Rym Kechacha talks to author and academic, Davina Quinlivan, about her new creative non fiction work, Shalimar, honouring the stories of her family, connecting with people through literature, writing auto-fiction, and the power of speaking from a place of otherness.
I spoke to Davina Quinlivan over zoom after we’d put (most of) our children to bed. The next day she sends me an email thanking me for my time. She writes that a mother’s time is precious; and I completely understand what she means. She doesn’t mean that our time is more important than anyone else’s because we have children, she means that she knows that my time is precious to me. And she is thanking me for sharing that time with her.
Her debut book Shalimar isn’t really about time, it’s about space. It’s about the semi in Hayes where Quinlivan grew up and is not sure she wants to leave; the spaces in fields and forests of rural England; a mango garden in present-day Myanmar. It’s a book that effortlessly straddles genre; a memoir with impressionistic parts where memory and imagination become merged. It’s a family history of migration and it’s a kind of nature writing too. It slips between past and present, and deals with themes of belonging and moving and people of multiple heritages attempting to carve out their own place in a changing world.
The way Quinlivan speaks reminds me of the way she writes: associative, flowing through different themes without stumbling. She is eloquent about her inspirations and processes as I ask how Shalimar came about. She says: ‘I always felt that those strange, odd tales were deep within me. They were going to come out somehow but I had to make my peace with them because I didn’t always embrace them, I had a lot of ambivalent feelings.’ Then, when the isolation of lockdown came: ‘I didn’t think too hard about where it would sit on a bookshelf or what my reader would look like, I just knew I needed my family around me.’
You feel this very strongly throughout the book; the act of bearing witness for her ancestors. She says she wonders if anyone would really care about them and I imagine many writers have the same worries when writing about their families. But this belies a paradox writers often find out the hard way through multiple, mysteriously failing drafts. When you write in general terms to try to include everyone, no one finds anything in the writing to connect with. When you conjure specific images in your work, anyone can blur the writing a little to relate it to themselves. So I find it easy to project my own family onto Quinlivan’s; my own sense of something inside me belonging to a place I don’t know; my own embarrassment with the question but where are you really from? Quinlivan writes: ‘When answering such a question, there is always a pause, which, alas, grows longer, and longer, the more I age. There may come a time when I do not answer and simply smile. Yet, there is a small delight in borrowing these identities, for a moment, as people claim me as their own, as local, or familial, and that makes anyone feel less alone.’
Shalimar doesn’t try to slice up different parts of our identities; the book is integrative and seeks to makes connections. Quinlivan constantly refers to texts and films as diverse as The Tiger who Came to Tea, the Oxford Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan, and Aung San Suu Kyi’s Letters from Burma. These are works by which she has made sense of her life, and they function as a kind of shorthand; she can say it’s like this, you know? And there’s a good chance we do.
Quinlivan moves deep into rural England and begins to knit herself into the landscape with walking and noticing. She says: ‘I always think, am I really a nature writer? Because I don’t know the names of all the plants and I’m quite happy to admit that I’m not a natural historian.’ But this doesn’t matter. She describes for us a mode of being and beginning to belong that is (theoretically) available to us all. The elements of nature writing in Shalimar are about discovery rather than expertise. We have a sense of exploring alongside her as she gets to know new-but-old landscapes and communities. She writes: ‘All the glorious voices and faces of those twenty-first-century villagers seemed to me like a strange reenactment of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, with their songs of little triumphs, fears, laughter and school runs, pubs and forgotten, cold cups of tea at baby groups.’
The writing in Shalimar is delicious, full bodied and supple. I wondered about her style, what she was thinking of on a sentence level but she says it wasn’t that conscious or crafted, at least at first: ‘I just wanted to write about my family and to give them that power and visibility that they didn’t have otherwise… because it’s nice to know that you were loved.’
Thinking about such a simple idea as love brings me onto the title of the book. As I started to read I had an idea of what the word ‘Shalimar’ meant; it resonated at a pitch I couldn’t deconstruct but felt associations chiming. Opulent Mughal gardens, a perfume, an exotic sense of beauty, place where the soul finds itself at ease. A sunny spot, a paradise always in bloom in the memory.
Quinlivan is referring to an actual place; Shalimar the district of Howrah in West Bengal, where her aunt and father lived. She writes: ‘Shalimar was their home, but now its meaning floats free from its geographic location and becomes their legacy to me. Shalimar is the bridge between my father’s world and my perception of it, not a real place but one of our own making, filled with his things, his stories, but also mine and my stories which are free for me to pass on as I go on without him.’
This, for me, is one of the passages in the book that contains its themes in capsule form. It’s a feeling anyone with any history of migration in their family will recognise deeply; the confused longing for a place that no longer exists, the way that longing entwines itself with your own life experiences and tints everything you know about the world.
I ask her what’s next and she talks about two projects she’s playing with that she’s been planning and drafting for a while. She says: ‘I was at home with my children and I was writing in my head, carrying them around with me though I couldn’t do anything for years on end.’
One is about her mother, who Quinlivan currently cares for, and another a novel set between the Black sea and Cornwall, both about mixed identities and place. She’s drawn to using her own experience in a kind of autofictional way: ‘It can be a form of resistance because you need to be able to weave through fiction and non fiction to be able to create your own sense of self. That’s the very nature of being of a mixed heritage, constantly moving between one thing and the next, mediate and navigate.’
Again, I know exactly what she means. She’s not saying that you have to be of mixed heritage to write at the fraying seam of the different parts of you; it’s that we can all find it an exceptionally fertile place to create from. She says: ‘It’s nice to speak from the voice of the Other. you can take those codes and you can play with that, you don’t have to be one thing.’
Davina Quinlivan’s Shalimar is published by Little Toller and is available to purchase online and in all good bookshops now. Follow Davina on Twitter @DQuinlivanB or Instagram @qdavina
Feature images courtesy of the author, Davina Quinlivan. Lucy Writers would like to express their heartfelt thanks to authors Davina Quinlivan and Rym Kechacha for allowing us to publish this interview.