For her fifth dinner party, author and host Susanna Crossman talks to writers Elizabeth Chakrabarty, Lily Dunn and Shamini Sriskandarajah about eliding the barriers between fiction and non-fiction, the ethics of (memoir) writing, diverse ways of reading via Lydia Davis and whether to “glam up” or dress down when sitting down to write.
The Dinner Party Reloaded: The Memoirists & Fiction Writers
7th September 2022
The Dinner Party Reloaded is a gathering of words, art, culture and food, bringing together writers, visual artists, translators, dancers, musicians, actors and thinkers from around world. For each party we invite 3-4 guests to meet virtually, sharing their work and thoughts while eating, drinking, and cooking because as Virginia Woolf wrote, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”
We invite each guest to contribute posts and photographs during the conversation. This could be: a photo of you eating a peanut butter sandwich while perusing the pages of Martha Graham, an image of you cutting lino-prints as you cook a gourmet Indian meal, or a extract of Ducks Newburyport (or your latest draft) read while making baba ganoush because “the tail end of eggplants look like the blunt noses of killer whales. “
Much of each gathering is also spontaneous, as your host Susanna asks questions and discussions evolve between the guests, because as Montaigne wrote, “The most fruitful and natural exercise for our minds is, in my opinion, conversation.” Words and ideas bounce around!
The Dinner Party Reloaded is based on an extraordinary event hosted and developed by Susanna Crossman and Alexandra Marraccini, Les Ephémères: 24 women/24h, which brought together twenty-four international writers, translators and women from the book world on the 21st March 2020. Alexandra and Susanna met on Twitter, over a short story and a Tweet to raise women’s voices. The rest is history…
So, even during these complex days, we have time to drink champagne (or green tea), relish the space and connections art and words give us, and dance on the table.
Contributor Names & Initials
SC – Susanna Crossman, writer (TDPR host)
SS – Shamini Sriskandarajah, writer & poet
EC – Elizabeth Chakrabarty, writer
LD – Lily Dunn, writer
SC: Hello to you all. Welcome to my house. Let me open the door. It is a hot day. Late summer in Brittany, France. Outside in the garden, the heat wave has burnt the flowers to a crisp. We are slowly drifting into autumn, sharpening pencils, and as Jane Hirschfield writes, “The heat of autumn is different from the heat of summer. One ripens apples, the other turns them to cider.”
Would you like some lemon verbena tea? Coffee? A glass of chilled wine? Please sit at the kitchen table while I prepare our meal. Help yourself to Charentaise melon, the last of the season, sweet and musky. In the summer, in the South-West of France, we buy these from roadside stands, piled high, succulent pale green balls.
I’ve also baked cookies for you. I made them with my daughter, measuring and mixing oats, butter, sugar and raisins in a sticky heap perfumed with nutmeg and cinnamon.
As I cook, I am thinking about mixing, alchemy, the to-ing and fro-ing between the poles of fiction and non-fiction, writing ‘Prousts’ lost time and David Shields who wrote in Reality Hunger, “There’s only one kind of memoir I can see to write and that’s a slippery, playful one…shaped, if it could be, like a question mark.” Following Shield’s thoughts I’ve been wondering about the limits and meeting points of each genre, hybrid works, autofiction, metafiction, these untethered forms that Anne Boyer called at an RAC lecture, “genres with no names”…
SC: Hello Elizabeth. Hello Lily. Hello Shamini!
LD: Hello! This is so lovely to be here. I am sitting in my messy office in Bristol and the sun is shining outside, and I can hear the leaves rustling in the trees in that lovely sunny windy autumnal way. The air is damp as it’s been raining today. Can I have some melon? It looks so tasty and reminds me of being somewhere else. Somewhere away from what I am used to. It’s funny you mentioned David Shields as I pulled out a quote of his today from Reality Hunger, but quoted in a book of essays on creative fiction that I love called Bending Genre, edited by Margot Singer and Nicole Walker:
‘An artistic movement, albeit an organic and as yet unstated one, is forming. What are its key components?… randomness, openness to accident and serendipity, spontaneity; artistic risk, emotional urgency and intensity, reader/viewer participation; an overly literal tone, as if a reporter were viewing a strange culture; plasticity of form, pointillism; criticism as autobiography; self reflexivity, self-ethnography, anthropological autobiography; a blurring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction: the lure and blur of the real.’
Munching on your melon as I re-read this. I love the ‘lure and blur of the real’.
SC: Of course, Lily! Help yourself to melon. It is brilliant to be able to meet you all here. Hello Shamini and Elizabeth!
EC: Hello everyone! It’s lovely to be invited to join you all, from a rather rainy cloudy London today!
LD: This is something I prepared earlier. A rice dish with halloumi, cauliflower and chilli. I would also really like to talk about writing as a form of nourishment and I wonder if this feeds into discussion around fiction versus nonfiction. My daughter has had this awful post viral fatigue for months now, and I have felt so helpless as her mum – helpless to make it better – but one thing I can do is cook her healthy meals. I find writing personal narrative has the same effect on me. When I have been away from it for a while, like I have recently over the long summer break and my daughter’s illness, I feel I am not paying attention to myself. I’m not giving myself something that is my nourishment. I do so much working out of life’s challenges with my notepad and pen.
SC: That is fascinating Lily and thank-you for the delicious looking dish you have prepared.
SS: Hello from Kent (usually I’m in London as well – I will be going back in a couple of days). The cookies look delicious, Susanna, and the rice dish looks amazing, Lily. I made some oat and chocolate cookies with my disabled sister, who I’m caring for here on a farm for a few weeks. We can hear donkeys in the next farm and lions in the big cat sanctuary – it’s a lovely change of scenery. Here is my dressing table that I have been using as a desk. I gave up on The Jungle Book, but I’m enjoying Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings and Michael Rosen’s Selected Poems. The notebook was given to me by a friend a couple of years ago. I was too scared to use it before, but now I love writing in it – grey pen in the daytime and pink pen in the evening!
SC: Hello Shamini!
SC: First question. Today I came across a recent article in Lithub, by memoir writer T Kira Madden entitled Against Catharsis: Writing is Not Therapy. Yet another memoir author Lidia Yuknavitch believes that it is a profound act that you can make a story that releases you from the tyranny of your past. Has writing memoir brought you a sense of catharsis and transformed the traumatic events you write about? This is a question for everyone and related to what Lily has just written.
EC: Hello everyone, this is an interesting question, I made a deliberate choice to use fiction to explore the trauma of racism, so taking it away from my own experience except for the specifics of the racist crime I experienced (how it targeted me). But I bookended my novel with essays, non-fiction, to talk about the spectrum of racism and how it happens, and how it’s part of the culture we live in.
LD: It’s really interesting that you made a decision to do that Elizabeth as I think a lot of writers automatically turn to fiction before even realising they could write something in nonfiction, because it’s a kind of default thing we are taught. Ie, studying creative writing in this country is far more focused on fiction than nonfiction. But I am interested in why you made the decision to tackle certain things in fiction and then add the essays at the end. Was that because what you wrote about in the essays needed to be factual and more direct? More transparent perhaps?
EC: I chose fiction – my novel is called Lessons in Love and Other Crimes (The Indigo Press) – as the sustained serious race hate crime I experienced was ongoing, and in fact not solved, so it needed not to be about me, but about that kind of experience, how it changes how you see the world. Also, I wanted to explore this, but not in a way that readers would look voyeuristically at my experience, but look at their own experiences and perhaps their own racism too (I have received really interesting messages from readers, responding to my work on both the latter points).
SS: That’s really interesting, Elizabeth, and makes me think of the point that Susanna raised about writing as therapy. I think it can be very therapeutic in a helpful way, but also, if we’re talking about actual therapy, there’s the problem that you can feel worse before you feel better – it can feel terribly painful and unsafe to think deeply about traumatic things. I wonder if fiction is a “safer” way of revisiting painful events?
For me, I think I am sometimes able to write about things straight away, to get them out of me when they’re raw. Other times, I need to have a break from thinking about the pain, and return to it later. I think there’s a Keats term called negative capability. I find there’s something about daring to write about memories where there aren’t easy answers or nicely-wrapped endings, but letting myself sit with the confusion, the not knowing, the sadness or anger. The messy feelings. There’s also Wordsworth’s idea of “emotion recollected in tranquillity” and even though I worry about forgetting details or losing the intensity of the experience, it definitely helps sometimes to return to events later, with a calmer, slightly detached temperament.
EC: Yes, for me, fiction is definitely less triggering…
SC: Congratulations on the book being short-listed for the Polari prize Elizabeth! I was fascinated by the hybrid meta-fictional nature of your debut novel Lessons in Love and Other Crimes. As I read, it reminded me of Brecht’s alienation theory in theatre where he wanted familiar content to be presented in an unfamiliar way so the audience does not simply empathise with the story of a drama, but thinks more profoundly and politically about the drama.
LD: Amazing! Congratulations!
SS: Congratulations Elizabeth!
EC: Thank you, yes I love Brecht’s theory, and, of course, this is something there in the novel, partly through the ‘author’s notes’ interrupting the text in my novel.
SC: Yes, your book constantly takes us in and out of fiction Elizabeth. We are removed into a different kind of reading. Lydia Davis writes about “two kinds of reading”: one where, “I lose sight of the text as artifact, the text becomes invisible & I also lose sight of myself, my thinking mind”, and another where “the text itself remains visible & present to me, an object of interest…I remain present to myself.”
EC: Yes, this is something that I worked on, how fiction and non-fiction are read so differently, have a different effect on the reader?
LD: Yes! I completely agree with what Shamini is writing. I definitely felt worse before I felt better when I was writing Sins of My Father, which took me many years to write and started as essays, and then morphed into a book – but the more time I spent on structure the more distanced I became. It was a strange experience in all; the essays fell out of me in their first draft form and were incredibly cathartic, accompanied with crying and all sorts, but also a lot of reflection and many revelations about myself, my father, my life. But then somehow the making of the book – the transposing into art, you might say – involved a totally different part of me. I suppose that’s the craft speaking, and maybe it’s a right and left brain thing.
SC: Lily, in your memoir, Sins of My Father, you attempt to unravel the mysteries of your father (a writer, an addict, a cult member, an entrepreneur) who believed himself to be beyond reproach. A beautiful work of literary memoir, your book asks how deep legacies of shame and trauma run, and if we can reconcile unconditional love with irreparable damage. Your father was absent for most of your life, so how much did you have to rely on imagination while writing the book and what does that throw up in terms of memoir V fiction?
LD: This is such an interesting question, Susanna, and I will attempt to answer it! I started the book by imagining my dad in his house a day when I wasn’t there, but it was a significant day when he opened an email from a scammer. So this in effect was fiction. But I called it memoir, which brings up ethical questions about how I have a right to enter into the psyche of my father and guess at what happened that day. In effect, I am speaking for him when he isn’t even alive to speak for himself. So yes, it’s risky. But I justified it in the text and in myself by naming the fact I was using my imagination, therefore remaining the ‘reliable’ narrator to a certain degree. But also piecing together what I did know: my father, the house, his progressing alcoholism. I think there is something else going on here as well, which is my intention to know. Because my dad was so absent and so elusive I spent my whole life trying to claim him, trying to get him back, and somehow by writing this story and imagining myself under his skin I was attempting to know him far more intimately than I was able to know him in real life, and I was doing it on my terms. I don’t know if that makes sense.
SC: Yes, it’s almost the kind of re-invention of a story that Freud writes about in the psychoanalytic cure, a re-framing of the narrative, a re-telling and a powerful reclaiming of history. I think all three of you do this in your work.
EC: Yes, in my novel, I am imagining an antagonist – and as readers will see, this is influenced by Freud, and Psychopathic characters on a stage – so I think it’s one of the things we do when we don’t know answers, as Lily wrote above, we have to imagine, and we can make it fiction or non-fiction.
SC: How would you all define the difference between the two genres?
SS: It is a hard question, and I think perhaps people are comfortable with the idea of fiction containing elements of nonfiction. There’s a lovely introduction to Alan Bennett’s second book of Talking Heads when he talks about people seeing things in his monologues that he didn’t consciously intend. He likens it to being stopped at Customs and a security guard going through your suitcase and picking up a naked photo of yourself which you don’t remember including!
“Now not only does the playwright not remember packing this photograph, he doesn’t even remember it being taken. But this is him; those are his trousers; that is his smile and, yes, that, without question, is his bottom. ‘One of our holiday snaps is it, sir?’ sneers the customs officer. ‘I should keep that covered up if I were you. We all have one, you know.’”
However, the idea of fictionalising elements of a memoir, or of leaving out parts of the story…that feels more complex. But the other day I was doing a painting and I simplified it because I didn’t have the time or energy to paint every single detail – and it made me think about my life writing. I didn’t lie by leaving out a couple of flowers or whatever from the painting, and the viewer still has a decent idea of what the object is. I guess that’s similar with life writing – I don’t need to include every single detail, and sometimes I won’t remember things perfectly, but I still need to write about events in an engaging way. So maybe there will need to be small moments of fictionalised truth, especially with things like dialogue that often bring memoirs to life.
SC: Love this Shamini. Bachelard writes about the fact that for the imagination to grow reality must be deeply rooted inside.
LD: For me, the definition is about honesty and transparency. I don’t think we can ever imagine that a memoir is truthful, because it’s a construction. It’s naturally artful. And then novels we know are often after a deep truth, something beneath the surface, explored through metaphor. But I define nonfiction as more direct, more honest. It’s almost like a conversation with the self. You write to explore and then you attempt to understand what that experiential writing is about. And you show it all in the text.
SC: Yes, Lily, so interesting, makes me think of this quote by Mary Karr, “I once heard Don DeLillo quip that a fiction writer starts with meaning and then manufactures events to represent it; a memoirist starts with events, then derives meaning from them.”
LD: yes, exactly that.
EC: Re fiction and non-fiction: we all see things differently, even if we’re present together – like even this experience is weird for me – at one point I could see all three of you typing at the same time – so I became the reader, and it felt really metafictional.
SC: This is what I love about David Shield’s Reality Hunger and Anne Boyer’s work, the opening up to these new metafictional forms that have no name.
SC: Shamini, in your writing you often interweave the intricacies of loss, friendship and family, and explore your role as a carer for your sister. I loved your beautiful Wasafari piece ‘Hazel and Fiver‘.
Seamus Heaney wrote “Between my finger and my thumb The squat pen rests. I’ll dig with it.” Shamini how and where do you dig for non-fiction and fiction?
SS: Thank you for reading my piece. Although my situation is different from Elizabeth’s and Lily’s, there are links there: writing about something painful, but trying to write around the pain, find the tenderness. And just as Lily talked about the ethics of writing from her father’s point of view, I have been reluctant to write about my sister because she can’t read what I write or consent to it or anything. But I think what I do is as ok as it can be; I write from my perspective as a sibling carer and I don’t pretend to write from her point of view because I don’t know what it’s like to be severely learning disabled and autistic and nonverbal. I hope I write with love but also honesty about the things that are really difficult.
SC: These are such important issues about consent (in a situation like that with your sister) and they raise vital ethical questions. It is perhaps how we frame the narrative that highlights the ethics; as you said Shamini, you don’t write from her POV.
LD: Yes, agreed. You could never write fully from the POV of another character in a memoir I don’t think. In my book, I explicitly say ‘I imagine’ he felt like this, and I make clear I can’t be sure. And I write in third person. But I also think it’s to do with the specific relationship you’re exploring. In the case of my relationship with my father, I was always silenced by him and the whole story really is about me finding my voice and finding my command over him and the effect he had on me, and this gives us a bit more licence to risk stepping over those boundaries. I imagine in your case, Shamini, your sister is much more vulnerable and your writing of this story is much more about treading carefully around how to articulate her story without making her even more vulnerable? I don’t know if I have that right, but just thinking as I type.
SS: Yes, you’re absolutely right. Also, she has been written about in hundreds of reports and emails by social services, residential homes etc., in really detached, uncompassionate ways. I want to bring her to life on the page, so the reader can smile and laugh and cry and despair, just as I do. I think that pieces of writing about us like ‘Hazel and Fiver’ could be her legacy as well as mine.
SC: That is beautiful. Goethe called this “tender empiricism”.
SS: Ooh, what a great term!
EC: I think that returns us to the issue of fiction/non-fiction. For Shamini it is about being tender in regards to a specific loved one, whereas in my work I wanted to open the exploration from the individual to the global: what is it like to experience racism?
SS: I’m currently reading Minor Feelings and Cathy Park Hong writes about her individual experience of racism and Asian self-hatred, as well as writing about experiences of other people, such as an Asian man who was forced out of an overbooked aeroplane, perhaps because he appeared easier to eject than other passengers. I would love to be able to write like this, combining the personal with the global. (And I really want to read your book, Elizabeth!)
EC: Thanks Shamini… that sounds interesting.
SC: This makes me think of one of my favourite non-fiction writers, Alexievich Svetlana and her book The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II, which is a chorus of voices, the idea that inside each of us there is a small page of work history and together we make a book.
LD: I love that. I am thinking about writing a polyphonic memoir for my next book and hadn’t thought of it like that, but it’s true. Together we make a book and capture an important part of history through the personal story.
SC: Like Gwendolyn Brooks wrote,
We are each other’s
we are each other’s
we are each other’s
magnitude and bond.
LD: Might have to copy that and put it on my wall, Susanna.
SC: As we are at a dinner party, please feel free to post pictures of what you’ve been eating, cooking today, as Lily wrote earlier, and also Leonora Carrington thought, making art and writing are also a form of alchemy!
LD: I showed you the dish I made for lunch, made mostly for my daughter who is off school. It was rice with cauliflower and haloumi and a bit of chilli. Really tasty and nourishing. She is a vegetarian and forces me to be much more creative with my cooking. I am a snacker and like to bring snacks to the work table, like these. That’s Matzos with marmite and yoghurt. A cup of herbal tea. I am easily pleased.
EC: I’ve made small dishes: stuffed olives, beetroot and apple salad, lettuce and carrot salad, a tahini and balsamic chutney, and Morroccan-style cinnamon chana with pasta – and a glass of Vermut!
SC: Amazing. Do you all eat when you write? I tend to be very restrained, rather monkish, and eat huge bowls of plain yogurt and sunflower seeds which my family say look like cement mix.
SS: I tend to eat before and after writing, and drink strong tea during. This is a rose and raspberry tart from a local patisserie – it is too pretty to eat while I’m typing to you all on my phone. I will eat it slowly straight after! I often seek out nice patisseries or bakeries when I visit new places. It’s something I mention in my travel writing, which I’ve been working on with Jenny Chamarette as part of the What the Water Gave Us project. Because I usually travel alone, I don’t have to worry about what my companion wants for lunch – if I want to just eat a fancy dessert for an hour, I can! I would love to learn how to write about food better though.
LD: I am so sorry I have to go and take my daughter to the doctor. It’s been so lovely to be here dining with you and discussing literature in all its elusive forms! I am very jealous of your lovely food plate. Wish I could stay and sample it. Lots of love to all
SC: Thanks so much for coming Lily. Hope the appointment goes well for your daughter. Sending tons of love and thanks so much for coming!
EC: You asked about eating while writing? I sometimes pause and bring something into my study, but briefly – toast and coffee – and then continue
SC: Sometimes I find eating and any aesthetic, sensorial activity a distraction – I have to focus everything on the page. I even like wearing very plain clothes, writing in plain notebooks.
EC: yes I agree, I don’t do any of that having to have certain type of notebooks etc
SC: I had a brilliant chat with writer Venetia Welby about this, as she finds the beauty allows her to write, step into an imaginary space, whereas for me the prettiness blocks my path.
SS: I’m afraid I need the pretty! It helps me to feel like I’m seriously at work but also celebrating life (especially if it doesn’t seem like there’s much to celebrate). I have to go now. Goodbye!
SC: Goodbye Shamini!
SC: To finish up I wanted to ask whether you feel different when you write fiction and non-fiction. I adore the encapsulating imaginary world. Often when I have written a very intense non-fiction piece (I’ve just completed an essay for Aeon about my childhood and the underbelly of utopian communes) I love going back to writing a short story.
EC: Yes similarly, fiction is a relief after non-fiction!
LD: Sorry, dropped a photo in and couldn’t help but reply. Now that I’ve committed myself to nonfiction I can’t imagine writing fiction again although I know I will. There is something about making up stories that doesn’t quite sit right for me. But then again, when I turn towards fiction I do take a deep breath of relief, so I guess there might be a day when I search out that respite.
SC: Yes, it is exactly that, a sense of relief. Bye Lili!
Elizabeth, before we go, can you tell us about your current writing projects?
EC: Yes, as you said I’ve been shortlisted for the Polalri First Book Prize , so I’m doing a reading next week. And I’ve got an essay, translated into Flemish published in Deus Ex Machina, oh yes, and re our discussion on fiction and none-fiction, my essay ‘On Closure and Crime’, is extra author content, a commissioned essay for The Indigo Press available online via The Indigo app.
SC: And the next book, fiction or non-fiction?
EC: The next book is a novel.
SC: I can’t wait to read it! I so enjoyed reading Lessons in Love and other Crimes.
EC: Thank you! I’ve started reading your I’Ile Sombre, I have been enjoying it on train journeys recently! As we speak English together it’s quite weird reading it in French.
SC: I worked quite intensively on the translation and will be collaborating with Carine Chiereau on the translation of my next novel!
EC: Great! When is it coming out?
SC: In 2023.
SC: It’s been wonderful to have you at TDPR. Thanks so much for coming. I have to go now as I have to drive one of my daughter’s to a theatre rehearsal.
EC: Bonne soiree Susanna, and thanks for inviting me!
SC: Bonne soirée à vous tous et une très belle semaine!
About our host, Susanna Crossman
Susanna Crossman is an award-winning Anglo-French fiction writer and essayist, published internationally in print and online. She has recent/upcoming work in Paris Review, MAI Journal, Neue Rundschau, (2019) S. Fischer, We’ll Never Have Paris (Repeater Books, 2019), Trauma, (DodoInk, 2020) 3:AMJournal, Berfrois & more. Susanna regularly collaborates and runs international hybrid arts projects. She is co-author of the French roman L’Hôpital Le Dessous des cartes (LEK, 2015) and her debut novel Dark Island (2021) is published by Delcourt (FR). Susanna’s work can be seen via her website http://susanna-crossman.squarespace.com/ or you can follow her via Twitter @crossmansusanna Rep: Craig Literary, NY.
About Elizabeth Chakrabarty
Elizabeth Chakrabarty is an interdisciplinary writer using creative and critical writing, besides performance, to explore themes of race, gender and sexuality. Her debut novel Lessons in Love and Other Crimes, inspired by experience of race hate crime, was published in 2021 by the Indigo Press, along with her essay, On Closure and Crime. In 2022 Lessons in Love and Other Crimes was longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize, and also shortlisted for the Polari First Book Prize. Elizabeth was also shortlisted for the Dinesh Allirajah Prize for Short Fiction 2022, for her story ‘That Last Summer’ published in The Dinesh Allirajah Prize for Short Fiction 2022: Crime Stories by Comma Press. She was shortlisted for the Asian Writer Short Story Prize in 2016 for her story ‘Eurovision’ published in Dividing Lines (Dahlia, 2017). Her shorter work includes poetry and creative-critical writing, and she has recently been published in Gal-Dem, New Writing Dundee, Wasafiri, and the anthology Imagined Spaces (Saraband, 2020), and in translation, by Glänta and Deus Ex Machina. She received an Authors’ Foundation Grant from The Society of Authors (UK) in December 2018, to support the writing of Lessons in Love and Other Crimes, and she was chosen as one of the runners up for the inaugural CrimeFest bursary for crime fiction authors of colour in 2022. She lives in London.
About Lily Dunn
Lily Dunn is a writer of fiction and nonfiction. She is the author of a novel Shadowing the Sun (2008), and a memoir Sins of My Father: A Daughter, a Cult, a Wild Unravelling (2022), and also writes personal essays (published by Granta; Aeon). She is co-editor, with Zoe Gilbert, of A Wild and Precious Life: A Recovery Anthology (2020). She lives in Bristol, UK.
About Shamini Sriskandarajah
Shamini Sriskandarajah is a clinical supervisor, therapist, bereavement counsellor, writer, sibling carer, and florist. She writes poetry, fiction and life writing about the intricacies of loss, friendship, and family. Shamini also writes non-fiction about floristry and gardening, culture and society, and mental health and inequality. Her research interests include recovery from eating disorders, bereavement and other losses, identity and intersectionality, the therapeutic value of flowers and gardening, and being a family carer.