Today is a special post for diversity month – a full feature on author Yasmin Selena Butt, including a short interview, guest post and a review for her book.
Yasmin is the author of Gunshot Glitter, a book that was short-listed for the Guardian Reader Recommended Book in 2013. Born to Pakistani parents, Yasmin lives in North London writing, geeking out and generally being an all round perfume connoisseur. Please welcome her to the blog!
I caught up with Yasmin to ask her some interview questions:
1. What does the term “diverse books” mean to you?
Diverse to me means ‘wide-ranging’, which means no parameters in terms of breadth of narrative and genre. For me, it’s all about having access to great stories spanning all blends of genre, ideally told by as many different voices as possible. I am a huge variety freak in all aspects of my life and diverse books satisfy that mercurial streak in me.
2. You live in London, a city with a brilliant and broad diverse cultural background. How do you think this has influenced the way that you write?
I do! And I feel very blessed to; I absolute love London and it has featured very prominently in all its melting-pot glory in two novels I’ve written so far. My casts are multi-racial and multi-national in both ‘Gunshot Glitter,’and ‘See Those Eyes’(tbr 2016). Both novels reflect my reality as a woman born and raised in London. For example, I’ve witnessed people of different races and religions in love, the results can be messy or beautiful or both. I would love to see more of this in mainstream fiction especially romantic fiction.
3. What do you think are the biggest challenges facing authors of diverse books?
Some publishers love pigeonholing novels for the benefit of retailers, as it makes it an easier ‘sell’, but it means it’s harder for authors to be rewarded for taking those creative risks as their books take longer to place. I think it’s a huge shame as readers in my experience absolutely love originality. We’ve all witnessed publishers jump on a bandwagon/phenomenon and flood the market with more of the same. But my fear is that this cuts into the publishing kitty for the ‘gambles’. Last week I saw a library book being sold off for ten pence that had never even been issued. It was erotica and the spiel was nigh on identical to ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’- rich, brooding man and wide-eyed ingénue. Nobody had taken it out. That money could have been spent on a more maverick choice by the publishers.
Also, I feel when it comes to being an ethnic author, there seems to be an image and genre-association prevalent that I don’t subscribe to. For example, the traditionally-published Asian female authors I’ve seen tend to write about Asia or the Asian experience. Is that because the publishing industry only thinks that’s all we can sell or are qualified to write? I don’t know? I’ve never seen an Asian female author’s name on the crime fiction shelf in WHSmith for example. And my novel, Gunshot Glitter, is essentially crime. People are murdered in it.
4. The hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks has been doing the rounds on social media for a while now, indicating a clear movement to encourage diverse writing and reading. Do you have any advice or encouragement for authors thinking about writing authentic diverse characters?
When I wrote Gunshot Glitter I didn’t think about anything but fulfilling the narrative brief I’d devised. I didn’t think about retailers, publishers, agents or the reader, except to ask myself if what I’d written was credible enough for them to buy into my world. And I’d advise any writer out there to do the same, if they want to write as authentically as possible, because I believe they will tell the best stories that way. And in 2015 there is no longer a single route to publication. We, as authors have choices. I self-published my novel purely for creative control. But I didn’t worry that my leads were a bisexual white girl and an Asian British boy. I know there’s room to ruffle feathers there, but it’s my story. Just focus on making your characters as vivid and engaging as possible, focus on giving them life on that page.
As a lover of books I want to read about all sorts of people depending on the mood I am in. I run a Bookshop Café on Facebook and many of my members love reading books set in Kabul or by Khaled Hosseini because it’s a world they don’t know and the stories are powerful. That’s all it boils down to. Some readers love being transported, some love stories closer to home, there is a reader for everyone. We have international authors crossing over, books get translated from all over the world. So go for it.
5. Please tell us some of your favourite diverse authors and/or books.
For the sake of your readers, Rivka, I am going to stick to three novels which I ardently recommend to people seeking something special.
1.The first one is ‘Geek Love’ by Katherine Dunn.
To this day I have no idea what this writer looks like, but it’s an extraordinary novel about the Binewskis – a travelling circus of purpose-bred freaks and their loving parents, narrated by the daughter, an Albino hunch-backed dwarf named Olympia. It took me weeks to pluck up the courage to buy it as the cover quotes scared me so much. I read it when I was twenty and it taught me that it really was possible to take creative risks and still be published.
2. The Crimson Petal and the White – Michel Faber.
He’s a Dutch-born, Aussie writer now residing in Scotland, and, I love that he’s not genre-led but narrative-led in what he writes. I’ve chosen this book because it challenged the depiction of prostitutes, power, class, intellect, motherhood and sex in this extremely emotionally involving, vivid narrative set in Victorian London. It’s a brick of a book, but never outstays its welcome. The writing is compulsively readable. If you get the chance to see the BBC adaptation, grab it. Romola Garai who played Sugar is fantastic.
3. A Home at the End of the World – Michael Cunningham
He’s an American author. This book took him five years to write and I loved every delicately-expressed word of it, and, had serious ‘I wish I was this good’ writer envy. I don’t know anyone else who has read it, but I was inspired to hunt down a copy after seeing the movie with Colin Farrell and Robin Wright-Penn (as she was back then) in it. At the heart of it are two boy childhood friends trying to find and form their own family and make a life. The story follows them growing up, discovering their sexuality, their love for one another and seeking a connection with happiness that they hope will last. I liked that their lives were ordinary and extraordinary at the same time and you witness different forms of love, intimacy and relationships possible between people, that’s it’s not just biology that forms family ties. Nothing is fixed in the human condition and I’d never seen it written about like that before.
Books show us different ways of being, seeing, living; as well as tell us great stories, they give us food for thought and rescue us from a potentially narrow world view. They also harbour the potential to challenge a media narrative which comes spring-loaded with its own sometimes insidious agenda, especially at present. That’s why diversity is essential and so important. Simply put, books show us different ways to be.
Brilliant answers, Yasmin, and great book recommendations! I’ve heard a lot about the Michel Faber book. It’s on my tbr! You’ve also written a piece for us about growing up in London:
“The only Asian girl in my class into indie music”, is how I’d sum up who I was as a child. My experience growing up in the 1980’s in a strict, Muslim household was a pretty challenging one, as my all-consuming love of music was seen as transgressive, especially from my father’s perspective and caused serious discord between us. I had to really fight for it and keep it as private as possible, especially when it came to buying records, magazines and reading books. Integration publicly was not an option. No gigs, no forming bands, no dancing, no athletics, no cinema trips with friends – all things I desperately wanted. I’d sit in the back garden, my heart sinking when I could hear bands playing live from Wembley Stadium. I was crushed when I didn’t get to join Haringey Athletics.
There were many dreams shattered in my teens, some of which were later realised in adulthood; and, realising some of them was incredibly emotional. Watching Echo and the Bunnymen play ‘The Cutter’ at V2006 made me shed a tear of happiness for the 15 year old girl inside of me who’d despaired in her bedroom that she was never going to see them live.
On the plus side, I was encouraged to study hard and to read books. And I am grateful for that, my love of reading led to a love of writing that has never left me. I appreciate from my parents’ perspective, they worked incredibly hard to raise me the best way they knew how, and wanted to keep me safe, but they hadn’t counted on having birthed a challenging, wilful daughter who wanted to please them as well as be her own person. It can’t be easy trying to raise your children surrounded by an alien culture, but I’m glad they had a go!
In my teens, my own creativity manifested itself in writing poetry and extremely edgy fiction. The results were met with a mixture of concern or delight depending on the teacher marking it. It was the only time I felt free, as so much of my life was restricted until I went away to university. I knew even then I’d be writing novels when I grew up. I just loved writing.
I don’t know what kind of person I’d be now if I’d got to do all the things I was missing out on? I definitely would have formed a band or trained in dance, but one thing I can say for sure is, I still take nothing for granted when I enjoy those activities now, and, growing up the way I did, it instilled in me the courage of my own convictions, which as an author can only be a good thing.
I had the opportunity to read Yasmin’s novel, Gunshot Glitter, and these were my thoughts:
(Cover Art by Celene Petrulak – http://celene.carbonmade.com/ )
Your name is Celine Silver. But no one has called you that in eight years.
You’re a classically trained musician and an Honours graduate.
You come from a nice, middle-class family.
You kill people for money.
And no one knows you anymore.
Fate throws the man you abandoned right back into your path – the man who knew you before you got blood on your hands, before you changed your name.
And he’s demanding answers.
But is there a way back to the path of normal?
What price do you have to pay when you realise you no longer want to be monster? And who are the real monsters and victims anyway?
And what about the incinerated boy who will never quite go away…
It has to be said that this book was both compelling and dark in places, a gritty read about the lengths people will go to in order to serve their own narcissism and protect themselves from the daily events of their lives. It’s not a fast or easy read, rambling in places and repetitive in others, but that’s mainly because it’s told from the points of view of a lot of different characters and involves a lot of internal monologuing over self-anguish. It’s very slow to start and the author seems to delight in turning your opinions of the characters on their heads. At first you don’t like Celine, the main character. She’s callous and cold and self-serving. She snaps at her neighbours and then her life falls apart and slowly, grudgingly, you come to accept her and perhaps even understand how she came to be the way that she is. When you first meet Anis he seems like an angry and bitter man and then you realise why he’s that way and learn to feel affection for him. When you first meet Liam, he’s taking drugs in a strip joint, seeming a bit sleazy, and then you learn he’s actually the golden boy of this story. Nothing is quite what it seems.
The book had its faults. For me, personally, I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more if the initial murder hadn’t happened in the first chapter. There was very little suspense to it because all the main players on the stage are known from page one. I think it would have been a more absorbing read if you didn’t know how all the characters were related to each other. Each character has enough of a back story that you could quite easily believe Sera was the hitwoman, rather than Celine. (It’s not a spoiler, it’s right there in the blurb!).
That said, the characters are fantastically developed. I think my favourite is Jackson, the slightly hippy stoner DJ who lives in Celine’s block. He’s sweet and funny and surprisingly insightful.
There’s a lot of realism to this novel too; things frequently don’t go to plan and relationships break up and families fall apart in a way that’s easily believable. I think the author does a great job of portraying so many facets of emotion, from loss to staggering selfishness.
I admit that most of the music references went straight over my head, but if you’re into your music I think it’ll be a nostalgic walk along some melodic paths down memory lane.
Overall, it’s a thought provoking book that does make you, the reader, think about the big questions. In Celine or Sinead’s shoes, what would you do? Could you pick up that phone? Would you betray the person you loved if you knew they’d done something bad?
Definitely worth a read if you want something a bit more complex and drawn out to sink your teeth into!
For more information about Yasmin:
Yasmin Selena Butt was born in Hampstead, London. She has previously worked abroad in the Maldives as an English Language trainer, freelanced in Marketing and been published by The Times as a music writer. She has also written over a thousand poems, exhibited her fiction and photography and performed her debut reading at Proud Galleries in Camden.
Yasmin enjoys live alternative music, cinema, reclamation painting, visiting unusual buildings and collecting perfume. She appeared on the BBC4 documentary ‘Perfume’ discussing the memory evoked by the scent of Dior’s Fahrenheit.
She adopted ‘Selena’ as her middle name in 2000, after meeting a concierge who told her the story behind the naming of his own daughter, Yasmin Selena. The concierge in Gunshot Glitter is named Vic in his honour. The title, ‘Gunshot Glitter’ was inspired by a song by Jeff Buckley.
• Buy GUNSHOT GLITTER in limited edition paperback priced at £9.99 directly from the author. The eBook is available on Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble and all good eBook retailers.
Follow Yasmin on Twitter @yasminselena
Facebook: Yasmin Selena Butt
Author site: http://yasminselenabutt.wordpress.com