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Author Sheena Patel wants to make you feel sick

The author’s blistering debut novel, I’m A Fan, tackles the power struggles of the wider world through the prism of a fucked up relationship. Here, she discusses writing a narrator for the angry and the dispossessed

“When there is nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire.”

 That now-infamous quote begins the song “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead” by the Canadian indie-pop duo Stars, and frequently popped into my mind while tearing through I’m A Fan – the incendiary debut novel by Sheena Patel. It opens with one of the most moreish sentences in recent memory – “I stalk a woman on the internet who is sleeping with the same man as I am” – and proceeds to pull you into the depths of frenzy, as the narrator scrolls and spirals her way through life. 

Following an unnamed narrator entangled in multiple unequal relationships, I’m A Fan is ostensibly about a famous artist who is as unfaithful as he is unavailable. However, it quickly spirals outwards to comment on cultural access, wealth inequality, structural racism, social media, and our obsession with status, to name just a few topics. Self-aware and yet lacking in the filters most people use to communicate – online and off – the narrator pours gasoline on everything in her path and flicks a lit cigarette at it. Of course the flames mostly end up engulfing her, but after sticking along for the ride you kind of come away thinking… well, what other choice was there?

Though we’re living through the worst possible timeline, fiction doesn’t seem to be matching the fury and injustice felt by so many. This is especially true for women, whose perspective is currently characterised by white, middle-class sensibilities of waifishness and withholding. I’m A Fan blows all notions of taste and respectability out of the water, flinging its anger outward in all directions – at the man she’s illogically obsessed with, at her devoted boyfriend, at other women. As unreasonable and unhinged as the power structures she rails against, she’s the person we’re most afraid of being seen as, but secretly wish we could be. At points you pity her, at points you hate her guts, but above all else you will recognise seeds of your own thought processes in her often quite extreme behaviour. In that sense, she’s borderline heroic, unafraid of lashing out and tearing down the gates of good taste and acceptability that would otherwise keep us out.

In her first interview about the book, Patel speaks to Dazed about directly addressing darkness – shame, guilt, the enduring taboo of women on women violence and more – and her desire to make the reader feel sick.

Firstly, I love how brutal I’m A Fan is. There’s a lot of fury in the language that the narrator directs both inwardly and outwardly, which is refreshing, but especially in the context of the recent trend of Relationship Novels By Women, which are often clear cut tales of garbage men. Why did you want your narrator to be a “bad” person?

Sheena Patel: I think ‘bad’ is as limiting as making a story about being ‘good’ or a ‘victim’. She’s bad and good like most of us are (with some exceptions of people who are actually bad people.) I think that grey space is the thing that is most like real life. But having said that, there was a story in the paper not that recently, of a Sri Lankan family who were threatened with deportation. The father was a groundbreaking scientist who worked at the forefront of solar power technology, and the daughter was a borderline genius, with full attendance and straight As. I thought, really? That’s what we have to do to justify our existence? Be excellent, be formidable, be perfect? And even then it’ll be looked at as, meh, OK, so what? When do we get to be mediocre like everyone else gets to be? And I felt sorry for the daughter because she might always think she has to do the absolute most to get not even the bare minimum and this is potentially how you are primed for bad relationships. Society is indifferent and so you see indifference as familiar, something to win over and as a result you get yourself into some bad shit. I thought, let’s make a character who does nothing to deserve to be here in Tory Britain. I was haunted by the discussion around Shamima Begum and by Clause 9, so I thought, OK, let’s lean into this. So it was a political decision as much as it was actually a lot of fun to hang out with someone who gives zero fucks.

There’s a violence in the world that modern books – fiction and nonfiction alike – seem to engage with almost ambiently, but I’m A Fan confronts head-on. In terms of gender, novelists like Sally Rooney unpick desire and power through quiet waif characters who mostly turn that violence in on themselves. And in terms of structural violence, it’s a lot of ‘how to be a good ally’ – a lot of gentle hand-holding and guilt-tripping without outright anger. Could you talk a bit about the language of I’m A Fan, and the need to write so directly, particularly with regards to gender and race?

Sheena Patel: That ambient violence, that softly-softly, is absolutely the privilege of a white character in my humble opinion. The veneer of respectability and politeness disguises violence and the often shameful ways we are with one another. My narrator is on the sharp end of the world, she’s very angry, very dispossessed, an observer on the internet, a fan. Her voice felt slow and then, suddenly, it was as if I was alone with her and she drove everything, she’s bitter and clever and furious. I would think, I wonder what would happen… and would put her in a scenario and then she took over. It was an associative writing process, quite instinctual and made no logical sense. Logic came afterwards. I recently watched Mark Leckey’s To The Old World (Thank You For The Use Of Your Body) at the Cabinet Gallery and watched his films on YouTube after that, and his films are the closest I can describe how it felt writing this book. Obsessively going over and over in minute detail but also sprawling, operatic and chaotic in energy.

Things need to be said directly. We talk around global problems, but we don’t actually say the things we need to say to solve anything – like violence against women. The passive voice is deployed and it’s reported as having no blame, no perpetrator, and I thought, fuck this, [the narrator] is going to say what she thinks is the problem, the way our society is too fucking scared to say it.

Another thing it acknowledges is the violence between women and women, which is something that’s often overlooked in the famous “gender wars”. The inclusion of that felt really integral because it makes all the characters – as well as the readers – complicit, regardless of gender. It underlines misogyny as a sprawling force rather than an individual action. Do you feel that it’s taboo to talk transparently about how women uphold the patriarchy through their feelings towards each other?

Sheena Patel: Thank you for spotting that. We are so tough on women, we expect so much from women, and we have such low expectations of men so they get away with it and as a result women have the capacity to be entirely horrible to one another because we’re left with the shame and the guilt. I think it is taboo to talk about how women are to one another. It’s not the accepted narrative of now to say it. The narrative of now is cuddly, and I don’t know if we are only that, really, when [our access to] power, protection and sex [is threatened].

“The veneer of respectability and politeness disguises violence and the often shameful ways we are with one another” – Sheena Patel

There’s a lot of push and pull in the book. A lot of things the narrator does stem from behaviours, thought patterns and cultural references that will be familiar to people, but then in a sentence will be taken to a dark extreme, like stalking or the narrator carving “fuck you” into a painting by someone she envies. It feels like a question repeated to the reader throughout: do you recognise this, would you do this, what does this say about you? Obviously the narrator is hyper-aware, but was that broader act of self-examination something you actively wanted to weave into the story? 

Sheena Patel: Oh 100 per cent, I wanted to take this shameful behaviour of Insta-stalking your ex’s new girlfriend perhaps many years after you’ve been together, maybe even not talking [anymore], but you keep updated with how she’s doing and then take it somewhere far and dark. I think it’s great if you, as the reader, worry if you could do some of this stuff she does in I’m A Fan because there is a very thin membrane between watching and doing, the thought processes are the same. So. Watch it.

Interestingly the narrator is pushed out of her own story almost immediately. She’s incredibly isolated, always bumping up against one closed-door or another. Do you think that’s a common experience of social media – which, for people without money especially, has illuminated just how many closed doors there are?

Sheena Patel: Social media is only a prism and mirror to our wider society. I was interested in how those systems were accentuated or disguised through the internet. It looks like all the doors are open because you can see everything and everyone doing it, but you’re not at those parties or those exclusive openings. I kind of dread bank holidays and the weekends when you think, oh fuck I’m going to be shown exactly how little people actually want to be with me because there’s some party I wasn’t invited to thrown by someone I feel I know but actually really don’t. But this also goes deeper into access and ease. Ease is a very politically charged idea, and social media does for sure promote the idea of ease as currency.

There are memes on the internet about being ‘the main character’ or having ‘main character energy’ and what if you’re not even the best friend but you’re the background actors who don’t speak who are the texture to everything that happens to everyone else – and that’s who she is in the book. She’s a non-speaking actor in a twisted romance which doesn’t even exist. How do you cope with this outsider status? 

I wanted the reader to feel sick, I wanted to terrify them” – Sheena Patel

The image of teeth in the stomach is repeated throughout the book, depicting an ugly sort of hunger that comes full circle in the end. Do you think we’re trapped in a perpetual state of wanting – by the internet, by capitalism, by the boundaries of class etc? How can we escape that? Would simply ‘logging off’ help?

Sheena Patel: That image developed as a response to Can’t Get You Out of My Head (and all of Adam Curtis’ films really), the idea that governments fear there are dark forces inside of us which need to be managed and controlled, that we humans are fodder for the algorithm and its appetite has been embedded inside us. I took the idea of how we do things or go to places because of the internet, this distortion which drives our behaviour because we need to satisfy it, is where I took the narrator. How often do you think ‘I need to post this, it’ll make me look good on the grid’, and then that fuels envy from others or lust and keeps you looking at your phone? How often do you look at how many people watch your stories, or hope that your crush sees how much fun you’re having and will text you? Even the phone as the object has meant that minerals are mined from other countries. Everything we have is built upon the oppression of others.

As to the perpetual state of wanting, I don’t think that’s social media. I think that’s whiteness and the systems of whiteness we are in, which are capitalism, neoliberalism and colonialism – all of which have led to the climate crisis. So no, logging off would not help. How can we escape? Our governments are nihilistic in their ‘fuck it’ attitude and to be quite honest no one in the Western world wants to give up anything we have. I don’t do anything to help anyone else, I don’t even know where to start.

The chapters are very brief but they’re titled regardless, in short words and phrases that feel almost like captions or posts. Did you want the experience of reading it to mirror the act of doom-scrolling?

Sheena Patel: Well perhaps like captions but mostly they are there to undermine the text or create light relief the way I go to memes to cope with life, because that gallows humour is sometimes the only thing that can really get to the heart of how fucked it is to be alive right now.

At the end, I felt almost relieved to have had so many of my own resentments articulated with such force, but also quite exhausted by it. I’m interested to know how you felt when you finished the book, or after you read it back when it was finished? And if the book is meant to be in some way confrontational, did you want the reader to come away feeling a certain way?

Sheena Patel: You felt exhausted, how interesting. I missed her! I missed writing it and I was sad for a couple of weeks after I handed it in, I didn’t quite know what to do with myself and I still don’t actually. I wanted the reader to feel sick, I wanted to terrify them. I feel like art has become this very safe place where you can interact with it but essentially stay the same because it deals with your topside life and you can feel smart and clever and good. I wanted to write about shame and darkness and things you don’t want to admit to yourself, I wanted to fundamentally rearrange your brain, so I hope I’ve done that. Or come close to it.

 I’m A Fan is out on the June 9 via Rough Trade Books. Pre-order your copy here.