Interviewed by Valerie Waterhouse
Read Daniel Ayres’ fiction piece, Útlongsul
Valerie: Why is a writer born in Uganda, raised in UK and living in Berlin writing about a Thai woman in the Faroe Isles?
Daniel: Good question! I suppose it is because of my wanderlust that I am drawn to writing stories involving culture clash. I also lived in Japan for two years and travelled in Asia pretty extensively. What made me write this particular story, though, was a BBC radio show in which the presenter interviewed a group of Southeast Asian women who had moved to the Faroe Islands to marry Faroese men. When I started imagining what it must have been like moving to these cold, dark, treeless islands from the lushness of Thailand, I knew it was something I wanted to write about.
You were ‘inexplicably’ born in Uganda. Can you explain?
My Dad is a doctor and helped set up a leprosy clinic in Arua in a remote area of northern Uganda, and brought the whole family along. I was only there for two years so any memories I have are very hazy or pieced together from what other people have told me. I say ‘inexplicably’, because the response I receive from small-town bouncers checking my ID is invariably: “Huh, you don’t look very Ugandan.”
Some would say a white European male cannot comprehend the inner workings of a woman from Thailand. How would you respond?
I would be hugely sympathetic to someone with that opinion! I have a supportive workshop group in Berlin with whom I shared the first draft. They helped me to consider the sensitivities involved. I, perhaps a little naively, didn’t consider the implications initially. I found this character developing in my mind and felt compelled to tell her story. I don’t think we should be creating too many barriers as to who can write what, but writing from a different perspective should be done with sensitivity. There is more that unites than divides us, I feel. The themes explored in this story are universal — feeling lonely, different, isolated and far from home. Also, as someone who identifies as queer, I know what it’s like to grow up feeling different, even in your own culture. I drew on my own experiences of loneliness and isolation to hopefully make the story relatable to readers of different backgrounds.
How did you research the story? Road trips? Or Internet?
Sadly, no road trips on this occasion, as much as I would love to visit the Faroes! I wasn’t too familiar with the islands before, but the radio show I mentioned gave me an excellent basis and the rest I researched online. I have travelled in Thailand so drew on memories from my trips but I also did research with regards to important symbols there, which is how I came across the Bryde’s whale.
This is one of a group of stories inspired by Social Media. What is it about Social Media that interests you?
These days, Social Media is almost impossible to avoid. It’s seeped into every part of our lives, for good or for bad. Right now, I’m sitting in a Japanese restaurant in Brighton, and three members of a Korean family are staring at their phones, sharing videos, and FaceTiming an elderly relative. This sort of stuff didn’t happen a few years ago and it instantly makes me want to write. Marketing has A LOT to answer for in making people feel inferior and forcing them to consume, and Social Media is a new and sinister way of spreading the message. People are being marketed at whilst seated on the toilet at 7am. This makes me nervous, and when I’m nervous I write.
Style or story? Which is more important to you?
Hmm, tricky one. I think style is important these days, maybe because of Social Media. I like playing with short, snappy sentences, partly because everyone’s attention span is shorter (mine very much included). But story is what sustains people’s interest. It is ironic that Instagram calls its feed ‘a story’. Your lunchtime quinoa, a pre-club mirror selfie and an old picture of your Grandma is not a ‘story’ (though it might inspire one). You still need classics like conflict and characters overcoming adversity to satisfy the reader. Can I choose both please?
The Natural World plays an important part in this story—perhaps as a foil to the artificiality of the Virtual …
For me, the natural antidote to this technology addiction is spending time in nature. That’s when you let go of the stresses that come with being connected. Companies like Apple advertise showing people using their technology in nature in a false attempt to integrate the two. Personally, I feel an inner conflict when I get to a beautiful, peaceful place. There is this impulse to Instagram, yet there is something perverse in EVERYTHING being photographed and shared. Is nothing sacred!?
Have you ever seen a whale? What is the significance of the Bryde’s whale here?
I did once catch sight of a whale when I was with my then boyfriend in beautiful Capri just as it was getting dark, and this big old shadow just emerged out of the water. That’s something that I would refuse to Instagram! In this story, the whale is a symbol of hope and courage. It is an auspicious animal to these two very distinct cultures, and it comes when my protagonist is at her lowest. I find that’s often true: when you hit rock bottom, something from nature will shine out and remind you that there is still something real underneath all the artifice. This gives you hope.
Finally, a question about cat stories, of which you declare yourself to be fond. Do you have a favourite you’d like to recommend?
Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. There is this great character called Nakata who can talk to cats. The cats have the best voices, they are really casual and chill, and Nakata is super-energetic and cute. If you like stories about viral internet animals, I’d also recommend ‘Keyboard Cat’ by Daniel Ayres. #Shamelessselfpromotion!