Kathryn Cutler-MacKenzie talks to award-winning author Niven Govinden about his latest book Diary of a Film, the power and freedom of walking, the importance of the cinematic lens to his writing and assertive characters.
Niven Govinden is an award-winning writer of five novels. He was long listed for the Jhalak Prize, and shortlisted for the Gordon Burn Prize (2019) and the Polari Prize (2020) for his novel, This Brutal House, which focuses on the New York vogue ball communities of the 80s. His most recent novel, Diary of a Film, has been published to critical acclaim (see our review here). During the third lockdown, Kathryn Cutler-MacKenzie had the opportunity to talk in depth with Niven about his most recent work, his writing practise and more.
What prompted you to write Diary of A Film? I thought there was an autobiographical quality to the work. Do you feel like you’ve come to a point in your career where you’re reflecting on what you’ve done?
I think all my novels are essentially a process of reflection. It’s not actually written from a biographical standpoint at all…it’s an extension of my fifth book All The Days and Nights, which was also a novel about the creative process. When I finished that book I couldn’t let it go for a long time. It was the first time I actually stopped thinking of my books as separate vehicles and started to think more about this novel as being part of a cycle or something, but I couldn’t identify what I really wanted to do. And then I went off and wrote This Brutal House, which is a completely different book. For a while I thought it might have some sort of reaction to it because they’re both set in the East Coast of America and they both have an elegiacal quality, but it wasn’t that book at all. When I started writing this novel [Diary of A Film] the penny dropped: this is what I want to do. I keep turning back to the creative process and creative practitioners and what a life of making creative work does. Obviously that is the correlation with my own life. So whilst it isn’t my novel, I am interested to see how my point of view on those things has changed in the seven intervening years between writing those two novels.
“IT’S REALLY A BOOK ABOUT POWER”
I was wondering if your motivations were personal – it sounds like they were a bit – or rather socio-political? Maestro [from whose point of view the book is written] is quite a forthcoming character for me.
Yeah, I suppose I’m always interested in characters that are forthcoming. You know, a lot of the books actually have quite an interior quality but they don’t hide from themselves, they’re always very open in that kind of way. I don’t really think about – when I’m doing the work – whether I’m politically or socially motivated…it’s just all part of the brew of my own thinking and how the characters come out. I mean, maybe This Brutal House feels the most political in the sense that it was motivated by wanting to write a queer story that just wasn’t in the canon. All my books are essentially me trying to write something that I don’t think I have seen, or don’t see, so maybe that in itself is political. As I always say, being a queer brown writer, a creative person, an artist, that in itself is a political act. So I could really write the most boring books in the world but they would still always be viewed by somebody through a prism.
You look a lot at male relationships — this quiet and often unspoken way in which men have their emotional discourse. Do you think there’s been a shift in the tide in terms of masculinity? Your books seem to show masculinities that don’t yet appear to be written or spoken about.
I don’t necessarily feel that that’s true. As a queer writer, I read really really widely but I’ve always been able to glean that sense of brotherhood and the ability of men to talk to other men, but also the ability of men to talk to other women, and men to listen to women. I’ve always got that from novels. I don’t necessarily feel that there’s been something missing. I think it’s more to do with the attention that we give some books over others and also in terms of how the publishing industry is. I think that as a culture we’re more open to men listening to stories from other men, not just in terms of sexuality but generationally, so maybe that means that these stories are able to shine that little bit more.
These two things have really excited me (intergenerational relationships and men listening to women). In Diary of A Film, Cosima says, “Any woman that’s been broken, that’s to say all of us, will recognise something of themselves in it”. Where did that come from?
It just comes, you know. I sort of feel that I’m equipped to write these books because I have a sense of emotional literacy and I believe in the autonomy of the people that I write. They’re not ciphers; they’re real flesh and blood people and for me Cosima is really important in this book. She’s really the backbone for a lot of what happens in Diary of A Film. And you know, to write a novel about a film, and about an auteur, not just a director who’s a gun for hire – someone who comes up with the whole thing and is really coming up with a body of work…it’s really a book about power.
So you have a woman who is creatively on his level, culturally and in terms of age they’re on a level. Obviously they have different sexualities so there’s no undercurrent in that kind of way (they exist purely in the realm of friendship, the joy of friendship, and ideas). And because she has worked in a quiet way and he has worked in a loud way he’s really in awe of the fact that she’s done what he does but better and without any kind of fanfare. But she challenges him, and he likes that she challenges him, because in a film, even if you work with people who tell you your ideas aren’t great, there’s still a certain point where people think ‘what the fuck are you talking about?’. And she’s that person to him – this dynamic is so fresh.
LOOKING // WALKING
You’re making me think about this interface between the cinematic screen/the lens, and the audience/the auteur. Your book has a lot of resonances with Laura Mulvey’s writing on the male gaze.
This goes back to studying film. The notion of the gaze and reflection and a sense of distance and something being between you, whether it’s glass or a screen is literally one of those things that’s in my DNA now in terms of how I see things. It feels very apparent in this book because it’s about film, but actually when I think of other books I am always thinking of things like the gaze. And it’s not just about how you see something, it’s about how someone sees themselves. When you think about how you are, walking around in your daily life, you will often think about how you think you look, whether you’re walking down the street, or you’re sitting in a cafe waiting for someone. So I want a mixture of those things to be reflected back at you.
That takes us to the relationship to the street that you set up in Diary of A Film, and the way in which we understand ourselves through a place. But also the way in which we create and imagine a place, because I can’t imagine that you were able to travel during the period in which you were writing.
Yeah, having a strong sense of place is just the most important thing. That’s true of all my novels, and I always do think of place being this unnamed character in every book. In Diary of A Film we’re in Italy and I’m giving you the signifiers that we’re in Italy, but I’m not telling you the name of the city, because I don’t necessarily want you to be anchored too much in one place. One of my great joys is to wander around European cities taking absolutely loads of Polaroids, and just have the kind of freedom to explore, to go on adventures. The concept of the flaneur, I think, is a very overworked one, but the philosophy of actually walking around and how it does help you creatively – in terms of unknotting things and allowing them to coalesce – is really underestimated. And what you have in this book is two people [Cosima and maestro] who feel that same way. It’s why they both feel something straightaway and can’t really understand why. I remember reading Lauren Elkin’s book Flâneuse when it came out a few years ago – she’s incredible – and as soon as I read that book I was like yeah, Lauren is a complete kindred spirit. But also this is the feminist perspective on women reclaiming [the street] – why has the cult of the flâneur always been about the man of means who has the ability to walk around, you know. So the idea that women walk was really powerful, and when I started writing Cosima’s character I realised what their connection would be. I think she’s a genius, but she’s fearless: ‘you know, I’m not going to not be able to walk the streets like you can’. That’s really important.
There’s a great line where you write ‘This is a basic freedom for all women: whether they choose to walk or not’. And I think this idea came through in This Brutal House too — the issue of the choice to walk.
Walking in This Brutal House was again about the autonomy to be queer in a city that is hostile to you, which in itself becomes a political act, but also it’s an expression, within the ball scene, of pure joy. So maybe there is — I hadn’t really thought about it in that way — but actually there’s something of that that really stayed with me. But I think it’s just really down to, at the core, that I really like walking, and the freedom, and to see what it does to people.
In this arc of books you’re writing, themes of sexual politics, gender, and chosen families so often come through.
I think family is literally in all of my books. I think it’s part of our make-up, the need to have some sort of kinship with people, whether they’re blood or not. I like the scope it gives you in terms of trying to explore behaviour because, whether you run towards family, or chose family, or run away from it, it’s a reaction. So I suppose that’s what I’m interested in exploring; its the motivation behind the action. And I hadn’t really thought about that particularly until recently. I always want to write a body of work and then think, oh actually what is the thing that joins them. But also, my books are always gonna have a queer lens on them, maybe some more overtly queer than others, and they’re motivated by different things at different times. Sometimes I’m writing something that I want to see, that I think isn’t seen; sometimes I’m writing something that I want to see part of myself in, or wish I’d seen part of myself in at a different point…it’s lots of different things. There’s so many motivations. When you’re writing you can’t always unpack all those things until you finish it. Writing is a process of burial, and it’s only when you finish it and you start having to explain that you actually do some kind of excavating.
It’s got an archaeological quality to it. It’s making me think about the way I work. Often my hands get to places faster than my head.
Yeah, I get that. And also, the other thing is I never underestimate the power of my instinct to write. I’m not one of those people who has loads of ridiculous rituals. I literally just get on with it and do it then look back at the end of the day’s work and see what I have and move forward from there. I don’t try to over analyse it. Some of it, of course, is based in conscious thought in terms of what you’re trying to weave in, consistency and all those things, but there’s a whole other grey area I don’t think you need to explain even to yourself. You just have to trust that what you did was the right thing. And I think that, because I write by hand, I’m also hyper aware of that, because I’m constantly looking over this work and reworking it in longhand before I type it up. So what happens is, I write the entire book in long hand in a note book. On the right hand side of the page I write the book, whilst the left hand side of the page is blank, so as I’m reading it every night, I’m annotating it, making notes…it’s my version of the edit. By the time I’ve finished it the entire book is within this written book. All I have to do is type it up. When I type it up there’ll be a turn of phrase or something, and I turn the page and I’ve done it, and it never ever ceases to amaze me that my instincts are aligned. Every time that happens it’s like, ‘it was the right idea then, it’s the right idea now’. It’s really interesting! Every time that happens I’m like ‘yeah, just trust your instinct’.
Is there a similar texture between Diary of A Film and the Guido Guidi photographs that you were looking at when writing?
Yeah, totally. There’s the sense of liminal space, and this has to do with films. I think a lot about light, tone, not just in the words but tonally. Hitting the right mark tonally is so important. I always think about books in terms of tone. When I think of All The Days and Nights, half that book is really essentially built around a Terrence Malick lighting set-up for me. I really think about it as my golden hour novel – and that was before I even wrote it. I was like, how can I get that into this thing that’s in my head. It’s a mixture of those two things. Some people may pick up on it, some people won’t, but it doesn’t really matter if you don’t get the idea of light, you still get the tonal sense, so that’s what I’m trying to get.
It’s interesting that there’s an analogue/celluloid revival at the moment, and that it’s not being treated like an out of date or old fashioned medium.
And there’s a move also to reappraise the possibilities of working in analogue. You know, when you see how vinyl records are really selling again, and how the revival of Polaroid had a lot to do with the technicians who had worked at that factory for years, who understood that if the factory closed, a lifetime of expertise would be lost forever, because they had no-one to pass it on to. And the only way to pass it on was to keep that factory going in some way or another.
GENEROSITY // TRANSMISSION
A question raised in Diary of A Film, for me, was whether the role of the artist, writer, filmmaker, was to transmit knowledge inter-generationally.
Yes, I really really believe in generosity. In terms of what the work gives you, you’ve got a character on a very literal level who’s very paternal and who’s trying to pass on what he knows. He’s protective, but he’s trying to say this is what I know, this is where I’ve been. We haven’t really talked about Lorien and Tom, the two actors who are part of the film, and he [maestro] has a very paternal, protective and wistful relationship [to them]. It’s the mixture of the passing of time, but also the wonder of what’s going to happen to them, because you get the sense that they’re on the cusp of something quite major that will change them seismically. He’s cherishing this moment because he knows it’s not going to last, and even their relationship with him is going to change, even if they stay in this little group forever.
The generosity of spirit of that is interesting, but in terms of consciously how I write, I’m always interested in having a book that, as a reader, gives you multiple jump off points when you finish it. If you finish this book and think ‘I really want to read William Maxwell’, or ‘I really want to read Bassani’s Finzi-Continis’, or ‘I want to go and see some Basquiat’ I love those jump off points, and even if they’re not so obvious, the joy of reading for me is finishing something and not knowing where I’m going to end up next. I feel that one of the things I want to do is give you all these strands to go off in any direction you want.
And it gets woven into these beautiful webs time and time again. I think that’s the most fantastic thing about reading around, even just for this interview Niven; there so many places I was taken before we met at 11am this morning.
Niven Govinden’s Diary of a Film is published by Dialogue Books and is available to purchase online and in all good bookshops around the UK. Follow Niven on Twitter @niven_govinden and Dialogue Books @dialoguebooks
Feature image of Niven Govinden courtesy of Dan Lepard.