Professor and writer
‘Psychology of the Self and the Author’ Panellist for Surrey New Writers Festival 2022
Interview conducted by Lana McIvor
I had the privilege of interviewing Sunny Singh, a globally acclaimed novelist and professor of Creative Writing and Inclusion in the Arts at London Metropolitan University. With a set of impressive achievements and passion for social justice and equality, I jumped at the chance to speak to Sunny about her creative journey and how it has shaped her identity.
- SNWF 2022 is all about Deconstructing the Self – looking into identity. You’re an Indian woman who has lived across the world, in New York City, for example. You have a Ba from the USA, an Ma from India and a PhD from Spain. Your identity is varied and exciting. How does your self inspire your creative ideas or influence your work?
It’s a really strange process to grow up having lived in multiple countries, speaking multiple languages, continuing to live as a global nomad. I think this opens up the way I think of writing, the way I think of creative processes, the way I think of culture. This also means that I read and watch books, films, TV, music, art, etc in multiple languages and from multiple places, which obviously means I have a wider range of influences that are to be seen in my work. My writing often is quite polyphonic, where it addresses different audiences in different ways. So, if you are an Indian you will probably get certain things from my writing that you may not otherwise. I was having a conversation recently about how all the characters I create have particular names. All names have meaning, but in India our names have quite traditional roots and that means there is an entire trajectory and narrative to each name. So when I name characters this is clear to me, but of course there is a greater chance that an individual who is familiar with this practice will pick it up. This isn’t to say my writing can’t be accessed by other people, it is just that it is global and varied. For me, at least, that is a richer way to write and to live.
- Tell me about #WhereBooksGo and what it means to you to see your work all across the world.
WhereBooksGo was used for my last novel, Hotel Arcadia, which was published by a very small press in Britain. There was not a whole lot of PR and publicity funding available, so I though about how I can best get across to people. This was a book that was very international, very transnational, so I was thinking about how to use social media to my advantage (this is 2014, the publishing industry was not all over Twitter and Instagram as it is today). At the same time as I was thinking about this, I was in Egypt. I remember sitting in Luxor, reading my friend Paul Sussman’s last book. Paul had passed away a little before and I hadn’t brought myself to read his last novel yet. As I was sitting there, I thought about how he would have laughed to know I was reading his book in Luxor rather than in London where we normally saw each other. Then I started to think about how great it would be to gain a sense of where people were reading my book. This is where the hashtag was formed! I put it out onto Twitter and said let me know where you read my book! Lo and behold, there were hundreds of responses from Senegal, Hong Kong, Portugal…. It was great because it reminded me how international my work was and it was gratifying to know I was reaching the readers I had hoped to reach.
- Tell me about your most recent work.
This is a really tricky one because I am right at the end of finishing my newest manuscript — a collection of short stories. It covers a period of 100 years, from the First World War to round about now and examines war stories or stories that are set in war but not the sort of standard, conventional war story about the soldier going off to fight and either dying or coming back. I’m interested in how armed conflict impacts people: people who don’t really have a choice or are people who get caught in something and then have to not just survive, but find a way to maintain their humanity under threat. So, mine is a collection of short stories which covers the globe — it goes from Argentinian dirty war to the First World War in Holland, to the Spanish civil war and Syrian refugee crisis. The collection really covers a vast landscape. The ways we can brutalise each other has grown more exponentially. The ways we can brutalise, hurt, kill each other from vast distances without ever looking at somebody in the eye has grown since the First World War. This is the tragedy and the horror of our past century. Yet certain ways about how we relate to each other , how we survive, how we connect, and how we hold onto our humanity, even in face of absolute horror, are some of the things that make us human. This isn’t something I knew or understood before I started the collection, but as the stories have developed I have become more aware of that. The human self is very resilient and incredibly courageous.
- Which of your single authored books was the hardest to write and why?
I have published five books: two non-fiction and three fiction. I find non-fiction easier to write fiction because it’s primarily an intellectual exercise, even though it obviously also has emotional investment in it but for me it’s lower. Each novel has its own difficulties. For me, that has been a journey to recognise.
My first novel took very long to write and was very painful! I was in my twenties, convinced I was writing like the Greats. My ambition was far greater than my skill. It was hard crafting because I had no idea what I was trying to do and I didn’t know how to do it. It was also really difficult because I did not have an agent.
My second, With Krishna’s Eyes, was difficult for other reasons. Mostly because I had left India as an adult and was trying to write about an India that was difficult and changing. I was ambivalent about some of the things that were happening, but I wanted to take part in it. It was a very messy space.
However, I think Hotel Arcadia, was, in terms of crafting and ethics, both the most satisfying and the hardest. Satisfying in that I kind of knew what the process was as I had done this before! Writing about war and terrorism required a lot of research and I wanted to avoid having these topics mansplained to me. So, it was satisfying but a lot of work. Ethically it was the most complicated for me. One of my two main characters is a cis-gay man. I do not identify as this but I wanted to write convincingly, ethically and do this character justice without falling into the usual tropes. With Hotel Arcadia, I started to explicitly think about what my writing did in the world. I always knew that writing could change things, but I hadn’t thought as clearly as to what my writing could or could not do by way of harm. Hotel Arcadia was that moment of deeply thinking whether I should write certain things or not. So, in that way, this was probably the hardest.
- Your research interests include decolonisation, social justice, equality and representation. Can you tell me a little more about your interests on these topics and how they bleed into your creative work?
I think this really goes back to the first question. I was born in a postcolonial India, just a little over two decades after independence. I think it’s worth spending some time thinking about what this independence means. The India I was growing up in was extraordinarily impoverished. At the point of independence, I think about 9% of India was literate. If I remember correctly, 50 years before that, about 5% of the country was literate. So after 50 years of colonial administration, by 1947, another five percent had learnt to read and write. You take a country that is impoverished, is pretty much illiterate, the Cold War is on, and the various tools of post war order (which is a nice way of putting it) have severe impact.
Also, I think we often forget the long tail of hegemonic geopolitical decisions that meant that pretty much every colony that gained independence, not only had centuries of depredation, but they gained political independence with both hands tied behind their back by the geopolitical order. This could mean trading only in dollars, especially for oil, the differential oil pricing based on which side of the hemisphere you are positioned — all of these geopolitical things that meant that not only was that poverty and lack of development acute, but trying to fight it was an almost impossible task.
That I think is the starting point of my political understanding of the world. It was impossible not the see injustice and to experience injustice. Also I was 6 or 7 when India went through The Emergency, which was 18 months of totalitarian experiment, and parts of my family was involved in politics. Interestingly too, India was very closely involved geopolitically with various colonies, former colonies and obviously the Non-Aligned Movement. My interest in politics, justice and the wider sense of equity comes from there. It also helped that some of the cheapest and most beautiful books available in India were Soviet books with a very clear Leftist stance. My favourite childhood book was about a band of misfits who bring down the regime! It all fed into my interests but also into what I write. At the heart of it, is that these structures are unjust and we have to change that.
- I read that you are very close to your brother and sister, you called yourselves a team. I hope this is still the case! How has your relationship with your siblings shaped the person you are?
Ah, yes. So, I am the eldest with two younger siblings: a brother and sister. In the 60s there was a term that sociologists and academics coined: TCK: third culture kid. This was initially applied to children of US armed forces, for officers and personnel were posted abroad, mostly but not always in Europe. Then it became a kind of a wider identifier. Basically it’s the children of people who are often in diplomatic services, travelling and living elsewhere and not growing up in their home countries. My dad worked for the Indian Government and I very much fit that profile. One of the frequent markers of TCKs is that the only people who really understand you and understand the multiple cultures you inhabit are either other TCK’s…or/and your closest family.
That is probably the largest factor of my closeness to my siblings because there’s quite a fair age gap between all of us. We grew up in multiple different places, different countries, and this was pre-technology communication so it was difficult to communicate — we would send letters and postcards. We are very still close because there is a clear sense that we understand things that we wouldn’t find otherwise.
How it shaped me is really knowing that you can trust blindly that somebody has your back. It changes how you deal with the world. How you deal with life. A few years ago in 2014, there was a racist attack in north London. I was with a friend and one of my siblings. Growing up, we used to joke about how it would be great to know who would take a bullet for you. Although no guns were involved, I I now know. I know exactly who would step in for me and take the harm instead of letting me be hurt. That is an extraordinary sense of self and security. It comes from knowing that somebody cares that much for me. It frees you to do things in many ways.
- Have you ever been given a piece of advice that you wish you never received?
Yes, lots! I’ve been constantly told not to put my head above the parapet. When I thinking about and starting to plan the Jhalak Prize, I was told by multiple people that this would destroy me and I would never be published again. I am very grateful because the one person in publishing who has constantly been in my corner is my agent. We’ve worked together for over two decades and she is the person who will never tell me not to do something. She is the person who can tell me ‘how you get published is my problem, your job is to just write’. But these comments were scary enough for me to go to her and say is this an act of self destruction? She was very supportive and said ‘let’s just see how this goes’. But, I am still here… not yet destroyed. It is worth keeping in mind that often people will say these things from a place of fear or other motivations. So it may not be the best advice for you. Look to people you trust.
- What has been your proudest moment and how did that impact your identity as a writer?
I’m not sure I have one of those! There are lots of things that I am proud of. I am pleased that I started the Jhalak Prize and that it is still running. Very pleased that I write, have always written, and been published without fear or favour. I’m proud I did a PhD, the kind with an eighty-page bibliography! But I’m not sure what counts as my proudest moment.I hope it is somewhere in the future. I can say that the things I am proudest of are not necessarily anything to do with being a writer in this world. I’m proud of things that my students have gone on and done — when they are published, of the kinds of stories they tell or when they win awards. I’m proud of my students who go off and do hugely ethical but greatly terrifying things in their lives. I’m proud of them. I’m not sure if these things have changed who I am or impacted who I am as a writer, but they are all elements that I am grateful to have achieved and experienced.
To learn more about Sunny’s role in the 2022 Festival, and to purchase her work, head to her section of SNWF’s Meet Our Guests.
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About the author
Lana McIvor is currently reading English Literature with Creative Writing at the University of Surrey and holds a special interest in romance and drama novels and writing comedic stage-plays. This is her first year with the festival as she takes the position of head writer. When not writing, Lana can be found playing with new recipes in her kitchen.