I’m delighted to be joined by author Radhika Iyer today. Her novel, Why Are You Here?, is published as an ebook by new indie publisher Castles in the Air Press and 10% of all proceeds go to The Immigrant Council of Ireland, a national, independent non-governmental organisation that promotes the rights of migrants. You can find buying links for various retailers on the publisher’s website here.
Welcome Radhika. First of all, would you tell my blog readers a little about yourself?
My name is Radhika Iyer and I was born to migrant Indian parents in Malaysia. I have been writing for about 35 years. I have lived in Malaysia, England, Dubai, and have been living in Dundalk, Ireland since 2015. I trained as an ESL/EFL teacher, taught in Malaysian secondary schools, and then was a teacher trainer in Dubai. I was teaching in a language school in Dublin since I moved to Ireland, but was laid off due to the coronavirus pandemic. I now work as a Resource Officer with the Louth Meath Education & Training Board. I have always been a minority everywhere that I have lived, and the constant ‘othering’ that I have experienced has actually contributed positively in helping my creative juices flow and channeling my experiences into my creative writing.
What inspired you to start writing?
I wrote my first short story when I was around 19 or 20 years old. I grew up in a household where there was domestic violence. In my late teens, I coped with the trauma of that by turning to writing. Many of my early stories featured domestic abuse, and I started using leitmotifs of black shoes and fire. Writing became a cathartic process, as it gave me the power to exacerbate or downplay events. It also allowed me to shape and build my female characters so that they can exert some sort of courage while being victimised.
Tell me about your journey to publication
One of my early short stories, The Unmarried Widow, won a prize in a competition in Malaysia, and was published in a collection of stories by various authors in 1991. Since then, I did not really think about publishing, as I was more concerned about continuing with my writing. When I was living in Dubai, I was advised to get an agent, as by then I had built up quite a vast collection of stories. I sent a sample to an agent in Ireland but did not hear back from them, so I did not try again. In 2020, when I was writing prolifically again, some of my work was featured on RTE Radio 1, a national Irish radio station, and that gave me the confidence to try again with publishers. I sent samples of work to a few publishers and Castles In the Air Press responded positively.
I was very surprised and kept thinking that they would change their mind but they didn’t! It took a lot of courage for me to share my work with them, to talk about my writing, to address questions and assumptions. The editing process has enriched me as a writer and as a person. Castles In The Air Press have actually contributed so much in helping me identify myself as a writer, be comfortable in my various diverse ‘skins’, and retain my voice and style.
In a nutshell, what is your book about?
All the stories in my book are told by female narrators who are struggling in some way or other, voicing their anguish, but also displaying strength in their actions and decisions. The themes that run through most of the stories are domestic violence, discrimination, body acceptance, and identity struggle. The females in these stories are fighting to belong, to be accepted, to blend in, but more importantly, to be celebrated.
How did you come up with the title for your book?
The title of the book is the title of one of the stories. My publisher and I considered ‘Bride of Flames’, ‘A Bonfire of Shoes’, ‘A Circle of Colour’, and ‘Why are you Here?’ The first three are incredibly visual titles but we finally settled on ‘Why are you Here?’, as it encapsulates the struggle of the protagonists in each of the stories, but more importantly, it is a question that is very current in terms of diversity and discrimination issues, and the place of people of colour within Irish society. I am also extremely proud of the story ‘Why are you here?’ as it is my first story that is almost completely dialogue-driven and went on to make the Cranked Anvil shortlist in October 2020. It is quite different from the other stories in terms of theme, as it delves into the relationship between two women mainly through dialogue. ‘Why am I here?’ is a question that each of my female narrators can ask themselves in their respective situations.
Did you celebrate publication day?
The launch of the book was on August 1st – just two days after my birthday. I was in Belfast with my daughter that weekend. We went out for dinner and celebrated with champagne and cocktails. I have a few celebrations planned in August with my son, and other friends in Dublin and elsewhere. I have chosen to have separate celebrations because I don’t really want to throw a party during these strange and difficult times, and it allows me the opportunity to stretch out the celebrations as long as possible!
Do you have a work in progress just now?
I am currently continuing to write short stories. Although I lived and studied in England for six years from the age of 18 to 24, I have never actually set any of my stories in England. When this collection was finalised for publication, I asked myself why I don’t have stories set in England, when those six years were perhaps the most formative of my life? So, I am trying to write a couple of stories that are set in England. I am also experimenting with a male narrative and seeing how that goes. It is quite challenging!
What one book would you recommend to a friend and why?
I would definitely recommend Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other. The style, structure and narrative are unique and innovative. The various voices of women who are struggling to belong, be accepted, be loved, and to succeed are beautifully rendered. I also really love the presentation of women as perfect but also flawed. Finally, the way all the narrators weave in and out of each other’s stories and the way they are all connected shows off Evaristo’s talent and unmatched ability.
What are you reading just now?
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet. It explores the struggle of identical African-American twins living in an American town which is full of light-skinned black people. The main themes of identity crisis and acceptance resonate with me, as the protagonists sacrifice their true selves to fit into a community. I am only a few pages in but I am loving the simple prose and characterisations. Next on my list are Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi and The Burning by Megha Majumdar.
If you were on Desert Island Discs, what one book would you take with you?
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. I have read this book twice but I keep discovering new things. Rushdie’s prose is simply stunning and his use of magic realism to tell the story of one man in a divided sub-continent will never cease to fascinate me! I will read this book again and again, and keep detecting prose that helps me take flight to a totally different realm, where it is difficult to discern what is reality and what are dreams.
Is there a book you’d love to see made into a film?
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. It is a story about love and loyalty set in the backdrop of discrimination in the USA. It also explores family and class dynamics. It would be a film with almost 100% black cast, and I think we need another film like this after Black Panther! I believe the prose would translate easily into a script and the landscape is readily available as the story is set in Atlanta and Louisiana.
How can people follow you or connect with you on social media?
Facebook: Radhika Iyer
Publisher: Publisher | Castles in the Air Press
And finally, if you could be a character in any book you have read, who would it be and why?
I would be Ammu Ipe, the mother of the protagonist fraternal twins in the Booker-prize (1997) winning novel, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. This novel is set in a small district in Kerala, a state located in southern India. My parents were born in Kerala and lived there until they migrated to Malaysia. I only visited Kerala twice as a child, and I have both good and bad memories from my visits. The character from The God of Small Things, Ammu Ipe, is raised in a turbulent household and ends up marrying and being abused by an alcoholic husband. She is a flawed character who makes choices and decisions that are frowned upon, and is finally alone and abandoned. Ammu Ipe is a struggling female in a place that represents an unravelling identity within me. Let me be Ammu Ipe, so I can go through what she has, in a culture and place that are simultaneously familiar and alien.
From the back of the book
Introducing Radhika Iyer’s debut collection, Why are you here? Twelve explosive short stories present twelve provoking female narratives.
Iyer’s unique style is quirky yet powerful, as she illustrates a sense of otherness, as an immigrant and as a woman of colour.
Iyer explores the struggle of being a woman in different cultures, as the stories take us from the harrowing results of a family scandal in Malaysia, to an internal cultural identity struggle in Dubai, to an abusive marriage amplified by the lockdown in Ireland.
This collection is ultimately about the female experience, and being different culturally, and in terms of shape and size.
The women of these stories face their internal and external battles, and as we follow their journeys, we come face to face with the struggle and the strength of women.