Ash Sarkar on the books that changed her

When I was a kid, my Mum really wanted us to see dark-skinned children of colour taking centre stage in story books. Because there weren’t enough of them, she wrote her own from scratch and stuck in photos of me and my sister. There wasn’t very much narrative – they were just to help us learn to read – but she’d grown up with the colourism that exists within the South Asian community, and really wanted to protect me from it. She understood the power of words and images in shaping your sense of self, particularly if you’re not white.

Black Skin, White Masks is an exploration of the psychological effects of racism. Its author, Frantz Fanon, was a psychiatrist who joined the French Foreign Legion. My Mum gave it to me when I was 13. She was this badass, anti-racist activist who was arrested for being part of the anti-Apartheid movement. She and my grandmother started some of the first domestic violence shelters for black and Asian women in the UK, so my family were really politically active.

I resisted what the book was telling me for very many years, then I re-read it when I was 18 and experiencing racism at university. The book helped me see that, just because you move in these spaces and can talk the talk, it does not mean you will be treated as though you belong. It’s a book that I keep coming back to again and again. It shows how the writing of theory can and should be visceral. I don’t think I’ll ever fully get to the bottom of it.

The first time I read Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, I did that thing that all 12-year-olds do, which was think: ‘oh my god, I’m just like Jane Eyre, because I’m not that pretty, but maybe I have a moral fortitude and an intellectual capacity that sets me apart and I wish someone would see it!’ A few years later, when I met my step dad’s family in Yorkshire for the first time, it helped me make sense of the landscape, how it was cold and blustery, with hills everywhere and no Tube station.

I was definitely one of those schoolyard Gloria Steinems: ‘What do you mean I have to wear a uniform that reaches the knee? This is so oppressive!’. I don’t look like Jane Eyre, but I shared her sense of dissatisfaction with the social order. Later, I realised that, as a woman of colour, I actually felt a lot more like Bertha, the wife hidden upstairs. 

Good Morning Midnight opens with the protagonist crying in a bar, and from there you unlock the misery of her life and where it comes from. At the time, in my early twenties, I had been reading a lot of early 20th century Flaneur fiction, and I realised I was sick of stories about a young man with an undisclosed source of income who goes to Paris, identifies with a prostitute (but not too much) and then just sort of wanders around. When I read Good Morning Midnight, I realised it was possible to have a female perspective instead.

And Jean Rhys lived it; she was a chorus girl who came over from Dominica and became a lifelong alcoholic and was screwed up by men left right and centre. What I loved about the novel is that, if you’re a woman, you’re constantly told the worst thing you can be needy or bitter or unreasonable. And this was a book full of a woman being needy and bitter and unreasonable.

 

At the time I had pretty bad insomnia and I was living in Camden and I would go walking up and down the canal at night until I could fall asleep again. It felt weirdly liberating, reading Good Morning Midnight. Also, I’m not going to give away any spoilers, but the last page was one of those really one-two gut punches which I haven’t really recovered from.

Wolf Hall is the most exquisite exploration of political power I have ever read. I loved the way she paints Thomas Cromwell as the thinking man’s bruiser – he’s like Stringer Bell from The Wire, cerebral but prepared to take a life if he has to – with this flair for seeing into people’s souls, and into his own. I had always been fascinated with that time period and I’ve always learned about history though fiction, but until Wolf Hall I’d never read anything created from the ground up, rather than from the top down. I read it in two days.

Ash Sarkar

At the time I had just started working as a journalist and getting closer to parliamentary politics. It helped frame my outlook on it all. But I have never seen myself becoming an MP and I’m not disciplined enough to be a bruiser. You know that whole thing about Thomas Cromwell’s unreadable face, taken from Holbein’s portrait of him? That’s what Hilary Mantel explores. I don’t have one of those faces.

The Lonely Londoners, by Sam Selvon, was one of those books which gave me a little bit of a window into what it was like for my Grandma coming to this country from Calcutta when she was 17. She thought she was going to continue her eduction here, but she didn’t. She was a cleaner in a hospital, then got married. I’d obviously heard a lot of stories from her and from my Mum, but that contradiction between London being so cold and unforgiving and the warmth and the vibrancy of the community you were trying to create, that tension running throughout the book, really made me appreciate everything her generation did to cement our lives here.

At one point, a character is starving and is like: ‘I’m really hungry I’m just going to catch a pigeon’. Then everyone freaks out, because it’s OK to see a man starve but not for someone to be unkind to animals. It’s the kind of social observation you can only get from an outsider.

I made the decision, when I started to have a public profile, not to change how I talk for other people, and that’s something Selvon refused to do with Lonely Londoners. He understood you have the option of not making things more legible or immediately understandable for a white English audience, and he didn’t do it. I think what you gain from that is so much more than what you risk losing.

What do I think people would have expected me to pick? The Communist Manifesto! A great read, don’t get me wrong. But my politics was shaped by the relationships that I have in my life, and by my engagement with fiction. Marx comes second.

Ash Sarkar was interviewing Margaret Atwood for Penguin Talks. Watch the talk here.

Other interviews in our Shelf Life series:

·       Lee Child

·       Ian McEwan

·       Diane Abbott

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