Cal: Your story in Story Cities, “Coffee”, had an atmosphere of clairvoyance, where the narrator implies a troubled interpersonal relationship from a seemingly trifle thing to an audience that acts as an outsider to the dynamic (at least from my personal interpretation). Was the story inspired from a real life experience, or was it inspired by something else?
Shamini: It was inspired by a real experience. Not a peace-making cake, but a cake I baked and iced for a couple who came over. The wife suddenly wanted to leave after lunch, so I offered to serve the cake before they left or at least wrap some up for them to take home, but she said no. In our Sri Lankan culture, it is somewhat impolite to turn down homemade food, but maybe it isn’t even a cultural thing; maybe anyone would feel offended if they made something for someone and it was refused for no apparent reason.
The dynamic between the two people in Coffee was inspired more generally by the use of silence as a punishment. I trained as a psychotherapist and we were encouraged to use silence to give clients space to think or sit with their feelings. I think there’s value in using short moments of silence, but prolonged silence is a form of punishment for many people. I’ve experienced silence as a punishment throughout my life and it’s excruciating.
Saying all this, I have been that unforgiving person more times than I care to remember. My default behaviour when I’m offended is to sulk, I’m aware it is horrible for other people and I hope I don’t sulk half as much as I used to. Or at least, not for as long!
Cal: In general, what do you hope to achieve as a writer? For example, do you intend all your pieces to have underlying messages for readers to pick up, are your pieces more experiments in catharsis, or is it something else?
Shamini: It’s certainly cathartic to write – even answering your questions has been therapeutic for me. When I was studying therapy for my Master’s, I wrote in my journals about my gender, sexuality, my muddled sense of class and ethnicity, and I’ve continued to write about them and re-evaluate my thoughts and experiences. The articles I write for academic journals are informed by my feminism and ethnicity. Identity and culture also play a big part in my life writing, including my being a single woman who does not have children. My hope is that readers will identify with elements of my experiences or my take on the world, that it might help them to feel less of an outsider or to be gentler with themselves. If they don’t particularly relate to my writing but they enjoy reading it, that would be wonderful, too.
Cal: What’s on your bookshelf (digital or otherwise)? Do you tend to lean more into certain genres, binge-read certain authors, or are you more lax about your tastes? What do you wish you could read more of?
Shamini: I used to read loads and read fast. I studied English for five years at university twenty years ago, so I read a lot of classics and modern classics. I definitely used to binge-read an author once I got into them – I went through a Dennis Cooper phase when I was in my early twenties and remember reading one of his books on the bus on my way to church, which is so bizarre given the kind of stuff he writes.
I worked in publishing for ten years, so I accumulated a whole bookcase of new books. We had book sales every quarter where new books that were recalled because they had a typo or something would be sold for £1 or less, with the money going to a charity that we nominated. There would be a stampede in the afternoon when we got the “All books 20p!” email. Because I was earning a decent wage, I’d often have bookshop dates after work, where we’d go to Hatchards or the huge Waterstones on Piccadilly and spend all evening there.
I have become a slow reader, it’s harder to concentrate and I read less than I would like to. Also, I earn very little now, so I find it harder to justify buying more books (of course there are times I cave in). Of course, I write much more these days, so I forgive myself if I ignore the unread books on my shelves and pick up a familiar George Orwell or Gillian Flynn again.
I don’t really have a particular genre. I try to read more of the genres I’m writing, to broaden my understanding. So I’ve been reading more poetry, travel writing (I’m trying desperately to find some writing by women who aren’t screamingly middle class and whose writing would pass the Bechdel test) and memoirs. Because I need a kick to concentrate and read properly, I find the best place to read is the British Library. You can’t take books out, so you have to read there. I really miss it now we’re in lockdown. I used to buy the heavy, literary award-winners, but they would usually sit there unread. Reading for pleasure should be pleasurable. I had a cull last year and it was liberating to hand over two bags of books to my local library. Those books will never guilt-trip me again!
At the moment, I’m reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed, which has been on my to-read list for a while. Her tone is lovely, and I can identify with the way she processes her grief by walking and journaling, and how she experiences her femaleness. A lot of my writing is about loss, so I’m curious to see how other writers express theirs. I’m listening to the audiobook of Calypso by David Sedaris. A wonderful writer called Wendy Moore helped me to hone my life writing and recommended Calypso, then I did a short course on memoir-writing at Goldsmith’s University and the teacher also recommended it. I flicked through the paperback in a bookshop a few months ago, but now I’m enjoying hearing Sedaris read out his own words. He’s got a great voice. His writing is so ebullient and funny, the sad moments catch me unawares and are all the more powerful for it. Some of the women from my memoir course formed an online life writing group and book club, so we’ve got an incentive to write and read regularly.
I want to read more women and people who identify as non-binary – many of the memoirs I’ve enjoyed reading about grief happen to be by men. I didn’t enjoy Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, having said that, a lovely writer and editor friend called Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou gently confronted my “should”: she said it was important to hear more women’s critical voices, regardless of what our preferences or inspirations are. She’s right, but I need to think more about why I connect with white, male writing when so much of my writing is about not being white or male. The women memoirists I enjoy the most are the ones who write about the crappy parts of life but are funny with it – Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, Sara Pascoe’s Animal and Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted.
Cal: Obligatory quarantine inquiry! Some people have reported losing track of days or having vivid dreams/nightmares while in lockdown. If you’re practicing social distancing (which most of the world is), have you experienced any odd mental, emotional or spiritual shifts since you’ve been isolated? Has it had an impact on your creative or professional life?
Shamini: I’ve definitely had more nightmares. I’ve probably seen too many horror films, but I was terrified of the lockdown at first, and thought I could hear the front door being kicked in one night. So no more horror films and I’ve cut down my news consumption. I still watch The Walking Dead, which feels rather prophetic, but until zombies become real, it remains my escapism. As well as fear, I felt a lot of anger, especially early on. I’m a carer for my disabled sister and there’s been no contact from social services or health services. It seems like vulnerable people and their family carers are just supposed to muddle through months of this alone.
It has turned me into a lioness. I find myself being more assertive, particularly with men. I shared some quarantine writing I did with a few writer friends and they said it was very angry (and sweary!). Anger is often seen as an unfeminine emotion, but that’s part of the problem. Anger is a healthy emotion; we need to separate it from aggression, which is perhaps why some people are scared of other people’s anger and their own.
Professionally, I am now counselling my bereaved clients on the phone. It was hard at first and it’s a bit weird sitting in a car (especially because I can’t drive), but it’s the quietest, most private place to have my sessions. I miss seeing my clients and responding to their faces and body language as well as their words and voices. I miss seeing their smiles and sharing their upsetting feelings in the room. I also miss going to the hospice and seeing my colleagues there, but we talk on the phone every week or so. We call life after a bereavement the new normal and, of course, now we’re all dealing with our new normal. People who are not grieving for someone who’s died are still grieving for their lives of a month ago.
Cal: Random question. Say you were suddenly physically transformed into someone else and now you have to convince your friends and family members that you’re really Shamini. What would you say or do that would make them believe you?
Shamini: What a nightmare! I don’t know. I waffle a lot when I’m talking (as you can see here). I have a fairly good long-term memory – I often remember things that friends have forgotten. So friends and family could ask me about when we first met or a random incident that sticks out in their mind and hopefully, I’d be able to share my rambling version of the story.
Cal: Any projects you’re working on while the world is going off for a couple of months?
Shamini: I have a few writing projects on the go and there’s a lot of handwritten writing from Write and Shine workshops (run by the lovely Gemma Selzer) that I need to revisit to see if there are bits I’d like to type up and work on. Coffee stemmed from a sentence I wrote in one of her workshops – I think she gave us something like ten seconds to write on a subject before she changed it to another! I’m doing a new piece about the lockdown – it’s a challenge to contain my anger enough to make it powerful and impactful, but I feel that it’s important to get it down now, while it’s raw.
For my own wellbeing, I think it would be good to work on my travel writing and live vicariously through my memories of happier, liberated days. Much of my travel writing isn’t even about going abroad; there are weekends in Liverpool and Brighton and days out in London. It’s about going out as a single woman and I can’t wait to do that again. Sitting in a half-empty cinema, having tea and cake while reading or writing or sketching, walking around an art gallery. I even miss getting irritated by people talking loudly in a café and plugging my earphones in to block them out. I miss my friends and colleagues a great deal, but I also miss the freedom of being a wandering Londoner.
Cal: Well, since you’ve written flash before, how would you write a flashfic of your life/the current state of the world now?
Shamini: I’m quite morbid, so I’d probably write something about my whole family dying of the virus, and having to watch the funerals from a live stream. Cheerful stuff.
Seriously though, as a bereavement counsellor, it really worries me that thousands of people are going to be deprived of a good enough ending with their loved ones. I feel desperately sad for anyone going through that now. The daily statistics are frightening but the human impact can’t be quantified.
You can buy all the Arachne books mentioned from our webshop, we will post them out to you.
If you would prefer eBooks, all these books are available from your usual retailer. we recommend Hive for ePub.