixed theological roots of English culture. There is also a sense of the play being set in a very contemporary ‘no time’ or ‘all time’. And it’s written with myriad different language registers, which is perhaps a more honest way of thinking about the many accents and backgrounds at play in the UK. Having said that, I do think all of this is much more evident in an every-day sense in India. Hinduism thinks of life and time as cyclical rather than linear as the Christian tradition does; it has various strands of worship within it; India is a country of 22 official languages with hundreds of millions of people speaking each one and worshipping in all the major world religions (and then some). Today that religious and linguistic plurality is being eroded by right-wing religious fascism. Some of that takes its cue from in colonial era laws that are still in operation – there is a direct link between then and now. I wanted to show India’s plurality, and celebrate it, but also explore how power can force such a society to become divided. We That Are Young is a lament, it’s also a call to action.

We That Are Young is divided between the narratives of five different characters: what impact does it have on this story that it belongs not to one character, but to several? 

Writing as a carnival of voices makes room for absurdity and for doubt. I think that makes for more interesting and perhaps more convincing fiction. I want to question: who gets to tell the story? Why? Who controls the narrative? Do we ever really know? That’s where the real power is.

You start the story with Jivan, a character who – having spent several years growing up in America – both belongs and is also an outsider. Why did you choose to begin with his perspective?

The play begins with Edmund coming ‘home’ yet he is such an outsider in his views and ostracized because of an accident of birth (he’s illegitimate). A character such as Jivan, coming into India with an outsider gaze gave me the chance to critique certain stereotypes of the place as seen in Western films for example, which have shaped that character’s perspective.  I also felt that readers might appreciate going into this very rarefied world of elite wealth through an outsider from a situation they might recognise – lets face it most of us will never be inside the kinds of homes depicted in the book, no matter how much we are surrounded by images of extreme wealth in magazines and on TV. Jivan was the way in, even though he himself is a difficult character to like.

I found the narrative voices of each of the three sisters - Gargi, Radha and Sita - particularly potent. How important was it to you to reflect three very different experiences of womanhood in this novel? 

There is such great difference in outlook and opportunity between generations of women born across the decades of the late 20th Century: a change that is partly to do with technology. In India it was precipitated by the huge shift from a socialist to a more free-market economy.  To explore the depth of love and its tangles between three sisters in the same family across time was too good an opportunity to miss. The fact they all strive to understand each other, that they love each other and want to stay a family but the world won’t allow it, is their tragedy and perhaps one of all ‘sisters’. Feminism’s biggest challenge is to join hands with our peers across race and religion, to genuinely stand together. 

How interested are you, as a novelist, in the space that exists between familial love and dangerous jealousy?

Those conflicted intimate spaces fascinate me. Hierarchal systems of power where one caste, or family, or one man is at the top create a sense of competition between siblings: it starts very young and suits those in charge: it’s an ingrained practice of ‘divide and rule’. I am interested in that tension between love and jealousy – in terms of exploring what causes it and how, and whether we can resist it. 

Wrapped up in these three women’s stories are established pressures on women around conforming to traditional roles, particularly regarding marriage, sex and motherhood. How important are these mores today in shaping women’s lives in India? Do you think that expectations are shifting? 

Yes – there are some major shifts in culture going on – new films and books exploring women’s freedoms are coming out despite attempted censorship; protests on the ground, feminist websites have thousands of followers – but caste and class still hold a tight grip and prevent real opportunity for structural change. While there are many women who are challenging subjugation and negative traditions in India and around the world, and there always have been, such constraints still have a deep and pernicious grip on the lives of millions of women, rich and poor. The expectation and pressure remains to get married, raise a family, be ‘good’ – in every respect from clothing, social behaviour and sexual activity, being outside the home, laughing too loudly, hairstyles – it’s endless. Rape within marriage is not classified as a crime in India. Dowry, though illegal, still causes deaths. From the legal framework to the lived reality, ‘tradition’ still dictates how women must behave to be valued or maintain safety. Things are changing because women are making it so, but real, lasting change always comes more slowly than it seems, or one might wish. For many women in India and those born in the diaspora, it’s a daily fight.

There seems to have been a real movement towards a new and more open conversation about the social pressures and potential threats to Indian women’s lives and liberty, particularly after some of the shocking headline cases that have emerged about recent sexual violence. What do you think is changing to allow these stories to be told?

It’s time. The technology exists to circumvent traditional gatekeepers. Women have a sense of anger and humour, of their own bodies. We have nothing more to lose and are encouraged by women in other parts of the world speaking up against repressive and abusive power. ‘Enough is enough,’ as my mother used to say. That’s what I think is changing. It’s time. 

We That Are Young powerfully interrogates the changing relationships between money, power and identity, reflected through the concept of ‘Undivided Family’ and patrilineal legacy. How important was it to you in writing this novel to convey the ways in which identity can be shaped and fractured by generational expectation and the traditions of inheritance?

It was very important. Generational damage – the legacy that we inherit – the ways we decide to maintain it, or change it can break us. In a social world with such deep emphasis on tradition, can the elders simply walk away from what they have made, and what they have left those who come next to contend with? I think of Brexit in these terms.

The novel carries an atmosphere of absence, carrying the shadow of absent figures – to what extent do you see this as a novel of haunting?

I think of We That Are Young more as a book about grief. I wrote it with a sense of devastation and of being aghast. I feel furious and broken hearted with the daily realisation of how deeply we are lied to about our freedoms by governments – and how much we collude in that lie because it’s sometimes easier to go along with than question or fight. 

The idea of purity is a myth – female purity in particular – the ghost of Sita haunts the novel and what we know of her is always reported through others. But Kashmir, it’s history as a place and the losses of its people is the real haunting here; that underreported, ongoing conflict links the UK, India and Pakistan, it affects contemporary geopolitics – yes – while on the ground people have been suffering there for 71 years. The disgrace of that, of Partition, haunts this book.

There’s an echoing refrain in this novel about the power of storytelling: as a way of shaping a life, as ‘blueprint for the future’, as a saleable commodity (‘sell your vision not just the product’) and as a tool of unification or dissent. A story, as Devraj says, ‘reverberates in the telling, as a blessing, a warning or a curse’. How important is the idea of how stories shape lives and societies to We That Are Young?

It’s really at the heart. What else is there, but the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, about others? And where those stories get told, who tells them, who gets to tell them, forms how society understands itself. I read AC Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy when I was at school – of course it is brilliantly argued, but I was outraged by its conclusions (it’s Victorian patriarchal literary criticism at its best). I was like – what? Partly because of Bradley, this play – which is so clear about social injustice and gender fear and violence – has been read and understood as a tragedy of masculinity, about the dangers of overturning the proper order, for a hundred plus years. That story, with its evil witches and perfect angels, its good, loyal men and godless (but attractive) bad boys, never quite rang true for me – and its one that deeply ingrained in our social psyche. In fact, the ending of King Lear is so ambivalent, so strangely qualified. Edgar is among the most dangerous characters in Shakespeare – a man who can take any disguise and justify lies and murder to stay true to his own ideology. By writing, and in my writing, I challenge the dominant narrative. Choosing to do that, in any small way, is one of the last remaining freedoms we really have.  

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