Diana Evans, author, A House for Alice – “Our lives are inherently political” - Hindustan Times

Diana Evans, author, A House for Alice – “Our lives are inherently political”

BySimar Bhasin
Jan 20, 2024 09:45 AM IST

On London, creating an accurate public record of our time, how domestic circumstances are defined by class, economics, and racial and gender construction, and the yearning for places of belonging

A House for Alice takes forward the narratives of the characters from Ordinary People. Did you always plan on writing a continuation of your earlier novel following its success or was it something that you came back to later?

Author Diana Evans (Courtesy Jaipur Literature Festival)
Author Diana Evans (Courtesy Jaipur Literature Festival)

I did not plan to write a continuation. In fact I thought, when I finished Ordinary People, which took seven years, that I would never revisit those characters as I had already spent so much time with them. But I began to hear their voices talking to each other in my head, and I was still curious about Michael and Melissa’s future – I wanted them to be together and was interested in exploring the reasons why they weren’t. Once I began to hear the voice of Nicole, a new character, Michael’s wife, I decided to venture back into their world, with Alice as the central strand of the story: the inner life of a Nigerian woman contemplating the end of her days away from home was something I had been wanting to write about for a long time.

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The private sphere of domesticity and the public realm of political circumstances come to be inextricably linked in your works of fiction. Is that something you wished to highlight in order to showcase how the personal is inevitably political in the current sociopolitical environment?

I think our lives are always inherently political, whatever the climate – our domestic circumstances are defined by class, economics, and racial and gender construction, which are, in turn, shaped by the political landscape in which we live. For that reason I find it virtually impossible to extricate my characters’ lives from political event, and I sometimes position such events as a frame in which to study their inner lives and psychologies. I do think that now more than ever the actions (and non action) of politicians impact our lives very closely – that is definitely the case in the UK – and I’m interested in creating a public record of our time that is grounded in accuracy and verisimilitude.

London as a cityscape features prominently in the novels. How have the urban landscapes of the city inspired your writing? In your opinion, how has your relationship with London evolved in and through your work?

As a Londoner and a creative I have an innate desire to “paint” the city in the way I see and understand it, the beauty and ugliness of it, the inside and the outside. Setting is generally important in my writing as it can be used to enhance and illustrate the characters’ trajectories, deeming them more vivid and resonant. As time goes on, my love for and attachment to London deepens – it is so full of stories, of fascinating historical material, of cultural multiplicity and a churning sense of change and self-actualisation combined with tradition. It remains an ongoing project to depict within it the people and communities that I recognise, living their lives in the nooks and crannies of their iconic city. My novels so far have travelled around London from northwest to west to south. I still feel like I have lots more to discover and explore.

352pp, ₹2089; Pantheon
352pp, ₹2089; Pantheon

There is an intersection of race and gender which is worked out through your fiction with a sensitive exploration of intimacy. Who are some of the writers whom you feel literarily represent the nuances of romantic relationships when it comes to an authentic depiction of mixed-race characters and their experiences?

I love Jackie Kay’s writing, particularly her short stories, and Bernardine Evaristo’s Lara is an important depiction of a mixed-race experience in Britain. But there is not a whole lot to choose from in the writing of romantic relationships, and there is still a lot of work to do in UK fiction in terms of bringing nuance and idiosyncrasy to narratives featuring people of colour.

To bear witness through writing is an important aspect of your literary endeavours. In a post truth world, what do you envisage as the role of the literary fiction writer and their choices of aesthetic representation?

I would not want to succumb to the proclaiming of a post truth world, I believe we should hold on to truth by naming its continued existence as a bottom line, otherwise we offer power to those who are trying to undermine it. Narratives are made by ordinary people, as well as by artists and politicians. I think the central role of the writer is to manifest their work to its fullest potential in the spirit of compassion and strident awareness, as well as entertainment. Representation is important to me but it should not be imposed on a writer as an obligation – the nature of artistic endeavour is that it should be free, led by spirit, and personal curiosity. In the case of Grenfell, the fire that took 72 lives in Ladbroke Grove in 2017 as a result of corporate and governmental negligence, I felt very strongly that it should be documented and drawn attention to.

How has the overarching feeling of uncertainty following the pandemic shaped how you conceive of characters and situations in fiction?

We were already living in an uncertain world before the pandemic, so I don’t think my thought process around creating fiction has been affected in particular by a new uncertainty. But the feeling of instability in general that arises in human experience is something that I always return to conceptually – how hard it can be to exist in the world, to manifest oneself in a way that feels true and healthy at the same time, and the structures or people we hold on to to reach a possibly non-existent equilibrium or utopia. I have no special interest in writing a “pandemic novel”, though I do believe there are proliferations of them to come in the future. It was an extraordinary thing to live through, history in the making, which seems a recurring feature of our time.

The immigrant figure embodies an act of constant desiring, whether for an imaginary homeland or for the imagined “good life”. Does the representation of various forms of desire itself become a potent mode of literary articulation for political commentary when showcasing the intricacies of the lives of the British black middle class?

Alice’s yearning for her homeland is a framework in the novel for a selection of yearnings for places of belonging, be they physical, geographical, psychological, familial or romantic. The characters seek or expect a place of peace in each other in an environment where their sense of ownership is perhaps contested, both historically and in the present. I am most interested, in terms of writing the black British middle class, in writing against tropes and reductive stereotypes, and observing the ways in which my characters wear their history in their everyday lives, and in their own individual ways. That is one way in which I am writing the political and the personal simultaneously.

Your novelistic writing has an unmistakable poetic cadence to it. How do you work to enmesh the poetic with the prosaic?

I started out by writing poetry in a journal – I found I enjoyed breaking down thought in that way, playing with the words and creating rhythm. So it’s a completely natural element of my writing, not necessarily something I work at. One sentence leads on from another, they have to belong together and fall in an order that feels right to me. It can sometimes be difficult to move forward and I do at times need to remind myself during drafting that “perfection” can come later (I have a tendency towards perfectionism). Before writing I usually read poetry for a quarter of an hour or so, to get me keyed in to the canvas of language and free me up.

What are you working on next?

I’m working on a gathering of my essays and journalism, and another novel, a departure from Ordinary People this time.

You’ll be speaking at JLF 2024. What can fans and audiences expect from your session? What are you looking forward to?

I’m so looking forward to visiting India – a country I have been wanting to go to for a long time – and I’m happy to be featuring in the Jaipur Literature Festival, also for the first time. In my session, I will be in conversation with Malaysian author Ivy Ngeow, who is also based in London, discussing the construction and dynamics of love narratives, and we’ll also be reading from our novels.

Simar Bhasin is an independent journalist.

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