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Author QandA Sprigs - Brannavan Gnanalingam

QandA with Brannavan Gnanalingam

READ CLOSE: Sprigs is set in the world of Wellington private schools. Although there are plenty of characters who are adults, the novel focuses on teenagers – tell us about your research into teens in 2018, and how you created a world full of their concerns and their behaviours and their speech?

BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM: My starting point for the teenagers was that the differences across generations of teenagers aren’t as stark as older people think – there are the same concerns and same desires, but all that changes is the technology / media and the argot. So I thought very hard about my teenage years and how we behaved / thought / talked.

I read a lot online, listened to YouTube videos of teenagers, eavesdropped on public transport, and listened to how a lot of younger people talked. That said, I knew I’d never get true fidelity to contemporary teenagers’ language, so I created dialogue that felt real to me and real to the story, and hoped for the best.

I credit contemporary teenagers with being a bit more aware of the world than I was, but I was also conscious that exclusive environments, like the schools in question, have their own rules / logic, that helps shape people.

This is a novel that is deeply concerned with big issues of Aotearoa in our time, sliced through with humour that leans into the absurd irony of life. Do you have any writers, books, or TV or film that you look to as influencing or informing your writing?

I think the biggest influence would be the Ukrainian filmmaker Kira Muratova. She made deeply political and black films until relatively recently when she died. I saw a retrospective of her films in 2013 and it basically reshaped how I thought about tone and empathy and anger. A good starting point for her films would be Melody for a Street Organ, which is about two orphans wandering the wintery streets of Kiev looking for food / shelter, while the adults around them try to rip them off.

Another big influence is the Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich, who wrote about big events and trauma and politics in such personal, harrowing ways. They’re written so gently, but so devastatingly.

In terms of writers from Aotearoa, the biggest influences on this book itself would have been Tina Makereti’s The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke (particularly in the way she shows how a subject is constituted and re-constituted via trauma), Pip Adam’s The New Animals, and Carl Shuker’s The Lazy Boys. I’d also add a new generation of Māori writers are absolutely inspiring in their refusal to compromise their work / politics – I’m thinking of the likes of Tayi Tibble, Anahera Gildea, essa may ranapiri, Hana Pera Aoake etc.. I think they’re showing how to hold true to oneself, while also making radical art (without caring what people like me would think).

I’ve not encountered many novels with a content warning – the closest I’ve seen perhaps would be a copy of American Psycho wrapped in plastic in the bookshop – and plenty of novels I have read include rape. Do you think this should be standard in books, like a classification rating on films and TV?

It’s funny because this has seemed to be a major talking point, and I don’t really understand why! I think the literary community is way too snooty about these. It’s not as if people used to walk into video stores and complain about the warning stickers there. I’ve included content warnings in all except my first book, but this is by far, the most detailed / necessary I think in all of my books.

I think they should be par for the course. The function of art is to manipulate your audience. If one of the ways you’ll be manipulating your audience is via something that is traumatic, then it’s only fair that you give people a heads up, so they can decide whether they want to read it or not. Given this book is about sexual violence, readers should feel more than welcome not to read it, or if they want to read it, they know what they’re in for. People make decisions about what they choose to read or not to read all of the time, and I think this is simply part of helping someone make that choice.

I also don’t see it as a big deal or a free speech issue. I didn’t change what I wrote about in the book. I don’t think I pulled any punches. If you’re not going to be affected by the subject matter or don’t care for the content warning, then you could treat it like how everyone treats the ISBN page and just ignore it.

Almost all the adults characters in Sprigs are flawed, leaving them incompetent and unhelpful for the teenagers who need their care and guidance. Could you tell us about how you see the dynamic between secondary school age children and the adults who run the world they are attempting to navigate, and how it succeeds and how it fails?

I have commonly written about incompetent and ignorant adults, and the way these adults collude with, or create, unequal power structures. I think it’s an obvious point, but just because someone is a buffoon, it doesn’t mean they’re not dangerous. I also think one of the major ways structural inequalities are actually and actively maintained is because when adults are put to the test, they end up falling back on self-interested, stereotypical ways. They look for the easy way out because they think it’s the only way to react.

I’m interested in how much someone is shaped by an institution or a particular discursive framework. I think certain types of masculine ideals in particular are very well established for boys by the time they’re teenagers, and they aren’t too different from what adults have also helped define. I remember how much idiotic stuff I believed / understood to be true when I was teenager and young adult (and how I still have to continue to unlearn things).

I was really interested in exploring whether there is room for people to escape these frameworks and if there is agency. And how much the worst of the teenage behaviour is simply a reflection of adult behaviour. There’ll always be gaps and space for people to resist (ideologies have to be constantly re-won, for example), but it will require people to be aware of the frameworks in the first place. And people not to rely on the ‘easy’ way out. While the title sprigs obviously refers to the sprigs on a rugby boot, the part of the boot that allows you to run while in the mud, or to ruck an opponent, I also had in mind plants and growth and buds.

If Sprigs were to be made into a TV series or a film, would you want to be involved in the casting and the screenplay? Would you have any preference for actors or directors?

Oh, I hadn’t thought of that. My background is film (I have an MA in it) so scriptwriting is something I’ve done in the past. However, I’ve often treated my books as something that is done, and I move onto the next thing. I struggle to get myself back into the book once it’s finished.

If this was made into a film / TV series, then I would have requirements though – Priya would have to be played by a Tamil actor, and the director or directors would need to be non-white. This is because the book is also about white supremacy and how non-white people are able to move in such spaces.

I always look at books as part of a wider conversation. Tell me two or three books you would like to see Sprigs sit alongside in conversation, books that would inform and augment a reader’s experience of your novel.

I think it’ll sit very nicely alongside two recent Wellington novels – Pip Adam’s Nothing to See and David Coventry’s Dance Prone. Both are brilliant books that similarly deal with trauma and memory and toxic behaviours, and I’d like to think my book touches on similar ground.

What are you reading at the moment? What is on your ‘To Be Read’ pile?

I’m enjoying being able to read for pleasure at the moment! I’ve just finished Dance Prone [David Coventry]. The next books I’ll read, I think, are Exquisite Cadavers by Meena Kandasamy, Necropolitics by Achille Mbembe, and Fortress Besieged by Qian Zhongshu.

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Book Reviews Sprigs - Brannavan Gnanalingam

Book Review:Sprigs by Brannavan Gnanalingam

Lawrence & Gibson Publishing, RRP NZ$30.00, Contemporary Fiction

Content Warning: spoilers and graphic content.

Trauma in fiction is commonplace; conflict is the driver of story. Sexual assault and rape have become entrenched in fiction of all kinds – an online search brings up articles titled ‘Why is there so much rape in Fantasy Fiction?’ A search for Booker Prize-winning novel Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee bring up an online search result list of several academic essays with titles like ‘Rape and Silence in JM Coetzee’s Disgrace’. It’s almost a trope: only it’s far too brutal and too damaging to be reduced in that way. At the beginning of Sprigs by Brannavan Gnanalingam there’s a content warning, letting you know what’s coming up. I know a few people might stop reading then, and I believe that’s the point. Gnanalingam is asking for your consent to tell this story.

This sensitivity and insight are characteristics only a few of the characters in this novel possess. The story is set over a few weeks in September, 2018, and the novel is broken into four parts: The Game, The Party, The Meeting, and The Trial. The Game section starts on a Saturday afternoon, with a Prem 1 final between two fictional Wellington secondary schools, Grammar and St Luke’s. We dive straight into the world of the St Luke’s team, weaving through the minds of their coach, the players, the parents, the principal, the girls from sister-school Simeon College watching from the sidelines. The scholarship player, Richie, poached from the state school for his rugby skills, stands out from his private school peers with his considerate nature – and his ethnicity. It was his mind that I wanted to inhabit in this part of the novel, but it sweeps from one perspective another, moving from character to character like the rugby ball is passed between players. The game ends, the after-party begins.

I recognise the party. I was at these parties ten years earlier than Priya and Liv and Jess, but they don’t seem to have changed much, only the cell phones now have cameras. The same boys drink and leer, the same cars park in the paddock. The same rumours the following day, too – who did what to who, which girl ended up comatose in the shower after simultaneously vomiting and shitting herself. Boys from these parties who once barked at girls they thought were unattractive are now married with children.

At Gnanalingam’s party, the teenagers drink and feel out of place. Nobody seems sure of themselves – the curse of adolesence. They mingle and hook up. A young girl, drinking for the first time, blacks out in the corner. This is how The Party section ends, with a young girl who ‘felt sleep taking over, a brief respite while another upheaval took place in her stomach’. Then, something happens. A violent, masochistic sexual assault. The details of the actual assault are never told directly – it’s described, obliquely, later in the book through differing viewpoints, so as a reader we don’t understand how the situation went from a sleeping girl to a gang rape. And does it matter that we don’t know how it happened? Do we need to know the details, who did what when? Gnanalingam’s novel makes clear that these facts are unnecessary. The rape happened, and there are no excuses.

The Meeting section continues in the same way, swinging from one character to the next. We never hear from the victim in this section, the longest of the book. We work our way through more characters – journalists, a police officer – and wade through more from the teachers, the principal, the students of St Luke’s. The omniscient voice is competent and gives the sense of the rippling effect of any action. The use of this style is particularly effective in certain scenes, such as the Fight Club created by the Year 13 students at St Luke’s, although at other times it isn’t as compelling, and more than once I found myself thinking how Gnanalingam could’ve structured the book slightly differently. The Slap by Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas came to mind, where eight characters all tell a single story, giving us differing and raw narratives that maximise the personal, because this is when Gnanalingam’s writing is strongest – in the moments his writing pierces the skin of the characters.

And then: The Trial. The final section of Sprigs. Here, in a marvellous spin, the point of view drills right into the voice that we have been waiting for the entire time – the victim. All the noise and information gathered in the first three sections has been gathered like wood to build a bonfire and when she begins to speak, the spark is lit. The victim says, ‘It’s my story,’ and in this section, and only this section, is that true. When writing in first-person, Gnanalingam’s writing flows and grows incandescent with heat. But you can’t put it down, you must read on, and be burnt. The victim reclaims her story, her power, and the novel comes alive.

Even in a serious and dramatic story, Gnanalingam navigates the subtle ironies of life with an acerbic and dry wit. A joke about trying to fit in another fundraising for St Luke’s through the Old Boys’ association was a great example of his comedic timing: how to add another to the long list that includes the ‘…old boys’dinner, old boy’s darts night, old boys’ newsletter, old boys’ foundation, old boys’ midwinter dinner, old boys’ spam email, old boys’ bingo night, old boys’ spring dinner, old boys’ pool night, old boys’ commemorative annual jersey, and old boys’ autumn dinner.’ The joke is both bitter and also works to reinforce the issue with certain schools and how they raise boys. When the principal, Denver, looks back on his poor performance in a television interview, he thinks, ‘He should have said something about the school and its tradition and its aim to raise good, decent men.’ Denver means this statement. He believes this is what the school is attempting to do, and if the people in charge are so blinkered, then it seems that only something revolutionary will create change. Throughout Sprigs, the questions around masculinity and New Zealand’s culture are raised, but the novel doesn’t moralise. It examines and interrogates, and finds only slivers of good, so fine they are almost non-existent.