Jyoti Patel, The Things That We Lost: ‘This novel was a reflection of real life’
The author who was born in Paris to British Indian parents and now lives in London talks about belonging, a central theme in diasporic literature, and the inheritance of loss that migration engenders
The Things That We Lost explores the trauma of a British-Gujarati family with hyphenated identities. Did you set out to write a story of belonging, love and loss?
One of the main themes I wanted to explore in the novel was belonging, specifically within the Indian diaspora that settled in the UK via East Africa. There’s often a focus on what’s been gained from that twice migrant journey, but there’s also a loss of place, home and identity to acknowledge.
I wanted to explore characters from this diaspora who belong to many places, or how children of immigrants sometimes feel they belong to a different place than their parents. Love is a big part of the story too, specifically looking at love within friendships, relationships and family, and the grief we experience when those relationships change or fade away.
Though it revolves around family relationships and the grief they cause, the novel is multi-layered. Along with fissures in close relationships, you also dwell on race — what it means to a person of colour in England in the 21st century — and mental health. Were these themes integral to your vision of the novel?
I wanted to write a novel that depicts life as it is — the good bits and the bad. Both mental health and race were topics that were showing up in the non-fiction I was reading but I couldn’t find a great deal of fiction looking at brown men struggling with mental health, or that looked at the experiences of the Gujarati community that settled in London.
I didn’t have a super clear idea of which direction the novel would go in when I began writing, but I knew that these themes would be integral.
Though there is a greater focus on Avani and Nik, the mother and son (who grew up in England at different times in its history: Avani, a young British Indian, in the London of the 1980s, and Nik in post-Brexit-referendum Britain), the relationships between Avani and his mother and brother also propel the narrative. Did you set out to explore the multiple dimensions of the ties that bind us: mother-son, mother-daughter, father-daughter, etc?
In many ways, these characters are a product of all of the people they love and have been loved by. The relationships in their lives define so much of them, particularly at the moment when the reader meets them. I, therefore, didn’t want to home in on one relationship, but rather explore the web of many that surround both Avani and Nik.
Family dynamics and relationships have always interested me — all of my writing, in one way or another, looks at what happens when fissures form between people. Also, as you mention, I wanted to show Avani and Nik almost growing up alongside each other in the 1970s and ’80s London and 2017-18 respectively, to examine what was going on in Britain during those two moments.
The novel fits several categorizations at once: a coming-of-age novel, a well-crafted mystery, and a gripping family drama. Did these categories occupy your mind when you were working on it?
I didn’t think so much about fitting it into genres when writing because I didn’t want to feel constrained or restricted. I didn’t want to think too much about the reader because I felt the pressure of that would have overcooked the writing. I started with the characters and wanted to get to know them fully. Then, I went where they led me.
All the characters in the novel are so well etched-out they seem to have been plucked out of real life. Did you have to work a lot to make them well-rounded and close-to-life?
I spent a lot of time with them, about four years. Even when I wasn’t writing or editing the novel for months on end during that time, I was still thinking about my characters, wondering how they would react in certain moments, wondering what they’d say to each other.
It was great having them with me for those years and I believe that’s why they feel so real to the reader — because I had so much time to really get under the surface of them.
The story is told through the perspectives of both Avani and Nik. How significant was it for you to keep these two strands distinct?
I definitely wanted to keep their stories distinct because they’re such different people. It was a lot of fun to play with their voices and switch from the more meditative and nostalgic passages with Avani to the faster-paced dialogue-heavy chapters with Nik. It allowed me to exercise two very different writing muscles.
I think it’s also worth mentioning that I didn’t introduce Avani’s perspective until the second draft, but it was crucial for the dramatic irony and tension and to have her backstory with Elliot too. The slow and measured reveal of secrets I provide the reader through Avani’s history adds so much.
The narrative flits between the 1990s and 2017, the year Nik is at university. Did you intend to have two parallel tracks to juxtapose the past and present?
I look at life in the 1970s and ‘80s when Avani is a teenager and contrast that with Nik in 2017-18 for two reasons — to make it a coming-of-age story for both of them and also to look at the history of Britain during that time.
I examine the overt racism in Britain in the 1970s and ‘80s and juxtapose that with the quiet micro-aggressions and rise of outright racism too in the wake of the Brexit referendum. I wanted to explore if things have really changed, and how.
The denouement to the novel is quite open-ended. Is it to suggest that there is no closure in real life?
This novel was written as a reflection of real life. That was really important from the start. I didn’t want to think too much about writing into a genre or plotting their story against specific arcs in a writerly way where the primary focus is to leave the reader warm and cosy and satisfied.
I wanted to follow a family torn apart by grief for six months, with flashes to their past, and see where they led me and what they had to say. The ending reflects this too — I metaphorically show how they’ve both grown, how Avani finally opens up to Nik. I leave them to it without having a neat and tidy conversation that wraps everything up because I don’t believe that would have happened in real life.
You are working on another novel around a British Gujarati family living in London. Could you tell us a little more about it? When do you hope to get this published?
The next novel feels like a lighter, funnier read following a British Gujarati female protagonist in her late twenties. Families and secrets are also a big theme.
I want to take my time writing the next book, as I did with the first, because I enjoyed it so much and loved having the characters with me for all those years. It was such a joy taking the time to slowly discover who they were. I’m excited to do the same with the next set of characters too.
In recent years, there has been a spate of novels by writers of Indian descent. Could you name some of your favourites?
Nikesh Shukla, for sure. The Good Immigrant (the collection of essays he edited; a collection of writings by 20 emerging Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic writers, who reflect on the hard life of an immigrant in the UK) was transformative for me. I discovered it halfway through the second draft of the novel and I feel it gave me permission to explore themes of race and identity and belonging in my own writing.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake (2003) was also a big one for me, as was Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar (the story of a troubled mother-daughter relationship, which was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize). I’m also currently reading Gurnaik Johal’s collection of interlinked short stories (woven around migrants across generations), We Move (2022), which is brilliant.
Shireen Quadri is the editor of The Punch Magazine Anthology of New Writing: Select Short Stories by Women Writers