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Interview: Linda Grant

The Booker Prize-nominated writer looks back on When I Lived In Modern Times and what it means today in the midst of Brexit Britain

If you took English at the University of Portsmouth and happened to choose the unit Literary Prizes and Public Acclaim in your second year you would’ve stumbled across a little gem of a book titled When I Lived In Modern Times. The novel follows 20-year old Evelyn Sert, the orphan daughter of a Jewish hairdresser whose Latvian parents emigrated to Britain around the advent of the 20th century. With ambitions of becoming an artist and shedding her outsider exterior, Evelyn immigrates to Palestine in 1946 whilst Jewish immigration was prohibited by the stubbornness of British colonialism. Both in Britain, under the imposing tone of its stiff narrative voice, and in Palestine, a nation socially torn by its sacred past and its gleaming Tel-Aviv-driven future, Evelyn finds herself dragged into her own identity crisis. The characters she meets also offer conflicting opinions about Palestine’s state of flux and the damaging British influence. And as a romance with a Palestinian soldier with ties to a group attempting to bomb the British blossoms, Evelyn struggles to choose between her duelling homelands.

The book, written by Linda Grant, won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2000. Grant shares many traits with the protagonist of her second novel. Grant was born in Liverpool to parents with immigrant backgrounds, her father Polish-Jewish, her mother Russian. Grant also left England in search of a better future. However, Grant is quick to point out that herself and Evelyn merely share experience, not biography. “One of the challenges of writing her [Evelyn] as a character as opposed to me is that she has no education. It’s surprisingly difficult to write about somebody with no education. Would a 20-year old hairdresser from Soho heard of Freud for example? In 1946, probably not. A whole set of your assumptions about how you see the world are not present. So I would say she is absolutely nothing like me. She has experiences which I have had, but that doesn’t mean she’s biographical.”

“The assumptions that we made about Brexit, especially leading up to Brexit, is that nobody would commit economic and cultural suicide this way proved to be horrifying.”

When I Lived In Modern Times is certainly an intense dissection of Britain’s uncomfortable colonial past as well as investigating the wide spectrum of Palestine’s evolving landscape. Considering the current geopolitical state of a ‘mid-Brexit’ Britain, the novel reopens a healing wound when revisited more than 15 years after its release. “I first started writing it in 1998, 20 years ago now. Really, until the last 15-20 years, Britain was not a multicultural country,” Grant recalls. “Nobody of my age went to school with anybody of different ethnicity. It was really, really unusual. It was a country in which people who came from a ethnic minority background felt themselves to live in a tiny enclave. There was an imposing narrative of Britishness and of Englishness more so and the character of Evelyn comes out of this feeling on her part that because she’s Jewish, she doesn’t feel English. So she goes to Palestine where because she’s English she’s not Israeli. So she’s dealing with a long-term cultural problem which would last for a very long time in this country, a problem which I think still underpins this country.”

The notion of Evelyn attempting to confront this conflict of interests and identity, with varying results, feels very appropriate in 2017. Britain is at an intersection and the hesitancy is almost tangible. As Grant so rightfully underlines, Britain is in a very different place in terms of its ethnic makeup when you compare it directly with Britain circa-2000. And with the decision to amputate itself from Europe, a continent that Britain absorbs so much of its diversity from, anxiousness begins to cloud over as Britain attacks parts of its own anatomy. “The London that I live in is like the capital of the Roman Empire, it’s the capital of the world. But when you leave London, the world starts to look a little different. The assumptions that we made about Brexit, especially leading up to Brexit, is that nobody would commit economic and cultural suicide this way proved to be horrifying. It’s a novel about a Britain that doesn’t exist anymore but we’re still feeling the resentment of that England being taken away from some people.”

“I really wanted people to have a strong sense of the city as a character.”

Much of the power of When I Lived In Modern Times comes from Grant’s seemingly studious detail. But as Grant reveals, despite its accuracy, the luminous white of Tel Aviv’s Bauhaus architecture and the blandness of the kibbutz are a result of Grant’s imagination more than anything else. “I do a lot less research than it appears and I only research something when I need to know it. People have said ‘how did you know what it was like?’ and obviously I didn’t know what it was like. But that’s to do with imagination. What does it feel like? What might’ve it felt like? And that is where you can put yourself into a situation, even if you’re going back into the past. As for the history, there’s not much there. You wouldn’t learn a great deal. I was more interested in this idea about conflicted identity and you’re not going to get that from history books. When I was writing, I really wanted people to have a strong sense of the city as a character.”

Grant’s writing style has a novelistic, colourful feel that really transplants the reader to the location but it still retains the journalistic edge of Grant’s early writing career. Grant started out as a journalist for the Guardian in 1985, before making the jump with her first book in 1993. Despite primarily focusing on fiction and non-fiction in the later stages of her career, Grant is still drawn to the benefits that journalism can offer that novel writing cannot. “The thing about journalism that people overlook, is that it allows you to go into the houses of complete strangers and ask them really impertinent questions which very often they will answer. And I have on occasion used in novels unused interviews which have wound up not going into articles. The information that you get from it can be extremely expansive. When you write a novel, you are just starting from scratch outside your own head. It’s more accidental, there’s a lot more rewriting and deletion and there’s more of a sense of trying to feel your way forward. Writing fiction is much more exploratory and much harder I’d say. But what I value from journalism is structure. Claire Rayner once said of a piece I’d written in The Observer ‘I started reading and then found I’d finished it which is really odd because I’m not interested in the subject’ and I thought that’s it, that’s what you’re looking to do, carry the reader along with you.”

From my discussion with Grant, it feels like the key to enticing, compelling writing, whether it’s fictional or journalistic, is finding where you fit into the narrative of a story even if you’re completely removed from it. “I think we all have a story and the story comes from deep inside us and it’s to do with the conflicts that exist inside of us. I think family is very important and the environment you’ve been brought up in, but it’s really the curiosity to step outside and see what the lives are like of the people who are completely different to me.”

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