Atima Srivastava

Born:
  • Mumbai, India
Publishers:

Biography

Novelist and short-story writer Atima Srivastava was born in Mumbai, India, in 1961 and has lived in Britain since she was eight. She was educated at the University of Essex, and has worked in television as a researcher, editor and director. She has held writing residencies at the University of Singapore, the University of Sofia (Bulgaria), the University of Mainz, Ewha University in Seoul, Korea, and Mumbai University. She won the Bridport Short Story Prize for 'Dragons in E8' (published in the Barcelona Review) and was awarded an Arts Council Writers' Award for both her second and third (forthcoming) novels. She has also been awarded a Hawthornden Fellowship. Her short story 'Stanley' is included in New Writing 10, edited by Penelope Lively and George Szirtes for the British Council.She is the author of two novels: Transmission (1992), the story of a young Indian woman working as a television researcher in London, and Looking for Maya (1999), in which an ambitious young graduate becomes involved with an older man. She has also written several screenplays including Dancing in the Dark (1992) and The Legendary Vindaloo (1999), both commissioned by Channel 4 Television, and Camden Story (1995) for the BBC. Her play Why Not Love? was commissioned by the Royal National Theatre in London in 2002 and Perfect Match was written for the Leicester Haymarket Theatre in 2003. She is the author of the libretto for Cross Currents, an opera first performed by BroomHill Opera in 2001.Atima Srivastava lives in London. She teaches Creative Writing and is currently working on a third novel.

Critical perspective

Atima Srivastava’s fiction and, in particular, her two novels Transmission (1992) and Looking for Maya (1999), centre on young Indian women who are trying to make their way into the contemporary London art scene.

Both the would-be film-maker Angie in Transmission and the aspiring novelist Mira in Looking for Maya are women whose quest for identity and roots is not as tragic as those of many characters of Asian-British novels. In their confident attitude as they move through the streets of London, they reflect their author’s 'most potent image' of herself: 'I always have the feeling that I am from here and also from there. When I am here, I feel Indian constantly and when I am there, I feel ... English, or western.' Srivastava feels she is a Londoner, more then British, and that she also belongs to India. She does not consider herself an exile because she feels at home in both India and London. Angie and Mira’s quest for identity is perfectly integrated in their effort to pursue their careers and interests. Although Srivastava’s novels touch on the topics of Indian Diaspora, racism and Asian-British culture, their protagonists do not feel tragically divided between their Indian and British cultural roots. They are introduced as energetic young women who want equal opportunities in their work careers and everyday life. This is but one of the many stereotypes about ethnic literature that Srivastava deconstructs, a verb that she may not like given her self-professed adversity to Postcolonial and Deconstructive theories.

The title of Srivastava’s first novel, Transmission, refers to the transmission of stories and ideas from India to the urban scene of London where Angie moves about so confidently. It is through these stories, either narrated by her writer father or by the media, that Angie gets her idea of India, an idea which, the narrator stresses, is perfectly inauthentic, “unreal, a mish mash for sure”. The other two meanings of the title stand for the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases – HIV/Aids in this specific case – and broadcasting. The novel focuses on Angie’s attempts to make a documentary movie on Kathi, a young woman who has infected her husband, Lol, with HIV. While making the documentary, Angie falls in love with Lol, a white skinhead with a Paki-bashing past. As Kathi comes down with full-blown AIDS and Lol returns to care for her, Angie destroys her movie, refusing to exploit her friends’ situation. Angie’s behaviour contrasts with the ruthless efficiency of her American producer as well as with her brother Rax’s metropolitan yuppyish credo: 'You’re somebody if you got money'. Although Angie wants to become a successful filmmaker and initially describes herself as 'a successful television researcher on the way up', by the end of the novel she is not prepared to give up the values of friendship and community to reach her goal. The fact that Angie’s family live in Finchley, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s constituency, and have 10 as house number leads family member to joke that they live 'at the other number 10'. The narrator also playfully points out that the number 'was hanging off the door. No one had bothered to fix it'. Seen in the context of Angie’s final choice to destroy her documentary, this choice of location is symbolic of the protagonist’s rejection of the Thatcherite philosophy of upward mobility and economic success.

Contrary to other Asian-British novels, Srivastava’s fiction does not emphasize so much the cultural clash between first and second-generation immigrants. Although Angie and Mira distance themselves from the their parents’ recreation of India in Britain, the novels stress more intergenerational understanding than conflict. In Looking for Maya, in opposition to some second-generation characters created by other authors, Mira does not feel ashamed of her parents. She is actually proud of them and talks of them fondly to Amrit, an older, sophisticated poet she falls in love with. Mira’s parents are well-educated and poets. As Angie’s father, they are the depositories of stories through which Mira forms her ideas of India.

The novel consistently challenges readers’ expectations and current critical ideas of what a novel about Asian-British should be about: looking for roots and identity may in itself be looking for Maya, the Hindi word for illusion (and, in the novel, also the name of Amrit’s Indian wife). Amrit makes fun of Mira’s literary ambitions asking her whether she is writing 'the great immigrant novel'. Srivastava explains that the West expects Indian and ethnic authors in general to write only  immigrant novels whose main ingredients are 'history, epic’s weep of history, mangoes, families, three generations and nature'. She critiques these expectations because in the end they put pressure on authors to write as oppressed, as victims. While Indians are often considered exotic by the British, in Looking for Maya, it is an Indian, Mira, who considers Amrit 'exotic' and 'like an alien country' where she wants to travel. In an ironic passage, the novel even takes issue with Postcolonial theory as Mira confesses that, as part of her degree, she has taken a 'Literature option ... called Post Colonial Literature and studied Naipaul and Rushdie and Desai, been given lots of A3 photocopied articles on Race Deconstruction' which she then uses to line her underwear drawers with. Srivastava has directly commented on the passage stating that it was her own way of making fun of theories as she is not a theory person. Srivastava is also impatient with labels in general as she argues that as a writer she does not particularly like 'to be put in just one hole': 'If I am called a ‘Woman Writer’ does that mean that men don’t want to read me?'.

Before leaving him for Amrit, Mira explains the concept of 'Race memory' to her white boyfriend Luke, who is passionate about India and wants to do postgraduate research there: 'you may not have been born in India or Africa ..., but the memory of your ancestors lingers in your blood or something like that, engraved in a deep memory'. While this makes sense to Luke, Mira claims it is nonsense: 'You can only remember what happened for real. All the rest is suggestion and fantasy'. Yet, she also immediately thinks she has known Amrit once, 'somewhere between fact and fiction and myth'. Mira has thus a contradictory notion of both cultural and personal memory which is presented as something quintessentially inauthentic that can be constructed according to one’s feelings. Like Angie, Mira too accepts both her Indian heritage and her British life without going through identity traumas. The trauma she has to go through, abortion, is not connected to a situation of cultural exile, but to her love story with Amrit. India, to Mira, is not the cultural landscape that forces identity crises but, amongst many other things, also simply a place to go on holiday. Tellingly, she is impatient with Luke’s eagerness to discover 'Indian culture'.

In Transmission and Looking for Maya, Asian-British characters fully embrace their dual heritage and their hybridity. According to Srivastava, 'hybridity exists everywhere, even within the notion of authenticity'. She takes as an example RaviKavi, Mira’s parents. In the novel, they think 'hybrids' are out of place and inauthentic, like the British soldiers in India who 'looked so red and puffy and couldn’t even speak English properly' or 'those Indians who spoke English like English gentlemen and used a fork to eat dahl and rice'. Yet, they too could be taken as hybrid. As Srivastava explains: 'They left India, they only have one child – there are many things'. Representing hybridity as being everywhere, Srivastava challenges notions of authenticity too often attached to ethnic novels and refreshingly expands the topics, themes and geographical landscapes of such novels.

Luca Prono, 2009

Bibliography

New Writing 10
15 Minutes
Looking for Maya
Transmission

Awards

2000
Arts Council Writers' Award
2000
Hawthornden Fellowship
2000
London Writers Competition
1998
Arts Council Writers' Award
1994
Bridport Short Story Prize