Sometimes stories just capture the wonderful essence of what it means to be human. Of where we find our place in the world, of how we relate to the journeys we’ve been on, and how all of that gets muddled and confused along the way. Still Lives by Reshma Ruia is exactly that book.
Having featured her wonderful short story collection Mrs Pinto Drives To Happiness, I was delighted to read Ruia’s novel, which follows similar themes of identity and belonging, particular relating to immigration. In it, we meet P K Malik, a man whose view of himself and where he fits in his world is slightly out of focus. In his ongoing frustrations borne of what he hoped he would become, we see his struggles with his family and professional life, and his desperate desire to nurture a mango tree in the chilly North of England.
It’s a story of people, places and belonging, brought into sharp focus through Ruia’s captivating style. I wanted to find out more about where her incredibly well-written characters came from, and what she feels are the benefits of independent publishers. Read on to find out more.
This touching family saga plays with notions of identity
The thing that struck me most about your book was its characters. With all their nuance and flaws, it was impossible not to be drawn into their lives and feel their pain, even when they were making terrible decisions. How did you characters come to you and why did you choose them in particular to tell the story of your book?
My writing is always character-driven and I am drawn to characters who are imperfect and slightly damaged. They have layers of history within them and are not classically ‘good’ or ‘bad’. They are also very much products of the world they find themselves in and the choices they make – as migrants, survivors and dreamers.
Your main character, PK, has an incredibly idealised view of how life in the UK should be, while his wife mourns the India they left behind. How do you feel these ideas colour the experience of people moving to the UK and why did you want to write about them?
As someone who has lived across continents and cultures, I can empathise with the predicament of those who live between two worlds. It is incredibly difficult to uproot oneself from the familiar and the familial and start afresh in a place that needs to become home. To rebuild a life and create new memories and plant roots takes courage and conviction and I admire the resilience of those who can do this. And yet – some , like PK’s wife Geeta never quite manage to let go and are haunted by memories of their old life. They live trapped between two worlds.
There was a strong sense of longing in your book. The characters are all reaching for something they can’t have, either an idea of a future or a past that doesn’t exist, especially with their ideals about the country they emigrated from or the UK they wish existed. Why do you think this theme or idea is so strong in your book?
A longing for a better life and for love is a leitmotif that runs through the book. The main character, PK best personifies this. He has an immigrant’s mentality to constantly aspire and do better economically and socially, even his search for love and acceptance reflects this need. The main dilemma that faces PK, his wife Geeta and his new love Esther is – how do they reconcile their youthful dreams with the reality of their ageing bodies and rapidly shrinking horizons? They are caught in a web of self-delusion and lies that has tragic implications for all concerned.
I previously reviewed your short story collection. How did you find the experience of writing a novel different to writing short stories? Any particular advice or ideas that helped you on the way?
Thank you so much for your perceptive review of Mrs Pinto Drives to Happiness. Writing a novel is a long marathon whereas short stories are like sprints. Despite the obvious differences in length and structure, there are certain requirements that remain the same for both – careful research to make sure it is an authentic voice, looking out for inconsistencies in the narrative arc and character portrayal and writing and rewriting multiple drafts until one is satisfied. A novel moreover takes a lot of commitment and self-discipline. Still Lives was nearly ten years in the making and was a long labour of love.
What was your route to publication and what are your writing plans for the future?
I have found independent publishers to be more inclusive and receptive to emerging writers. My short story collection was published by Dahlia Publishing and Still Lives is published by Renard Press. The advantages of working with a small publisher are multiple – the author is involved in every stage of the publishing process from the cover design to the edits. I am now thinking about writing my next novel. I have a little seed of an idea and will let it germinate.
Reshma Ruia is an author and poet based in Manchester. She has written two novels, Something Black in the Lentil Soup and Still Lives which was shortlisted for the SI Leeds Literary Prize. Her writing has appeared in British and International anthologies and magazines and commissioned for BBC Radio 4. Her debut collection of poetry, A Dinner Party in the Home Counties, won the 2019 Debut Word Masala Award. Her short story collection, Mrs Pinto Drives to Happiness is out now. She is the co-founder of The Whole Kahani- a writers’ collective of British South Asian writers.
You can find her on @RESHMARUIA and www.reshmaruia.com
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