An Interview with Reshma Ruia

31 July 2023

Reshma Ruia is an award-winning author and poet. Her first novel was described in the Sunday Times as ‘a gem of straight-faced comedy’. She has published a poetry collection and a short story collection; her work has appeared in international anthologies and journals, and she has had work commissioned by the BBC. She is the co-founder of The Whole Kahani – a writers’ collective of British South Asian writers. Born in India and brought up in Rome, her writing explores the preoccupations of those who possess a multiple sense of belonging.

We caught up with Reshma during South Asian History Month 2023 to talk about her latest novel, Still Lives.

What inspired you to write Still Lives?
I have long wanted to write a novel based in my home town, Manchester, and to draw upon its rich multicultural history. I also wanted to present protagonists who broke the mould of a ‘typical’ South Asian immigrant narrative. My characters come from a middle-class socioeconomic background, and their concerns regarding ageing, loneliness and the search for love are universal preoccupations. Their ethnicity is not their only defining feature.

Are there any main themes or points you want the reader to take away from your book?
Still Lives is very much a character-driven novel. My writing is not so much about the immigrant experience as it is about displacement, in its existential sense. PK Malik, the main character in the novel, struggles with reconciling his inner needs with what society expects of him. I wanted to present characters in conflict. There are no heroes or villains, just ordinary people interrogating the world they live in both outside and within themselves. I want the reader to understand the dilemma of everyday people whose lives oscillate between worlds – geographical, cultural and emotional – in a constant flux, shaped and reshaped by an imperative to anchor to a map or a feeling.

Which other writers do you most admire and why?
I admire Jhumpa Lahiri and Elizabeth Strout for their nuanced understanding of the human condition, Raymond Carver for the clarity and luminosity of his prose and Rohinton Mistry for his ability to portray an entire universe in all its flawed grandeur and misery.

Are there any books which have changed your life? (And why?)
I first read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night at a young, impressionable age. As an introverted, timid, bookish child, the book swept me away into another world and time. I was dazzled by the brilliance of Scott’s prose and the trials and tribulations of the Divers, the fragile yet glittering central characters. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, a collection of short stories about first-generation Indian immigrants in America, was another formative book. It was the first book I’d read about the diaspora experience that presented multi-layered characters and did not stoop to clichéd stereotypes and predictable endings.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Keep writing. Keep reading. Believe you have a voice that needs to be heard.

If you could offer a budding writer one piece of advice, what would it be?
As above – and also don’t lose hope. This is a long game and there are no short cuts.

What drew you to your genre?
I write poetry, short stories and novels, and oscillate between different genres. There is no scientific formula as to what form my writing will take. It’s purely instinct.

What’s the strangest job (besides writing) that you’ve ever had?
I once manned a reception desk at a student residence hall in the days before mobile phones. I would scribble the messages and spend almost half the night going up and down corridors, slipping the message notes under doors.

Where do you write?
I write on an overcrowded messy desk in the corner of my kitchen. The desk looks out on my garden, where a beatific statue of the Buddha watches my every move.

What’s the best place to read?
Anywhere and everywhere. I like reading in bed especially.

You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which famous writer do you invite?
Can I be greedy and invite two? One would be Virginia Woolf and the other would be Pablo Neruda.

What’s the background music at your dinner party?
An eclectic list that would swing from Pink Floyd to Leonard Cohen, via old Sixties Bollywood music by RD Burman and Italian songs from the Eighties.

Any outlandish hobbies?
Hugging trees and collecting mismatched cutlery and milk jugs!

What’s next?
Another novel beckons. It’s fermenting inside at the moment and I just need to dive in…

‘The glow of my cigarette picks out a dark shape lying on the ground. I bend down to take a closer look. It’s a dead sparrow. I wondered if I had become that bird, disoriented and lost.’

Young, handsome and contemptuous of his father’s traditional ways, PK Malik leaves Bombay to start a new life in America. Stopping in Manchester to visit an old friend, he thinks he sees a business opportunity, and decides to stay on. Now fifty-five, PK has fallen out of love with life. His business is struggling and his wife Geeta is lonely, pining for the India she’s left behind.

One day PK crosses the path of Esther, the wife of his business competitor, and they launch into an affair conducted in shabby hotel rooms, with the fear of discovery forever hanging in the air. Still Lives is a tightly woven, haunting work that pulls apart the threads of a family and plays with notions of identity.

ISBN: 9781913724580