My cultural life: Nikita Lalwani

The Man Booker Prize nominee shares the films, books and art that move her – and the TV show that informed her latest career step.

Nikita Lalwani
Photo: Vik Sharma

Rajasthan-born, Cardiff-bred author Nikita Lalwani started in the literary scene as she meant to go on: her debut novel, Gifted, was nominated for the Man Booker Prize and the Costa First Novel Award, and won her the inaugural Desmond Elliott Prize for Fiction.

Since then, she’s become a mainstay in the world of words, releasing a second novel, The Village, contributing writing to The Guardian and The Observer, and judging on various literary prizes.

Listen to an extract from You People by Nikita Lalwani here:

This week, to celebrate the release of her third novel, You People, we caught up with Lalwani to ask her about the way culture impacts her work, and which movies, books and other media she finds inspiring.

TV: Succession

I've recently written my first script for television, and I noticed I was always bringing this show up for discussion in the writer's room – there's just so much to enjoy in it. I'd come home and look through the scripts online, trying to figure out why the dialogue was so good. It's not that I wanted to reproduce that patented quick-fire brilliance, I just wanted to understand how it was snaking through the programme. It's really astonishing, that grandeur of feeling, those pedantic, bawdy lines that cut away at everything.

For one week at least, I would watch this rap by the character Kendall Roy as a daily treat when I needed a break from writing. But my favourite is the character of Tom, played by Matthew Macfadyen. When he unleashes his absurd, high-stakes, doltish optimism, it is simply joyous to behold.  

Photo: HBO

I just saw these photographs of light patterns in Tokyo's buildings by Noaya Hatakeyama at the Tate Modern in London. This series of black and white transparencies, layered with silver gelatin prints and placed in light boxes for display, has an eerie, noirish beauty. The artist took the photos with a reduced exposure on his motorcycle at night, in the mid-90s, and there is something in his studied reclaiming of the city at night – squashing certain details into blackness, highlighting those connecting residential lights – that reminds me of the world in You People. Nia, a central character in the book, speaks of her night drives with Tuli, her boss as follows: 'But always, when she was in the car like this with him, the night outside seemed spotlit, there was the feeling that they could get sucked into any one of the million stories that were unfolding across London in that very moment, that every single story was epic in its stature, each one worth telling.' I get the same sense of wonder from Hatakeyama’s pictures, the same distant reverence, the visualisation, the idea of possibility.

Theatre: The Encounter

Simon McBurney is a genuine inspiration to me as an artist – something about the way in which he melds, grows and innovates his practice at each stage of his career, but also how he opens himself up to the requirements of the story that he wishes to tell. I saw this production in a packed house, and every member of the audience was given a pair of headphones so that McBurney's voice could beam into our heads as 3-D binaural sound, a process that managed to create the feeling of 'thinking' his words. This intimacy of expression, coupled with the wildly inventive format (multiple narratives are presented at once in the soundscape, and conflict/concur with the performance onstage), meant that there was an electricity flowing from stage to audience and back again. The climax of the piece – in which an American photographer attempts telepathic communication with a member of the Mayoruna tribe in Brazil – was completely immersive and almost supernatural in its effect. Empathic, disorientating theatre from a legendary collective. 

Film: Queen & Slim by Melina Matsoukas, written by Lena Waithe

This film has a stunning soundtrack by Devonté Hynes, which formed part of its appeal for me – but it is also endowed with a gorgeous visual poetry. Starting as it does, with an incidence of police brutality, the whole film is a surprise, as it hurtles beyond the bounds of that which might be merely believable into the realm of the sublime. Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith are truly magical together onscreen; ludic, sensual and experimenting with nobility. They have all to play for, and all to lose. 

Queen & Slim by Melina Matsoukas
Photo: Universal Pictures

Podcast: The Moth

Long-standing live storytelling show The Moth runs with the tagline 'true stories told live'. The lucky dip element is part of the appeal: you could be laughing or crying by the end of any of these wise, five-minute tales. They hover somewhere between stand-up, Ted talk, beguiling confession and morality tale, depending on the topic. This is one of my favourites.

Non-fiction: Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson 

I recently read this beautiful set of essays by Sinéad Gleeson and was struck by the way the huge emotion in the book is contained, or restrained even, by the language that frames it for the reader. It is a book that consciously plaits together lyrical and imagistic modes of being, whether dealing with physical pain, blood cells, or the author's own romantic and aesthetic blueprint. A woman's right to choose in Ireland is filtered through a mixture of historical facts and personal history, and the author's own bouts of ill-health are part of a journey that features Frida Kahlo and Virginia Woolf. Metaphor gives the book its pulse, and aphorisms are worn lightly, with grace and vision. After reading it, I was struck with the feeling that I should think more about the vast capacity of life: ‘don't waste it away’ seems to be one of the book's messages; ‘try and fill up the blank space, where you can’. 

Fiction: Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley

Tessa Hadley's latest book feels to me like a culmination of all her very particular, idiosyncratic traits. Supremely satisfying, Late in the Day presents two couples, four friends, and all the triangulations that you can imagine over time. It's a book concerned on one level with the battle for dominance in all relationships, romantic or otherwise, but it is also an analysis of freedom of opportunity: who gets to take part in the game of existence? Who is actually allowed on the stage? The characters seem to be continually creating themselves – this formation of self starts in youth, and continues on for decades – and the story is delivered through deliciously voyeuristic, crystalline prose. 

You People by Nikita Lalwani is out now.

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more