A conversation with BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM
think harder, listen better
Brannavan Gnanalingam is the author of five novels, most recently Sodden Downstream, which was shortlisted for the 2018 Ockham New Zealand book awards.
Brannavan was born in Sri Lanka and grew up in Lower Hutt. He lives with his young family in Wellington and works as a lawyer.
What were the books and authors that meant the most to you as a young writer?
It was film originally that was my big passion and which really convinced me to do something artistically. And there’s a big list of influences: Jean Eustache’s La Maman et la Putain showed me that ‘ordinary’ life can be interesting and compelling, even if it’s four hours of narcissistic bougie French people arguing with each other. The Czechoslovak New Wave (especially Vera Chytilova) and the films of Kira Muratova showed me how to play with tone and how to make political art. Filmmakers like Tsai Ming-Liang, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Edward Yang, Abbas Kiarostami, and Jia Zhangke all blew my mind. And the films of the Aro Digital movement showed me that ordinary New Zealanders can make great, grungy DIY films. My start in writing was writing about all of those films.
Your first novel, Getting Under Sail, was published in 2011. How did you decide to write a novel?
It was by accident. I had been a writer for Salient and a film and music reviewer for some time. I was telling a friend (I have to thank her publicly, Tania Mead) about an upcoming trip I was doing overland from Morocco to Ghana. She asked if I was going to write a book about it. I hadn’t thought about it, and then I thought about it, and then I wrote it. My trip was memorable enough that it made for a book and I guess the rest is (very minor) history.
You are now the author of an incredible five books – how has your writing process changed since Getting Under Sail?
It has changed a lot! I was much more ad hoc with Getting Under Sail, which matched the trajectory of the trip itself. I tried to carry on with that approach for my second book, and it was a disaster. I had to throw that book in the bin after about 110,000 words. I then spent some time thinking and researching and talking to other writers, and I made myself much more disciplined. Loosely, my writing process is as follows: I start with an image, a quote, an idea, and I percolate with that for months on end. I don’t write while I plan and plot and think and research. Once I’m itching to write (and armed with an ending), I start to write. While I write I use a trigger song that I listen to, over and over. Literally, one single song that I listen to for the entire writing process. I then edit and edit and edit and edit and edit. And then edit some more. I then work with Murdoch (my publisher) and Robyn Kenealy (my editor) to knock it into shape.
Tell us more about the trigger songs – what have the songs been for each of your books?
I use trigger songs as a way of getting into a particular writing headspace. It helps when I have limited time and particularly because I write whenever I can, i.e. not under any sort of routine or set time. It does mean I get over the song very quickly, but it does have this weird trance kind of effect. There’s no particular reason why a song becomes the One (or Two): sometimes it’s tone, sometimes it’s just what I was listening to when I first started writing, sometimes it’s completely random. I do occasionally mix it up with a couple, or in the latest book, one song per part. So:
You are also a father, as well as a Senior Associate for Wellington law firm Buddle Findlay. How do you literally fit writing novels in?!
I do get asked this question a lot! I think there are a few components. First, and most importantly, I am very lucky with my support networks and family support. That makes things considerably easier for me to write. I acknowledge not everybody has that luck or privilege. Second, my daughter sleeps 7pm to 7.30am, which is also incredibly lucky and helps someone like me who wakes up at 6am most mornings to find time to write.
In terms of working full-time, it is hard work and I can’t deny that and I don’t want people to think that I’m downplaying how hard it can be. However, I have to put some trust in the processes I have for writing, e.g. the planning, the protection of ‘thinking’ time, the trigger songs, acknowledging the first draft is simply a first draft and not the end product – all these help work around timing constraints. I think, given the limited time I do have to write, I’m more productive when I sit down to write. That said, I’m also very careful to make sure I don’t beat myself up if I can’t write on any particular day. I know some writers say (usually from a position of privilege) to write a thousand words a day, but for most people that’s simply not realistic. I’ve learned to be pragmatic about it and appreciate that sometimes it’s better simply to say, I’m just not going to be able to do anything today. If I can, I might instead think about a character on my bus ride home, or go, I need to veg out to mentally recover from the day.
As to why I became a lawyer, there’s a real pressure growing up as an immigrant’s child that you justify your parents’ expectations for coming here in the first place. I was very lucky with my parents in that they had no outwardly expressed expectations about what I did or how I did it (which is quite rare), but you do feel it. They moved here, not knowing a single person, entirely for their children. There’s an assumption within the Tamil community that the kids go to university and become a professional of some sort.
On top of that, one thing that helps me is knowing I don’t need to rely on writing to make a living. I’m not living in a precarious situation financially, which allows me to write what I want and when I want. I find that way more helpful to writing. Having grown up in a precarious financial state, I’m acutely aware of how destructive and difficult that can be, particularly when you’re also trying to support a family. Hopefully we’ve moved past the position that an artist needs to starve in order to make art.
I also think law is very helpful training. I spend my day using words, playing with tone, responding to a plethora of situations, and crafting narratives. That all helps. While it can be full-on in terms of time commitments, it’s also not something I find emotionally draining – I can mentally leave my job at work, most of the time, and work on my books not feeling any sort of external emotional pull. It also is helpful from a research point of view. I don’t think I could have written about bureaucracy in the way that I did in A Briefcase, Two Pies and a Penthouse without working within government. I definitely could not have written about the collapse of a finance company in Credit in the Straight World without working in that area during the Global Financial Crisis. I guess it’s adapting your quotidian life to your art.
The protagonists of your novels have often been women. Has this been a conscious decision on your part? What is your advice to young writers looking for the confidence to write characters who live outside of their direct experience? What are the pitfalls?
This was a conscious decision after my first book. Many women write great male characters. Why shouldn’t male authors be able to do the same? I knew I had to stretch myself as a writer to become better. It forces me to think harder about the world and listen better. I’ve also always been far more interested in character and themes and ideas, rather than being a prose stylist. I think working through other viewpoints is a crucial part of that.
I’m also desperate never to be a writer who only writes about what he knows – most of those writers end up deep inside their own arses, writing about being an academic or how difficult it is to be an artist, and their protagonists invariably end up being impossibly attractive to younger women. BORING.
This is of course fraught. I certainly don’t think it is something you can blithely do and I’m always petrified about getting it wrong. I did my MA on discourse theory and representation, and I approach each character using some of the skills I learned there. When writing, I have to understand the discursive frameworks around each character, e.g. gender, sexuality, race/ethnicity etc, the way subjects may have been constituted, the specific historical processes that have come to define that person. I have to talk to people and listen – a lot. I also have to accept criticism and be open to the fact that if I get it wrong, I’ve got it wrong and there’s no one to blame but myself.
Your latest novel, Sodden Downstream, draws deeply on your own biography as a Tamil Sri Lankan New Zealander, with a protagonist who has emigrated to New Zealand (and, specifically, to the Hutt Valley) as a survivor of the Sri Lankan Civil War. What led you to tackle this subject now? What are the benefits and challenges of writing about a community and communal history that you are yourself a part of?
It was genuinely terrifying writing about being Tamil and writing about the Sri Lankan Civil War. I felt a burden of representation as being one of the few Tamil writers in New Zealand – if I mucked it up, with my public voice and relative privilege in being a published author, then I’d feel like I’d stuffed it up for all Tamil writers. I know that’s not really the case and I’m only one Tamil voice among many and the aim is for many different Tamil voices to be heard. But it’s hard not to feel that pressure. The Sri Lankan Civil War is such a monumental and inescapable thing for Tamils: it’s the reason for the Diaspora and why we’re spread all around the globe. Everyone lost family members and friends in that genocide. It makes you feel so small simply facing such unspeakable horror.
One other thing that also took me a long time to figure out is whether I was ‘allowed’ to write about this. You doubt you have the requisite authority or the correct experience or, more generally, the right to cover something as big and traumatic as this. This is particularly so given I knew Sodden Downstream would face Pākehā as readers and I’ll be honest, I know most non-Sri Lankans have very little idea about what happened in Sri Lanka. I know the refrain that authors can write about whatever they want, but it’s not as simple as that when you’re a minority writer, especially when you’re talking about something that’s so raw to a lot of people. I knew, for example, that I couldn’t adopt my usual satirical tone that is present in my other books. I’m still not entirely comfortable with my ‘right’ to do so and it’s something I’ll always be tossing and turning over.
So I felt I needed to develop as a writer and become better before I was ready to tackle something as traumatic and personal as that. It was too important to get wrong.
That said, it took me a long time to even consider writing about being Sri Lankan. In fairness, it’s there in Getting Under Sail, and my other books have been about white defensiveness in the face of racism and class. But like many non-white immigrant kids/colonised subjects, I wanted to be invisible and blend in with Pākehā. I didn’t want my difference to be noticeable. But I’ve come to realise that (a) you’ll never be invisible to those who are threatened by you and (b) you just end up becoming invisible to yourself. One of the key moments that triggered the full-scale Civil War was the burning of the Jaffna Library, a kind of symbolic destruction of Tamil stories and culture. I came to feel like I’ve got an obligation to tell specific stories and that’s something that has definitely shifted in terms of the focus of my writing.
Sodden Downstream is an epic journey for your protagonist, Sita, a woman travelling from Naenae to Wellington City on the night of an apocalyptic storm and encountering many different people along the way. In a recent essay for The Spinoff, you wrote that ‘It’s quite trendy for lefty liberals to say that Wellington is a ‘white’ city, lacking in diversity…[but] to call Wellington ‘white’ denies my existence and what I grew up around.’ How consciously did you use the diverse characters in Sodden Downstream to counter the idea of a homogenously white Wellington?
It genuinely annoys me when people say Wellington is white. People often say it to my face as well. I want to say, do you walk with your eyes on the ground? Do you only hang out with white people, because I think the problem is you, not Wellington.
I grew up in Naenae, which is extremely multicultural. I grew up around people of colour. My neighbours on one side were always Māori or Pasifika, the flats behind us were used for refugee resettlement – that was the city that I grew up in. I wanted to represent that and provide a counter to both the overwhelming whiteness I felt existed in many published New Zealand books and the way Wellington itself was talked about. While this is Sita’s story, I was definitely also thinking in the context of crafting this book using polyphonic voices and various points of view.
Two of my other books – You Should Have Come Here When You Were Not Here (about Paris) and A Briefcase, Two Pies and a Penthouse (about Wellington) – looked at racial segregation. I felt ready to write about the rest of us, moving away from being objectified to being subjects (although of course acknowledging that while there are many points of crossover, the stories and discursive frameworks are different). I hope I did it ok!
In another essay for The Spinoff, you commented ‘Most people read to hear different voices, to be transported elsewhere, and to see the world through new eyes. It should therefore be obvious that if our books are meant to be about New Zealand, then we should be trying harder to show New Zealand as it really is.’ Have you seen any of the change you would like to see in New Zealand literature over the last few years? What work is still to be done?
There are so many great and interesting writers coming from the margins, from Māori, Pasifika and immigrant communities. There are still the same issues with gatekeepers and the types of books being published and reviewed. Gatekeepers need to be more proactive instead of simply passively hoping that structural inequalities will be fixed by those with the least amount of power. From an ‘Asian’ perspective, I’m very excited to see writers of such amazing skill like Sharon Lam, Rose Lu, Chris Tse, Raj Chakraborti and Gregory Kan recently create such wonderful inward and outward-looking work. It’s nice not feeling like you’re alone and it’s great to feel solidarity with a group of writers broadening the conversations within New Zealand literature.
What compels and sustains your writing life? Do you have a writing group or a reader who gives you feedback?
I don’t have a writing group. Because I came to writing by accident and not through a more formal way, I’ve been a bit lacking in that formal kind of support. That said, I work very closely with Murdoch and we bounce ideas between each other in terms of our projects. I also have a very close working relationship with Robyn, especially on subject matter and discursive frameworks. I’m also very social, so I’m always surrounded by people and talking projects and ideas, so I don’t feel too bereft.
All of your novels have been published by independent Wellington press Lawrence & Gibson. How did you first come to L&G? And what are the advantages to working with an independent publisher?
Purely by luck! I put some excerpts of Getting Under Sail up on a barely-maintained blog, and a friend of mine saw them and got me in touch with Lawrence & Gibson. My book was sent to Murdoch, who was in Syria at the time. There’s a very graphic stomach bug scene in Getting Under Sail (from when I was in Senegal) and Murdoch was suffering from a stomach bug at the time, so I think we initially bonded over literal shit.
It’s been great being part of Lawrence & Gibson. I love the community aspect of it and feeling like we’re tapping into artistic corners of the city. I’ve collaborated with artists like Paul Neason and Daily Secretion on my covers. Musicians like Womb, Vorn (which devolved into accordion karaoke with Finn Johansson), Timothy Blackman, Don Franks, Grayson Gilmour, the Bent Folk and Ruth Mundy have played at my various launches. And then there’s the other writers: we help each other out with the making of the books. There’s a real collaborative vibe to the process, which is lovely given writing is often so solitary.
How did you find or meet your editor, Robyn, and how does that relationship work as one external to your publishing house?
Robyn was part of a crew of postgrads/tutors I hung out with while doing my MA in film and media studies. There was a lot of critical theory and karaoke. She was already an outstanding and established creative figure, she’s an intellectual heavyweight and she was an editor. So it all seemed to work. I’m particularly indebted to her intellectual rigour, and my books have developed considerably from her feedback. I should also add Murdoch does a considerable part of the editorial work too, so I’m very fortunate to have two brilliant minds look at my books. This approach started with my second published book, You Should Have Come Here When You Were Not Here. I didn’t use Robyn for my first book, and a couple of reviews of that book mentioned it needed to have better editing. Murdoch and I discussed having someone more formal in place. I use her beforehand before sending through to Murdoch. I guess I pay for her upfront but to me it helps me get to a place of confidence that I can show the book to the world. Basically if it doesn’t get past Robyn, it’s not going anywhere.
Lawrence & Gibson have recently published the notable debut novels of two young authors, Sharon Lam’s Lonely Asian Woman and Rhydian Thomas’ Milk Island. As you mentioned, L&G works as a collective, with authors supporting one another in the editing and production of their novels. What involvement did you have with these two new books, and what was the experience of working with and witnessing two authors at the start of their publishing careers like?
While I looked at both Milk Island and Lonely Asian Woman and provided some minor editorial feedback before they were published, by the time they got to me they were both works of genius. I can’t take any credit for how good Rhydian and Sharon are. The fact that those two books exist – given how uncompromising and unusual they are – is simply fantastic. I’m glad Lawrence & Gibson was able to help get them out.
Writers often have difficulty with titles. Have the titles for your novels all come easily? What do you feel the function of a title should be and how do you know when you’ve found the right one?
I’m terrible with titles. I usually rely on Murdoch to come up with them, as he’s a real title man. We usually sit in a bar, get drunk, and bounce title ideas off each other – and Murdoch’s suggestions invariably win. I’ve come to realise a good title should have some sort of tonal or emotional reaction. Like ‘Sodden Downstream’ doesn’t actually mean anything – I mean of course it’s wet in a river – but people really seemed to connect with its ‘vibe’, the heaviness and saturation of the word ‘sodden’, the imaginary distance implied by the word ‘downstream’.
Cricket or writing? You can choose only one!
This is an evil question. Writing! I think. I love cricket, but I have no basic skill in it, so I feel like giving that up wouldn’t be a problem. Although if I formally can’t have cricket, I’ll probably still have Cricinfo sneakily updating away in a corner.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m close to finishing the first draft of a new book. It’s about a private school’s/parents’ attempts to cover up sexual violence committed by some of the school leaders (while also talking from the perspective of the victim). It’s grim and triggering subject matter, so I’m once again very nervous about getting it right. I am however very personally invested in this story. I’m wanting to write it for a variety of reasons and hopefully I do the various strands justice. It’s much bigger and broader than any of my other books. I assume with every book I write, I’m going to get sued for defamation. But this might be the one.