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Brannavan Gnanalingam’s novel Sprigs (Lawrence & Gibson, 2020) has been short listed for the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction in this year’s Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.
Sprigs is Bran’s sixth novel. His previous novel Sodden Downstream (Lawrence & Gibson, 2017) was also short-listed for the Acorn Foundation prize.
Waaaaay back in 2013, Capital culture writer Sarah Lang caught up with the author who had just released his second novel, You Should Have Come Here When You Were Not Here (Lawrence & Gibson, 2013).
Read her original story below.
“You should have come here when you were not here.” That’s something that quick-witted Parisians said to Nazis who complained that Paris was dull during the German occupation. It’s also the title of the second novel by Wellington lawyer and arts journalist Brannavan Gnanalingam: not as unpronounceable as it looks, just a silent G, and everyone calls him Bran.
Published by non-profit collective Lawrence & Gibson, this book of staccato sentences, subtle satire, psychological insight and political resonance centres on Veronica, a single Kiwi journalist in her mid-30s who quits her job and moves to Paris to freelance. The second-person narrative addresses Veronica as you: “You had never travelled properly before. Somewhere hard would be well, you thought, too hard. Disneyland with the family didn’t count. Australia was just New Zealand with better weather and more racism. You resolve to start easy with Paris.”
Easy it is not. Veronica is determined to succeed in Paris – or at the very least not to look like she’s failing. But she struggles to get stories published, to survive financially, to communicate, to fit in. As much a protagonist as Veronica, Paris is indifferent to her, and she becomes indifferent to it.
Over coffee on Cuba Street, Gnanalingam explains Paris Syndrome, which sounds made-up but is an actual medical condition where visitors to Paris are emotionally crushed by the disappointment of finding it doesn’t live up to the hype. Veronica doesn’t have the symptoms – which include delusions, hallucinations and depersonalisations – but she does start feeling isolated and invisible.
Gnanalingam chose a second-person narrative to convey Veronica’s constant appraisal of how others see her. “It’s self-surveillance,” he tells me. “This inner voice saying ‘you can’t do that’.” Nailing the tricky technique, he credits the influence of French novel Suicide. “When it says ‘you’, sometimes it’s talking to the character and sometimes it’s talking directly to the reader.” His own book is full of ‘yeah, me too!’ moments for the reader. Happily, though, it doesn’t drown us in the overused banalities of too many books about Paris, like one Veronica hates: “It was a book that was about an expat who was exploring Paris. You hate books like that. Honey traps for cliches.”
The author is referring to all the Eat, Pray, Love-esque books about people who go to cities like Paris to find love – or find themselves. Flipping that idea, Gnanalingam has Veronica go there and lose herself. And yet she’s still so wrapped up in herself that she’s looking without seeing. “Self-focus like that breeds indifference to your surroundings and other people,” Gnanalingam says. “Even though Veronica is enlightened and educated, she can turn a blind eye to suffering around her.” She only considers France’s political and social unrest when she thinks a protest might sell a story: “You wrote an article. You weren’t sure to whom to send it. You weren’t sure what the protest was about.”
Veronica may struggle to write in Paris, but the city is Gnanalingam’s muse. In 2006, on his first trip to Paris, he wrote debut novel Getting Under Sail, a well-reviewed fictionalised account of aWest African trip with two friends. This time, he took a year off from his job at law firm Buddle Findlay specifically to write another book in Paris. After backpacking there from Asia, he and his partner lived in Paris for eight months until May 2013. He wrote the first draft of this novel in four months, while also teaching English.
A Francophile, Gnanalingam especially loves Paris with its wealth of culture. But he can also see its underbelly. “In Paris, I became really interested in the austerity, darkness, gloom and fear following the Eurozone crisis, and its effects on everyday people. I don’t think we’ve really tried to get behind why this collapse happened and how to stop it happening again.” With this as subtext, his book has both a decidedly contemporary feel and parallels to 1930s Europe. As antipathy to Romani “gypsies” and anti-Semitism escalates in Europe again, the far right has gained a foothold. “You listen to this and think ‘haven’t they learnt a thing?’”
Of Sri Lankan descent, Gnanalingam has lived in New Zealand since age three. “But whenever I travel, I feel race. I get the sense that people are judging me as not quite a New Zealander. I get held up in queues and by Customs. In France, the day after the Boston bombings, I got pulled aside by policemen doing spot checks.” Ironically, he also gets flak for being a Western tourist. “In the book, Veronica’s confronted by three big guys who say ‘you don’t belong here’. What they said to me was ‘You’re not welcome here.’ I had a similar skin colour to them but the stereotypical Western look. I did exactly what Veronica did: walked very quickly away.”
To avoid being categorised in certain ways – whether that’s as a Western tourist or a potential terrorist – he finds himself modifying his behaviour while travelling. “In Paris, that was dressing ‘right’, speaking the ‘right’ French or English, buying the ‘right’ vegetables at the market, going to hipster stores, pubs or restaurants. It was that weird class thing.”
He began thinking about how people modify their behaviour to fit social expectations and stereotypes. Wanting to explore this idea but not wanting to focus on race, he decided to write about how women adapt their behaviour in misogynist cultures. And so, in the novel, he has Veronica meet some unpleasant men who confound her expectations of sophistication. “It’s not just a French problem, but France is a really misogynistic society,” Gnanalingam says. Men hassled his partner a lot, sometimes even when he was there, and he observed other men behaving badly. He’d been contemplating this issue since Wellington band the Eversons caused controversy with its song Harlot. “I was interested in how they tried to justify their misogyny by saying ‘it’s just a joke’.”
That wasn’t funny, but this novel is. As in some of the best books with serious themes, humour leavens the darkness. I laughed out loud several times. “If you make people laugh, they can forgive the faults a bit,” Gnanalingamsays, grinning. Subjects of his satire – honed by years writing for student magazine Salient – include Veronica’s Kiwi acquaintance Jeremy, who expects her to chaperone him, insults French architecture, and insists on watching the footie in an Irish pub.
Gnanalingam, who has a BA and MA in film, also writes arts articles and reviews. He’s currently a (volunteer) editor-at-large for online arts review The Lumiere Reader. “Consuming other art and talking to other artists fuels my work,” he says, mentioning his interview with Eleanor Catton. “During the five years she wrote The Luminaries, she only read books written before 1867.” And so, before this book, he read only French writers and books about Paris.
His next novel is about corporate fraud and set in South Canterbury. “It’s about New Zealand’s idea of egalitarianism – you must share, you mustn’t show off or be intellectual. I’m interested in how someone who does the ‘right thing’ in those ways is allowed to get away with a lot.”
Writing must fit around insolvency and property law, but he doesn’t have to work overly long hours, and he’s not hankering to write fulltime. That’s not just because he enjoys law, and not just because he doesn’t want financial pressures to affect his craft. “When you write, you’re in this sealed-off space, and I like engaging with people and the world.”