Sisterhood of Swans (Speaking Tiger, India) by Selma Carvalho was among the six notable fiction books of 2021 listed by Asian Review of Books, and part of author Jerry Pinto’s top three reads of 2021. Set in London, the protagonist Anna-Marie Souza is experiencing all the chaos inherent in the sexual lives of women. Flitting from one disastrous relationship to another, Anna-Marie’s journey to finding a sense of selfhood is thwarted by the inadequacy of her decisions and by the lack of agency she has in her relationships. The book is a keen observation on the specificity of female desire and the changing face of the British-Asian identity. Here, poet Rochelle Potkar, in conversation with Selma Carvalho, uncovers the thought processes behind the writing.
Where and how did the inspiration for this book and its characters come about? How much of it did you discover along the way?
I had this kernel of an idea knocking about in my brain, of a young woman in her twenties who keeps making disastrous life-choices, and the story sprouted from this. I believe our twenties are a time of self-discovery, and the journey to finding ourselves is often chaotic. Because we are young, we believe we are immortal and that we can exist above the morality society imposes on us. So, we hurtle from one disastrous relationship to another, unmindful of who we hurt, unmindful of the events we set in motion, trying to heal our wounded selves.
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Do you think women succumb to small measures of kindness from men? Is it the ambivalence of relationships? Or a telling of modern-day swift romancing where one glimpse of grace is fine? Is this the Darwinian coupling? Impulse or instinct?
That is a very interesting question indeed. It is a question my protagonist grapples with at every stage in her life examining the nature of her sexual desires and needs. There is a moment of utmost honesty when she says: “There was something bestial about our desire. We lived above morality and common sense. The constraints of society did not apply to us. We were incapable of understanding time, and that on a time continuum, human decency is essential for civilisation—for love, for friendship to survive.” The intensity of sexual desire is such that it overrides common sense but because we live in a civilised society, we arrive at certain contracts which allow society to function. Particularly in our twenties, we often rebel against morality but the process of growing up, as Anna-Marie discovers, is realising how many lives we alter because of our actions.
Class, colour, race, age, place—your story covers it all. How much of your own identity informs the story and how much do you deviate to explore laterally?
We are all writing ourselves, but of course, we are not writing a memoir or an autobiography. As writers, we create characters and plots to advance and enhance our storytelling. The plasticity of fiction allows us to explore the human condition honestly, drawing from our own emotions of pain and grief and joy.
The protagonist in the story seemed at times to harbour a blurry oedipal fascination for her father. But it’s a faint shadow in the background of the story. What this a conscious literary device of intrigue for the reader or an unconscious narration?
There is a slight element of misdirection in the opening chapters, which I won’t elaborate on to avoid spoilers. But the story pivots on this wounded relationship Anna-Marie has with her father, his absence in her life which acts as the fulcrum on which so many of her decisions in later life pivot.
When you speak of the centre holding the schizophrenic human nature, how do you see it expressing itself in the sexual lives of people? Is it trust, faith, or a self-knowing in that relationship? Or an awareness of transience and life’s complexities?
The late Joan Didion popularised that phrase, ‘the centre will not hold’ from the Yeats poem, ‘The Second Coming.’ But I’ve always believed the centre will hold. For a long time now, society has held the centre through this institution we call marriage, but of course, the institution itself has so many flaws that we are constantly trying to re-engineer it. In a world of Tinder, where sex can be offered and ordered much like a buffet, it’s hard to keep the faith that the centre will hold, but beyond sex, we are also beings who seek genuine friendship and companionship, and that in the end is what forces us to regulate our sexual lives.
Tell us something about your journey from writing non-fiction to fiction. What are the themes you keep returning to and why? I believe a writer’s themes are a leitmotif of our existential experiences as humans.
I wrote non-fiction for ten years before I started writing fiction five years ago. I’ve authored three books which document the Goan presence in colonial East Africa. Non-fiction is a very disciplined form of writing; one interprets the research gathered from primary and secondary sources. In fiction, one interprets emotion. It is quite a difficult task to plot a story or characters which will resonate with readers. In addition, one must have a facility with language. Since I wrote Sisterhood of Swans, I’ve finished one and half novels. The recurring themes are of womanhood: looking at how we cope with promiscuity or monogamy, how we age, how we become invisible, how we are still lacking in sexual agency.
Why is there no male pill of contraception yet in your view? Does this current fact of the world lead itself more to complicate relational dynamics?
I’m quoting a few lines from Anna-Marie’s point of view in the book: “Sanjay is the vortex [she] and I are sucked into, sprawled flat and silenced on the grid- panes of his power: our pain is a lie, our rage is a hysteric, our opinion is uninformed. All the while, [she] and I will believe that the world is a fair and equal place, and that we have as much power as Sanjay, but really, we don’t. Sanjay controls the source of all that enables us and so we cede of ourselves to him.”
Men still control the means of production which means women are far from achieving equality or true agency. Of course, great strides have been made by women but particularly in the context of sexual relationships, inevitably men manipulate these advances to their own benefit, and women once again become vulnerable to emotional and physical violence.