On 16/9/13, the prestigious online cultural magazine in Catalan Núvol, published a full-length interview about SNUG, in English, by the editor, Bernat Puigtobella, and the writers Jordi Puntí and Màrius Serra. (A Catalan version is also available). A Catalan language review of the book has also appeared in the same issue. The full texts can be found in the ‘Press’ section of this site (including the English translation of the review).
The original English language version of the interview is reproduced right here…
Matthew Tree is a writer based in Barcelona. He has built a solid literary career writing in Catalan, both fiction and nonfiction. Tree writes regularly for the Catalan press. He has spent the last six years writing a novel that has attracted positive attention from both critics and colleagues. Snug has been published by AK Digital and is available on Amazon as an ebook and a paperback. Still this novel should be published in England and sent to bookstores. Jordi Puntí, Màrius Serra and Bernat Puigtobella have a chat with him. See Catalan version.
Matthew Tree | © Pere Virgili
BERNAT PUIGTOBELLA: You are a well known writer, with a dozen books already published in Catalan. You have written novels, memoirs, essays, collected articles, etc. You have built your literary career in Catalan, a language you learnt when you were already in your twenties. And now you have come up with a surprising work, a novel written in English. What decided you to go back to English this time?
MATTHEW TREE: Well, I’d started writing in English, of course (I was 16 at the time and Catalonia was, for me, a meaningless word that formed part of a title of a book by George Orwell), and I knew, both then and through all the years I went on writing only in English, that I was writing badly. ‘Badly’ means here, simply, that I hadn’t found my written voice: that stylistic hallmark that all writers have. Even worse, I hadn’t discovered what I really needed to write about. Style and content, then, those essential ingredients of just about any text you care to name, seemed beyond my reach. The rejection slips came flooding in (I blu-tacked them to my door and almost filled it up before leaving England for good). Having moved to Barcelona, I went on writing in English. I tried different types of story, different ways of writing. All of it ended up in the rubbish bag for the binmen to collect and (hopefully) crush into pulp. Then, in a chance meeting, the publisher of a small press, the poet Antoni Clapés, suggested I write something for him in Catalan (a language I had immersed myself in – or rather, been immersed in – at age 18/19). No sooner had I put finger to typewriter key that I knew I had, at last, found my written voice, albeit in a ‘foreign’ language. I stayed more or less exclusively with Catalan for the next ten years, during which time I realised, gradually, what my problem with my native language, British English, had been: a perceived class imprint indelibly stamped on the language itself: unlike American authors, it seems to me, English authors immediately and often unwittingly give away their social class – or that of their narrating voices – because the British class structure is built into British English. The vocabulary, the syntax, all betray the social origins of whoever is writing. And I wanted, on thre contrary, a free, pliable, malleable tool of a language, and Catalan has provided that for many years. Then, in 2000, I got an idea for a novel in English. I wrote it in English and discovered that after the disicipline of so many years of writing in Catalan, I’d finally found my written voice in my native tongue. However, the failure to actually publish the novel in English (it did come out in Catalan – my version – and Spanish – translated by someone else from the English original) threw me – to the extent that I had to be put on different medication – and I went back to writing in Catalan. Then – and I’m finally getting to the end of this apparently endless answer – in 2004, a whole series of ideas I’d been keeping on the back burner for a long time (some of them were 30 years old) all came together and formed the core of the novel which would eventually become SNUG. Over the following six years, I put every scrap of wood I had on the fire, I wanted this it be a kind of final blaze. I thought: this is going to be the best thing I’ve written so far and so if this doesn’t get published, nothing I do in English is going to get published. Ever!
BERNAT PUIGTOBELLA: Snug is a novel that has drawn you back to the ‘Seventies, at a time when you were a young teenager, not much older than the kids that appear in your book. These children are the key to your attempt to create the right distance. We see through them the fear and the racism of adults towards the black people who ‘occupy’ the island. They are innocent bystanders who are confused by the events unfolding in front of them. They allow us to assess an evil they themselves cannot comprehend.
MATTHEW TREE: The story is set in the ‘Seventies for three reasons: one, the plot – which involves an informal siege of the village – would not be credible at a later time, with the Internet, Twitter, and what have you; two, I was a teenager in the ‘Seventies and still remember the language spoken then like it was yesterday; three, racism was far more prevalent and largely taken for granted among white English people at the time: even when they were ‘anti-racist’ they would sometimes say and do stuff that today would be unacceptable. There is no attempt, however, to recreate a ‘Seventies atmosphere: it’s not a historical novel.
BERNAT PUIGTOBELLA: The racism you portray is so outrageous that it seems grotesque to us today, almost unbelievable. Here is just one example: “Roger put in his ha’penny’s worth: it’s a fact that coloured people already spend plenty of time in the sun; so what would they want a holiday for?’
MATTHEW TREE: Most of the things that the kids say in the novel, are more or less verbatim quotes from real life. In the ‘Seventies and early ‘Eighties I had a long string of different jobs in which I ran into lots of very different people, and some of the racist comments I heard or overheard were said in the most shameless manner imaginable. For example, when I was working in the booking centre of a coach company in London, two of the inspectors came up to have a chat with us. One of them cracked a ‘joke’: ‘Why do pakis smell so bad? So blind people can hate them as well’. He and plenty of the other people in the room had a good laugh. The other inspector, standing next to the white one, was Pakistani.
Matthew Tree, author of ‘Snug’ | © Pere Virgili
BERNAT PUIGTOBELLA: However, you place the story in an English seaside resort, on the Isle of Wight. It is a provincial island, so to speak, but when it comes down to racism, the England of the 70′s was also provincial. You are deferring the action to the Isle of Wight in order to make the plot viable, but in fact you are talking about the whole of England, aren’t you?
MATTHEW TREE: Oh Jesus, yes. The Isle of Wight, and, especially, the fictitious village of Coldwater Bay, is an apparently cheerful, friendly little England stripped bare of its politeness (and complacency) and found wanting.
BERNAT PUIGTOBELLA: One of your main concerns throughout your work has been racism. You have also studied consistently the Holocaust and the devastating effects of racism in Africa. Racism is so embedded in a given language, that it is hard sometimes to imagine this story written in any language other than English. In Snug, there is a hilarious local newspaper, The Coldwater Bay Parish Press, which comes in handy throughout the story when it comes to showing the racist rhetoric of the time. I bet you enjoyed writing those pieces…
MATTHEW TREE: Yes, both the language used in the Parish Press, published by a spineless middle-aged drunk – which is unconsciously racist – and also the hard-core racist talk that the Dr Whitebone character wallows in. I had a good time – if that’s the right expression, which it probably isn’t – with both. Unconscious racism is – to some extent – funny (like when the far right historian David Irving claimed that ‘Hitler was the best friend the Jews had in Germany’). But the core hatred that lies behind all racism – and which knows no limits if none are present – is, of course, stunningly ugly, and is talked about far less often.
JORDI PUNTÍ: In the portrayal of everyday life in Coldwater Bay I also see a moral, day-to-day portrait of British society at that time, sometimes with a critical perspective. To what extent did racism (either overt or latent) form part of that day-to-day portrayal? And the second question: do you think that today cultural advancement (leading to more tolerance) is more the result of social acceptance – the immigration from the ex-colonies is now in its third or fourth generation – or of greater social equality?
MATTHEW TREE: The title of the novel is intended as a one-word summary of the complacency, the self-satisfaction – cultural, linguistic, national – that for me has always been one of the defining characteristics of England, specially southern England. The place is so damn cosy, it can get hard to breathe with ease. No wonder London became the seat of Empire: they were so self-assured that they felt all they had to do was turn everything into an extension of England, because they identified England with fairness, justice, and the right and proper way of doing things in general. Of course, such smugness is shored up, often, by darker beliefs: the idea that non-English people are wrong, unfair, unjust, incompetent, smelly, stupid… The recent colonial history of the British Empire, as a result, is full of racism: Kenyans tortured like they were experimental rabbits, Egyptians in Cairo run over by army trucks and left for dead… all of this in the ‘Fifties and ‘Sixties. And in England itself, right up until the 1980s, black and Asian people suffered from all kinds of discrimination: constant police searches, insults on the street, children spat on in bus queues (to name examples I know of personally). What has happened since then? Well, maybe there has been a gradual tendency to recognise that English people who don’t have European phenotypes are not only as English as anyone else but that they are an essential part of English culture (as long as they express themselves in English; and especially if they’re middle-class). Without a doubt, England is culturally a far more interesting and dynamic place then it was half a century ago, thanks largely to the influx of black and Asian people. But casual racism is still widespread: you still have less possibilities of getting a job if you’re black, for example. And, once again, visibly racist movements are appearing, such as the English Defence League. We had Moseley in the ‘Thirties, the National Front in the ‘Seventies, and now we’ve got the EDL in 2013… These thugs seem to gestate in pods over long periods of time, like the Body Snatchers, and wham, before you know it, ‘multi-cultural’ Britain is full of racist hoodlums (and their intellectual allies), yet again.
Matthew Tree | © Pere Virgili
JORDI PUNTÍ: The novel is constructed on the basis of three alternating narrative threads (‘Log of Progess’, ‘I’m Not A’ and ‘I Was Twelve’) which sometimes contradict each other, and also include different kinds of narrative material, such as newspaper articles. So the starting point is Postmodernist, working with multiple significates and requiring the active participation of the reader. Two questions: one, were you thinking about readers’ reactions, when you wrote? Two, to what extent has the use of different registers been useful as reagrds experimenting with the story, with the overall development of everything that will happen later…
MATTHEW TREE: I tend to think of the reader’s reaction when I myself become the reader: during the rewriting. When I write, I write exactly what I want to write given that if I don’t, it’s not interesting for me, it’s not exciting, it’s not even real for me; and if it’s not exciting and real for me, it’s certainly not going to be so for anyone else. Later on, you see things which aren’t clear, which need clarifying, unwanted repetitions, and so on, which obviously have to be cleared up, both for readers in general and the reader you yourself have become when you rewrite. This includes structural issues. Some readers find the first 30 pages of the novel difficult, because they have to sort out who’s speaking in the three different narrative voices. Other readers dive into the book at once. Personally, I felt that most readers could take a sudden dip into three narrative voices on the chin. It’s not as if I’m using cut-up and fold-in… After Joyce, Dos Passos, and Burroughs – and many other ‘experimental’ writers – three narrative voices ought to be a pushover. As for the use of different registers, I knew from the start that if there had been only one register – the voice of the 12 year old boy, for example – then not only would the reader not get enough credible information about the story, he or she would get bored very quickly, and I would, too. The register changes are there to keep everyone on their toes: the reader, the author, and the characters themselves, for that matter. You mention Postmodernism. Mmm… Perhaps in the combination of different voices and elements there’s a certain Postmodernistic aspect to the book, but what seems to me the defining feature of Postmodernism – its inevitable reduction of everything to a kind of permanent relativism – is absent from the book. All the characters are sincere in what they do and say and are meant to be accepted on their own terms. To be believed in.
MÀRIUS SERRA: In Snug, there’s a newspaper which appears in bilingual format, in English and in an African language. What role does language play in racist conflict?
MATTHEW TREE: The African besiegers use the resources of the village’s (very) local paper to publish their communiqués. These are printed prominently in Swahili, and next to the Swahili, as a kind of afterthought, comes the English translation. This is intended as a comment, by me, and above all, by the Africans, on the tendency, still prevalent in England, to think of English as the only real language. Both in the colonial era and now, there is this general idea that if something isn’t in English, it doesn’t really count. A small example would be a recent feature film set in Uganda, ‘The Last King of Scotland’. If you watch it with subtitles for the hard of hearing, you will see that everything is clearly subtitled, until the Idi Amin character, played by Forrest Whitaker, starts speaking Swahili. Suddenly the subtitles indicate: ‘Speaks African language’. Whittaker spent months learning Swahili, but the people doing the subtitling didn’t feel the need to identify the language. Imagine if a film was subtitled and someone started speaking English or French, and the subtitles read: ‘Speaks European language’… So the use of Swahili in the book is a comment on this kind of unconscious linguistic arrogance, and hopefully will make the (English-language) reader feel a little like Africans must have felt when the English started appropriating their territory and speaking in what was, for them, an incomprehensible tongue.
Matthew Tree | @Pere Virgili
MÀRIUS SERRA: In the Catalan literary canon there’s a novel,Paraules d’Opoton el Vell by Avel·lí Artís-Gener, Tísner, which stands the discovery of America on its head, by making the Precolumbian Indians the ones who discover Europe. Did you intend to perfom a similar kind of operation with the group of Africans that arrives on the Isle of Wight.
MATTHEW TREE: I’ve just finished reading ‘Opòton’, in which the Aztecs discover the Spanish first rather than the other way round, but it’s really a completely different kettle of fish: their Aztec narrator is confused and befuddled by what he finds in Spain, and comes over as a bit simple-minded. The Aztecs have also gone there on a wild goose chase, thinking they will find Quetzlcoatl in person. The Africans in SNUG, on the other hand, are technologically savvy and know exactly what they’re doing and why. The one thing ‘Opòton’ shares with SNUG – and vice versa – is the deliberate use of a foreign language: the Nahuatl in Artís-Gener’s novel is partly employed to give the reader a sense of the strangeness – by comparison – that the Aztecs must have felt when they heard Spanish for the first time.
BERNAT PUIGTOBELLA: You are a well-known and respected writer in Barcelona. Your works are automatically published here, but now that you have decided to write in English, it is not easy to find a publisher. Your agent is in Spain and Snug has been published in a digital edition by AK Digital. Still, this novel should be published in paper in England and sent to bookstores. Have you had any reactions from English publishers?
MATTHEW TREE: The truth is that very few of the fifteen or so publishers my agent has sent the book to have replied at all (an increasingly common practice, I’m told). To be honest, I never expected a hero’s welcome after having cut myself out of the English loop for so many years. Added to which is the fact that the English-language market is heavily over-subscribed. The rejections I have had (about four) have been friendly ones, if any rejection can be described as such. One publisher found SNUG ‘delightfully eccentric’ and another – Granta – praised the style and thought the Dr Whitebone character was as fascinating and convincing as Patrick Batemen in Bret Easton Ellis’s ‘American Psycho’ – but hey, they finally opted not to publish it. UK readers’ reactions – including those of, say, Hispanic literature professor Alan Yates or Times journalist Matthew Parris – have been extremely positive. I accept that UK publishers and agents receive more material than they can easily handle and need something to make them prick up their ears. To which end, a website only for SNUG will be launched in September, with reviews, comments, extracts, etc. And a launch will be held in London, probably in October, with actors, music, live readings, and so on.
BERNAT PUIGTOBELLA: Good luck!