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Interview with Booker-shortlisted novelist Linda Grant

Dr Emma Parker speaks to Linda Grant at the 'Unsettling Women: Contemporary Women’s Writing and Diaspora’ conference in July 2008

The ‘Unsettling Women: Contemporary Women’s Writing and Diaspora’ conference, the second biennial conference of the Contemporary Women’s Writing Network, was held at the University of Leicester in July this year, supported by the Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust Studies.

Among the internationally acclaimed academics and authors present was the multi-award-winning writer Linda Grant, whose novel The Clothes on Their Backs was shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize.

Dr Emma Parker, based in the School of English at Leicester, interviewed Linda Grant at the conference for a special issue of Wasafiri: The Magazine of International Contemporary Writing on Postcolonial/Jewish Diasporas, guest edited by Professor Bryan Cheyette (University of Reading). They met later that Summer to continue their discussion of, among other things, self-invention, survival, the legacy of the Holocaust, the importance of history, the function of fiction, and the difference between British and American Jewish writers.

The interview will appear in full in the journal in March 2009. We are grateful to Wasafiri for permission to print these extracts.

The daughter of Russian and Polish Jewish immigrants, Linda Grant was born and grew up in Liverpool, England. After completing a degree in English at the University of York, and an M.A. at McMaster University, Canada, she became a journalist and has written for a number of newspapers including the Jewish Chronicle and the Guardian. Her fiction has achieved outstanding success. The Cast Iron Shore (1996) won the David Higham First Novel Award and was shortlisted for the Guardian Fiction Prize. Her second novel, When I Lived in Modern Times (2000), won the Orange Prize for Fiction. This was followed by the Booker-longlisted Still Here (2002), and her latest novel, The Clothes on Their Backs (2008), which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Grant explores post-war Jewish experience, family secrets and silences, the importance of memory, and the relationship between past and present. Female identity is another major theme, and the lives of women are set against major political movements or key historical moments, juxtaposing subjects such as Fascism and fashion in order to consider the relationship between what is perceived to be serious and superficial. These central concerns are reflected in her non-fiction: Sexing the Millennium: A Political History of the Sexual Revolution (1993), Remind Me Who I Am, Again (1998), a moving account of her mother’s decline into dementia, which won the MIND/Allen Lane Book of the Year award, and The People on the Street: A Writer's View of Israel (2006), winner of the Lettre Ulysses Prize for Literary Reportage. Inspired by a Holocaust survivor who opened a designer dress shop after witnessing women forced by Nazi soldiers to run naked through the snow, her forthcoming book, The Thoughtful Dresser (2009), reflects on the significance of clothes.

Emma Parker: You were a journalist before you became a novelist. What compelled the move into fiction?

Linda Grant: I always wanted to make my living as a writer, but you couldn’t get a job as an author, so I got a job as a reporter on a local paper just before my eighteenth birthday. I always knew that sooner or later I would write fiction, although I didn’t realise it would be as late as it was. I didn’t write a novel until after the age of forty because it took me a long time to find a fictional voice, which was to do with being Jewish.

EP: In what way?

LG: I had been trying different voices and found none adequate. I felt that there were two modes open to me. One was to have a voice like Howard Jacobson, which is absolutely embedded within a recognisable Jewish community, but I was from a community which was not recognised as Jewish. People say, ‘Oh, I never knew that there were any Jews in Liverpool’. Also, growing up in a middle-class family made me marginal to the Liverpool voice, which had always been working-class or Irish. And then there was the generalised middle-class English voice, which always felt to me like ventriloquism. And I didn’t feel that I could write like an American Jewish author such as Philip Roth, who shows how Jewish Americans, like Irish Americans and Italian Americans, have contributed to American national identity, because by the time the Jews arrived here, British national identity had already been formed. And that’s why my first novel, The Cast Iron Shore, is about somebody who feels marginal. It was only when I started writing about people who are marginal, who have problematic identities and problems with belonging, that I found my voice.

EP: Like you, your protagonists tend to be second generation immigrants who feel like outsiders. Do you see the outsider as paradigmatic of the position of Jews in Britain?

LG: Yes, completely, and a sense of marginality is exacerbated by this strange dissonance between the stereotypical English character, which is defined by tact, reserve, good manners, and Jewish identity, which is all about screaming rages.

My own sense of being an outsider is complicated because I grew up in a house where Yiddish was spoken – this was my parents’ first language and they spoke Yiddish to each other – and there was a different religion to the mainstream, but once I left the house I was not treated as a member of an ethnic minority because I’m white. So, I was in the strange position of always ‘passing’, and that’s why there is a great deal about women who are in disguise in my first two novels. That’s the way I felt when I was growing up, like somebody who was to some extent in disguise outside the home. But I also felt alienated from the world inside the home, because I wanted to be part of the outside world. So, I always had two compartments inside my head. The fractures and tensions were great, and these permeate everything that I’ve written.

EP: Your characters are chameleons who adopt various disguises and constantly reinvent themselves. Do you see this as part of the migrant’s search for self in the face of homelessness?

LG: Yes. When my grandparents arrived here in 1900 from Eastern Europe, they discovered a very rigid class system and this rigidity was reinforced by the clothes that people wore. And they realised that they could use clothing as costume in order to reinvent themselves; they could wear whatever they liked and they would be taken at face value. So appearances had enormous significance; there wasn’t, in a way, any sort of authentic identity. You could always pretend to be somebody else, identity was mutable.

EP: Does reinvention entail loss?

LG: No, not at all. I’ve never felt that. In fact, I think one gains, it enriches.

EP: So do you think that, despite the problems engendered by a sense of homelessness, Diaspora has some positive effects?

LG: Of course it does, specifically if you’re a writer because you are, by definition, an outsider and hence you observe society all the better. The condition of being part of a Disapora is that of being transnational and cosmopolitan, usually urban, not particularly attached to landscape, constantly in flux. In Claudia Roden’s masterwork, The Book of Jewish Food, she shows how you can track the movement of the Jewish Diaspora by following the arrival of certain recipes in different countries. It’s utterly charming to me that the traditional British fish and chips was introduced to London by Portuguese Jews in the nineteenth century, who immigrated from a fish frying country.

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