BookBlast interviews Kim Oliver, Kamala Markandaya’s daughter and literary executor, following our review of post-colonial classic, The Nowhere Man.
Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born in Lewisham in south London. Our family home was in Forest Hill, and that’s where I grew up – in the same house from birth through childhood and teenage years. I still see my earliest childhood friend who lived next door – we have been friends for more than sixty years! When we speak of it, and think back, we realise we were born into very much a post-war world, in the 1950s. It seems very drab, looking back. I remember the paintwork upstairs in our house being a dark-grey gloss. I love grey now for decorating, but that grey was so dark and dreary! There wasn’t the choice there is now. Many areas of London (as with everywhere else) have changed beyond recognition, but that part of Forest Hill remains much as it was, being residential. When I was about twelve or thirteen, my mother used to like to drive around to the nearby areas of Peckham and Elephant & Castle, and tell me these were up-and-coming areas – I think she was speculating whether to move there – she didn’t, Georgian housing stock notwithstanding! My father was from Bermondsey and a dyed-in-the-wool South Londoner. When I was older, I managed to move across the river, to East London, to Walthamstow where I lived for 20 years, somewhat before it became the fashionable place it is now. Today I live in Cowes, a lively, cosmopolitan small town on the Isle of Wight.
My career when I lived in London was largely in publishing, in book production; now that I live in a rural community, I have a part-time job doing admin in the office of an agricultural operation that has a tourist attraction side to it as well.
What sorts of books were in your family home?
Lots of novels about India – John Masters, Manohar Malgonkar, Bhabani Bhattacharya – I suspect some may have been review copies. Many copies of my mother’s novels, of course; some of their titles were quite strange to a small child, and I still retain the flavour, as it were, of not understanding what Some Inner Fury might mean. Penguin Classics – Tolstoy, Laclos, Cicero. The edition of Proust with the blue and white covers; Han Suyin; Dom Moraes; Graham Greene. Many are still in my home today.
The books shouldn’t be taken as being fully representative of our reading, though, for the important reason that I was brought up using the public library. I feel I would like to write it in capital letters, THE PUBLIC LIBRARY! Every week, Mum and I would go to Lewisham Library to change our books, order titles, and browse. If I wanted to read a particular book, we would be far more likely to get it from the library than to buy it. My mother’s preferred genres were biography and history.
From my father’s side there were poetry books, of a very old-fashioned kind, with gilt edges to the pages and marbled endpapers.
Your mother, the writer Kamala Markandaya, migrated to Britain from India in 1948. Did she discuss it with you or were her experiences consigned to her novels?
My mother moved to this country because she wanted to write – and be published – and it was hard to do that in a country that had been a colony, and had all its wealth sucked out, for several centuries. India had just become independent but was so poor. I went to India with my mother a few times as a child, and I particularly remember the summer months we spent there in 1967 – I was there for my tenth birthday. Everywhere one saw sick, ill people, people suffering from leprosy, beggars, appalling poverty. India has terrible problems still but not so bad as that. And then there was resistance from my mother’s Brahmin family. What they thought of their unusual, ambitious daughter can only be guessed at. So I can easily imagine my mother would not have been able to pursue her writing career in her own country at that time. She was only twenty-four and came here on her own, and got a job, and soon met my father and married him. Then I came along a few years later.
My mother was a very private person and rarely talked about her personal experiences. She did not discuss with me her experience of moving to Britain. I just remember once asking her whether she considered herself an immigrant – the answer was no, that was not the appropriate word; and we then talked about the difference between being an economic migrant, with the stress and the pressure from external forces that that implies, and just moving somewhere because you’d prefer to live there. She was in the latter category of course, though she never became accustomed to Britain’s climate, and found the winters very cold and hard.
When did you start reading your mother’s books? Did it bring you closer?
It is strange to say, but I really didn’t read my mother’s books during her lifetime. I have said that my mother was a very private person; she never discussed her books or writing with me or my father. She somehow managed to surround the subject with a “force field” we could not cross! At home she tended to have a rather heavy, intimidating personality which very much quashed any enquiry. After her death, I did of course read all her novels. I loved hearing her voice in her writing. That is a wonderful thing about having a parent who was an artist – they live on in their art. They live in the hearts of many, not just the immediate family. My mother’s first book, Nectar in a Sieve, touched so many readers with its depiction of poor people in a rural location, surrounded by and dependent on forces they cannot control, with no buffer against hardship.
Which are your favourite books of hers, and which were your late mother’s favourites?
I have two favourites among her books: A Handful of Rice, which I like because of the sparky, resourceful young protagonist, who fights as hard as he can against poverty and harsh circumstances to have a decent life in the city; and The Golden Honeycomb (dedicated to me!), set in a glittering Indian court on the cusp of change.
I believe my mother’s favourite among her works was The Nowhere Man. Perhaps because it’s the only one set in London, her adopted home town – or because it’s the most hard-hitting.
Was Kamala Markandaya friends with other writers of her generation? If so, who? Tell us some of your memories.
Early in her career, my mother knew Graham Greene, and Paul Bowles – I believe they became friends on a sea voyage from India to Britain. Her friendships were close, but few, and these she conducted by letter to friends in other countries – in particular I would mention Professor Doireann MacDermott of Barcelona University, and Professor Charles Larson of the American University in Washington; they championed my mother’s work in the 1970s and then became firm friends – and are now firm friends of mine, to whom I’m very grateful for their unwavering support of my mother’s work. They are not nearby, however, and I only really realized at the end of my mother’s life that she had become quite reclusive. She had day-to-day contact with some neighbours, but not much more. The written word really was paramount for her.
Are there incidents in The Nowhere Man which you remember happening when you were growing up?
I don’t remember hearing that my mother had experienced racist abuse. She blended into the surrounding British culture. She always wore western dress for day-to-day clothing, keeping her gorgeous saris for special occasions within the publishing world, and as her skin tone was a very light brown, she perhaps could have appeared Italian or Spanish (not that these nationalities are immune from racist abuse). Her western hairstyle (1940s waves) was obviously important to her as she never deviated from it until the very last days of her life. With her great beauty, it made her look like a film star, and lovely-looking people don’t attract so much abuse, do they? However – there are those times when you become aware someone has taken a dislike to you, and you don’t know why; there was no reason for it; the possibility of someone’s racist attitude is there.
Literary executors have an important role to play in the preservation and proliferation of a writer’s work and cultural significance after their death. Did you have a conversation about being your mother’s literary executor before she died?
I didn’t have any kind of conversation with my mother about being an executor, or about anything to do with her books. For the last twenty years of her life, she had been unpublished – that’s a long time. We can’t know what she may have suspected; but she had no concrete reason to assume that any of her books would ever be reprinted in the UK, as there was no interest. And then, as I have said above, my mother did not talk about her personal life or experiences. Perhaps those are the reasons it was not discussed. It is a great responsibility if you feel that your parent’s work is authentic, excellent, and should be more exposed to being read by the public.
Writers sometimes leave an instruction which is not respected later, for example Sylvia Plath had not wanted The Bell Jar to go out under her own name while her mother was still alive. Did Kamala Markandaya leave any potentially tricky instructions?
No tricky instructions were left. My mother wasn’t a particularly easy-going person, but she was about this.
Where is Kamala Markandaya’s archive?
My mother’s papers and books are with me. I asked the Harry Ransom Center, Austin, Texas, who hold many literary archives, if they would like to buy her library, but they weren’t interested. They said they might think about it if I was prepared to donate the books and pay for sending them over there.
Kamala Markandaya’s work is very relevant right now since overt racism and sexism seem to be making a comeback (or rather, were just suppressed . . .). Is the younger generation connecting with her work?
They might be if they’re exposed to it on social media. HopeRoad are doing a great job creating a bit of a buzz about The Nowhere Man on Facebook and Twitter, and no doubt other sites including ones that young people look at.
In India and the USA, my mother’s first novel, Nectar in a Sieve, has been on many school curricula for all these years. Many school students will have read her descriptions of hunger and poverty, which go straight to one’s heart.
What would you say are Kamala Markandaya’s unique qualities as a writer? How come her writing fell into neglect for so long?
As well as a certain clarity of tone and limpidity of her prose, Kamala Markandaya’s writing has a quality of facing things head-on – there is nothing squeamish about her unflinching attitude to racism, sexism, cruelty, and the rest. Her intellectual mind thought things through to their logical conclusion. The Nowhere Man really faces things full-on, and perhaps in the 1970s (a decade which had its full share of violence and sexism) readers were taken too far out of their comfort zone. Today’s readership is very different, I would say.\
I quote Professor Charles Larson’s article in the Times Literary Supplement, 12 October, 2007: “She continued to write novels that placed her among the four major novelists from India who wrote in English during the middle of the twentieth century, a quartet who collectively shaped Western perceptions of the Indian subcontinent – the others being Mulk Raj Anand (1905-2004), R. K. Narayan (1906-2001) and Raja Rao (1908-2006). [. . .] Only Markandaya provided a feminist point of view.”
My mother rejected labels and did not describe herself as feminist, but, of course, that is what she was.
When Salman Rushdie published Midnight’s Children in 1982, Western publishers fell in love with “magical realism”. My mother’s novels, with the possible exception of The Golden Honeycomb, have nothing “escapist” about them and bring the reader up against harsh reality. Perhaps that is a reason her writing fell into neglect. I think another reason is her extreme modesty. She was not one for blowing her own trumpet, considering that her work (or anyone’s work) should stand for itself. She was extremely reticent. However, in today’s publishing climate that isn’t enough, and novelists are expected to give talks and promote their work – indeed, they are contractually obliged to; my mother would have hated that and would have been reluctant to go on the literary festival circuit, which is a pity as I think she would have done it really well. She looked so beautiful in her saris and, I think, was “lionized” somewhat when she first appeared on the publishing scene. Certainly I used to hear a lot about her publisher, Jamie (Hamish) Hamilton, and her agent Innes Rose. Today, I am so thrilled that The Nowhere Man has found a new publisher, HopeRoad, whose imprint Small Axes seems to me to be a natural home for her work.
Your views on book publishing?
It’s great that printed books are flourishing when, a few years ago, it was said that electronic publishing would replace them. Having said that, in bookshops there is a great deal of choice – too much choice – it’s hard for new writers to make their mark. There are so many books which rely on “celebrity”. There’s such a huge market of giftware – books which are designed and sold to be bought as presents, to be given, but which no-one will ever read.
Are Kamala Markandaya’s books available abroad in translation?
Nectar in a Sieve, when first published, and some subsequent titles were translated into many languages. That was a long time ago and currently, my mother’s books are not readily available in translation, except in Italy. Rights are available!
Your five favourite novelists? And your late mother’s five favourite novelists?
Two favourite classic authors are Charlotte Brontë and Charles Dickens. More recent authors: George Orwell, Elizabeth Goudge, and the brilliant Cheshire writer Alan Garner.
My late mother’s five favourite novelists . . . hmm, that is more difficult, since as I have mentioned, she preferred history and biography. Her copies of Cicero and Suetonius are very well thumbed! However:Tolstoy, Cervantes, Boris Pasternak, Graham Greene, Patrick White.
If you could go anywhere in time for one day, where would you go and why?
Sometimes in nineteenth-century fiction one comes across a description of wildlife in a woodland, perhaps as the protagonist is making a journey on foot. The wood is described as teeming with different kinds of birds and animals, not so very shy, peeping out at the walker with their bright eyes and filling the air with their cries. There are also descriptions of farmland at the same period, when, underlying the buzzing of bees and chirping of birds, a deep, profound silence lay over the fields. (Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Webb.) I should like to go back in time and experience this naturally abundant world, at a point before we overpopulated it and filled it with our noise, and wrecked it for most other species.
My first one is: “Have courage, be kind.” And the one I think of somewhat more often: “Bloodied but unbowed.”
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