About The Author
Natasha Soobramanien was born in London, where she now lives. She studied English at Hull University and was accepted onto the internationally renowned MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia.
She was a winner in the short story category of the Bridport Prize in 2009 and wrote two chapters of Luke Williams' debut novel, The Echo Chamber, winner of the Saltire Society's Scottish First Book of the Year Award 2011. Natasha was born in London, where she now lives.
Her first novel is Genie and Paul. It's inspired in part by the classic French children's tale Paul et Virginie, written by Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre in 1787.
Paul and Genie are half-siblings, both born on the island of Rodrigues, part of the Republic of Mauritius. As children, they are brought to London by their mother. Genie adores her elder brother and is delighted to be included to be part of his life as he moves towards adulthood, even as his wild social life brings him into contact with some of London's more unsavoury characters.
But when, on a night out together, Genie collapses in a nightclub, Paul abandons her and vanishes altogether. Determined to track him down, Genie is led back to Rodrigues, which only weeks before had been devastated by a tropical cyclone.
It's a stunning debut novel, lyrical and touching, that explores the bonds of family and what it means to call a place home. Amit Chaudhuri describes is as "clever and beautiful", Christos Tsiolkas as "a treasure of a book".
In this exclusive interview with Foyles, Natasha talks about the painful legacy of slavery in Mauritius, what it takes to survive on the margins of society and her remarkable new project with Luke Williams.
Read our interview with Luke Williams about The Echo Chamber
Questions & Answers
Where did you first encounter the classic French tale Paul et Virginie that inspired your novel?
My first encounter with Paul et Virginie was as an object- my mother's old edition in French with beautiful engravings. I loved to look at it as a kid and would make up stories around the illustrations - some of these images have been reproduced in Genie and Paul. My mother told me the story of Paul et Virginie, but it wasn't until I could read enough French that I came to know Bernardin de Saint-Pierre's text.
Genie thinks of Mauritius as "the bastard of England and France left to grow up wild in the tropics", but Paul is comfortable with "all of those mixed-up faces that make more sense". Why are their feelings about the place of their birth do different?
Because of their respective ages, temperaments, and personal narratives, I guess. Genie left the island at the age of five, so her memories are vaguer than Paul's. And she's a pragmatic person - such impressionistic memories are not of use, and so she doesn't try too hard to hold onto them, and they become supplanted by the more concrete fact of life in London. Or perhaps leaving her father and brother behind was something of a trauma, so she has deliberately cut herself off from them and her memories. But Paul's relationship to the island, and to life in general, is more complicated, and so his memories of Mauritius are harder to shrug off: his close relationship with his step-brother, his love of the island's natural life are all things which connect him to the place. Paul is five years older than Genie so his memories are clearer, and linger, hindering his ability to adapt to a new life in London. And of course, the harder he finds it to like it there, the more he yearns for Mauritius.
Paul's girlfriend Eloise points out to Genie that, given their differing skin colours and the fact that they are both of Mauritian descent, that her family could have owned Genie's in the past. Slavery was abolished there in 1835, but it is still a divisive issue?
I can only talk about what I've observed on my few visits to the island. I was born in London and my parents both came here from Mauritius in their mid-teens. But as with any culture that has experienced slavery, its legacy is still apparent. Some of the old power structures in place at the time of slavery still remain. In the book, Paul meets a man from one of the large French sugar families who talks about how his family expropriated land that was formerly the site of a Creole village - the inhabitants were cheated out of the land so that the family could benefit from it. That's based on a real case dating from the early seventies which was still under dispute when I began my book. The Creole community in Mauritius traces their heritage back to the island's slaves and Maroons (runaway slaves, who formed rebel communities in hiding) and the land is of historical significance to the Creole community - it's on Le Morne, the peninsula where many Maroon communities were based.
On returning to Mauritius Paul and Genie noticed a shift in language, with French starting to supplant Mauritian creole. What's driving this change?
Creole was not previously accorded the same status as French and English - culturally, it was seen as inferior - there's this misconception that Creole is just 'broken French', when it is actually a language which has evolved naturally with French as a parent langauge. But there have been moves to change how Creole is perceived. The government is currently working on a standard orthography, for example, which has never existed before.
Why does Paul find himself falling in with disreputable types both in London and on Mauritius?
I don't know that Paul's associates are all 'disreputable'. A few are - Digs from Eloise's story, for example. But as for Paul's close friends - well, Sol is just young and rebellious and Paul's Mauritian gang is made up of men who are poor and disenfranchised. Paul feels himself to be an outsider so identifies with the marginalised. There's a suspicion of power which exists among people who have none and Paul finds this attractive. But it takes a certain strength of mind to survive on the edge of society and the older you get the harder it is, as Paul discovers.
Can you tell us what you're working on at the moment?
Two things. A novel about a woman who loses her job in the financial crisis and goes on a road trip to return books she's been lent by friends she's since lost touch with. And a joint project with another writer, Luke Williams. We've worked together before - I contributed two chapters to his first novel, The Echo Chamber - and the experience was rewarding enough to inspire us to embark on a fully collaborative project. It's a novel about the island of Diego Garcia in the Chagos Archipelago which is home to a US military base. The archipelago was formerly home to around 2000 people who were expelled from the islands in order to make way for the base.