From Tripos to Best-Seller

1 March 2008

Jonathan Laurence talks to Gautam Malkani about his debut novel Londonstani


Gautam Malkani’s first novel, Londonstani, started life as a Cambridge SPS dissertation. He pitched the idea to his supervisor of writing about the “rudeboy” culture in the British Asian community. She agreed on the condition that he submit the paper for the gender studies section of the Tripos, rather than writing about race. And Malkani quickly found that terms like “coconut”—an Asian who acts like a white person—were as much to do with masculinity as racial identity. After spending several years trying to write the dissertation material into a longer academic work, he decided to try and make it into a novel instead. The result was Londonstani, which examines how young Asian men try and build an identity for themselves apart from their mothers.

So how did you find writing the novel different from trying to write non-fiction?

The benefit of writing fiction is that you don’t have to qualify yourself. You find something interesting and you can go with it. If I’d written this as non-fiction I would have to calculate the fact that there are 49,000 Asians living in Hounslow, where I’ve set the book. In fiction you don’t have to worry about that stuff. You just tell a couple of people’s stories. So it’s pretty liberating. Particularly when you’ve been working all day, and you’re doing it more for fun than anything else. It was more fun to write fiction. Just like in an academic context you’re always trying to qualify yourself and make all the variables constant, and you have to account for all the bias.

Your day job is still working as a journalist at the Financial Times. How does that fit in?

Well, in the FT I have to do the same thing. Checking the facts, checking the way you’ve derived them–just constantly checking things. In fiction I don’t have to do that, and it’s so liberating. I don’t have to worry if what I’m doing is scientifically accurate.

How come you started out in journalism?

I’d wanted to get into it since I was about 8. It seemed like the only thing that I would enjoy. I knew I liked writing, and it seemed like the only way I’d get paid for it. I didn’t think I’d get paid for writing fiction. I still see myself as a journalist–I’ve only had one book, but I’ve been in journalism for ten years. If the second book goes well, then I’ll write the third and the fourth. I hate talking about the second book though.

And did you enjoy every stage of writing Londonstani?

I hated editing, because it’s in a slang, and I wrote a lot of it in the middle of the night when I was too spaced out to adhere to the rules I’d set. I had to go through it all.

Is there much of yourself in the novel?

I guess there must be, but not consciously. Because it started off as an academic study, I was always one step removed.

How did you find selling the novel to publishers?

It was difficult. My fear was that publishers wouldn’t get it, and see it as something that it wasn’t. I got the balance between the violence, the humour, the grittiness, the academia and the fun. I got that just right, and I was worried that people would upset that. That happened with some of the journalists who wrote about it. They tried to make it into something it wasn’t. They tried to make about the ghetto, even though the characters are middle class mummy’s boys.

Was publication always your goal?

I didn’t have the gall to show it to anyone in case they said “no fucking way”. I just wanted to write it–I didn’t want the pressure of anyone apart from my wife and my brother knowing I was writing it in the first place.

When the book came out there was a lot of industry hype comparing you to writers like Zadie Smith and Hanif Kureshi. Do you think your novel has much in common with them?

I’ve always enjoyed reading them for all kinds of reasons. Zadie Smith captures urban multiculturalism beautifully, but when it comes to what’s going on in this book I’d say that I was more influenced by coming of age novels like The Catcher in the Rye or Fight Club, and teenage novels as well. I think my characters have more in common with their characters—it’s about trying to be a man. With Fight Club it’s clearly about a character who wants to be a man but can’t because of his mum.

How do you find having to talk about your book all the time?

It’s necessary. I get requests from schools, who say “Come and talk to our students because they don’t like reading books but they read this”. And I get a lot of emails like that–students don’t have time for books and they read yours–and you can’t get a letter like that and say no. “I’m really worried about making a tit of myself, and the kids’ll laugh at me”–you just can’t say that. The alternative is not to have kids engage with the book. I’ve learned to deal with it–there’s always someone who agrees with you, and I make it into a fight between two camps, and before you know it they’re having a debate. We’re talking about schools that don’t have fucking poncy debating societies or anything like that. Not that I mean to be derogatory–in the end I think having a debate is what it’s all about, really.

It must be satisfying getting people to disagree like that.

The most satisfying thing–convincing people that they’re allowed to disagree with a book. People don’t realise that they’re allowed to do that, because they’ve never read much before. I have to start and say “I want you to question some of what’s in this book–that’s the whole fucking point”. That’s what deconstructing a text is all about. The big problem with English Literature in schools is that it’s all about ticking boxes–people believe that there is a right and a wrong answer. Once you get over that bullshit it falls into place.