Linda Grant

What to write next? There is no normal any more

Linda Grant, who won the Wingate Literary Prize on Monday for 'A Stranger City', says winning the award this week was... strange

March 17, 2020 13:28

I’d bought a dress for the event in the Me&Em sale two weeks ago. I’d ironed it, but hadn’t yet removed the label so I suppose I could send it back but it hangs in my wardrobe, a reminder that once there were good times and we can hope they will come again, we just don’t know when.

The event on Monday evening was the announcement at the JW3 of the Wingate Prize for a novel or work of non-fiction translating the idea of Jewishness to the general reader.

I was a judge for the prize in 1998 and been shortlisted twice but never managed to win it and was surprised that for this novel I’d even made the shortlist, for it was up against formidable competition, including the poet George Szirtes' memoir, told backwards about his Hungarian parents, and novels by Howard Jacobson and Gary Shteyngart.

By Friday it came as no surprise to be informed that the party had been called off; no need for a dress. Instead, at 2pm on Monday, and online only, I was announced the winner, sitting at home in jeans and a holey sweater, the writer’s work clothes.

I hadn’t expected to win because A Stranger City is not, on the surface of it, a Jewish novel; it is set in London starting in 2015 and extending out into a future that was racing past me as I was writing it in real time. It is informed by a Jewish sensibility, one that comes from being descended from immigrants, people who have millennia of experience of being moved on.

When I began writing it in the autumn after the referendum, I was already anxious. Anxious about the country and the future of a multicultural, multilingual city being compressed into a new form - so many here seem to have arrived from somewhere else and have a home town in another country.

Francesca, the privileged daughter of Iranian-Jewish emigres with her Belfast Protestant husband are scaling the first rung of the property ladder in a distant, unfashionable suburb of North London on a road which terminates in a railway line. And we know about how Jews feel about trains. Her elderly grandparents, once vendors of carpets in the bazaar of Isfahan, have a nose for trouble and become locked down as the city becomes more hostile to people on the street with a foreign accent.

These are the Jews of my novel, not Jews settled in the community but, like Chrissie,  the Irish nurse, and Marco, the shallow, vain quarter-Lebanese PR guy, part of the intermarrying classes of millennials, constantly on the move.

Marco has an idea for virtual club nights in the comfort of your own home, with a set list by a top DJ and canapes and drinks delivered to your door. I didn’t predict a pandemic, but I seemed to have predicted a city under self-isolation. I was writing about the powerful sense of dread and anxiety, a city of strangers growing ever more strange, layers of history beneath your feet, once scraped away containing enclaves of older inhabitants, modern-life refuseniks.

I suppose I must have known that something bad was coming. Election after election, beginning with Jeremy Corbyn becoming leader of the Labour Party, then Brexit, then Trump, then and then and then proved that these are not normal times and anything could happen.

I depicted forced deportations of refugees, prison ships on the Thames – things that may still take place as we grow more and more frightened of foreigners bearing the plague.

An academic survives a terrorist attack and is unable to leave his flat. I seemed to be writing about lockdown without having actually experienced it.

Today, as I write this, is the first day I have. Although I’m just a year off 70 years old, I'm still leaving the house to shop and to shop for others. As a family we have started nightly video conference calls. We’re looking at starting a book, music and art club for a morning walk in the park tomorrow.

Writers of course are well suited to self-isolation. We don’t like interruptions. Some can write to a background of music, I can’t. So in some ways it will be business as usual for me, though in a far stranger city than I have ever known, or any of us have apart from those who remember the war.

What to write next? Will we have to resort to the historical novel when dystopian fiction is rendered obsolete by current events? There is no normal any more, and no idea what the new normal will look like. See you some time in the future, maybe in my new dress.

March 17, 2020 13:28

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