Book Review: Plastic Emotions

Plastic Emotions, by Shiromi Pinto, is a work of fiction inspired by the life of Minette de Silva who was the first Sri Lankan woman to be trained as an architect and the first Asian woman to be elected an associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Her father was a prominent politician in Ceylon and her mother a campaigner for woman’s suffrage. de Silva befriended the lauded Swiss-French pioneer of modernist architect, Le Corbusier, and, in this story at least, they are for a time lovers.

The portrayal of Le Corbusier is not flattering. He is egotistical and a serial womaniser.

“He has never appreciated a woman who makes an effort to cover her charms. ‘It is not natural,’ he would say.”

Le Corbusier requires affirmation from all he encounters that they are impressed by his achievements. It is difficult to understand why de Silva was so obsessed with this married man who considered only his own needs.

Ironically, given his personality, Le Corbusier dislikes America and admires India for its ‘absence of ego’. He has this idea that India’s poor are content with their lot and do not desire better for themselves.

de Silva studied in London and enjoyed regular visits to Paris but was required by her father to return home to Ceylon after she qualified. Raised in great privilege, amongst her country’s elite, she subsequently struggled to support herself financially. She longs for the freedoms enjoyed in London and Paris, feeling constrained by the demands of the upper echelons of Ceylon society. She is assisted in many ways by her wider family and develops close friendships, although these suffer over time as Ceylon’s political situation deteriorates.

“She does not understand how she has forgotten him so effortlessly. She wonders whether she has abandoned him because his politics no longer suit hers.”

The various groups of friends depicted consider themselves artists and intellectuals who revel in their perceived talents and cleverness. They appear detached from the wider population believing that only they know how to improve a country in which so many suffer poverty which, in their cocoon of privilege, they cannot truly comprehend.

“There will always be room for us, Laki. We are artists. We stand above such petty arguments.”

The group are scathing of de Silva’s clients who will not bow to her will when designing what will be their home.

“They strike me as the types who appreciate something only after everyone else tells them how wonderful it is.”

Le Corbusier has the same issue when others try to alter his vision for a new build. He is so convinced of his own brilliance that he talks of seeking heritage status to prevent residents from altering anything about a building and its associated surrounds in the future.

Throughout the years covered in this tale each of the key characters indulges in affairs. These include an assistant de Silva employs and then casually sleeps with. When he leaves she feels anger that he takes her ideas to his new position – as if gaining such learning is not why he worked for her. There is little long term loyalty even between close friends.

The main story starts in 1949 and details de Silva’s life through to the 1960s – with brief coverage of how it later ends. Parts are epistolary. A wider picture is drawn by giving occasional voice to certain servants and friends. The pace felt slow in places as there was repetition and little action other than the increasing violence in Ceylon. Friendships are formed and cool; affairs blossom and then wilt with subsequent hurt and recrimination. The historical aspects are interesting as is the personal recognition of behaviours – suggesting a degree of self-awareness. The people depicted live a gilded existence despite personal slights and frustrations.

de Silva struggles to gain the professional appreciation she believes she deserves.

“when she surveys her past work, she finds an uncomfortable truth: all the recognition she has received has been through family contacts. Almost all the contracts she has received have also been through contacts. Very few have approached her on the basis of her reputation. Her reputation, in fact, is generally prefixed by the word ‘woman’. That ‘woman’ architect. As if that somehow sullies the work”

Le Corbusier has no such issues finding new projects, although he spends a great deal of the time period covered working on a large scale development in India. When this is finally completed he ponders how moving on from such a commitment feels.

“It is the same gloom that falls at the end of any long project. Like the first time you take a woman you have wanted for a long time – that feeling of: So? What next?”

The writing is precise and articulate although I struggled to empathise with either de Silva or Le Corbusier. Perhaps those with an interest in modernist architecture may feel more sympathy.

It is a familiar and depressing refrain that women struggle to attain the same regard as men for the same work. de Silva was a first in her field and faced prejudice. Nevertheless, the depiction presented here suggests she had opportunities others could not hope for due to her family’s position.

Although fictional a story inspired by real people will draw readers to their lives and the work they left. I am now curious about architects and their egos. The honesty with which characters’ lives and thoughts are presented – their chafing against expectation and convention – makes this a worthwhile read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Influx Press. 

Gig Review: The Greenwich Book Festival – Class Matters

From the festival programme:

In 2017, Dead Ink Press published the pioneering anthology Know Your Place in which working class writers addressed the issue of class inequalities head on. Authors from the anthology, and elsewhere, discuss class and writing.

Chaired by Matthew De Abaitua, the panel for this discussion included one writer from the excellent Know Your Place. Due to a no show, festival co-director Alex Pheby stepped in at the last minute to join Yvonne Singh and Shiromi Pinto. The discussion covered much interesting ground. None of the four authors are now working class but, growing up, all experienced class issues. My daughter and I ended up discussing this event more than any of the others attended. I may write my own post on class in due course to process the thoughts provoked.

Yvonne opened the event and read her story, More Than Just a Dreamland, from the anthology. Yvonne is a journalist, writer and editor. Her parents are from the Windrush generation. She applied to Know Your Place because she wished to counter the grim stereotypes of the working class, to write something joyful. Her story is set around a British beach. Such places are derided by some yet they hold happy memories for so many. Yvonne had to work her way through university. She first became aware of class at this time.

Alex was asked what role class played in him becoming a writer. He writes about the mentally ill and told us their weirdness cuts out the bullshit by which we live our lives. Alex grew up on a council estate in Basildon. His family then moved to Worcester where, due to his accent, he was considered posh. He passed the 11+ exam and ended up at a public school. Here he was called a gypo – a derogatory term. He experienced a sense of displacement.

Matthew asked about class mobility, what is left behind, identity. Shiromi grew up in Canada and finds class issues baffling. When invited to join the panel she was asked what class she would be and didn’t know. She has the experience of an immigrant coming from an aspirational working class family who moved to improve their chances. Her parents left Britain for Canada as they wanted to leave behind the racism and difficulty of class mobility. They desired greater opportunities for their children.

Matthew asked what working class means now. Yvonne talked of a survey that suggested there were seven classes, the lowest being precarious due to the gig economy. Like the others on the panel she accepts that she is not working class but that is her background.

Matthew quoted Orwell: “he does not act, he is acted upon”. Working class people have no agency.

Yvonne agreed. Many people now feel they cannot shape their future. Housing is out of reach and the older generation do not understand the younger’s lived experiences today.

Alex talked of the post-Thatcher attempt to undermine the infrastructure of support – unions, libraries, society. We now live in a strange form of individualism.

Yvonne mentioned that when she goes back to visit her working class acquaintances she feels a type of imposter syndrome.

Alex told us that his family were very left wing, Marxist. He doesn’t feel that he belongs to that. Whatever he is, his kids are middle class.

Matthew then read from his book, Self & I, about a period when he was working as a security guard on the Liverpool docks while a student. His mentor was an older guard who expressed annoyance when talking about students, asking what is the point of English Literature? The man bought himself a can of coke each day as a treat. Money was tight and coke was not a necessity, it was a rare luxury item that he allowed himself. When Matthew worked for Will Self it was at times almost a Pygmalian type relationship.

Matthew asked the panel about Grenfill and austerity.

Yvonne could only attend university as she received a full grant. She still had to work.

Alex, a university lecturer, told us that the obligation to work impacts on students’ ability to write. With the abolition of grants, more students have to work. Some also need to juggle childcare. They leave with huge debts. When that generation gains power in the future they may cancel these debts. What impact will that have on capitalism? Vice Chancellors wish to improve their institutions’ standings in league tables so raise entrance criteria. This cuts down on the diversity of students affecting all of their experiences.

Shiromi mentioned that Canada has always had university fees. Students graduate and go on to wait on tables in an attempt to clear their debts.

Matthew asked if the panel feel antagonistic towards literary fiction.

Alex talked of the English literary world being one of privilege, centred around Oxbridge and white, English males. Agents look for mirrors of their experiences and this affects who they choose to represent. There is a supposition that if a writer is incapable of gaining entry to Oxbridge then they don’t deserve representation. This attitude is complicit in its continuation.

Yvonne pointed out that fiction exists to tell other people’s stories. It is therefore a shame to limit it to one type, to close doors.

Shiromi moved back to the UK as a student. She was considering becoming a writer but couldn’t see anyone who looked like her being selected. They were all Oxbridge, an incredibly narrow field. Independent publishers offer a lifeline but the industry as a whole is exclusively a certain type. It is dispiriting.

Matthew suggested commercial fiction acts as a censor.

Questions were invited from the audience, the first being if inspiration were drawn from working class music.

Yvonne said yes. Pulp’s Common People tells a great story. Punk poetry can inspire. It is now harder though in all the arts. She suggested that the sciences were more egalitarian than the arts (not my daughter’s experience as a medical student – unlike her, her peers are mostly private school educated).

A teacher at a comprehensive school mentioned Gove’s Baccalaureate and how it has cut the focus from arts subjects, that they are no longer encouraged. This will lead to the gap getting wider. There is no immersion for students in the arts, no encouragement.

Alex talked of an entire group of people looking around for people who fit within their personal taste boundaries. This structural prejudice may not be deliberate. In going with gut feeling people can end up racist, sexist. Literature is chosen for what is expected to sell. We should be looking for something we don’t know, for new voices.

A question was asked, how much does reader demographic affect what is written?

Shiromi told us that agents do this, not thinking about broadening readership.

Yvonne talked of the limitations of market forces and perceived safety.

An audience member suggested that in the 70s and 80s when women weren’t being published they set up their own presses. It was suggested that writers consider alternatives, ways around the problem of Oxbridge.

Alex told them they were preaching to the converted and need to go out and evangelise.

Matthew suggested that the working class may have internalised passivity, telling themselves that, ‘they need to sort it out’, never seeing themselves as the they. He repeated that the working class have things done to them. They lack agency. Their experience of opportunity differs. A new model needs to emerge.

The event had run over time and had to be drawn to a close. It was a lively and thought provoking discussion, and a fine way to round off my attendance at Greenwich. After a quick thank you to Alex for his part in organising such an excellent festival my daughter and I headed back to our digs to mull over all that had been said.

  

 

Gig Review: The Greenwich Book Festival – Keeping it real?

From the festival programme:

The world is full of fascinating and important stories but setting real personalities on the page also presents challenges and responsibilities.

This event featured readings, discussion and Q&A with writers Alex Pheby, Shiromi Pinto and Matthew De Abaitua. It was chaired by Sam Jordison.

There are many ways of approaching the stories of people who existed. When choosing to write about them an author must decide how to present their interpretation. If interest is piqued, readers are likely to check for themselves what are regarded as known facts. In straying from these, or creating a story from what goes unsaid but may be suggested between the lines, an author is asking that the reader accept their version of events for what it is – a story. The blurring of fact and fiction happens everywhere a tale is told to an audience.

In 2019 Influx Press will publish Plastic Emotions by Shiromi Pinto. This book tells the story of Sri Lanka’s first female architect, Minnette de Silva, and her relationship with fellow architect Le Corbusier. It is a tale of lost love, ego and affairs, charting the erosion of post-independence ideals as seen by two architects at different points in their careers.

Shiromi talked about her protagonist, de Silva, who came from a politically active family. They were wealthy, progressive, left leaning liberals and the girl grew up amongst a certain class of people including Gandhi and Nehru. On moving to London she mixed with the likes of the Gielguds and Picasso. de Silva met Le Corbusier after she returned to Sri Lanka, the first Asian woman to have become an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. She was a pioneer of modernism in Sri Lanka yet when men adopted this style a decade later her contributions were eclipsed. Despite being successful and ahead of the curve she is remembered more for her relationship with a successful man rather than for her own significant achievements in her field.

Shiromi read to us from the prologue of Plastic Emotions, pointing out that the book is still undergoing editorial rewrites.

In the mid 1990s, 22 year old Matthew De Abaitua was hired by the newly divorced and in-demand enfant terrible of the British literary scene, Will Self, as his ‘amanuensis’, translated as slave at hand. Matthew lived with the writer in a remote cottage in Suffolk and helped with research and anything else needed. This was regarded as an exciting opportunity by the eager young man, fresh out of Malcolm Bradbury’s Creative Writing course at the University of East Anglia. He had worked as a security guard on the Liverpool docks to help fund his education and came to the role with a degree of naivity.

Will was ambitious. He realised that the media performance of himself affected how readers would accept his work. The book that Matthew has written about this time, Self & I, captures the 90s, the triangulations people make, and the compromises to progress their work.

The reading brought to life what sounds like a fascinating book.

Galley Beggar Press have recently published Alex Pheby’s second novel, Lucia, to critical acclaim. Lucia was the only daughter of James Joyce and her family subsequently tried to erase her from the public record. In doing so they have created a fascination with Lucia’s story. Lengthy biographies have been written as well as plays and histories. Alex wished to write into the spaces, to explore who gets to say what about who. In his story he explores the silencing of a silenced woman. He does not always go down the route current commentators on Joyce demand.

As if to prove his point on the sometimes controversial nature of his work, Alex read from the animal torture scene.

Sam asked the panel if they felt any anxiety about their depictions, if they felt any duty towards their subjects.

Matthew talked of the ethics of writing about a living person. He chose never to attribute anything to what may be going on inside Will’s head. When the manuscript of his book was complete he sent it to Will and it was returned within 48 hours! Had he said no to publication then Matthew wouldn’t have proceeded. Matthew told us that he was periphery to Will’s life, although Will had been key to him.

Shiromi granted herself a lot of freedom in interpreting de Silva’s life but tried not to do this with her architecture. This required much fact checking. She felt the struggle between writing as she imagined events to have played out and fitting this alongside known facts. In the end she wrote as she wanted.

Sam asked Alex where Lucia was in Lucia.

Alex didn’t know. If she exists in retrievable form then she exists in this book. Any evidence in literary form is questionable, including his. He took risks and was not always respectful. He mentions problems that others won’t acknowledge, as they pretend the rumours cannot be true.

Sam asked about lost moments and memory, of their time and our time.

Matthew pointed out that his story, although set not that long ago, was before the internet, Harry Potter, the abolition of the net book agreement. At author events back then a reading could last 45 minutes and the audience were expected to sit in respectful silence before each buying hardbacks and having them signed. Will wanted to disrupt the social order. With the advent of social media authors are expected to be nice, to ask readers to buy their books.

Shiromi talked about colonial idealism and the erosion of this, how the ideals of the new nation of Sri Lanka deteriorated.

The audience were invited to ask questions. The authors were asked if they felt less responsibility when writing fiction.

Alex commented that certain people are unwilling to understand that it is foolish for a critic to complain about the truth of an account. He suggested that readers are no longer equipped to deal critically with fiction (I disagree but that is for another conversation).

The authors were asked if these fictions are required to have a relationship with fact, otherwise why use real names.

Shiromi told us that she is more comfortable writing a novel rather than a memoir. She wanted to write about a great story, perhaps to prompt others to look deeper. She also finds writing fiction more fun.

Matthew mentioned that this type of writing has been described as a thinly veiled portrait which he finds anachronistic. He prefers to name names, to offer a frisson between real and fiction. He used his own experiences to provide narrative but avoids imposing his thoughts on others.

The authors were asked if they agonised over the points of view used.

Alex talked of the many shifts of voice and grammar in addressing the reader. He asked himself: what do they want to find out and why; what does this mean about the reader. All writing is fictive. What differs is the edges, the bleeding in and leeching out of realities.

Shiromi explained that point of view shifts throughout her tale. She did what she felt was necessary to tell the story of an intriguing character.

Matthew wrote in the present tense as he chose to exclude hindsight. He experienced this period as a younger version of himself, one who didn’t understand much of what was going on at the time. He wished to avoid a reinterpretation.

And with that the event was out of time. The authors moved towards the shop to sign any books purchased. My daughter and I were provided with much to discuss, especially around how certain authors can appear to regard their readers!

 

Click on the covers to find out more about the books, and do please consider buying them.