Out of Heart by Irfan Master – review and interview

Adam’s grandfather has died, and his family feels broken. But then a strange man with a scar on his chest appears at the door and walks into Adam’s life. William is the recipient of Adam’s grandfather’s donated heart, and something has drawn him to the grieving family. As events unfold, and the secret tragedy of Adam’s family is revealed, it becomes clear that though William has been healed by their loss, he has healing of his own to give.

 

Irfan Master’s first YA novel, A Beautiful Lie, dealt with events in India in 1947, during Partition, and was widely recognised as an impressive literary debut. His second novel, Out of Heart, explores different territory but with the same memorable style.  This is the story of a contemporary British Asian family who heal through graffiti, hearts and a mysterious link with a stranger. Inventive use of form lifts this above the standard novel. Adam, the protagonist, is a strange, artistic boy but the real reason for the darkness he carries around with him isn’t revealed until half way through the novel. This is a magical realist novel about a family healing as well as about a teenage boy exploring his different father figures – all flawed in some way. It is also a moving exploration of the hurt that is passed on through families, of the inarticulacy of conventional masculinity and how that hampers emotional closeness, and about the controlling, demanding aspect of community. It’s also an insight into contemporary Pakistani-British family life; something that’s rarely written about in children’s or YA literature. I found plenty that was familiar to me from life, though not from literature, in the story; not least the complex relationships between generations in a family whose heritage is overseas.

Irfan Master has been good enough to answer some questions for us, giving us an insight into his writing process and his views on supporting BAME children’s and YA authors.

LR: I enjoyed the magical realism element of OUT OF HEART, by which I mean the connections the characters have with each other through dreams; how did this come about? Did you begin with the idea that you wanted to write magical realism, or did it evolve as you wrote from the characters outwards?

IM: I love magical realism, of course. Although I do think it’s hard to determine what is or isn’t magical realism these days. Strangely, when I think of magical realism, I immediately think of the films Harvey and Donnie Darko and the incredible novel by Toni Morrison, Beloved. I think the prospect of lingering after your death through memories, photographs, spirits etc is credible but I felt even more tangible was the idea of a functioning heart in another person. I mean, how deep is that connection really? Scientifically, it is purely functional, a good heart for a bad heart, but I wanted to bring that connection across in a deeper. spiritual way, especially as Abdul Aziz Shah isn’t in the book much in real terms, but actually he’s always there. Every heart reference leads back to him. And dreams, especially in times of great stress, can be important in determining things characters might be repressing. I think in this way, these vivid dream states are largely used to give the reader a better understanding of reality. By using that heightened state, I think I was able to illustrate emotions that are hard to describe in an everyday situation. (cont. below image)

Out of Heart cover
Out of Heart by Irfan Master. Published by Hot Key.

LR: I also very much liked the form you chose, and the meditative feeling it creates by varying the pace. How did you decide on the form (traditionally-written chapters alternating with short statements and facts about the heart)? What challenges and opportunities did you find when writing in this form?

IM: The whole book, in my mind, exists in a vacuum, of symbolism and metaphor and I think the short statements were markers for that. I wanted that elegiac, meditative tone for the book from the outset and each chapter start gave me that. I really don’t know how the reader will feel about them, but I really like them! I think the first heart statement in the book, about the size of your heart being the size of your fist, was significant, in that it was a direct reference to something Adam has an idea about with his graffiti and because in my mind the clenched fist is an act of protest. An act of defiance, and I feel that is what Abdul Aziz Shah is doing by donating his heart. As for challenges, well, finding a bunch of interesting heart facts was one! And then rewriting a few so they sounded poetic or poignant was another. I didn’t set out to take so many risks, if they can be called that, with the form for this book, but I did want to try a few things: The two William Blake poems as bookends. The drawings as signifiers for each character at the start of chapter. The heart statements. The word play by Adam to make sense of the world. The free verse parts for Abdul-Aziz Shah, Farah and Adam. The dot-to-dot references and the image  at the back of the book. These were all extras, as it were, to try and lift the story into the sky alongside Icarus and Adam.

LR: What was it about the topic of heart transplants that first attracted you – did you begin with the topic, or did you begin with the characters?

IM: Always the characters for me. Always a snippet of conversation, or a chance meeting. I usually note these exchanges down and wait for things to come back and nudge me. I do remember a conversation with an old Pakistani man on a park bench: He was clutching his chest and I asked in Urdu if he was OK. He was very impressed that I could speak Urdu and so was happy to chat. He explained he’d had a heart transplant and that he felt odd and like a different person. Not good or bad, just different. We chatted a little until I saw on the path, a young woman, a little girl and a tall boy in a black hoody. They came and collected their Dadda, lifting him to his feet and led him away, the little girl waved at me and skipped happily behind them. I stored all of that away, and with a few tweaks, that became the Shah family.

As for heart transplants. I was just fascinated about this incredibly powerful and muscular engine-like organ in our bodies, but even more than that I read some articles around “heart transplant tendencies”. That is, the receiver of the heart acquires a taste for say, chocolate or poetry or Jazz or cycling, something that was new to them. The articles followed up with the donor family and found the donor had also liked these things, in some cases obsessively. I found this fascinating especially as Doctor’s couldn’t really explain how this might happen. The heart is not a repository for emotions and memories. Historically we’ve always equated the heart with emotion and pain and feeling, but this has no scientific basis. So, I was really intrigued by this and wanted to use it in a story with a particular focus on two very different men from very different yet still diverse backgrounds.

LR: You explore topics that are sometimes hard for people to acknowledge in real life; the controlling nature of immigrant communities, for example. Do you think books have a part to play in bringing this kind of topic into the open? I think immigrant communities can be wary of self-critique because they feel very much criticised from outside, so feel they have to ‘stick together’ and the down side of this can be that real problems aren’t addressed. What is your feeling on this? Are there particular topics you think are important to address in books?

IM: I think all topics should be there for writers to address. The importance to the writer can be personal or functional depending on the writer and what she/he has in mind for the story. For Out of Heart, I was led by the story, and the central characters and that’s how it came out. Addressing the domestic violence in the book for instance, and let’s be honest, it’s hard to sugarcoat that, so I don’t. That chapter is hard to read. But at no point do I intimate that this is a problem for immigrant communities only. I think some elders in the community that I come from might think I’m painting the community in a bad light, but I am writing from within about a community I know quite well rather than from outside looking in. I’ve worked in various community settings and my Mum is a Family Support Officer at a local Sure Start Centre in a very mixed community ranging from white working class to immigrants from the old country in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Albania etc. We’ve had lots of conversations about the complexity of the communities we know and those we don’t. She’s seen firsthand what happens if people don’t come forward to address the issues. We are extremely complex third and fourth generation communities with a host of issues that afflict us. The same as everybody else. Our kids and families access social workers, visit counsellors, go to drug rehabilitation, use birth control, suffer from anxiety and depression, get divorced, have children out of wedlock, have gambling addictions and marry out of their cultural group. I never set out to write a story about singular topics, but rather a story around themes of redemption, grief and family relationships. I feel they are universal themes and my hope is they can be accessed by all.

LR: Moving on to the focus of Megaphone…Do you feel we need more support for BAME children’s and YA writers in Britain? What sort of support do you think is most needed, if so? What changes and developments would you personally most like to see?

IM: I definitely think we need more support for BAME writers particularly in Children’s and YA. Mentoring will always be a progressive way to nurture new writers or writers looking to be published. Clearly, Megaphone does this so brilliantly and has already become a reference point for BAME writers, published and unpublished. I also like the fact that Megaphone isn’t London based. As a writer born in Leicester, I think this helps widens the pool to writers from around the country and would definitely have tried to access Megaphone if it had existed when I started out. I do believe this trend to move outside the capital will continue as London becomes more expensive, competitive and in many ways over saturated with publishing houses. It feels like a lot of Independent publishers based outside of London are winning major awards and publishing a more varied list and this can only be good for the industry. There are BAME writers out there. Some established, some breaking through. Question is are they getting the publishing deals? If not, why not? If so, are they under pressure to write the book the publisher/industry/editor wants? Does that mean they sell out? How much diversity are we talking with regards to subject matter? Are they getting a decent publicity spend? Do publishers understand what they have in a BAME writer writing stories from a uniques perspective? Are BAME writers too black or too asian or just too much for publishing? I think these questions still hover over the industry, the difference is a lot more people are asking them.

There has been a lot said in the last few years about publishing not being diverse enough, and it does feel like publishing in general has taken this on board. Influential BAME writers, bloggers and commentators on social media can now ask publishers to defend their position publicly, especially with regards to awards and their publishing lists. After years of being overlooked for prizes and not being booked for festivals you now have the Jhalak prize and the Bare Lit Festival. BAME writers and supporters can only wait so long for change to happen until we take things into our own hands and I think Megaphone coming into existence is also symptomatic of this.

Real change has to be systemic, not just at editorial level or publicity and marketing level but a deeply embedded recognition by the industry that more diverse books, more wider representation can only help a society grow. That publishing diverse stories helps create empathy, helps BAME communities feel more a part of the what it means to be British, broadens the narrative to more than just the one story, helps young people from BAME communities feel that they too can be the main protagonists in popular books and moves the conversation away from the bottom line of profit margin, commercial success and well worn tropes and trends that have been prevalent in publishing since the 50s and 60s. The day Megaphone isn’t needed, is the day we can say, there isn’t a problem with publishing, not only in this country, but around the world.

LR: And finally, what are you planning to write next – is there a book in the pipeline?

IM: Yes there is! A story set in the court of Queen Victoria about two Indian boys sent as observers/spies  A kid of subversive look at all the issues of colonialism through the eyes of two highly intelligent, sophisticated characters who arrive expecting the seat of a glorious empire only to find an oppressive feudal system in place and a country that is neither more civilised or advanced than their own homeland.
LR: That sounds amazing! Thank you so much for answering these questions.

OUT OF HEART : http://www.foyles.co.uk/witem/childrens/out-of-heart,irfan-master-9781471405075

Peter Kalu on voice, publishing and the barriers BAME writers face:

Pete head and shoulders1a
Peter Kalu

Peter Kalu is a poet, novelist, playwright and script writer. He started writing as a member of the Moss Side Write black writers workshop and has had five novels, two film scripts and three theatre plays produced to date, winning a number of prizes in the process. I interviewed him ahead of his upcoming appearance at Bare Lit Festival (with Megaphone tutor Catherine Johnson), about, among other things, his Young Adult books, both of which are published by HopeRoad, and the Commonword Diversity Writing for Children prize – recently re-launched and open to submissions on the website: http://www.ihaveadream.org.uk/ . Peter’s depth of experience as a writer and with Commonword-Cultureword meant I was especially keen to find out his thoughts on the barriers BAME writers of children’s fiction face and how they can overcome them.
silent striker2

Leila: I’ve really enjoyed reading both The Silent Striker and Being Me. Marcus and Adele have such different voices; their characters really come through. It might be down to the use of first person, but Adele’s life seems more chaotic than Marcus’, I think because she has a more extroverted personality.

Peter: Thanks for those generous comments. I didn’t set out to create a sense of chaos, that’s simply how the Being Me novel evolved.  In some way it’s a bluff – an embracing of unexpected turns the novel took as I was developing it. It does reflect Adele’s personality well, so maybe it was inevitable.  I did the same thing in the short story I had published recently in the Closure anthology, but for different reasons.

Adele is definitely more extrovert than Marcus. Maybe the other difference between the two characters identity-wise  is that Marcus begins with a sense of  a stable core identity and HAS this sense Piccasso’d/destabilised  by the onset of his deafness. Whereas Adele does not start with such a composed identity.  From the get-go Adele has competing stories being told about herself – at school, by each parent, by her friends. She’s a girl. She’s a boy. She’s black, she’s white. She’s a caring person, she’s a villain. She’s unlovable, she’s adored.  She’s a loyal best friend. She’s a let-down and an impostor.  And Adele’s work is to figure out how to reconcile all these competing stories of herself. So Marcus and Adele have very different work to do. One is trying to rebuild his understanding of  himself as having a stable core identity, the other is trying to work out what is the story or set of stories I want to tell about myself. Does any of that make sense?! It’s not something I set out to do as I was writing them, but looking at the two characters now, that’s how I feel about them.

Leila: That does make a lot of sense. Marcus is centred in a way that Adele isn’t.  I wondered which voice you enjoyed writing most.

Peter: They were both a challenge. I enjoyed writing particular scenes. The scene where Adele spends the night in the Adenuga family’s spare room listening to all these strange noises and movements, that was fun to write. The Marcus moment where he objects to his uncle being buried with Marcus’ favourite football and his mum faints as he scrambles after it was a highlight for me. There’s usually also some key emotional scene or moment in each book that I wouldn’t say I enjoyed writing, but which mattered a lot to me.

More generally, I had such a great bunch of writers around me giving me feedback for both books and I enjoyed meeting up with them and bouncing ideas back and forth. I’ve not answered the question have I?  I can’t choose!

being me rough_new_jigsaw FINAL-1

Leila: Was there a particular reason to write Silent Striker in third person and Being Me in first?

Peter: I was aware that Marcus’ story was in parts autobiographical so I wanted to ensure I didn’t under-distance the space between author and character. To fend that off, I placed the Marcus story in the third person and used the past tense for it.  Those choices flip for the Adele story – she’s in the present and in first person.  I wanted Adele to be the unreliable narrator of her own story. The spaces between what she thinks is going on and what others – including readers – think might be going on interested me. I decided that was best done in first person. Then for speed and immediacy the present tense. Again, I might be rationalising. I probably make these choices intuitively.

Leila: The voices in both novels are different, but feel really realistic. I feel as if I could hear them on the back of the No 50 bus any day after school lets out! I wonder why there aren’t that many voices like this in children’s literature. 

Peter: Not enough published writers are catching those No 50 buses! In my area it’s the No 192 that’s legendary.  Dropping the metaphor, I guess few working class writers break through. Mainstream publishing is run by the middle classes and they choose books for their imagined readership which of course means a reflection of themselves. At least that’s my impression.

I recently opened up some YA books in a Manchester Waterstones (so serving a population of high cultural diversity). And randomly chose some books that looked as if they were set in the ‘now’. Overwhelmingly, they featured middle class protagonists.

Leila: What was your own journey to publication like?  Did you try many publishers before finding the right one?

Peter: The book was part of a project with my writing buddy, Tariq Mehmood who wrote You’re Not Proper at the same time that I was writing The Silent Striker and Being Me (I write faster than him!)  We would meet up several times a week and swap notes.  The journey to his kitchen and back those mornings was invigorating. While writing, I’d heard some of what Malorie Blackman said at a writing conference about how black writers break through. So rather than approach a mainstream publisher, I went straight to Hope Road: I knew they had a commitment to diverse writers.

Leila: And what are your writing goals for the future?

Peter: Apart from another CYA novel (featuring zombies!), I’m working on a crime novel. And completely unrelatedly, I want to write a novel in the way that visual artists produce collages, but I’ve not figured out the techniques needed yet.

Leila: Can you tell me a bit about Commonword and Cultureword – how did you come to be part of these organisations, and where did the idea for the Diversity Writing For Children prize come from? It’s great to see it relaunched, by the way!

Peter: I got the writing bug after reading Alice Walker and Maya Angelou in the 80’s.  I went to the Moss Side Write workshops that had been set up by Commonword-Cultureword, where I met  the legendary, Lemn Sissay. My involvement kicked off from there.

The Diversity Writing For Children prize came about through schools telling us there were no books with BAME characters in them, no books that reflected their classrooms. The more we looked into it, the more startlingly apparent this absence. The prize does something to tackle that.

Leila: What barriers do you think that UK BAME children’s/ YA authors face in particular? And how do you think they can best approach them, get over them, go round them…

Peter: Two arguments tend to surface.  First, white children don’t feel comfortable having to read about the UK through the eyes of black characters. I simply disagree with that – it’s not what I’ve found. Second, parents – who buy the books – don’t feel comfortable buying such a book (approx 40% of buyers of YA fiction are actually older adults who simply enjoy the genre). There’s some truth in that. It’s well known for instance that mainstream publishers for a very long time avoided putting a black kid’s face on the cover of a YA book as their marketing departments told them it would inhibit sales.

As writers in command of our craft there are solutions to that white ‘we don’t feel comfortable’ problem: exotifciation, omission, ellipsis, inversion, exfoliation. In non-technical terms, add a major, heroic white character, reduce cultural friction, downplay division, celebrate collaboration, fly into fantasy, erase the blackness, write under the radar, at least make your book a black-white two-hander.  These solutions can work but at times can feel soul destroying for a BAME writer. I prefer not to craft something that is guaranteed to make white people comfortable, but instead to allow they themselves address that issue of why they are uncomfortable (or, to simply not be published).  The world’s changing. Heterogeneity is growing. Those who ignore it or oppose it are like King Canute trying to turn back the tide.  Publishing, including YA publishing, in the end will embrace it, probably when it hits their cash tills.

Leila: I’m interested in how the conversation around diversity in children’s literature plays out in the USA as well as in the UK (for example, A Birthday Cake for George Washington). What do you think the differences and similarities are between the USA and UK children’s publishing industries and how they include (or don’t) BAME writers?

 

Peter: The commentator, Paul Gilroy described Britain as suffering from colonial amnesia.  The most barbaric events of the British colonial era didn’t happen on the landmass of Britain so that amnesia is easier to sustain.  The USA has no such distancing. Plantation slavery is a fraught part of USA history and happened on American soil. Yet the Washington book news story showed the USA was giving amnesia a good go.

The demographics in UK are different: a higher South East Asian population and, I believe, a greater ‘mixed heritage’ population.

The Oscars controversy suggests USA is only slowly waking up to its privilege and prejudices, and still does not like to look at them straight in the eye. That uncomfortable thing again.  The statistics for USA and UK on percentage of BAME characters in published CYA books sing the same song. The USA statistics on under-representation are here: http://blog.leeandlow.com/2015/03/05/the-diversity-gap-in-childrens-publishing-2015/

As far as I can tell there has been no hard, statistically significant research done  in the UK but the anecdotal evidence is similar to that of the USA.

Yet it’s not all bleak. As in the USA, there are signs of improvement. My impression is that the general population is way ahead of the publishing industry. If  I crystal ball gaze, then my guess is that ventriloquism –getting white writers to depict black lives – will be the prominent in the first wave of change, to deal with that ‘comfortableness’ issue. Simultaneously more BAME writers will get taken up, though not at a speed to frighten the horses. Finding publishers who will break cover and take a risk is the game. Of course, once that risk makes some publisher big money, suddenly every mainstream publisher in the land will follow suit, perhaps as a new fad.

The publishing industry is not an island. It sits within society itself and so there are limits to how fast things can progress in publishing while the (older) UK white population keeps up its postcolonial melancholia, its longing for a mythical white Britain.

 

Many thanks to Peter Kalu for this great interview, which I think is full of insights the mainstream publishing industry should benefit from – and do read his excellent books!
http://www.hoperoadpublishing.com/
http://www.hoperoadpublishing.com/being-me
http://www.hoperoadpublishing.com/the-silent-striker