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Jyoti Patel: ‘We can hold space for all parts of our identity’

The author and winner of the #Merky Books New Writer’s Prize discusses her debut novel, The Things That We Lost

‘Trauma’ is a complex concept – ‘generational trauma’ even more so. The idea that the psychological effects of a traumatic event can be passed down from one generation to the next can be difficult to truly understand, especially if you’ve never experienced or unpacked it yourself.

In her debut novel, The Things That We Lost, Jyoti Patel grounds the abstraction of generational trauma in the vivid, tangible stories of Avani and Nik, a mother and son living in north-west London. Nik struggles to come to terms with his father’s death, as his mother refuses to talk about it; Avani strives to protect Nik from suffering, after own mother Agniben tormented her during childhood. Agniben, a Gujarati immigrant, has her own demons too, having moved to England following Kenyan independence and “just weeks after Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech”.

It’s reminiscent of other postcolonial fiction – White Teeth by Zadie Smith springs to mind. Patel tells me she read broadly and voraciously while writing The Things That We Lost: Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi, Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson. “These are the classics of the future,” she tells me. “We should start treating them as such now.”

Patel’s novel was published this January following her winning the #Merky Books New Writer’s Prize in April 2021. “It was really a dream come true, even just to be longlisted and shortlisted,” she tells me. “But to win and to have a book deal was just incredible.” I spoke to Patel about The Things That We Lost, feeling othered, and the importance of representing male friendship in fiction.

I related a lot to Nik, especially the parts concerning his struggle with identity, like this bit: ‘the colour of his skin, only a touch lighter than his mother’s, is tied to a geographical location that he has no real connection with’. I think a lot of second or third-generation immigrants like Nik often end up defining themselves in opposition to whatever situation they’re in, if that makes sense.

Jyoti Patel: When you haven’t had the privilege of growing up in the country that your cultural heritage is tied to, you do have this weird code-switching thing when you’re in different spaces. That was really interesting to me, particularly because when I was doing that in my life, I felt like I was being disingenuous. A lot of the book is about this idea of coming to terms with the imperfections and the complexities of ourselves – in every way, but specifically when it comes to holding space for all parts of our identity without feeling like you have to perform one part more than the other. That was something that I grappled with a lot in my mid-20s when I was writing this.

The novel obviously deals with a lot of subjects like trauma and mental illness head-on, but you don’t use words like ‘anxiety’ or ‘depression’ at all. 

Jyoti Patel: In lots of South Asian cultures, we don’t have the words for a lot of mental health conditions. And by definition, that means that when people from these backgrounds suffer from these conditions, they have no idea what’s going on and they can’t articulate what's happening.

With Nik, he’s mixed race, he’s British Gujarati. So I also wanted to look at the silence surrounding mental health that has historically affected British men, and then also the silence surrounding mental health in Gujarati and South Asian cultures. I wanted to have a marriage of those two things in this character, and see what happens when you have a young man struggling with his mental health who has grown up in two cultures that reduce his ability to talk about it.

It was also really important to me to show a young, brown man cry and be tender and be held by the men around him. Male platonic relationships really interest me because historically we haven’t really seen that so much in literature and art – how often do you watch a film or read a book where you just see a man putting his arm around his mate, or just laughing with him? Men haven’t been allowed the space to be tender with one another within fiction, really.

I saw you said in an interview that the first draft of the novel was told all from Nik’s perspective. Why did you decide to add in sections told from Avani’s perspective?

Jyoti Patel: I quickly realised that it didn’t work because without Avani’s past, we don't get her love story with Elliot. We don’t get to see her side of all the things that she’s holding back from articulating. If it was always only from Nik’s perspective, we’d never get an insight into what those secrets are that she’s holding on to, because she doesn’t vocalise them. It created this sort of dramatic irony and tension between the reader, Nik, and Avani, because the reader can see both sides.

It also allowed me to do a deep dive into what it was like growing up as a Gujarati in Britain in the 80s. Avani is born in 1972, and there’s a lot of stuff going on at that time with the National Front in the UK. I wanted to look at that moment in time in history and the way racism played out quite overtly, and then juxtapose that with Nik’s perspective as an 18-year-old in 2017 where he’s still struggling with the same things that his mum was struggling with in the 80s. It’s this weird pocket of time, following the Brexit referendum in 2016 and the undercurrent of quiet racism that was bubbling away underneath the surface in Britain at that time.

“Men haven’t been allowed the space to be tender with one another within fiction, really”

Nik struggles with how white his university town is, which is totally at odds with the diversity of London. I saw that you went to uni in Norwich, which is quite a ‘white’ area. Did you have a similar experience to Nik at uni?

Jyoti Patel: I certainly did. I went from living the majority of my life in London with a very diverse group of friends, to being in a town where the first thing people seem to notice about me was the colour of my skin. I didn't know how to really respond to that, because I feel like there’s so much more to me than just my Indian heritage. I’m very proud of being Gujarati, but it’s just one of many parts of me.

I remember at the time I was listening to podcasts and reading books like The Good Immigrant, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. One thing that kept coming up was this idea that we stay in cities because when we go out to very rural towns, we do feel ‘othered’ in some way. I realised I hadn’t seen that experience represented so much in fiction. The reason why I don’t name the town Nik goes to is because I’ve heard so many stories about people who go to [less diverse] uni towns who have experienced the same thing, and I wanted it to be universal. I will have readers say to me, ‘that’s definitely Durham’, ‘that’s definitely Exeter’, ‘that’s definitely Norwich’, ‘that’s definitely Lincoln’. It’s so interesting.

Did you ever consider including any sections from the perspective of Agniben, Avani’s mother? She seemed like a very complicated character.

Jyoti Patel: I wanted to keep this story very much about Nik and Avani – one of the things I enjoy most about the story is how deep we get, psychologically, into the two of them. I really wanted to look at this specific relationship between mother and son.

But coming back to your question, yes, Avani’s mother is a very complicated character. A lot of the story is about the relationship between mothers and their children: we have the relationship between Nik and Avani, which is really interesting and complex, but yes, there’s also the relationship between Avani and her mother. It’s a very difficult relationship, which is rooted in the feeling of Avani’s mother seeing her daughter as having assimilated ‘too much’, no longer being ‘Indian enough’, and no longer being the perfect Gujarati daughter. There’s a lot of resentment there.

I wanted to quietly hint that, potentially, Avani’s mother sees her daughter with a sense of freedom and liberation and essentially happiness that she wasn’t afforded herself. But she doesn’t quite know what to do with that, and it comes out as resentment and abuse. I mean… I feel like I could write a whole other novel about this.

The Things That We Lost is published by Merky Books and out now. 

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