Writer Emma Korantema Hanson talks with author and director Sheena Patel about her debut novel, I’m a Fan, her self-created genre of “faction”, her literary influences, re-writing Black and Brown characters, the need for new (not nostalgic!) stories, and the pressure of perfectionism.
Spurred to pen what is now the book’s first chapter by the fantasy, unreality, and beauty of an almost green-screen, sunlit backdrop to the 2021 attacks on the Capitol, Sheena Patel addressed the reminiscence of these events to the many fantastical, unreal, and beautifully peaceful oppositions found particularly within toxic relationships: “where you look at what you barely have and call it love.”
Littered with tangibly fantastical, unreal, and beautifully green-screen sunlit acts of relational violence, I’m A Fan was born of the author’s urge to unveil “the acts of hate and dismissiveness that leave you starving; you’re starving but you’re told you’re full, and that’s how nourishment and poison get mixed up.”
With a sharply singular yet universal voice influenced by the likes of Martine Syms (Shame Space) and Cathy Park Hong (Minor Feelings) and like nothing I’ve read since Raven Leilani’s Luster (2020), Patel’s work of fiction, rooted deeply in fact, is a sure snapshot of the (/a) psyche of modern society.
In I’m A Fan, Sheena Patel provides not only the lay of the land of interpersonal relationships, but also taxonomises deep-rooted seedlings of fear and adoration that sprout into repeated personal and interpersonal injustices, forming a landscape beautifully personified through the book’s nameless protagonist, “the man she wants to be with and the woman she’s obsessed with” (who also happens to be having an affair with the man she wants to be with).
With an admittedly strong Jungian undercurrent, Patel brings to conscious light the many discretely abusive and destructive acts propagated by the psyche in interpersonal relationships when skewed by the fear and adoration that accompany power dynamics. This adds to the accuracy of a social narrative arrived at through the road less traveled: the subtle polemicism of “saying the quiet parts out loud.”
I’m A Fan reads with worrying familiarity, as it brings to light shame and shadow. In doing so, it also brings to light the multitude of interpersonal factions we inhabit either personally or virtually, either as fans or objects of desire. In and amongst many abstractions concretised by the book are the questions of whether to hate the player or the game, and whether we can truly own persons or personas. Unparalleled in its seamlessness with reality, I was able to ingest it in one sitting before talking with author Sheena Patel to discuss the personal and collective journeys that gave birth to a story that is, for some, as salaciously sinister as society itself.
Let’s talk process. How did I’m A Fan come about?
Well, I’ll start by saying I usually don’t ask for permission and the way I do things will most probably be a way you haven’t been told to do it…
So, yes I wrote what is now the first chapter and sent it to Nina (Hervé, publisher) and Will (Burns, editor) who I knew because they had published our pamphlet, 4 BROWN GIRLS WHO WRITE (which is also the name of a collective I’m part of) the year before. Nina came back and said she’d publish it, whatever it was, so in the end I wanted to go where I was wanted. In the past I definitely would have refused something or someone that wanted me. *laughs*
Is that that good old toxicity?
Haha, yes. This all happened the same week a big first assistant directing job came in, despite what I feel was a lack of experience at the time. Having two people at the same time saying they would back me made me take a radical leap of faith and say yes to everything when before it felt like my world was just closed doors.
Even though the process to get the book out was so intense, as it came out so quickly, the most fun thing to do was to be in a cave with my editor Will – who is also a beautiful writer – creatively. I needed a lot of hand holding so I loved the regular zoom calls for feedback.
Let’s talk voice. Despite the level of collaboration, the narrative voice comes across as being very singular. The protagonist says things you wouldn’t even admit to yourself, let alone to an audience of readers! I don’t think I’ve ever read anything so honest, untainted and direct. How did you achieve that whilst making sure you communicated the complete truth?
I don’t know to be honest. I don’t want to sound like a douchebag, but I knew I was in the presence of something great. I knew I had something fragile in my hands: this voice, this character. I didn’t tell anybody I was writing and didn’t talk about her to anyone besides Will for roughly 8 months. I feel like that really helped. Well, I don’t know if it did, but it probably helped. It felt like if I spoke about her she’d go away.
Also, during the lockdown, I was on my own in Wales for a month listening to a lot of extremely hard techno music while driving or isolated in my room, even when I was with family. I loved dancing to it because it feels like bashment to me. This was all part of me doing as much as I could to keep her protected. I felt like I had to, so I did.
A lot went into her voice and it happened in layers. That’s why I resent when people say the book is like a diary or a blog because it’s not at all like that. If I wrote a blog like that, I’d think I was a genius!
There are definitely no blogs I’ve come across like that. This is written as if no one is going to read it.
Which I absolutely loved.
Yes, a lot of layering went into it. Things were written at first very straight. Moments of strangeness – like the saliva in the park – all came much later.
I only really locked down the vulnerability section of it in December (2021). Up until then, I had written something but couldn’t really get to the heart of what it was I was trying to say. It was like having a big block of stone and trying to get down to the nub of it. Nailing the ideas was like carving or sculpting and these ideas felt like ideas I was trying to figure out myself: questioning the (social) narrative, my place in this whole system and what I’d been told was palatable and acceptable. I felt the need to push against that and do something different.
Also, it was sort of intentional to make her horrible. The most horrible. The most extreme. For her to always do the most terrible thing – the thing you wish you could do but would never – because I’ve never seen a Black or Brown character depicted like that.
*laughs* In full-on destruction mode.
Yes, destruction towards others was important. Anything that is done to her, she does to other people. I made that decision early on as I wanted to keep the reader constantly on the tilt, either from the titles or the plot.
I definitely spotted many mirrorings like this throughout which I found very poetic, particularly in the titles, whether they are just one word or full sentences. Did you set out to have that kind of poetic justice looping through?
The story definitely didn’t come out that way. The first iteration was much more sprawling. Then there was a whole process that made it that way. I was just trying to find what the story was, really. In doing so, I was doing things like transcribing YouTube videos and even had theories about (Canadian band) Crystal Castles in it, who I love so I’m really sad I lost that bit about Alice Glass (lead singer). So much got left behind or left out. It was a severe editing process that led to what it is now but at first it was this big, wide, nebulous, viscous moving object, a mass of fat that I then had to think how I could make into something people could actually look at. Ultimately, there was no direct intention to be poetic. The strangeness was layered into it.
A lot of the titles at the beginning were just words from the chapter. Then I started writing out memes within the text itself because I thought it would be funny, but no one thought it was funny… It got to the point where it looked like I really had to get rid of them and I was devastated! But actually I held on because I thought it was a really funny joke, and what I did instead was repurpose some and use them as chapter titles. So yes, some of them are memes, some are song titles (e.g. There’s no business), some are still words from the chapter itself, and some have nothing to do with anything because why should they?
The only intentions I had were: never to cast the protagonist as a victim, to make the reader do a lot more work than we’re all used to, to have them not feel sorry for her, and for them to feel sick when they read the book. Those were the only things I had any intention about.
I mean, going through that checklist for myself, I’m like yep yep yep. Particularly the last one from the perspective of being enamoured not only with the man she wants to be with but also the woman she’s obsessed with and what they both symbolise beyond their individual characters. For me, they could top the totem poles of all the things she is living and experiencing.
I know you’ve said it’s a questioning of society and what you’ve been told to believe, but how did you know when to put the pen down or stop typing? For instance, going back to what you said earlier about chipping away at a sculpture, what you were presented with at the last chip? At what point did you know, this was what you wanted to put out there?
They always say about any creative process that it never stops. It’s never done I don’t think. I mean, I could still tinker and add memes that I’ve since seen. It was just the deadline that stopped me really. I was told to deliver the book by March (and I was still late!). But now I do miss working on it.
Would you do this all over again? Like you say, there’s always more to be said. Are you working on something at the moment?
I’d love to but I have to wait to see what happens. I have to wait for another idea. Quite a lot of me went into I’m A Fan – as in, so much of my life at a point in time. Every single minute of my life that I wasn’t working (as an assistant director), I was working on this. I felt very umbilically tied to my laptop. I loved it.
The freedom after must feel so strange!
Well, it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year – in great company with the likes of Caleb Azumah Nelson’s Open water and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. It felt to me like a very timely addition to the social narrative in the way it calls out so many of society’s problems while remembering to hold the individual accurately accountable.
Thank you. I had a lot of nervousness and apprehension about it coming out. I felt the hypocrisy and distancing around liberalism, and wanted to close that distance by grabbing someone’s collar and pulling them towards me. The book is a very aggressive act, really. I don’t even know if I am a liberal – well, I am, but liberals feel like they’re a bit shit; they always think racism is this thing over there that they don’t have any involvement in.
I was nervous because I felt I was saying a lot of things that implicated Black and Brown people into racism in a way that I feel is missing from that narrative. Not in a Tory ‘racism doesn’t exist, we’re all individuals, we’re all accountable for our own experiences’ way though, but in a sense that we’re physically here and are therefore a part of the system. Casting us as victims is dangerous because then the problem carries on while we don’t see it as ours / see it as someone else’s to fix.
Yes, or it just becomes accepted as ‘the way things are’.
Yes, as if we have no power to change any of this. I wanted to wake up this complacency, because as soon as you’re implicated, you’re shocked into action. For me, I felt like we were all sharing different flavours of the same story before. I wanted to see how you tell a new story, because new stories are what we need. We need new depictions of the world as it is now. We don’t need nostalgic stories of a home our parents had – we don’t personally know that.
I agree and I love how early on you dedicated a chapter stating that this wouldn’t be quite that. I realised then what kind of book I was reading. The assumption with Black and Brown writers’ work is that it’s not tasty enough if it hasn’t got any of the flavours you mentioned before – anything about our ‘otherness’ – so I love that you hit that nail on the head right away.
Yeah, but I did it in a meta way. By stepping out of the story, talking about the shape of the story, and then stepping back into the story.
Of course, because being ‘othered’ is an undeniable fact of what you or the protagonist are experiencing in the world as it is now. Which leads me onto something I also wanted to discuss: the book is classed as fiction but it’s so factual.
Yes, faction! It’s a genre I’ve made up. I wanted it to be fiction, yet observations about the world. So I didn’t give a shit about the order to be honest. About anything. That’s why it reads like a film, where that doesn’t matter. Part poem, part scenes from a film; it can be all of these things and I can still call it a novel and it’s fine.
It’s interesting that you compare it to scenes from a film because I was able to maintain a really good visual throughout and I don’t know if that was because it was so disjointed. I would find myself excited to turn the page every time because I knew I was going to end up somewhere else with something else to latch onto. There was less room to skim read as I might have done, were the scene set a bit too much for me. And that keeps up with modern society too, where we’re increasingly only able to focus on so much for so long.
Yes and having this poetic prose also helped me deliver punches.
Yeah, I definitely felt those. The small violences, those stings in the tail – are any of those from personal experience?
Well, I’m not writing anything anyone doesn’t know about or hasn’t felt before. People who read it and see themselves in it, they’re not getting excited, thinking ‘fuck, it’s Sheena’, they’re thinking ‘fuck, it’s me!’
We’ve all got some experience of any one of those things, of chasing someone who doesn’t want you. And it might not be this brilliant person, but you put them on a pedestal above you, make them the object of your affections, and worship them because they seem to have something or be someone that you want.
And society’s done all of these things to us, so I do worry when I’m in a space, I often wonder:
‘Why am I here?’
‘Is my skin currency here?’
‘What does the context of my body being here right now mean?’
‘Am I here as decoration to make you look good? Or am I here because you value me?’
… These questions you ask that haunt you all the time. I don’t think that’s foreign to a Black or Brown person.
Not at all. I guess I had never seen those thoughts so directly and explicitly stated. These are definitely thoughts you have on a daily basis but daren’t speak them out loud because you don’t want them to be true. Or if they are, you worry your safety will be affected by your own realisation, and so I think it’s such a brave and bold act – whether these are personal acts and experiences or not – to put them out there. It’s absolute fearlessness.
Yes. But I would say that’s the voice and not necessarily me. I wouldn’t do a lot of the stuff that she did! Sometimes when I would be in certain situations whilst writing, I would ask myself what she would do, and it wouldn’t be what I would do. She’s just so much more like ‘fuck this, fuck everything, and fuck you!’ than me. I care what people think about me and I want people to like me and she just does not give a shit. That’s not me.
When planning her story, I would just think of her next logical step. For example, should she meet the woman she’s obsessed with? I then thought about what would happen if she did… she’d kill her! She’d have a knife and kill her. Because there’s no other way to possess her. Would that be satisfying? I suppose it would.
Even reading about her meeting someone close to the woman she’s obsessed with, had me constantly wondering about their safety.
Yes, I wanted to build this sense of pressingness and pressure. That’s way more scary than her just stabbing the woman!
I knew that what I needed to do was have nothing happen so that the reader’s imagination takes over. It’s while I’m telling you nothing that you start to think things like ‘fuck, is that family member’s baby safe? What will she do?’ because that’s a much more compelling place to be. She’s doing very normal bitesize things like getting a dog, going for a walk etc. – all factually strange behaviour that makes logical sense and qualifies as her next logical step.
I wanted to mirror the fantasy of when your mind is involved in a relationship and you’ve got the perfect image of the object of your affections in your mind. You have literally fantasised someone who doesn’t exist because imagination is the most powerful thing.
I feel like this is the only voice to address the issues that you do. Did anything inspire you when shaping it?
It was just what I wanted to do. Also, I must reference Martine Syms and her book, Shame Space. When I read it I felt like that was the kind of voice I wanted to write in. It’s just so “just say it”. Say the thing that you’re not supposed to say. The thing you normally keep quiet about. Say the quiet part out loud. I just thought I wanted to be that free.
By the way someone told me on Instagram that they showed Martine Syms the chapter and I was so overwhelmed I felt like I could throw up. I am so obsessed with her!
I have to say I identified so much with the protagonist’s thoughts, which made me think: if we’re all thinking these things, then why aren’t we saying them? Not in a shocked way, but in a genuine inquiry way. We need to name the answers!
I’m really into Jungian psychology and archetypes, so really, it’s shadow. On this Jungian analysis podcast I listen to, there’s one episode about Snow White and the poisoned apple. In it, they ask: what if we saw the fairy-tale of her being kissed by the prince with the poison apple in her mouth differently?
What if we saw:
- that she was too nice, too good, too people-pleasing and too trusting before,
- that eating a poisoned apple was a way of metabolising the bitterness of suppressed aggression,
- that she didn’t wake up from a kiss, but rather when that aggression had been fully metabolised.
So then I thought, what if this book is that bitter, poisoned apple? What would happen if we ate and metabolised this poison? What would happen if we had access to the aggression and anger which we are often denied as Black and Brown people?
There’s symbolism in fairy-tales as Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ Women Who Run with the Wolves highlights. That book is very much my bible.
I love that book, it’s my bible too! Mine’s falling apart.
Yes, there are definitely bodies within society (that give rise to our factions) that know that our anger can bring about change and so criminalise it. Opposition to our anger is definitely a tactic at the very least and a dangerous weapon at the most. That message might not be for everyone but it is definitely for us.
One of my aims was to do that.
I’ve definitely been told before that the way I’ve communicated something was aggressive, as I’m sure you have. I’ve been in work situations which have been horrible and that got me thinking: in what ways do we make ourselves…
You know this white gaze or white imagination – what would we be without it everywhere?
Well, what are we without it? We’re just as everywhere as it is.
Yes, and who are we without it? What do we want from all these artistic pursuits? When we get the recognition of the brands and the galleries – if we want the stamp of approval from whiteness – what does that do to us and in what ways does that warp us? What stories would we tell if we didn’t have that? Also, it’s clear we want something. What is it that we want? Why do we want it?
I think whatever we want is still imagined within the narrow constraints of what we’re used to. The thing itself, rather than our imagination of it, is greater than we can grasp within that gaze.
Yeah, greater than what you’re allowed to have.
Maybe what we want is safety and I can’t blame anybody for wanting that. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have it, just that we should ask questions about what it is that we’re going for.
In terms of inspiration, I also read Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings and also (possibly now problematic) Hanif Kureishi’s Intimacy from the 90s. The story is basically about a toxic man trying to make you feel sorry for him, but he’s such a great writer! I was so angry when I read it. At first I loved it, but that’s because I was a teenager and was too young to understand what I did when I read it recently: that he was a brown man acting like an absolute dick in a way that is radical even if it isn’t fair on women. I think that book really informed I’m A Fan because it’s about somebody being horrendous, but you find yourself kind of on their side.
I see. Sounds like a great example of the rejection of the model migrant expectation by showing that people who aren’t white are allowed to be dicks too. Yay.
Exactly. I don’t want to be good. That’s why I included the line “only excellence can do for black people”. The only version of Black or Brown people that white people can celebrate is excellence. Take for example, the Williams sisters, or any other great artists. It’s like where are the normal people? Why do we have to be so fucking excellent? It’s so oppressive.
I also really feel like that kind of immigrant mantra: “work hard, be the best, work twice as hard or even three times as hard to get half as far” – because you do, by the way – really primes you for some terrible shit in your personal relationships because you become so used to just not stopping. You’re taught that no is not an answer. So when someone is saying no to you, you find it hard to accept because you’re primed by your work life and everything else you’re fighting against. So when somebody is pulling away from you and saying “I don’t want this with you”, you respond with “well I’m going to convince you because I’m used to this position”.
Going where you’re not wanted is familiar. That’s the immigrant story; the whole of society is primed not to want you so you’re used to living in that environment. So when you meet someone who doesn’t want you, you’re like “oh well I know this!”
And when someone (i.e. me) turns around and tells you that somebody is also you, that’s the shocking thing. Although you can’t really blame people for choosing something toxic when that’s what’s familiar to them. Take for example food; sometimes you don’t want the healthy thing because the healthy thing isn’t the familiar thing. The familiar thing is the toxic thing.
Wow. Having a huge moment of realisation here.
*laughs* Oh, I’m sorry!
No, don’t be. It’s just become a lot easier to reason about my role in certain toxic situations I’ve been in.
I think the lack of realisation is why those things proliferate, because you’re taught and conditioned from a young age that you have to try hard and that you have to be excellent to get what you want or need. So you end up applying that to your personal relationships by thinking that you have to be this perfect type of person in order to have love or safety.
So when you meet someone and they don’t respond accordingly to your perfection (i.e. you get rejected) it’s shocking because you were told that if you try hard and are excellent then you’ll get what you want, but actually it doesn’t really work like that.
I think we just need to be better at listening really, because people often communicate who they are, what they are and what they are capable of. We just don’t listen. And part of that not listening stems from this colonial system where it’s inbuilt to simply keep going in the face of adversity.
Yes and in this same system, you’re often told things that aren’t true. So when a particular type of someone says something that they mean, you have the rational expectation for it to be a lie.
Exactly. It’s all tied together, or even if it isn’t, I’ve tied it together quite effectively.
And without spoiling it, can we talk about the ending? Why did you decide to go with what you did?
I was watching The Sopranos a lot in lockdown and from that, I knew I wanted a ‘cut to black’. That’s why the ending isn’t necessarily clear, beyond making sure (between Will and I) that the character had no redemption.
I also love stories where things stay the same – like the film, Up in the Air (2009). Nothing happens in it and it’s brilliant. By the end, everything has changed except nothing really has. I love films like that, where nothing really happens or the character is in the same place at the end as they were in the beginning and so, in mirroring a film structure (even if it is a book, and even if it is structured like a poem), striving for that sameness played a massive part in the ending.
Speaking of films, do you have any favourites?
Erin Brockovich – for comfort. I could watch that over and over again! And any Jonathan Glazer films, especially Under the Skin (2013), and The Fall (2019).
He also did Jamiroquai’s Virtual Insanity, right?
Yes. His films are more dark, embodied and scary. Under the Skin blew my mind. The juxtaposition of high and low culture, and set builds was mind-blowing. In it nothing bad really happens, but everything is terrifying. That’s the type of body horror I like.
These films definitely influenced this book and will continue to influence me.
Sheena Patel’s I’m a Fan is published by Rough Trade Books and is available to purchase online and in all good bookshops. Follow Sheena on Twitter @Sheena_Patel or Instagram @imightbesheenapatel