South Asian Heritage Month Spotlight Series: Reshma Ruia
Reshma Ruia is an award winning writer and poet. Her first novel, ‘Something Black in the Lentil Soup’, was described in the Sunday Times as ‘a gem of straight-faced comedy.’ Her second novel manuscript, ‘A Mouthful of Silence’ was shortlisted for the SI Leeds Literary Award.
Reshma's writing has appeared in The Mechanics’ Institute Review, The Nottingham Review, Asia Literary Review, Confluence, Cabinet of Heed, Funny Pearls, Fictive Dream, The Good Journal, Sguardi Diversi and various anthologies such as Too Asian Not Asian Enough, No Good Deed, Love across a Broken Map, May We Borrow your Country, Garden among Fires and MANCUNIAN WAYS among others. Her stories have also been commissioned by and broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Her debut collection of poetry, ‘A Dinner Party in the Home Counties,’ won the 2019 Word Masala Award. She is the co-founder of The Whole Kahani writers’ collective of British South Asian writers.
1. How would you describe your writing for someone who has never come across your work before?
As a writer I want to capture the experiences of a hybrid life-as someone who has straddled several borders and identities (India, Italy, France, Britain), I want to write about characters juggling multiples identities and ways of being. I write about everyday people who are at a crossroads and who are questioning their place in society and are searching for something. Life is a quest to find some kind of meaning in the chaos of existence and I want to write about such a quest.
2. Who are your favourite writers of South Asian heritage and why?
I have long been a fan of Jhumpa Lahiri and Bharti Mukherjee. I admire their nuanced and sensitive depiction of the diasporic life that doesn’t rely on clichés. In fact my PhD thesis was based on their writings. Another writer I hugely admire is Akhil Sharma. He writes in a very clear, straightforward manner but there is a wealth of depth and poignancy in his prose. Lahiri’s ‘Interpreter of Maladies,’ Mukherjee’s ‘Wife’ and Sharma’s ‘Family Life’ are good places to begin for someone wanting to read their work.
3. If you could only recommend one book, whether novel, poetry collection or non-fiction, from a writer of South Asian heritage, what would it be?
I would recommend Salman Rushdie’s collection of essays ‘The Imaginary Homelands.’ Published in 1991, the essays cover a wide range of topics-from the meaning of homeland to religion to commonwealth literature. Rushdie’s impressive intellect and grasp of the vagaries of history is evident on every page.
4. What are you reading at the moment?
I have just finished reading Adania Shibli’s ‘Minor Detail’ and it impressed me immensely. Shibli is a young Palestinian writer whose deceptively simple narrative lays bare the atrocities of occupation and its impact on women in particular.
5. Could you tell us about the role of literature in your upbringing?
We have always been a bookish household. My father was a diplomat and scholar who read widely and eclectically and my mother was one of the first women in India to gain a gold medal in law. Books and education were revered in our home and I have read voraciously as long as I can remember-from Perry Mason to Indian mythology tales to Enid Blyton or the short stories of Rabindranath Tagore. My reading has been eclectic and varied.
Life is a quest to find some kind of meaning in the chaos of existence and I want to write about such a quest.
- Reshma Ruia
6. When did you realise you had a passion/skill for writing?
Writing seemed to be a natural progression from reading. I think I first started writing poems at the age of 11 or twelve. I continued writing poetry and short stories throughout school and was fortunate to win a first prize in a UNESCO poetry competition and the prize was a trip from Rome (where I grew up) to Paris. It was an exhilarating experience especially since I was convinced I saw the poet Shelly just after our train crossed La Spezia, the beach where he drowned!
At university I read Economics and worked subsequently as a development economist with the United Nations but the love of the written word never really left me. I came back to writing once I moved to Manchester and my first novel, ‘Something Black in the Lentil Soup’ was written as part of my Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Manchester. I followed this with a PhD in Creative Writing and Critical thinking from the same university.
7. Do you write in other languages? If so, which languages do you write in and what are the differences you feel in writing in another language as well as English?
I can read and write Hindi, I understand Punjabi-but sadly I haven’t attempted to express myself creatively in these languages. I’m sure my emotional responses to my writing are influenced by my Indian heritage and I am proud of this duality of perspective. I have translated some of my work in Italian and it’s been challenging to convey the spirit of what I intend. I have a huge respect for translators who need to convey the sense and articulate the inarticulate in another language. Language is like one’s DNA- something is lost and something is gained in the process.
8. What advice do you have for emerging writers of South Asian heritage?
Please don’t be defined or limited by your heritage. Write about it with pride and authenticity but don’t feel you need to rely on clichés or tropes of exoticism in order to win readers or publishing contracts. It is still an uphill struggle to get published particularly if one is a beginner- but persevere- keep WRITING. You can write about a Mexican accountant’s pet dog or Tipu Sultan’s last wife or the shenanigans of a lord of the manor- the creative freedom is there. Let your imagination soar.
Manchester City of Literature would like to say a huge thank you to Reshma for taking part in our South Asian Heritage Month Spotlight Series. Be sure to keep up to date with her work over on her official website and on social media.