Sunday 17 May 2020

Novelist and Award-Winning Poet Reshma Ruia Chats With Elaine Chiew about her poetry collection A Dinner Party In The Home Counties

Courtesy of Author

Reshma Ruia is an award winning writer and poet based in Manchester. She was born in India and brought up in Rome and did her undergraduate and postgraduate degrees at the London School of Economics. She worked as an economist with the United Nations in Rome and with the OECD in Paris.  Following her move to Manchester, she did a further Masters Degree and a PhD in Creative Writing and Critical Thought at Manchester University. She is a fiction editor at the Jaggery Literary Magazine and book reviewer at Words of Colour. She is also the co-founder of The Whole Kahani, a writers’ collective. Her first novel, ‘Something Black in the Lentil Soup’, was described in the Sunday Times as ‘a gem of straight-faced comedy.’ Her second novel manuscript, ‘A Mouthful of Silence’ was shortlisted for the SI Leeds literary award. Her writing has appeared in The Mechanics’ Institute Review, The Nottingham Review, Asia Literary Review, Confluence, Funny Pearls, Fictive Dream, The Good Journal, and various anthologies. They have also been commissioned and broadcast on BBC Radio. Her debut collection of poetry, ‘A Dinner Party in the Home Counties,’ winner is of the 2019 Word Masala Award is out now.


‘A Dinner Party in the Home Counties’ explores the themes of belonging and identity against a backdrop of social mores and conventions. The poems explore the diasporic experience of leading a translated life, yearning to belong to a past that one no longer owns and a future that is murky and unclear. There is a sense of melancholic nostalgia in these poems but also a fierce kind of determination to embark on a new beginning and make the best of one’s circumstances. The poems are particularly relevant to our times when there is a growing sense of parochialism and hostility towards ‘the outsider.’ They will resonate with all those who have portable roots and are at home everywhere and nowhere. 

The poems also portray the emotive minefield of relationships, questioning the ambiguity behind maternal or filial love. Society conditions us to love our parent or child or partner but the poems challenge this by describing the tug of war between a woman’s sense of self and the roles she is expected to play.

There is an undercurrent of mortality running through some of the poems. A sense of an ending and a reflection on what the passage of time can do to one’s dreams and aspirations.

EC: Welcome to Asian Books Blog, Dr. Ruia. Congratulations on your poetry collection, A Dinner Party in the Home Counties. How did this project begin? What was the inspiration?

RR: Thank you Elaine. It’s an absolute pleasure to be here. This project has had a very unusual and accidental start. I am normally a fiction writer, as you know and have been focussing on writing novels and short stories, but I have always written poetry and although I had been published in various journals and anthologies, I had not thought about putting together a poetry collection. A chance conversation with my publisher, Yogesh Patel, MBE, who is a champion of diaspora poetry, resulted in me sending him my poems. He submitted them to the Matwaala Literature Festival in New York where it was awarded the 2019 Word Masala Award.  The publication followed soon after.

EC: How long did it take to put together, and were there challenges?

RR: The manuscript was edited and finalised with a fierce sense of urgency over a few months. The poems had been growing organically and individually over the years and putting them together, finding a unifying arc and flow was challenging to say the least. I had not looked at some of the poems for years and revisiting them was like bumping into an old friend. I was happy to read them but also wanted to reinterpret them through a new perspective. Editing poetry can be a very assiduous process. Every word and punctuation can carry so many permutations and it is easy to be self-indulgent. Debjani Chatterjee MBE and Yogesh Patel were invaluable in helping me edit and shape the collection. I was also lucky enough to get positive reviews and endorsement from renowned poets such as Lemn Sissay, Rishi Dastidar and Todd Swift.

EC:  The collection deals with themes of marginalisation and a certain despair, such as when the protagonist in the title poem of the collection says, “Don’t push me to the edges of a pink faded map” or when Mrs. Xu has her name changed to Sally without her permission. Are these themes that you often wrestle with?

RR:  As someone who straddles several boundaries, whether geographical or cultural, I am very aware of the dilemma of being ‘an outsider’ looking in. When you can’t anchor yourself to a specific history or narrative, you are in danger of being written out of it or being treated as a footnote. What the Diaspora has created is a unique ‘third Space’, a hybrid form of belonging where little totems from different cultures are used as navigational tools to survive and flourish. My PhD research on Diasporic nostalgia highlighted the emotional significance of food, language, and customs in building a sense of identity and kinship; and my poems draw upon this. This is especially the case with the migrants we encounter in our daily lives, those who serve a functional purpose, be it a waiter or a beauty salon girl or an uber driver. Society views them through a reductive and stereotypical lens. I want to give these characters dignity and a back-story. You can read about such people in my poems, ‘Dick Whittington’s London’, Southall Stories’ and ‘Mrs Basu Leaves Town.’ 

EC: A different alienation permeates many of the characters of the poem: that of being edged out because of age. Do you feel drawn to such characters, or do you find them hard to write?

RR: I find it relatively easy to write about old age. I find old people fascinating, not just as repositories of experience and wisdom but also in their ability to adapt and survive in the face of increasing frailty and vulnerability. They are walking museums of memories and serve as a warning bell to the complacency of youth. Along with consumerism, youth-worship is a flaw of contemporary society, particularly in the West. Society tends to regard the old as a financial and emotional burden and little else. I want to challenge that perception. I lost my father last summer and some of the latter poems in the book are shaped by his absence.  
Courtesy of Author

EC: What I really liked is how lightly certain influences stepped through the collection: Sylvia Plath, Brecht, Edward Hopper, Virginia Woolf. Tell us about how these poems came to be written.

RR:  My literary heroes are Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf. They were strong women who dared to create and celebrate their individuality despite the patriarchy and conservatism of those times. They along with Brecht, Edward Hopper and Van Gogh had a heightened sense of their interior life and demons. I think Edward Hopper is such a nuanced chronicler of urban isolation and imperfect relationships and I admire his bold use of colour and form. My poems tried to capture their spirit of enquiry and disquiet. 

EC:  You write both poetry and prose. Which do you gravitate towards more? 

RR: My writing journey began as a poet. At the age of 16, I won a UNESCO award and the first prize was a trip to Paris. I still distinctly remember that exciting sense of anticipation as I boarded the overnight train from Rome to Paris. I was convinced I was following in the footsteps of Keats and Shelly! I wanted to study literature at University but my parents persuaded me to choose a more ‘practical and vocational’ subject at LSE.  My passion for writing ticked away quietly in the background whilst I worked at the UN and OECD. I gravitated towards fiction whilst doing my Masters in Creative writing in Manchester and ended up writing two novels.

I admit switching between the two genres can be challenging. Novels require a structure and a definite arc from beginning to end. There has to be some kind of progression and the writer can afford to meander or be indulgent with language. Poetry is a much more concise form of expression, every word counts and carries meaning. Poetry can also afford to be ambiguous, open ended and experimental in a way conventional fiction can’t. I tend to veer between both mediums. At present, I am working towards putting together a collection of short stories as well as starting to think about my next poetry collection that may be a prose poem. What both mediums do have in common is an attempt to arrive at an understanding of the human condition in all its flawed glory and to articulate its universality.

EC: As your bio tells us, you’ve achieved a lot of recognition for your writings. Has your life changed after these awards and recognition?  

RR: Writers are vulnerable creatures prone to long periods of self-doubt. Female writers in particular tend to question their self-worth and may suffer from an imposter syndrome. As someone who has come to writing relatively late, I feel what these awards do is to validate the long hours of solitude and toil when draft after draft is being written and thrown aside. The recognition has certainly helped to reassure me that I am on the right track, but as a writer, I am constantly honing my craft and trying to improve. Always a work-in-progress!

EC: You’re a co-founder of the British South Asian collective The Whole Kahani. Tell us more about the activities of the collective. 

RR: I co-founded the collective in 2011 with Kavita Jindal. It is a collective of British South Asian writers. We meet every month and workshop and analyse our stories. British mainstream publishing is still largely dominated by a white male perspective. Minority diaspora writing is frequently pigeonholed or made to fit a predetermined stereotypical narrative. It is also difficult to find a publisher if you are an emerging writer. The Whole Kahani questions this bias by unifying our creative strength and pooling our talents. We have published two anthologies to critical acclaim. ‘Love Across a Broken Map’ and ‘May We Borrow Your Country.’ Both are available on Amazon.

NB: A Dinner Party In The Home Counties may be purchased at UK prices from the publisher Skylark Publications UK, Waterstones UK, Foyles UK, Amazon UK, and from the author directly on her website here