Interview: Olivia Sudjic, author, Asylum Road
How did the idea behind Asylum Road take shape? I wanted to write about certain self-destructive impulses. The kind of actions you see other people take and which seem irrational to you even though you have your own equivalent seemingly-perverse tendencies you’re likely in denial about. Perhaps you would even do exactly the same in their position. I wanted to explore these impulses through familiar forms of national or collective self harm, such as civil war, the 2008 financial crash, anthropogenic climate change, which are the background to the book, as well as on an individual level -- staying in a relationship with someone who causes us pain or makes us into a person we don’t want to be, attacking our own bodies or letting them waste away, and so on, which forms the foreground of the novel. As I wrote I began to explore one through the other, taking the (often cliched) language from news headlines (“economic suicide”, “collective insanity”, “driving off a cliff”) and thinking about what these phrases might mean literally, on an individual scale. This was both to underscore how much the two have in common and to question the idea that anyone, any group, political party or country, is really exempt from this kind of thinking and behaviour. I’m not critiquing any particular ideological position but the hypocrisy often involved in dismissing one adopted by others who aren’t like us. None of the characters have a private life that matches their public-facing, political one, and in that sense, they have a lot in common. As I wrote the book I was feeling that we all do ultimately have more in common (in terms of our fears and desires) than we like to think once we’ve taken up a “side”. That’s not a novel nor necessarily optimistic idea, just a reminder that all of us have the potential to be bad or make bad decisions. When, for example, do“good” kinds of nationalism become “bad”? I see the novel as taking aim at myths of exceptionalism in that way, and I think the drive to do this, or to explore these questions in novel form, grew from the sense of polarisation and fragmentation in the UK (where I live) at the time of writing it, in the lead up to the Brexit referendum. It’s not about Brexit -- it’s about what I see as universal, fundamental impulses -- but you could certainly say it’s a post-Brexit novel.
The articulation of experienced and inherited trauma particularly when it came to a younger generation that witnessed the horrors of the Bosnian war is done in a nuanced manner. What sources did you draw on for the characterizations of Anya, Mira, and their families? Speaking to my Balkan family about our own history of migration, staying in the region, reading primary texts like Zlata’s Diary (by Zlata Filipović), speaking to those working at the War Childhood Museum in Sarajevo, reading the accounts of childhood psychologists who worked with Bosnian children… lots of different ways. But ultimately, I’m not trying to write non-fiction, and I didn’t want it to read like a history -- because it isn’t, nor is it going to be representative. My main character feels like an outsider to that history, someone who struggles to claim any identity, and she does not try to speak for anyone other than herself.
The narrative sticks to the inner landscape of Anya’s mind even as it touches upon the broader socio-political realities of a globalised world specifically with respect to the immediate consequences of Brexit. How difficult was that to achieve?
The instinct to show how much you’ve read or prove your writing credentials is the enemy of a good novel, I think. I’m a novelist, not a historian, politician or journalist. I’m interested in moods, psychological motivations, and the granular details of people’s emotional lives. In this book I really wanted to focus not on the big stories but to zoom in on the mundane everyday details of Anya’s life. What might seem strange or alien to a reader about Anya’s inner life might actually be like what happens when a microscope magnifies your own skin -- this familiar part of you suddenly looks weird, like the surface of the moon, simply by being under such close scrutiny. Of course, at times I had the urge to zoom out again and start to try and ‘manage’ the reader -- to over-explain the political and historical contexts (which are obviously controversial) -- and the risk of being seen to support exactly what I wanted to question haunted me (still does!). But my editor helped me cut those justifications or explanations back as they crept in, as you doubt yourself or you doubt your future reader, because it was crucial to preserve ambiguity given the themes of the novel. Even the narrator herself is essentially two people. I know that probably leaves the book open to some crude interpretations because I don’t close them off, but it’s better to be misunderstood by some than be too over bearing and defeat my purpose in writing the book, which was the hope people would, as I did while writing it, question their assumptions a little. It’s immensely irritating when a critic reads it counter to the way you intended but that much more rewarding when they see something in it that you didn’t.
There is an almost self-reflexive way in which English is used as a language of representation and its shortcomings in that regard when it comes to articulating realities that lie beyond Western aesthetics. Is that something that has interested you as a reader as well?
This is such a brilliant question! It definitely is. It speaks directly to the way the English mythologise their own past, and how the language, in colonising the world, has allowed them to perpetuate that mythology. I’m not bilingual, sadly, but writing a character who was really helped me to think about this. The way she has these experiences of depersonalisation is both to do with trauma (as when she floats above herself or starts to narrate the story in the third person) and, I think, the way she is attuned to English as the dominant form of linguistic representation -- which can’t encompass what she wants to express or tries to undermine her attempts to deconstruct it. That’s why silence actually plays such a big part in the novel, and how much is left unsaid when she does communicate verbally rather than privately inside her own head. I see the limits of this adopted language as one of the ways I was trying to think about the post-truth and polarisation questions. The scene in which she translates for her Bosnian family and British boyfriend sends her kind of mad because she’s trying to inhabit these worlds simultaneously. The process of having my previous novel translated alerted me to just how limited my understanding of this issue is but also how much I want to expand it.
You have stated that you wished to explore a ‘post-truth idea’ in the novel, showcasing a world where facts have ceased to matter in public discourse. Can you elaborate on this?
I think my definition of it is not so much that facts don’t matter but that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to establish any shared trust of what constitutes a fact. The institutions referenced in the book (academic, scientific, educative, journalistic etc) that we traditionally looked to for this are increasingly undermined. What I was interested in is not just how this affects public discourse but our own private discourse -- either our inability to trust ourselves and, as a result, our desperate grasping for something outside that subjectivity which might give us external validation, or, on the flip side, blind faith in our subjectivity as if it were objective. Anya isn’t troubled by opposing arguments so much as the inability for people to even exist within the same space in order to have them. The road metaphor was an interesting way for me to think about that -- if you strip away the shared trust in other drivers, and if you take away the markings which direct us, you’re left with chaos.
Your work Exposure dealt with the state of anxiety that followed the publication of your debut novel. How important do you feel are the conversations around mental health particularly in an age obsessed with social media?
I don’t know if obsessed is the right word anymore. Look at what’s just happened with Australia and their news being blocked on Facebook. I think now we have to say ‘dependant’. I do think it’s an important question, but luckily, it’s really happening as a conversation. The problem is more what to do about it…
How has the pandemic altered your reading and writing schedules?
WHAT SCHEDULE ??? :) :) I have lost all focus. I have also really found it difficult to motivate myself and I think a part of that is the lack of everyday external stimulus. When I do get outside-world-information, it’s the news, and it’s all terrible, which is paralysing. Not like when I used to sit and people watch in cafes and be inspired to write a scene.
How would you describe your writing process? Any literary influences that have shaped or inspired your writing style?
A strange marathon which is mainly writing notes on my phone for a year or two until sadly at the end I sprint and write the whole book in a few weeks. My influences aren’t particularly conscious but I am the product of all that I’ve read. I would say that reading Lydia Davis first gave me the permission to write in my own voice.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on my next book, Desire Lines, which I’m also doing a PhD on -- it’s supposed to be a hybrid book merging personal memoir and cultural criticism about why we conform (or don’t) to plans and expectations, but the pandemic has really thrown me off course -- which, however annoying, is very on-theme for the book!
Simar Bhasin is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.