The stories in this collection were written over a span of more than 30 years. They are set in Malaysia, Dubai, and Ireland. Some of the themes that run through my writing are domestic violence, identity struggle, discrimination, and body acceptance. These are issues that are very close to my heart, because of my own experiences of growing up in a turbulent household, being a minority wherever I have lived, and struggling with the way I look. These are problems that continue to blight the daily lives of many people, especially women. By writing about these issues, I hope my readers will be able to recognise the pain and acknowledge the trauma faced by many.
I was born to migrant Indian parents in Malaysia. My parents were Indian first, Malaysian second, and that was how I was raised. My Indian-ness was more central in all my decisions and actions. The Indian community is a minority community in Malaysia, comprising less than 10% of the population. Within that minority, there are several different types of Indian communities with different cultures and lifestyles. I began to feel that I was a minority within a minority. I have always struggled internally with identity. This struggle was further exacerbated when I moved to England to study, and later on to Dubai, and then to Ireland. This personal identity struggle has contributed immensely to my writing. Many of my protagonists are women who are striving to be accepted, to belong, to blend, while simultaneously wanting their differences to be celebrated. It is this grappling that forms the root of my female protagonists’ characteristics.
When I write, I do not really start with plot or characters. It usually starts with an event, an incident or an everyday occurrence like a dance recital, receiving a letter, or taking a taxi. Alternatively, it would start with a comment or a question. Remarks, comments, or questions that have been uttered directly to me or that I have heard about me. They may not be provocative in the context that they were uttered, but I relish in taking that one comment or question, and then building a story around it. For example, nearly every time I took a taxi in Dubai, the driver (who would usually be from the Indian subcontinent) would ask me, ‘You Indian?’ I knew that they were asking me this question because of my physical features but sometimes it would annoy me and I would sit in the back, making up scenarios of consequences if I refused to engage in conversation with them. This is how ‘Unbreathable Journeys’ took shape, as I situated my identity struggle within the glitzy landscape of Dubai.
My writing style has evolved and changed over time. I have not had any formal training in creative writing, however, I do learn a lot by watching and listening to writers speaking or being interviewed at literary festivals. I am interested in learning from the writers that I admire like Salman Rushdie, Haruki Murakami, Margaret Atwood, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Arvind Adiga. I identify most with writers from an Asian or Indian sub-continent background, because they write about issues regarding immigration, culture, and identity.
The title story ‘Why Are You Here?’ is the youngest story in the collection. It took immense courage to write, as it is the only story that is heavily dialogue-driven. I have always been nervous about writing dialogues because even when I write what was really said, once I write it, it seems stilted. One evening, a close family member asked me the question ‘Why are you here?’ It was an innocent question because that person wanted the kitchen to herself to cook a nice meal. I walked out of the kitchen with that question booming in my ears. I thought about how the question itself could become a leitmotif and the only way I could do it was to write a story that was almost fully a conversation between two people. I conceived the question and the proceeding conversation as being hostile and constructed the story in a couple of hours. Although this story does not seem to blatantly connect to the themes of domestic violence, identity struggle, or bodily acceptance, it is about one seeking acceptance from another – striving for it through atonement and concession. ‘Why Are You Here?’ went on to make the top ten shortlist of the Cranked Anvil 2020 short story competition. This has given me the assurance I was looking for to write more dialogue-driven stories.
Franz Kafka said what he wrote were the ashes of his experience. The stories in this collection stem from my own ‘ashes’ or from ‘ashes’ that have blown my way. These ashes continue to billow within the recesses of my imagination, reminding me of hidden embers that continue to spark stories that are waiting to be told.
(c) Radhika Iyer
About Why Are You Here?
Introducing Radhika Iyer’s debut collection, Why are you here? Twelve explosive short stories present twelve provoking female narratives.
Iyer’s unique style is quirky yet powerful, as she illustrates a sense of otherness, as an immigrant and as a woman of colour.
Iyer explores the struggle of being a woman in different cultures, as the stories take us from the harrowing results of a family scandal in Malaysia, to an internal cultural identity struggle in Dubai, to an abusive marriage amplified by the lockdown in Ireland.
This collection is ultimately about the female experience, and being different culturally, and in terms of shape and size.The women of these stories face their internal and external battles, and as we follow their journeys, we come face to face with the struggle and the strength of women.
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