Interview: Bidisha

The British-Indian author talks about her success, Twitter and refugees

Michael Hornbogen
Bidisha was just 14 when she started writing for UK arts magazines, 16 when she signed her first book deal, and 18 when her novel Seahorses was published to critical acclaim. This month the British-Indian author and journalist – who only goes by her first name – is appearing at The Bookworm International Literary Festival.

You are now in your 30s, how did you cope with publishing your first novel as a teenager?
Before [Seahorses] I had been working for style magazines for two years, and then suddenly I was on the cover of The Telegraph. I was as shrewd as a snake because [at that age] all you have is pure instinct, so I made very good business decisions. Only as a grownup did I realise this was the exception. Between the ages of 20 and 27 I really freaked out. I did nothing for a long time – I floundered really badly. The story is normally that you struggle and build at the start of your career. [But] everything fell into my lap.

In 2008 you published Venetian Masters: Under the Skin of the City of Love, a non-fiction account of your stay with an aristocratic Venetian family. What was Venice like to live in?
It was so intriguing to be on the inside. That sense of rare fication…it was like a Faberge egg. If you go five miles out of Venice you are in a land of industrial estates and supermarkets. [But inside the old city] it’s elegant, beautiful.

The book exposed the family’s prejudices. How was their reaction?
This was an example of a book that happens organically. I never set out to write it. I was reading an extract from my diary a year later and my mum said: ‘That’s your book’. I am sure that the family are a bit cheesed off about it, but I told the truth. If you are going to make anti-Semitic comments after dinner, what do you think, that a journalist is going to protect you? They’re not.

Your fifth book, out this year, is an anthology of writings from asylum seekers that was inspired after you spent time doing outreach at a London asylum and refugee centre. Can you tell us more?
These are people who have been refused permission to stay [in the UK]. Some of them have been in limbo for 11 years. [There is] a guy from the Congo, his family are all dead, he has a degree in criminology, and when he went to the young woman in the Home Office she told him that this is a fairy story he has made up. He can’t work – they are all working off the book, surviving on charity handouts of about £5 or £6 [50-60RMB] a day. Another, from Malawi, saw a man from his village being disembowelled alive. But he used to make jokes all the time and was hilarious.

Why did you decide to create a book from their writings?
Migrants are talked about but they never speak. The moment I got there I met these amazing people and I said, there is no way these words are going to go unrecorded. These are people who went against the stereotype. Their writing is so powerful. I think a lot of books are about coming in and transforming them, like Saint Francis of Assisi. But I did absolutely nothing for these people. They transformed me.

You were a 2013 fellow for the International Reporting Project. How has reporting on global human rights changed your views about the world?
We need to recognise that we live in a totally interconnected world and that the world’s problems are our problems. Talking about style, fashion and music is, of course, fun but I think there has been an enormous resurgence globally of anti-corruption, anti-sexual violence, anti-dictatorship. People are no longer afraid to get out on to the streets. We live in a really exciting time but also a terrible age. An age of galloping capitalism, a climate change era. We are past the age of blindly following – we don’t trust authority. When a politician speaks to us our default is to not believe it. We used to have [Western] world leaders say we are going to start this war and everyone got behind it but, after the Iraq war, people no longer believe that war is a good thing. We don’t want our young people sacrificed.

You have nearly 3,000 followers on Twitter – but do not follow anyone. What do you think about social media?
It does my head in. I am really against the compulsiveness of new media. I think that Twitter is deeply addictive and very low-grade info. It is real death for a writer to constantly react and interact. That is not the creation of new work. I feel like the Internet is dissolving my brain! We have to reclaim lots of very unfashionable things like contemplation – to work slowly. Do you think that Donna Tartt was busy on Twitter while she was writing The Goldfinch? I think she probably wasn’t.

Do words make a difference?
It’s very easy to think that words don’t make a difference but whenever I’ve written about really serious things, the sheer kickback that I receive from the perpetrators makes you think that you are doing exactly the right thing. That is important about journalism – it is tapping into that vein of unspoken feeling. I truly believe that journalism connects people and changes the world.

Bidisha will be at The Bookworm International Literary Book Festival on Monday 10. See event listing for details.

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