As a younger novelist, I was always suspicious of literary comparisons by reviewers, even when they were meant to be flattering. I knew then as I know now that we all stand on the shoulders of better writers, but I wanted to feel that my work was completely original, and was perhaps a little dismissive of writers who were openly or obviously influenced by another novel or writer. I felt that every piece of writing had to be snowflake-unique. It seemed to me that one of the greatest challenges in writing was developing character and plot, and if these were handed to you by a previous work, perhaps it was too easy. Perhaps it didn’t cost you, as an artist, enough.
I changed my mind about this as I approached writing my fifth novel, The Flying Man. This novel was influenced by a real person, my own father, and real life events. I realised how swiftly a story could break free from the moorings of what had inspired it, and how fiction had its own integrity — how the story we wished to tell was perhaps more important than keeping faith with origins.
I learned this lesson again as I wrote my sixth novel, The Good Children, inspired by the Milgram obedience experiments of the 1960s, and by the monstrous mother depicted in Beowulf. I realised that inviting comparisons with another, greater piece of literature was an act of daring, as much as an act of open theft. It was tantamount to standing up and inviting someone to knock you down with a who-the-hell-do-you-think-you-are?
And so, for my seventh novel, I took on James Joyce’s Dubliners. Looking back, it certainly wasn’t what I set out to do. The novel, Londoners, grew from a piece that I’d originally planned for The Good Children in which I explored what it felt like to be a young Muslim man living in London and seeking love and happy endings during the tense aftermath of the 7/7 bombings.
I realised, after writing this first chapter, and then the one that followed – about a black girl who witnesses a gang attack on a South London estate, mirrored years later by a homophobic attack on her Muslim boyfriend’s best friend – that I wasn’t writing a traditional novel at all. I was writing a series of overlapping stories that charted the recent history of Britain. And I’d chosen the South London that I’d lived and worked in as the most sincere representation of the diversity of that history.
It took me a while to admit that my project had been unconsciously influenced by Joyce from the outset. Just a few years before, I’d been in Dublin, with my young family, on Bloomsday. We’d visited some of the pubs featured in Dubliners — although not, to my regret, the famous flight of stairs in which the protagonist falls drunkenly down in ‘Grace’. (It was too difficult to get to with the buggy.) I’d always been interested in Irish literature, as part of my children’s heritage (my husband is half-Irish) and, in some ways, my own: both my mother and I were educated by Irish Catholic nuns.
It seemed to me that, whether I’d liked acknowledging it or not, I’d fallen down Joyce’s flight of stairs. Stone-cold sober, with no excuse except that these were the urban stories I wanted to write. I could have ignored the comparison, or denied it as plausible coincidence if anyone pointed it out. As a younger author, I would probably have done just that, rather than admit it even to myself.
Instead, with six novels behind me and nothing to prove, I shamelessly decided to lean into Joyce’s work. I found myself describing my novel as a diverse reimagining of Dubliners, set in contemporary and multicultural South London, peopled with conflicted characters from the estates of Tooting and Elephant and Castle, following them from teenagers to adults, over the course of the decade — from 2005, the year of the London bombings, to 2014, the centenary of the Great War. In the final draft, my ten chapter headings mirrored the chapter headings from Dubliners, from ‘The Brothers’ (inspired by Dubliners’ ‘The Sisters’) to ‘The Dead’, which in my book takes place around the poppy installation at the Tower of London.
Joyce was a much younger novelist than I am when he wrote Dubliners, and when he was 23 he sent the stories to his publisher with a young novelist’s fearlessness: ‘My intention was to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me the centre of paralysis.’
In writing Londoners, I took heart from his reckless ambition, even though I was worried that my work would be dismissed as derivative or that I was setting myself up for mockery, for daring to compare my work with Joyce’s — even titling it Londoners, a title to which I had every right, felt like an act of aggressive daring. Who-the-hell-does-she-think-she-is?
But I keenly felt that in these troubled times, especially during these past years, we novelists need to own our narrative. My past belief in our snowflake-like singularity was misplaced — I now felt that my stories shouldn’t be about what makes us unique, but about what we share, and especially what I might share with others, as a Muslim and a mother, as a woman and a writer.
Like Joyce, I was writing this moral history of my country with the objectivity and clear sight of someone who had lived outside it for many years — in my case, in France. Unlike Joyce, I had come back, and would be working and studying in the South London streets which had provided the background for my stories.
And as for that first fear, that it would be too easy for me as an artist to let my writing be influenced by someone else, it was anything but. It might have felt as inevitable as tumbling drunkenly down the stairs, but it was as painful too. Blood in the stairwell. Blood on the keys.
And then the Charlie Hebdo attacks happened in Paris. In the aftermath of the initial shock, as a Muslim writer who had lived and been published in France, I felt paralysed. I didn’t want to write another word. Everything felt irrelevant. I was writing fiction. Just stories. I didn’t have the right or the talent to write about moral history. I suspected that all I had to offer was a well-packaged blend of egotism and eccentricity. Who the hell did I think I was?
It was the reaction of other writers that galvanised me. That silly, flippant snowflake image suddenly made sense — enough snowflakes make a storm, and together, we free writers were a force of nature. Yes, I was writing fiction, but I was also making a stand — showing that as writers, we have the freedom to write what we will and what we feel, and to share those experiences with others. To demonstrate our diversity and extend our empathy. I was writing about my experiences and those of my friends and family. This was my contribution to the narrative: my London, not as the ‘centre of paralysis’, but as the beating heart of our intimately connected lives.
And so, I went back to the keyboard, and I carried on writing the stories of a diverse group of people, the sort who don’t always appear as the protagonists in Western fiction. I didn’t try to borrow character or plot from Joyce; instead, I immersed myself in the themes from Dubliners that spoke most strongly to me: entrapment, otherness, faith and faithlessness.
Joyce’s characters, in Dubliners, are trapped like bugs in a web, leading small lives in a big city. They are men and women with education and employment, homes and families, but, for the most part, they live without hope. In the chapters ‘Eveline’ and ‘A Little Cloud’, the protagonists Eveline and Little Chandler look to the Americas and London when visitors from abroad enter their lives, sliding windows open to show them the tempting promise of those other worlds. Eveline might stare out with longing at the sea, Little Chandler at the dark eyes of women who aren’t his wife, but both feel ashamed of their desires and won’t climb through the closing gap themselves.
The different approach I took, in Londoners – a conscious decision – was to give hope to all of my characters. In the close of the novel, they come together into the heart of the city, where the poppies flow like blood around the Tower, and that hope, hitherto hidden, becomes apparent at last. Hope for escape from their dark desires. For the discovery of their better selves.
It seems that I’m an optimist. Perhaps, again, I was inspired by Joyce. The young man who wrote Dubliners was darker and less forgiving in his stories than the older novelist who went on to write Ulysses, shamelessly inspired by Homer’s Odyssey. Like him, I believe in our capacity to change.