I love writing short stories

My short story Refuge is coming out in Aesthetica Magazine this month. It is my first short dystopian story, and I admire Aesthetica so much, so I’m very excited. This seems like a good time to recap where some of my other stories can be found. I love writing shorts. They are dense, crystallizing human experience into a few chosen words. They need a different focus than novels, a deeper focus on each word. They allow me to experiment with voices and characters that I don’t normally do in long fiction. In novels, my main character is always a woman, and the path of the novel tends to be more ‘genre’, but in shorts my narrators are young, old, men, women, and everything in between, and they tend to follow less of a genre path.

The story Electric Solutions and Miscellaneous appeared in print in Wasafiri, and is about a clerk in Mumbai who dreams of becoming a film star.

The Rangoli Pattern appeared in print in J-Journal, New Writings on Justice, and is about a school caretaker in Manali, a hill town in the Himalayas, who is torn between his desire for a school cleaner and his love for his own company.

Marmite and Mango Chutney appeared in the Berkeley Fiction Review and The Writing Disorder and is about an auntie in London who knows what she likes and even more what she hates!

Mina in the Spring is about a young woman wondering what to say at her father’s funeral, and it appeared in The Front View online.

The Road to Simla appeared in Inkspill and is about a couple who can’t live with or without each other. It can be read on the pdf online.

Anywhere Town appeared in print in Brand and is about three grown up children visiting their father on his deathbed in Manali.

Durga and the Holy Cow appeared online in New Asian Writing and is about a farmer sitting in the shade of a tree, wondering what has gone wrong with his life. A cow tells him exactly where he is going wrong!




The Sublime Cinderella at Hackney Empire

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I woke up this morning thinking what, oh what possessed me to get panto tickets for this afternoon. There are, you might have noticed, only two days in each weekend and once one goes, there’s only one more left. That’s it. It isn’t a bottomless glass. A weekend is a ticking time bomb, with a panic attack only ever seconds away, and the panic only ends when the alarm clock rings bright and early on Monday morning and brings with it impending paranoia about your work, all your colleagues and your purpose in life. The working week has been so hectic lately, not just teaching but dealing with a lot of things that seem to dog the teaching, at least when I’m doing it – counselling students on various eighteen-year-old dramas (I remember mine, that’s the problem), dealing with the fallout from things a colleague said to some students, various meetings and mindless bureaucracy, and goodness knows what else. All I wanted to do today was hide under my duvet and read Outlander (I’m re-reading Book 4 Drums of Autumn at the moment), while keeping my computer open next to me so I can pretend I’m actually working. Instead, no, I had panto tickets. Well, so be it. If nothing else, I could practice the old trick of clapping in my sleep and nodding appreciatively.

But instead I got what I didn’t know I had been waiting for all my life. Step-sisters in drag, played by the outstanding pair Kat B (Queenie) and Tony Whittle (Vic). A Prince Charming (Chris Jenkins) with the most sincerely ardent face since Simba met Nala and discovered he had balls. A rousing rendition of Rag-n’-Bone-Man’s Human by Cinderella’s father Baron Hard-up (Peter Straker.) And best of all a black Cinderella played by the glorious Aisha Jawando. Step aside Disney, you gave us a sumptuous visual landscape in your recent live-action version but not a smidgen of courage or originality. Do please take a few notes from Hackney Empire’s version written and directed by the wonderful Susie Mckenna (who also plays the boo-tilicious step-mother) and unleash the magic.

The cross-cultural romance was played just as it should be – without so much as the blink of an eyelid, like it is totally normal, like it is everywhere, like it doesn’t need explanation or melodrama, and like, grow up Hollywood film producers and stop living in a world that doesn’t exist. We live in a beautifully multicultural world – get over it.

There were nice little references to current affairs. The ugly step-sisters should be called Theresa and May, don’t you know, the queen seems to be hoarding millions in a tax haven in Bermuda, the step-mother (who hasn’t noticed that one of her children is white, the other black) is such an out and out bitch that she voted Leave, and the Prince’s man-servant is European, hence facing impending deportation. Throw in a bit of Strictly action at the ball by having a dance-off between Cinderella with the Prince, and the step-sisters with a dance partner filched from one of the guests. Make the step-mother, the baron and Buttons (Cinderlla’s BFF) step in as Craig Revel Horwood, Shirley Ballas and Bruno Tonioli. Add a few gags about how the Prince’s balls get bigger every year. And you have the whole caboodle.

I found myself grinning throughout, stopping only to spit out my M&Ms everywhere because I was guffawing so loud and to sway to various pop sensations – Adele’s To Make You Feel My Love when Cinderella and the Prince get together, Clean Bandit’s Symphony when they dance together at the ball, Katy Perry’s Chained to the Rhythm, and Queen’s Somebody to Love when the Prince is looking for love. The Prince meets Cinders at a political rally where she is protesting the local penchant for hunting and killing animals, and immediately falls in love with her. They have some (surprisingly) genuinely moving kissy-kissy hand-holdy moments in the woods later. Cinders has a soul-to-soul chat with her FG about how everyone thinks she’s too loud, to which the FG tells her to ignore people who think that “girls who speak their mind are uncouth.” (She’s an FG after my own heart.) There are various antics from Buttons, the step-sisters and the leopard-print wearing, Brexit-voting, boooo-tiful step-mother, and there you have it. Two hours twenty minutes of outstanding fun. If it had been twice as long, I would have happily sat there watching it and maniacally grinning.

David Harewood’s documentary on black Britain

I was horrified to watch David Harewood’s documentary Will Britain Ever Have a Black Prime Minister on the BBC last night (it was first aired a year ago) and to hear the shocking statistics. Not only is there a four per cent chance of a black student getting the three As needed to get into Oxford, but even after achieving the three As, they are still less likely than a white student with the same grades to actually get admission.

Institutionalized racism is unacceptable in higher education. Kehinde Andrews, a professor at Birmingham City, tells the Guardian that racism is endemic in top-level universities in the UK. He says that only 60 out of 14,000 professors in the UK are black. Factors that lead to this kind of inequality include primary and secondary schools where black students are often identified as the ‘problem kids’. There are low expectations from them to start with, and this problem gets worse as they get excluded from opportunities because of their seeming behaviour. But even when they achieve academic excellence, they still don’t always make it through the interview stage. On top of that, when they do make it into university, the curriculum is predominantly white.

Every term, when I teach BA students, I make it a point to talk body politics – I talk gender, race, sexuality, age, culture – I discuss these things with the students, and I see them again and again surprise me by rising to the occasion, by understanding the dangers of stereotyping and blind prejudice, by showing an awareness and sensitivity to questions of diversity. These kinds of conversations are possible and they are necessary. It is also crucially important to include race studies in teacher training for school teachers. Not to teach political correctness, but to make teachers wary of their own stereotypes and prejudices, to broaden awareness of what a ‘good student’ looks like. There is just no excuse for higher education to be prejudiced when in fact they should take on the responsibility to change social and cultural beliefs for the better.


Why I’m disappointed with the print shop episode in Outlander

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This post contains SPOILERS for Outlander Season 3, Episode 6, The Print Shop episode, and the book Voyager

Okay, here’s why I’m a little bit disappointed – and it isn’t because ‘it isn’t the same as in the book’, because having read the books twenty years ago, I had no memory of the details when I first watched the reunion episode.

When we see Claire and Jamie in Episode 6, they have been apart for twenty years. When they meet again in the print shop, you know what I want? I want tears. I want bawling. I want them to cry so much, they start a flood in Edinburgh streets. Inconsolable, wrenching grief is what I’m after. When I watched the hugely anticipated episode, though, I felt underwhelmed. The longing of the first five episodes and the unnecessary extra week of waiting didn’t help this feeling at all.

By the time this reunion happens, there’s a huge build up for Claire, who has been anticipating and fearing the reunion for a long time. Jamie, of course, is blissfully unaware of what’s about to happen and is toodling about town in his shawl, making sweet words with smugglers and trying not to kick Geordie, his goitered shop assistant, every time he opens his mouth. When Jamie sees Claire, he faints. During the episode, both in the print shop and later in the brothel, there is awkwardness, uncertainty, even a bit of anger and jealousy. But in the end, everything comes together (no pun intended) a little too easily. By the time they’re eating dinner, Claire is smiling and flirting, Jamie is sometimes preoccupied by other things. The intense relationship they had twenty years ago, the impossibly long separation, the fact that they have a child together and have lost another one – all this seems to resolve a little too easily for me. There are a lot of smiles, teasing, fingers twirled through hair from Claire. There’s a strange monologue about Willie from Jamie – while it makes sense that he brings him up and also that he feels pride when talking about him, I would think he would be only too aware of Claire’s feelings on hearing this revelation and because of this he would tone down the pride just a tad. Maybe don’t brag about the child you’ve fathered with another woman to a woman who seemingly has not had sex in about fifteen years…just a tip.

So, wanting to compare notes with the books, I turned to Voyager. I first read the books about twenty years ago, so when I watch the show it’s like I’m watching something I’ve already watched before, but whose details I’m only just getting reacquainted with (which just goes to show that the adaptation and the characters are usually spot on.) So, how did the print shop scene unfold in the book? To my surprise, in a flood of tears. Jamie and Claire are living half a life when they’re apart from each other. So when they come together, I expected their hearts to crack – and they do in the book.

In the book, here’s what happens when Jamie comes to from his faint and establishes that Claire is real. They speak – the dialogue in the show is true to the book (the you never touched me bit breaks your heart in the show and the book). Then this is what Claire narrates – I had meant to speak lightly, but my voice betrayed me. The tears spilled down my cheeks, only to soak into the rough cloth of his shirt as he pulled me hard against him. I shook so that it was some time before I realized that he was shaking, too, and for the same reason. I don’t know how long we sat there on the dusty floor, crying in each other’s arms with the longing of twenty years spilling down our faces. Similarly, when Jamie sees pictures of Brianna, he buries his face in Claire’s shoulder and goes very quietly and thoroughly to pieces.

SIGH. GULP. Mop tears. Yup. This sounds just about right to me.

BUT, that said, in many ways when the show has gone off-book, they’ve made exactly the right choice. For example, what’s going on with Diana Gabaldon’s Yi Tien Cho/Mr Willoughby?!? In the show, he is a gentle and respectful Chinese man, though with a predilection for licking a whore’s elbow when finding one in licking distance (I’m not sure you can really blame him). In the book, he’s slightly different. Gabaldon has defended her writing of Yi Tien Cho by saying that we see him from Claire’s point of view, and she is a woman of the 1960s, and not of the 1990s when the books were written. But to me this doesn’t quite cover it. Claire calls him the little Chinese every time she refers to him- maybe that is from Claire’s point of view BUT the thing is, we don’t just see Yi Tien Cho from Claire’s point of view, we see him from Gabaldon’s. We see that he does three quick somersaults and jumps about like a flea when he meets Claire. It also turns out that he has a foot fetish and is almost constantly looking for a way to get Claire and other women to walk on him, allow him to wash their feet and do other unnamed things. Having met many people from China, I can safely say I haven’t met one that did somersaults as a greeting or tried to tickle my feet. So this is definitely cringey-cringe-cringe territory.

The show has made other good choices. There are scenes in the books where lovemaking walks a very thin line between consensual sex and rape. This happens in one scene in the first book between Jamie and Claire, and then again between Jamie and Geneva in the third book. So while most of the sex in the book is delicious, only made more so by the kind of things Jamie says to Claire (it was always forever for me, being the latest), there are some problem scenes and the show has shown impeccable instincts when dealing with these. 1990s Mills and Boon readers may have found the man-uses-aggression-thereby-making-woman-fall-in-love-with-him scenario enthralling, but the 2017 TV audience (with their tweeting fingers warmed up complaining about Game of Thrones sex scenes) just wouldn’t feel the same.

Still, all said and done, I am waiting breathlessly for the next episode…



Why a novel needs something that readers can believe in and root for

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Vague SPOILERS for Outlander (unless you’re current with the show) and possibly Poldark.

So this occurs to me as I watch Outlander (or actually, this week, the show is taking a break – please, someone, explain to me why a pre-recorded show needs to take a break, I can’t understand it! Why are they so mean to us?!) In Outlander, many bad things happen. There is the ongoing threat in the first season from Jonathan Randall, a series of awful things happen in Season 2, and then there are separations and various sad things happening in Season 3. (I’ve read the books, all the way up to the most recent, so I could go on, but you get the picture.) Why, then, do so many people love this show? There are various plausible reasons. Jamie Fraser. The beautiful, sweeping vistas – oh, wait sorry, I already mentioned Jamie Fraser. Scotland. Various, quite interesting and colourful characters (Angus, Murtagh, John Grey, Jenny, Fergus). But I’d say the one thing that makes this show (and the books) so addictive is that I really believe in Claire and Jamie. The way Diana Gabaldon has written this relationship, nothing can break it. Through ups and downs, and various awfulnesses, the love between them only grows stronger.

Compare this to Poldark. I was really into Poldark in the first season. Of course I was watching because of Ross Poldark at first (who wasn’t) but Demelza won me over with her singing and her vulnerable strength. But then Season 3 hit, that thing happened with Ross and Elizabeth and I totally lost interest in the show. Why? Because Poldark is one hell of a bleak, sad, bleak show. The only light in all this Cornish bleakness was Ross and Demelza’s relationship. Once that was shattered, there was actually nothing left to watch for.

Which makes me think, in all stories, we need something to believe in. In The Walking Dead, there is community, in Game of Thrones, there is – I’m not sure what, some characters that you really care for? Tyrion? Jon? Sometimes Dany? Always Arya? I’m really not sure what makes that show so crazy addictive. It’s the human version of catnip. But all of these epic stories have something in common – they give us something to root for, something in which our belief can endure.

Why women can’t live without chocolate cake

See the thing is this. Cake (or your eagle eyes have noticed no doubt, in this case, biscuits from the ever wonderful Whole Foods) helps in all kinds of situations.

You meet someone you don’t really want to talk to (and truth be told don’t really like), eat cake.

Bored, angry, sad, happy, ecstatic? Cake.

That PMS bubbling-under-the-surface rage beginning to surface (and it’s not even that time of the month, so why are you feeling mental?!)? You guessed it, cake again.

Friendships are formed over cake. Tears are drowned in it. Broken hearts melted into it. Many boring parties find meaning in cake. As do interminable office meetings, week-long wedding ceremonies (what are week-long wedding ceremonies, you ask – have you been to an Indian wedding?), “networking” events when you are wishing you had followed your first impulse of staying home and watching Outlander. You name it, and there’s a cake just made for the situation you find yourself in.

Simples. (A word invented by meerkats.)



And then I reconnected with the SI Leeds Team

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Actually, that’s a lie. It can hardly be called reconnecting when you talk/meet/tweet regularly anyway. A year ago, my short story collection won the SI Leeds Literary Prize. Since then, the six wonderful women on the short-list Jamillah, Stella, Harkiran, Fran and Winnie have met every couple of months for lunch – a definite, decided perk and unexpected outcome of the award. Last time we met – just last month – we talked about all things writing, and partners, kids, jobs, travelling, strange people you see on the tube, and more! Oh, did I mention writing? Yes, now that I think of it, we did talk about writing and how everyone is charging ahead with plans for writing and publishing. How exciting!

Since the award I’ve also seen the lovely Fiona Goh again, when Jamillah, Winnie and I went up to Bradford to deliver a writing workshop for Aspire-Igen a few months ago. And now, with the Harper Collins news to share, I’ve been chatting with them again on Twitter, and with the beautiful and fiercely talented Irenosen Okojie, the previous multi-talented winner Mahsuda Snaith, whose The Things We Thought We Knew has come out this year, and the folks at Peepal Tree Press.


I just read a wonderful debut

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A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to visit the offices of Harper Collins and meet their gorgeous, fun, talented editors. The meeting was memorable was a lot of different reasons, the biggest of which was that the team just blew my agent Samar and I away with their passion for books – but also for their courage in championing a new author (with one of those “diverse” names and faces that are so in debate in the publishing industry at the moment)!

Samar and I had a lovely chat with my brand new editor Charlotte Brabbin, and discussed the ins and outs of Frozen, sisters and funny books with the rest of the team – all with the backdrop of panoramic London singing a romance-and-concrete aria for us as we sipped our chai lattes (well, I did anyway, Samar was drinking a mocha latte.)

Best of all, there were beautiful books everywhere. I mean, everywhere. I got so many freebies that they had to give me a bag – that’s all I can say. In any case, in this haul was Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant, which I’ve really enjoyed reading. I’d say for anyone who’s ever been gut wrenchingly lonely, at perpetual war with their parents’ and their persistent voices, or just someone who likes reading about people going into battle against their past – well, this is a book for you.


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