Interview with Natasha Brown: “I wanted to undermine the expectation of a happy ending” | book | BR culture stage

A young author who spent ten years in the financial sector in the City of London after studying mathematics at Cambridge, receives a literature scholarship and then presents a debut that has it all: This is Natasha Brown. “Getting Together” tells of the subtle and harsh exclusions of a class society that has long assumed it no longer exists. The young black protagonist of the novel has landed a good job at a bank, a condominium in a renovated mansion, and a friend with old money. However, she never really belongs. The eponymous “meeting”, a family celebration at the estate of her boyfriend’s parents, shows this all the more clearly. Beate Meierfrankenfeld spoke with Natasha Brown.

How would you describe the conflict your narrator is in?

As a writer, I’ve tried to paint a picture of a very special situation: the narrator is part of a larger shift that’s happening right now, as our economies increasingly become ‘knowledge workers’, information services. We are dealing with what our society should look like in the future. And I see my narrator’s story as one in a larger wave of literature about what this strange phase we are going through on an individual level looks like.

Her narrator makes a radical decision: when she cancer diagnosis she refuses the treatment. “Survival makes me a participant in their story,” the novel says — an equally radical phrase. Does this mean the misleading “if you work hard, you can make it” story?

Yes, exactly. I wanted to undermine the expectation that we would have a happy ending, a resolution that would make us feel better. I really wanted to deal with the uncertainty and unease that comes when things aren’t resolved.

This decision has an interesting effect. As a reader, you may wonder: isn’t that an exaggeration, is it psychologically plausible? After all, this young woman has a lot to lose and has been very lucky. Do you lure your readers into the trap of the beautiful attendance stories we already talked about?

I’m really happy to hear that because that’s exactly where I wanted to go. The book opens with a scene where the narrator gives a lecture to schoolgirls, encouraging them to consider careers in finance. And that brings you back to the idea that hard work overcomes all obstacles. Of course hard work is very important – and the narrator works very hard – but I wanted to play with making these idioms a little more real. To bring them closer to the reader and ask: how does it actually work? Is this really a story we need to keep telling ourselves?

A special concept in your novel is – the word is not easy to translate into German in this context – “transcending”. what does it stand for

This is a category that is widely used in the UK. Then it is said that one has “transceded” his circumstances. And I think there’s a lot to be learned from that: what do we mean by ‘transcend’? With what assumptions do we burden people who we say have overcome the limitations of their circumstances? And what does it mean if we reduce complex stories to this simple message? My book deals with language in many ways, and I wanted to stretch that word, use it ironically, and see what it means to say, “So-and-so has transcended his or her circumstances.” Whether that still feels the same – or not a little more hollow and maybe less simple.

You don’t name your narrator, we learn little about her background. Exactly this: She is the descendant of Jamaican immigrants, who brought Britain into the country as laborers and treated them as illegal immigrants for decades – the so-called “Windrush Generation”. However, this is also not mentioned by name. What role does this background play in your book?

It was interesting for me to give the narrator’s identity a certain freedom. There are books in which identities are presented to us in advance, and there are books in which space is first given to the reader to interact with the characters. I think if you immediately put a race label on a character, barriers are immediately erected. And to me it’s rather the opposite of what books are for, which is to build bridges to different worlds and perspectives. So not only did I purposely not give a lot of details about the narrator, I also didn’t say anything about the race of the other characters. Sometimes it’s just nice to write without such restrictions and experience the characters without them.

You tell your story not in a chronological arc, but through individual, strong scenes, almost cinematic…

Movies are an inspiration to me when it comes to getting a feel for a story. Because movies are sometimes experimental – I really like Charlie Kaufman – but you still feel the story. So I’ve always had the big picture in mind, but once that’s in place, I love going all the way into a scene and really trying to capture a character’s voice, capture how a space feels, how a place feels, to tell a believable story.

Your book is a very precise composition, with visible architecture. Did you establish this structure before you started writing?

Yeah, I thought about the other characters first, not the narrator, to figure out who they are, how they fit together, because I really wanted the narrator to take up the space they leave behind. I wanted it to be defined in some way by such constraints. When I had these characters and felt I understood their motivations and drivers, I tried to draw the line and figure out: Am I telling a story? A weekend? Months? Which events do I want to focus on? So I always jumped back and forth between the details and the big picture to make sure the book had the right atmosphere.

Your novel deals with topics familiar from current debates – Classracism, Sex† And there are quite abstract passages that relate very directly to these debates. How do you see the relationship between fiction and theory, perhaps even between art and activism?

book cover Natasha Brown, "meeting" with hourglass of boxwood balls and pink letters |  Image: Suhrkamp Verlag

An essay by Roland Barthes entitled “The Myth Today” greatly influenced my approach to “Convention”. In it, he defines mythologies as “appropriated” or “stolen” language or speech. So images, ideas, stories that we use are almost like ads to communicate something other than what’s just on the page. And he writes specifically about novels as a form of appropriated language and the way they can make certain ideas seem natural, normalize them in a way, and make them part of our cultural history. Reading this essay really impressed me. I’m a debutante, I don’t want to make sweeping statements about the role of art in general, but I hope with Gathering I’ve managed to capture some of the words we use and some of the expectations we have , to investigate and ask a little. My goal with the book is actually a question.

You talked about the ‘big picture’ and the fact that you keep concentrating the text on strong scenes. And your book is indeed in a concentrated, reduced form. Do you work a lot to get there?

I will probably edit and write a bit until much until I get to the point of what I intend to do. And I’m terrible at cutting things out before I’ve even written them. I’m a very obsessive writer – that’s probably why the book isn’t that long.

“Getting Together” by Natasha Brown is published by Suhrkamp Verlag in a translation by the Berlin writer Jackie Thomae.

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