‘The aspirational gangsta swirls us into a bhuna of gang-fights, inter-faith romance and organised crime, and the dizzying humour that underpins his voice is sharp, clever and convincing…In a linguistic politics redolent of Sam Selvon, Victor Headley and Irvine Welsh, Malkani conveys with élan and expertise, through a sub-urban “desi-dialect”, the absurdity of adolescence and the complex self deceptions of contemporary cultural dynamics in the UK.’ Independent
‘Malkani has some interesting observations about identity and the way in which the culturally oppressed can take strength from their exclusion. The end is a complete surprise and forces the reader to question the skin-deep assumptions we make about race.’ Sunday Telegraph
‘”Londonstani” is a bold debut, brimming with energy and authenticity.' Observer
‘If you’re going to read one yoofy, “urban” book this summer, make sure it’s “Londonstani”!’ Arena Magazine
'With “Londonstani”, Gautam Malkani has written one of the most vibrant and fresh first novels in years, innit.' BBC Collective magazine
Malkani, author of the electrifying Londonstani, talks to Amazon.co.uk about the influences behind his new book.
What was your inspiration for Londonstani?
When I was at school in the early 90s I developed really this annoying teenage angst about the way brown-skinned kids suddenly were deciding not to hang around with white-skinned kids anymore - and Ive been a little obsessed about the way thats developed ever since.
Back then, I remember one by one, many of my Asian mates would suddenly bin their white mates and assert their Asian identities by joining these new ranks of "rudeboys". That kind of voluntary segregation just looked like a really bad idea because as more and more Asian kids decided to split off from mainstream society, school itself seemed to become an enemy, a part of the establishment. So by buying into this aggressive, anti-assimilation thing, it just felt like we were shooting ourselves in the foot. Meanwhile Asians who didnt subscribe to the rudeboy scene were called "coconuts" (brown on the outside but white on the inside) or "batty boys" (gay). I used to make a complete idiot out of myself by literally trying to question kids about what was going on. Then at university I got the chance to actually research it properly as part of my social sciences degree.
Some people thought my study of rudeboys and coconuts was just my way of going back home with a tape recorder and hanging out with my old schoolmates, but the more I got into it, the more substantial all the research and interviews became. Most importantly, the supervisor of my dissertation suggested itd be more interesting if I turned it into a study of gender instead of making it a study of race relations or ethnicity. And so I focused on how race was being used by kids as a tool to boost their masculinity.
After months of taped interviews and what academics call "participant observation", I ended up doing way too much work for just a university dissertation and so promised my supervisor Id use all the extra material to one day write a non-fiction book. But I eventually gave up and nearly four years ago I started working on this novel instead because I wanted to write something that these kids might actually read and enjoy and think about - instead of just sticking them under an academic microscope for other people to learn about. Thats why the book is so plot-driven. It might sound stupid trying to write something for an audience that doesnt really read books, but thats kind of the point. These guys (and the characters in the book) act more tough and more illiterate than they really are. Theyd get whooped by their mums if they do too badly at school, so the barriers to reading and discussion can be exaggerated. Anyway, the first reader was me and I do read books. And Id always wanted to write a novel someday anyway so turning my dissertation into one was like killing two birds with a single stone or whatever.
By the time I started writing the book, however, there was another important source of inspiration. Just hanging around London it became obvious that the aggressive, anti-assimilation rudeboy thing seemed to have chilled out and become a more all-inclusive subculture - what we call the "desi beats" subculture. And so I wanted the novel to update my original study by exploring that development too. Thats why the three parts the book is split into are called Paki, Sher and Desi respectively - "Paki" represents the Asian boy as victim; "Sher" (which means tiger) represents the Asian boy as aggressor; while the "Desi" subcultural identity represents more of a co-existence with mainstream society.
You successfully manage to inject the boys' dialect into the style of the novel. How difficult was it writing a large proportion in dialogue rather than pure narrative?
I really enjoyed writing the dialogue, which made the whole thing that much easier. And regardless of how difficult it might have been, the thing with the dialogue was that it was really important. The boys in the book are supposed to be wannabe gangsters rather than the real McCoy and are therefore pretty much all talk. It seemed like the best way to spell this out was to just have them talk. Thats why tongues and mobile phones are the inevitable phallic symbols of the book. Both of them become measures of the boys potency, but as the story develops both are also regulated by their mothers.
The hardest thing was figuring out whether the best way to make the dialogue credible would be by writing it just as I was hearing it or by modifying it to make it timeless. Like all slang, this specific mix of British, American, Punjabi and hip-hop changes all the time. Words go in and out faster than beard-styles and so I wanted something that at least stood a chance of not becoming obsolete before the book was even published - if it ever got published. So I tried to select slang words that had already stood the test of time - like "blud", "innit" and "safe" - while binning others, even if they were more interesting and trendy at the time I was writing the book - like "bare" or "blazing". Basically I stuck with words that we used at school and which cropped up during my taped dissertation interviews that we still use today.
One of the other difficulties was avoiding the temptation to finesse the dialogue and the narrators language to make it easier on the ears for non-rudeboy readers. Then there was the FT sub-editor inside me who insisted on keeping the different variations of the Londonstani language consistent for each individual character in the book. For example, only Hardjit and Davinder use numeric text-speak (such as "2" for "two"), only Jas uses the word "int" for "aint", and so on.
Finally, while the boys express their disrespect for mainstream society by carefully pulping the English language, the Panjabi dialogue in the book (spelt the local way rather than the British "Punjabi") had to observe strict grammatical rules and silent letters, for example. And I dont speak Punjabi so that was another difficulty.
Did your characters develop as you hoped throughout the novel, or did you travel with them on their journey and change accordingly?
At the beginning, I tried to map everyone out as much as possible - just as I had done with the plot and the themes that generated the plot. But as I wrote the book, some of the characters did change in ways I hadnt originally planned. Jas become more foolish than Id initially intended; Amit more complex, torn between his peers and his parents; Arun less rebellious while Samira became more blemished, more selfish. Only the three characters that Id always wanted to be caricatures (Sanjay, Ravi and Hardjit) remained as originally planned. It was important that they did so because I hope theyll hook in kids who dont really read books. Sanjay has the feel of a two-dimensional James Bond villain and I didnt want him to become too complex because, sadly, some kids need the certainty of a relatively straightforward "baddie". Ravi is supposed to be a sheep following the herd with no real personality so that rudeboys who read the book can see how dangerous that can be. Meanwhile, Hardjits homoerotic macho queen is a skinny writers attempt to show rudeboys how superficial big biceps can be.
Which books have most influenced your writing style and life?
Aside from books by the authors I mentioned earlier, Rumblefish and The Outsiders by SE Hinton got me hooked on reading when I started secondary school. Then there was the Summer of 42 by Herman Raucher, Salingers The Catcher in the Rye...
Finally, I hope people who dont usually read books might be convinced by this one that books arent for ponces and that, actually, there are loads of other books out there that they can get something from.