Esperanza Street is about the destruction of a community in 1980s small-town Philippines by developers. It’s narrated by Joseph, a 15 year old houseboy, and the book’s inner core is the moral journey that he takes to manhood. It’s about fairness, or lack of it, and freedom, or lack of it. It also questions our society’s view of what constitutes heroism. In the novel the heroism inherent in the small, invisible, everyday choices that demonstrate integrity, is of as much value as that in the large, more dramatic gestures.
Please tell us about the character of Joseph.
Joseph is an intelligent young man who is trapped by his social circumstances. The playing field isn’t level for him and for people like him. He’s fundamentally a moral person. In fact, that was one of the pleasures of finding his voice, discovering his sincerity, his decency. One of the difficult things about writing his story was that ultimately this defining characteristic of his, his morality, was what clipped his wings. I couldn’t concoct a more glamorous future for him or engineer his escape because of it. Joseph has been described by a friend of mine as ‘quietly political’. I think that’s a good description of him.
This is your debut novel so how was the experience for you?
It took seven years to finish Esperanza Street. The process of writing it was a combination of both happiness and misery. I feel fully myself when I’m writing, in a way that I don’t always in other aspects of my life. But writing usually also happens under a cloud of uncertainty – whether the book will ever get finished, whether it will be any good, whether I’ll ever achieve on the page the shape and texture that I feel in my head, whether it will ever get published, whether anyone will want to read it if it does and so on.
Why did you decide to set the novel in the Philippines?
It was never my intention. I had spent some time in the Philippines as part of a long backpacking adventure round Asia in my twenties and something about the culture fascinated me. It’s a chimera; a Catholic country in the middle of Asia with such an amalgam of oriental and western cultural elements. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. It felt both familiar and foreign at the same time. That slight dissonance resonated very strongly for someone like me – born and brought up in England but of Indian origin and never quite at home in either. I started writing a short story set there and, before I knew it, it started growing. Seven years later, Esperanza Street.
You are a physician by day, so how do you find the time to write?
The truth is, I often don’t. I write or practice medicine in binges, but rarely at the same time. To write the first draft of Esperanza Street I quit my then full-time job and wrote more or less non-stop till it was done. Then I went back to work part-time until it was finished, though I also became a mother during that period so part-time was what worked best all round. That period of polishing the book gradually whilst practicing medicine half the week, doing major redrafts over long weekends, juggling childcare, was really tough. Medicine and fiction-writing are uneasy bed-fellows. Both disciplines require immersion, commitment, and they just don’t occupy the same creative or mental territory. Emerging from one to enter the other is never smooth. I have just started the process of writing a second novel and I’ve negotiated a sabbatical in order to do so. Answering your question brought to mind something my mother said to me a while ago. She trained as a musician and came to the point when she felt she had to choose between an artistic career and a more regular day job. She became a secondary school teacher and, because she couldn’t bear the thought of dabbling in music, she gave up playing her instrument, the sitar, altogether. I asked her why and her response was ‘it’s very difficult to have two masters’. Now, I understand completely what she meant by that.
You are well travelled so where has been your most memorable place to go?
The place I felt like my soul was most at home, strangely enough, was in Argyll in Scotland! It was a most unexpected feeling as I have travelled a great deal and looking back my life has been characterised by a kind of restlessness. I never anticipated feeling entirely at home somewhere. Of course life has rooted me elsewhere for now.
Memorable places (I’ve been greedy and gone for two): Qin Shi Huang’s tomb and the Terracotta Army in Xian. I was there in 1987 when they had really only just begun the excavations and still had no idea how many figures there would eventually be. There were warriors and horses that were still half-buried so in places you could just see a head or a rump! And my first sighting of the Taj Mahal when I was 14 or 15. There is little on earth that can match it for grandeur; even thronged with tourists and souvenir touts it is breathtaking.
You are the first debut novelist to be chosen for the And Other Stories list so how does that make you feel?
Immensely gratified. I have been gradually making my way through the AOS back catalogue (reading Elvira Dones’ ‘Sworn Virgin’ at the moment) and I feel honoured to be part of their list. Their writers and their books are characterised by everything that matters to me as a reader: beautifully textured prose, risk-taking, truthfulness.
What is next for you?
I have started work on book two. It will be set in India and will have a much smaller cast of characters than Esperanza Street. It’s a book that has inhabited my head for about 8 years now and I feel ready to get it onto the page. I don’t have a proper title for it yet but I feel sure that one will arrive at some point!