With ringing endorsements from, amongst others, Ian McEwan, Booker Prize winner Anne Enright and Bristol’s Nikesh Shukla, Deepa Anappara’s much-anticipated, Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, looks set to be one of 2020’s most talked about debut novels. Set in a temporary settlement in an unnamed Indian city, it follows nine-year-old Jai and his friends as they try to find out the truth about disappearing children.
Before appearing at Spike Island on February 27, former journalist Anappara tells Bristol 24/7 more about the background to the novel, child narrators, and what role stories play in our lives.
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How much influence has your work as a journalist had on how you approach writing fiction?
I had to forget what I had learnt as a journalist to write fiction; my news reports could only include verifiable facts and it took me a while to learn to write fiction and rely not just on my research but also my imagination. Having said that, the material I collected as a journalist has been the cornerstone of my fiction, including Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line. In effect, I have written what I knew well in this novel; the setting, the characters, the children’s voices, everything came from the work I had done as a journalist.
You have won or been placed in several writing competitions (including second prize in the 2013 Bristol Short Story Prize); what impact do you think these successes have had on your writing?
I wrestle with self-doubt all the time and the great benefit of being placed in a competition is that it can silence those self-critical voices, even if only for a few days or a couple of weeks. It also validates the time and effort you put into your writing; someone else is telling you your work matters. Many of the contests are judged anonymously, so the writing has to speak for itself. I found this a great incentive for submitting my work. The deadlines that the contests had were also useful; I could motivate myself to complete a short story, or write a certain number of words, with a deadline in mind.
Why did you decide to make nine-year-old Jai the narrator?
I wanted to tell the story about the disappearances of children—unfortunately a real problem in India—through the eyes of children. Their voices had been absent in the discourse around their disappearances, but through fiction, I could examine their perspective, and the manner in which they made sense of the horror unfolding around them.
Jai is a cheerful child, and sees the world in a way that’s different from adults and other children, and his ebullience also helps to soften the harsh edges of his world.
Stories play a crucial part in the book; what role have stories played in your life?
Ultimately this is a novel about the ways in which we tell ourselves stories to survive, and how we understand who we are through these stories. Jai makes up a story about being a detective so that he can exercise control over a narrative that’s spinning away from him. The larger belief system of the characters is reflected in the tales about spirits and ghosts in the chapters This Story Will Save Your Life, which offer the listener and the storyteller a degree of comfort and solace that they perhaps can’t find elsewhere.
The novel presents a very close community, with families supporting each other despite the extreme hardship and obstacles they face. How important was this aspect of the novel for you?
Jai’s neighbourhood houses migrants from different parts of India who have moved to cities to find work, as labourers, maids, security guards and watchmen etc. Away from the support systems of home, they find new friends and families in their neighbours. At the same time, in stressful circumstances, divisions based on religion or caste can rise to the surface; it takes strong bonds to survive such pressures. I wanted my novel to realistically portray the relationships between people, not just their sense of community, but also the way in which blame can be displaced in difficult times.
Deepa Anappara will be discussing her recently-published debut novel, Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, at Spike Island on February 27. For more information, visit: https://www.spikeisland.org.uk/programme/events/novel-writers-deepa-anappara/
Main photo credit: Liz Seabrook