This week I’ve been taken all over the world. From India to the USA, completely submerged in one character’s life. I’ve also seen a murkier side of more familiar places – the fragmented ‘Western dream’ as seen through the eyes of immigrants, refugees and people at the edges of our society.
But the stories in Mrs Pinto Drives To Happiness by Reshma Ruia are more than political. The characters were sharp and vivid, in a way I don’t always find with short stories. I found myself thinking about many of the characters long after I’d turned the page, something that doesn’t usually happen unless I read a whole book about them.
Gorgeous cover and lots of praise for this brilliant collection which you can buy here
I urge you to read this bold, vivid collection of stories. Also do read on to find out more about how Reshma creates such complete worlds in so few words, what inspires her tales of difference and her road to publication. Enjoy!
Each of your stories is utterly captivating. I found myself completely immersed in your characters and their worlds, as if I’d read a whole book about them. How do you go about constructing such complete scenarios in your short stories?
Thank you for being captivated by them! V S Pritchett described short stories as ‘something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing,’ and yet they must feel complete, give the sense of an entire life within a limited set of words. I feel it is important for the short story to not only present an intense moment in time but also portray the universe and history surrounding that moment. The reader needs to know the compulsions or the impulses driving the narrative. What motivates the characters to act or think in a certain way?
This should not be done in a deliberate, expository way, but more through allusion. An offhand, throwaway remark or gesture can be like a flashlight illuminating the shadows. In my story, Be a Soldier , for instance, I felt it was important that the reader knew about Mrs Chen’s conservative upbringing in order to understand her subsequent actions. In order to build such a complete scenario – what is left unsaid is as important as what is spelled out.
I loved the way your stories took us all over the world, and allowed us to see into spaces and places that are often marginalised or ignored. Why are you drawn to people such as immigrants, refugees and displaced people as subjects of your stories?
The idea of home, being tethered to a fixed point of reference lies at the heart of these stories. I have always been fascinated by the state of ‘unbelonging,’ that nebulous, twilight space where one can’t quite let go of the familiar before starting afresh. Refugees, immigrants and displaced characters are the heroes of this world.
It takes a particular kind of courage to let go off moorings – not just of a geographical space but also emotional ties. My PhD thesis was on Nostalgia and Belonging – how one creates tropes of home using food, language or clothing. This interest reflects my own hybrid upbringing. Born in India, I spent my formative years in Italy, and have lived in London, Paris and now Manchester.
Although I have adapted to my surroundings, the sense of being an outsider looking in has never quite left me. The characters in my stories are chameleons with multiple identities that they shed and adorn in order to survive and yet at their core is some visceral memory of who they really are. It’s like a kind of muscle memory or a phantom limb that twitches in moments of crisis or loss. Characters such as Pikku in A Simple Man or Yusuf in The Lodger possess an ambiguous peripheral status, which is constantly being judged and found wanting by the host state or society.
A glimpse into inspiration – these are items on Reshma’s desk
There’s a definite tension in your stories between the idealised life of somewhere like the US and UK and the reality of living in these places. What do you hope your readers get from your examination of this tension?
Most of the stories in this collection feature characters who are products of colonial history, the arbitrary almost absent-minded drawings of a centre and a periphery that has resulted in an economic and socio-political hierarchy that continues today. Colm Toibin described these stories as ‘’explorations of conflict in contemporary life – the modern versus the traditional or the individual versus the group or the ethical versus the practical. They dramatise the choices made and the effect of these choices on individual lives.’’ I do agree with his premise.
A journey lies at the centre of these stories – a journey from poverty and uncertainty towards security and abundance. Yet, as we all know from the images of migrants drowning in dinghies or refugees herded like sheep in barbed wire enclosures, the reality of the rich, welcoming West is a fairy tale for those lacking resources to rebuild a new life.
Trapped and exploited in menial jobs without papers, the protagonists of my stories seek ways of giving their life dignity and meaning. These characters are not bitter or defeated, they snatch at moments of kinship and joy and are always hopeful and not defeatist in their outlook.
I think it was important for me to portray them as drivers of their destiny and not victims. They are not just statistical numbers hidden on page twenty of a broadsheet or the tail end of the six o’clock news. These lives need to be acknowledged, empathised with and be understood. We are all guilty of ‘othering’ what is unfamiliar, of reducing it to stereotypes based on a colour or an accent or an article of clothing. In Mrs Pinto Drives to Happiness and in my poetry collection, A Dinner Party in the Home Counties, I wanted to move beyond this reductive definition.
You have an impressive array of writing including two novels and a poetry collection. What do you enjoy in particular about writing short stories and which do you enjoy most in this collection?
Most writers begin as poets, and I was no different. I wrote poems as a teenager. I am convinced I met Shelley when I was sixteen and travelling on an overnight train from Rome to Paris!
Indie publishers like Dahlia Press support local voices and short fiction
I enjoy writing across all three genres. I can never get over the power of words to evoke emotion and open up different worlds. My first novel, Something Black in the Lentil Soup sprang from my Masters in Creative Writing at Manchester University. My supervisor, Michael Schmidt, encouraged me to get it published. I am looking forward to my new novel, Still Lives being published next year. The novel is set in Manchester and is about a family falling apart. It is a sombre exploration of betrayal and belonging and is very different from the lighthearted satire of my first novel. My poetry collection, A Dinner Party in the Home Counties, came out in 2019 just before the pandemic hit and stopped the world.
What unites all three genres is a desire to tell a story, to explore what it is to be an imperfect human – full of longings and flaws. How can one survive in a world where the discourse is still dominated by a few? How does one lead a translated life and still expect to be understood?
I love the ambition and scope of short stories. They present a smorgasbord of worlds and writing styles for the reader to discover and savour. The word limit is a challenge and it requires skill to create a convincing narrative arc that will still resonate with the reader once the story is read.
Choosing a favourite in this collection feels like an act of betrayal towards the others! I think I enjoyed writing the title story. In Mrs Pinto I have created a character who is not afraid to choose her own freedom. Her little act of rebellion signals the start of something new. Another favourite is Springtime in Japan, which is a Pandemic story with a timid protagonist who is determined to return home at any cost.
How did you go about publishing your collection and what advice would you give to writers in the early stages of their career?
These stories grew organically over a number of years. Many have been short/longlisted for awards and while they may span continents and cultures – there is a certain leitmotif that binds them together.
Short story collections are notoriously difficult to publish, particularly if one is an emerging writer. Publishers do not want to take a commercial risk with a new voice and it is non-London based independent presses like Comma Press or Salt or Dead Ink and Dahlia Books who are willing to champion regional and diverse writing. I was very lucky that Farhana Shaikh, my publisher at Dahlia Books, loved the collection and was ready to publish it.
In terms of advice to writers in the early stages of their career, I would say just one word: PERSIST.
Love your writing and believe in it. The rejections will come like snowfall, but don’t be buried in them. Keep submitting to competitions, magazines, anthologies. Build up your presence and find likeminded writers with whom you can exchange ideas and workshop your stories. About ten years back I co-founded a writers’ collective, The Whole Kahani. We meet once a month in-person or lately over Zoom and have produced three anthologies to date. Our third anthology, Tongues and Bellies, which incidentally is published by another Indie press, Linen Press, will be out later this year.
Reshma Ruia is an author and poet based in Manchester. She has written two novels, Something Black in the Lentil Soup and A Mouthful of Silence, shortlisted for the SI Leeds literary award, to be published in June 2022 as Still Lives. 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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