To See A World In A Grain Of Sand : Interview With Reshma Ruia
Reshma Ruia is a British writer of Indian origin and traded a life as a senior accountant for the UN, for that of an author. She holds a PhD and Master’s in Creative Writing from Manchester University. Her first novel, Something Black in the Lentil Soup
, was described in the Sunday Times
as ‘a gem of straight-faced comedy’. She has published a poetry collection, A Dinner Party in the Home Counties
, which won the 2019 Word Masala Award, and a short story collection, Mrs Pinto Drives to Happiness
Her work has appeared in international anthologies and journals, and commissioned by the BBC, University of Cumbria, and Manchester Literature Festival. She is the co-founder of The Whole Kahani – a writers’ collective of British South Asian writers. Her latest novel, Still Lives
was published recently and has firmly established her in my mind as a deeply exciting and significant authorial voice.
For a writer, this outside vision can be a gift, after all, we spend our lives observing and deconstructing the reality we see around ourselves.
Ruia’s oeuvre nimbly orbits a complex ideological mass of perseverating seminal themes, each deftly woven into her literary fabric through the artful telling of her protagonist’s inner conflicts and struggles, to both comprehend and navigate their multifaceted weltanschauung
. Emotionally nuanced, character-driven and suffused with surgically sharp psychological observation, her delicately modulated prose and poetry gravitate around identity as both a concept, and a kinetic force shaping lived reality. I asked Ruia to help me understand her subject matter, and her authorial motivations for addressing it:
“All writers have a whispering voice in their ear that tells them - lay these ghosts to rest. My writing journey and the themes I revisit repeatedly is shaped largely by my own upbringing. As someone who has grown up across continents and cultures, I am drawn to the idea of identity, what makes us who we are -the identity in flux rather than one shaped by a fixed postcode or cultural/geographical DNA.
Identity for me is never black or white, it is multifaceted, and I write about characters who are in search of some kind of stability or acceptance of a version of themselves they can be true to. As part of a global diasporic family, I am always aware of the tussle between different aspects of my identity - is my heart Indian, my belly Italian, or my brain English - these are shifting sands of belonging, a kind of twilight zone of in-betweenness which fellow diasporic will recognize.
For a writer, this outside vision can be a gift, after all, we spend our lives observing and deconstructing the reality we see around ourselves. Of course, identity is linked to the idea of borders - geographical, emotional, and cultural. Borders can bind and define but they can be porous, and it is this cross-fertilization that lies at the heart of most of my writing.”
One of the themes permeating Ruia’s culturally fragranced work is that of family, or more precisely the nexus between personal identity and our relationships with others. Though her stories are intimate personal accounts of her character’s lived experience, their granularity is much like Blake’s ‘grain of sand’ in that universal resonance trumps idiosyncratic singular perspective:
“I am fascinated by human relationships, in particular the family unit and the infinite capacity to wound and heal within these hierarchical and often patriarchal structures. I am interested in the entire arc of human emotions, the delusions we cherish about ourselves and about life. As a society, we have become a pride of peacocks strutting certitude and confidence, but one little nudge – a relationship breaks down, the loss of a loved one, a financial crisis or war, and this entire façade comes crashing down.
Borders can bind and define but they can be porous, and it is this cross-fertilization that lies at the heart of most of my writing.
How do we find our centre of gravity then? This may strike as being overly bleak or pessimistic, but it is not. I write about my characters with empathy and compassion, recognizing their complexity and imperfection, and most importantly their ability to get up after each knock. The Australian author, Thomas Keneally remarked that, ‘Economists think that economic indicators are the metaphor for humanity. Novelists think that stories are the true indicator of human existence.’ I think there is a lot of truth in that observation.”
I have reviewed Ruia’s moving short story collection, Mrs Pinto Rides to Happiness
and her most recent novel, Still Lives
in these pages. In both pieces I dwelt upon her measured, almost aridly spare prose and the conspicuous use of authorial reticence. With a PhD in Creative Writing, it would be all too easy for Ruia to flamboyantly showcase her literary toolbox at the expense of authentic expression. Paradoxically, equipped with the capacity to bedazzle her reader with linguistic legerdemain, Ruia instead draws upon a conspicuously low-key authorial style:
“As a writer I want to be absent from my writing. I want the characters to inhabit the page, so what the reader encounters is the character’s journey and not the author’s. I also don’t want to hold the reader’s hand and spell out for them what is right or wrong. There is a lot of ambiguity in my writing that forces the reader to reach his or her own conclusion. A reader picking up my book, would expect to find as much attention paid to the inner emotional landscape of the characters as the outer.
The writing is character driven as opposed to plot led. ‘Character is fate’- I always remember this when I mull over my writing. The reader will encounter characters who are products of history - dislocated due to war, economic imperatives, or familial obligations. The writing will be spare, visual and not overtly sentimental or polemical. I would like the reader to connect with the writing at many levels- it should entertain, but also provide room for thought and challenge their worldview. In an era of tribal politics and parochialism, I want them to appreciate the common threads that bind us all.”
Novels are marathons and I enjoy delving inside a character’s head, watching their progression...
Maintaining my focus on Mrs Pinto Rides To Happiness
and Still Lives
, I asked Ruia to expand upon her choice of form and how each book specifically reflects her authorial aspirations…
“In every genre, I am trying to understand what makes us tick as humans. How do we make the choices we do, what impels us and what shapes our intention. It is an almost forensic psychoanalysis of a character and the disconnect between the outer appearance and the interior world.
I love the variety and versatility of the short story genre. There is a frisson of excitement in creating new characters, situations, and ways of being - as you can see in Mrs Pinto, the stories move from Rwanda to Japan to suburban America. I love the research involved in building different worlds and its intensity and conciseness. In short stories, language is of utmost importance, every word, every phrase must play a role, otherwise it needs to go away.
Novels are marathons and I enjoy delving inside a character’s head, watching their progression and the workings of their inner world. The process is extremely draining, there is a danger of repetition, banality, cliché-ridden prose and self-indulgent language and a plot that can sizzle and then suddenly fade. It is a challenge to write in a manner that keeps the reader wanting to turn the page, to hold his/her attention and to leave them wanting more.”
Fascinated by Ruia’s artistic aspirations and the candour with which she shared these with me, I asked her to further elaborate upon her writing process:
“I don’t really have a road map to how I write. I envy writers who write as though they are planning a military expedition - with notebooks filled with plot lines and family trees and post-it notes crowding their study walls. My approach is more instinctual and oblique. For me, a story starts with an image, a phrase, a conversation overheard, or an article read. This stimulus is like a seed that I absolutely must nurture.
Authors, if they are blessed by their muse, evolve as creative practitioners.
I have never written anything from beginning to end, not a story or a novel. I write different scenes or episodes and juggle around them. I do have an instinctive sense of how the story will play out and I follow this. The process is different when it comes to the second draft and editing - that’s when my critical antennae are on full alert to spot lazy turns of phrase, inconsistencies in voice, tone and language. I become hyper vigilant and self-critical by the fifth draft of re-writing.
The process is time-consuming and physically draining. I need to be alone in my head. This is harder to achieve than it sounds, and that is why I like the monotony of being alone at home. I always marvel at writers who sit in cafes and crowded places, how do they get rid of the external noise?”
Having explored the academic agencies working upon Ruia’s creative psyche and the process she utilises to voice them, I wanted to figuratively till the soil in which Ruia’s writing roots are embedded. No author writes in a vacuum, ergo appreciating what they have read often elucidates many a nuanced passage in their own writing...
“My reading is very eclectic and global in outlook. As a teenager, I loved Somerset Maugham, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Graham Greene, Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen. Like most writers, I had a shy, introverted childhood spent devouring books as opposed to being in the playground. Books were both anchor and wings, anchoring me to an understanding of the human condition in all its imperfect glory and allowing me to fly into distant places and ways of being. I soon graduated to reading the Russian greats like Chekhov, Pasternak and Dostoevsky.
The writers who seem to have influenced me the most are Alice Munroe, Jhumpa Lahiri, Elizabeth Strout, Raymond Carver and Colm Tóibín - I admire their observational flair and excavation of character. There are no heroes in their writing, only imperfect beings. Moreover, the prose is clear, crisp without any linguistic pyrotechnics and yet compassionate and unwavering in its dissection. I am not interested in science fiction, fantasy, or overtly historical novels; the exception is Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy.”
Authors, if they are blessed by their muse, evolve as creative practitioners. With this in mind I wanted to bring our conversation to a close by asking Ruia about her own creative journey as a writer, and to tell me what projects are currently occupying her indefatigable energy:
“I feel as writers, we are always a work in progress. Writing is a skill that needs honing and one can never actually choose to be complacent and throw away one’s tools and declare, ‘there I have reached the summit!’ Having published two novels, a short story and a poetry collection and numerous pieces in anthologies and journals, I have come to recognise my voice and writing style but I want to keep improving, to keep chiselling away at my craft.
I have several projects in mind, a novel in verse, a novella and a novel centred around a crime. The question is – finding the time to write. Life is the enemy of art. There are only so many hours in which to bring one’s aspirations to fruition. Luckily, writers don’t need to retire! Jhumpa Lahiri once said ‘A book is a life jacket’ and I don’t intend to let go of mine.”