At the heart of it are the memories I carry of my mother’s struggle with drink, with men, with her modest dreams
I am a mammy’s boy. I always have been. I never knew my father. My mother was a glamorous, gallus, Catherine-wheel of a woman. She was kind-hearted and house-proud. She was wounded in ways that my love could not fix. My mother was an alcoholic and drink stains all my memories of her. One day when I was 16, she died, alone at home, while I was at school. For such a combustible, sparky soul, it was an unexpectedly subdued exit.
When you grow up with an alcoholic parent, you develop mechanisms – strategies, tricks – not only to survive their illness intact, but to try to save them as well. At a very young age, on nights when her inebriation signalled something especially sticky or ominous, I would try to distract her from the drink by playing secretary with my pad and pen while she dictated her memoirs. She would always begin with a slurred dedication to Elizabeth Taylor. We never got much further than that. While Shuggie Bain is very much a work of fiction, at the heart of it are the memories I carry of my mother’s struggle with drink, with men, with her modest dreams. Thirty years on, I miss her every day.
I grew up to be a textile designer. I had wanted to study English and to become a writer, but in the world of my childhood, boys didn’t do such things. Studying English was middle-class; even the word English was jarring and dangerous in the East End of Glasgow. As a boy from the city’s housing schemes, to have your nose in a book was seen as “poofy” and effeminate – which to be fair, is exactly what I was. I trained in textiles – a solid, Scottish industry – and ended up in New York designing knitwear for big American brands. It felt worlds away from where I had come from. I was proud of my achievement, but I was unfulfilled. I needed to write. My life had split into two distinct chapters that I had trouble reconciling. I missed the boy I had been, the Glasgow that I still love. So I set out writing Shuggie to try to stitch it back together.
It is an attested fact that Glaswegians are the warmest, wittiest, most empathetic people on earth, who inhabit the lushest, louchest, most down-to-earth city in Christendom. (Did I mention we are also very good-looking?) But it’s also true that we can lack self-confidence, that our humility can be paralysing. Because of my upbringing I felt so much like an impostor that I wrote in secret, and told no one (other than my husband). All weekend, early mornings, a few lines on the subway – I tried to fit in as much writing time as I could in the margins of my life around a fast-paced and demanding career. I relished trips to visit factories in the far east because 14 undisturbed hours on a plane was like a writer’s retreat to me.
Men from the west coast of Scotland are not known for revealing their tenderer feelings. Fiction allows me to make sense of things I am unable to express in other ways. It took 10 years to write the novel because I felt such comfort in the world I was creating. I loved spending time with these characters – even the baddest of bad bastards among them. I didn’t want my time with them to end.
The Booker nomination changes everything. I was stunned, I won’t lie. After I recovered from the shock I was just immensely grateful. For me, it is great to see a decade of work recognised. But more importantly, I hope Shuggie’s nomination is a reminder that there is room in a truly diverse publishing industry for stories from all backgrounds and social classes.
The theme of memory had always been central to the novel, but it took on an urgency when my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s
Eight years ago, I began writing Burnt Sugar as a series of fragments, little rafts of refuge from the other work I was doing. I had moved to India to work as a curator and write about art. At least this was the story I was peddling.
The truth is I was completely adrift. Everyone knew it, we just didn’t talk about it.
Art writing felt like a farce; the text could never stand up to the objects themselves, never hold its own weight. I was interested in exploring something else – writing that existed in conversation with, or in resistance to, the art itself.
Fiction became my form of rebellion. I put down the first words in my grandmother’s house, in Pune, the city where the story would eventually be set. The images in my mind were vivid. A mother and a daughter, a woman with a split reflection, a drawing partially erased.
I discovered a pleasure in the process of writing each sentence, a kind of mundane devotion. I could disappear into fiction without having to share it with anyone. Soon it was clear that I was writing a novel, though not a very good one. One draft turned into several, and I began to learn how to write through my mistakes.
The theme of memory had always been central to the novel, but it took on an urgency when my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease four years ago. I burrowed into research about dementia, and what I learned found its way into the book.
The manuscript that would finally be published was written in Dubai, seven years after I had started. I felt like a different person than the one who began writing all those years ago.
When my editor called me with the news about the Booker nomination, I felt a sort of vicarious joy, like the gladness I would feel if someone I’m very fond of was being praised. I suppose this is because there’s a growing distance between me and the book, between the person who wrote it and who I am now. On some days, I feel the readers of the novel fill that gap, and offer me a way to return to it anew.
The fastest way to make [the novel] happen seemed to be to take up parts of my life or things I’d always been thinking about and to set them down into fiction
I started Real Life when I was working in a research lab. At the time, I was focused on writing short stories but my then literary agent suggested to me that I should write a novel. I never wanted to write a novel, but it seemed like I wouldn’t be able to write stories in peace until I had written one, so I gave some thought to the kind of book I wanted to write, and landed on a campus novel because I have a lot of love for that genre and I’ve spent most of my life in and around campuses.
The idea to set the book in the world of science also came from a desire to use what was at hand. I had made up my mind that I didn’t want to spend a lot of time on the novel. I wanted to go back to writing short stories, and the fastest way to make that happen seemed to be to take up parts of my life or things I’d always been thinking about and to set them down into fiction.
Of course the novel changed as I wrote it – fiction always does. I came to really care for the characters and their plights. For the intense five weeks I spent on the book, I did nothing other than write and do lab work, sometimes simultaneously. I’d go from my Word document to sequencing data to the microscope and then back to the novel several times an hour. It was my life for those weeks.
When I was done, I parted ways with that agent and thought the novel would never see the light of day. And then when I sold the book to my publisher, I thought it would have a relatively short life. So it’s been a surprise at almost every step of the way to see the book find its readers and to hear how people have read it and enjoyed it and felt seen or validated by it. I feel that the book has its own life apart from me, and that it belongs to the readers now.
The New Wilderness
I was interested in finding what makes life worth living in a world that is increasingly hostile and inhospitable
I had two preoccupations when I began writing what would become my novel The New Wilderness. To write about the relationship between the natural and the civilised world. And to write about mothers and daughters. I didn’t start out with big ideas about climate change or the urge to write a gripping dystopian tale. My ambitions were simpler. I wanted to explore how nature affects people and changes relationships.
The book began with an imagined place. A large uninhabited swath of land. A wilderness. The last wilderness of its kind. I had the idea at the beginning of my career, when I was still writing the stories that would become my first book, Man V Nature. I spent a day making notes about this place I’d imagined, what the story could be, who it could be about, and then I put it aside. And even though I thought about it a lot, it would be a couple of years before I picked it up again.
I rarely talked about The New Wilderness while writing it, but when I did, I’d describe it as “pre-apocalyptic”. In my mind, the world of the future looked much like today, just way worse. A place where all the things we’re worried about politically, culturally, environmentally, will have already happened because we couldn’t or wouldn’t stop them. But there was no defining before and after moment for the people in my book. No calamity that altered life as they knew it. No attack or virus or coup. It was a slow erosion. Their days would be like ours are now – full of irritations and joys, moments of powerlessness and desperation, but also, and always, reasons to survive. That is what I was interested in as I wrote. Finding what makes life worth living in a world that is increasingly hostile and inhospitable.
As I wrote it, I was riding a long tail of grief for my dead mother. I crossed the country several times trying to find a place that felt like a home, even if only temporarily. And, after the anxiety and trauma of infertility, I became a mother to a daughter and grieved for my mother in a new way. Novels are the kind of art that absorb the time when they are being written and also the time when they are read. A different group of Booker judges reading in a different year may not have noticed this future-gazing book about mothers and daughters and land and power and climate change and the natural world and loss. I’m very grateful that these judges did.
This Mournable Body
The new nation was in tatters – I wanted to examine how Zimbabweans came to be in such a situation
As a pre-teen, the only book I read which told the story of a black African girl was Camara Laye’s The African Child. I was intrigued to see a black girl like me in literature when I read it. I looked for other stories about black girls but couldn’t find them. Being a practical kind of person, I decided to fill the gap. It was important to me to narrate a young black female character who wanted something, who thought she could have it and was prepared to take action to obtain it, even against considerable odds.
This Mournable Body is the third volume in a trilogy. I started writing it in the 1980s, a few years after Zimbabwe’s independence. The hope of a new nation informed the story. After the first volume, Nervous Conditions, was released in 1988 the publisher asked me to write a sequel. I published The Book of Not in 2006, but it was clear to me the story was incomplete.
By the time I turned to This Mournable Body the hope of the new nation was in tatters. It was clear that we were on a downward course and that this descent was sweeping individuals into the abyss. I wanted to examine how Zimbabweans came to be in such a situation. My thesis was that a nation is made up of people, thus a nation can be no healthier than its people. At the same time I wanted to point towards personal responsibility in the choices which people make. I wanted to put women at the centre of a discussion of individual agency. Being shortlisted for the Booker prize makes me feel my efforts and intentions have been vindicated.
The Shadow King
One by one, the women appeared, demanding to be heard. I learned to listen, and started writing again
Picture this: fierce Ethiopian fighters, barefoot and dressed in white, charging at Italian tanks with outdated rifles. They are easy to spot rushing down jagged hills, shouting battle cries beneath a sky grown dark with Mussolini’s bomber planes. They are so vulnerable, yet nearly impossible to kill. In my imagination, this was the Trojan war resurrected on African soil. These men, some of them my relatives, were Homeric demigods, defiant and glorious in their rage. As a young girl in America, African and sometimes ridiculed, I could shut my eyes and see them gather around me: a thousand furious Achilleses shaking off deadly cuts to charge at all our enemies.
The Shadow King grew from these childhood inspirations. While writing my first novel, I took Italian language classes. By the time Beneath the Lion’s Gaze launched, I spoke the language. I moved to Rome to research in the archives, then soon discovered that I was reading a nation’s censored past, a curated portrayal of the war. I reached out to Italian descendants of soldiers stationed in Ethiopia. I searched flea markets for colonial-era photographs. Each photo led me deeper into the pockets of history where ghosts hide. I wrote, inspired by those pictures, by what I thought I could see of the dead.
After nearly five years of writing, the first completed draft of The Shadow King filled me with despair. I threw away that manuscript. I brought out those aged photos. I pushed aside the photographers and leaned closer to the Ethiopians they depicted. A series of lives, once overlooked and silent, stepped out of the shadows and lent me words. They pointed me in new directions and pushed me toward their war.
I discovered a photo of a woman in uniform. And then an article: a woman leading an army into battle. One by one, the women appeared, demanding to be heard. I learned to listen, and started writing again. It was only when I was nearly done with the book that I discovered my great-grandmother had enlisted in the war, too. Family is not immune to its own silences.
I could not have imagined that I would be on the Booker prize shortlist. This year, these past few years, the book has been a refuge for me. I have taken lessons and inspiration from this history. On certain days, the fact that I finished this book, and I am in this place, shakes me anew. I am deeply humbled and grateful. – Guardian
The 2020 Booker prize winner will be announced on Thursday, November 19th