Interview with Judith Amanthis
At the heart of Dirt Clean there is the brilliant and inventive story of a long-term quarrel between two sisters. Where did these characters and this story come from?
From two places really, or even three. I’ll say straight away that my characters aren’t autobiographical. They’re a bit like that game where you draw one person’s head, turn down the paper, pass it on to the next person, who then draws the neck and arms, and so it goes on. The colour of the paper, but not the drawings, is my knowledge of particular emotions. So the first place Jennifer’s and Coral’s relationship comes from is me and my older sister. I could write a book about that relationship. The second place is a magazine called Kilombo (sadly now dead) that I worked on as a writer and copy editor from 1998 to 2008 prior to writing Dirt Clean. Because Kilombo was a Pan African magazine, questions of race were intensely discussed and disputed, not least because the people who set the magazine up were West African political refugees dealing with African diasporic politics in much the same way as their spirit guide Kwame Nkrumah had to in the 1940s and 50s. For myself, being white, working on Kilombo was a crash course in how people of African descent experience the personal trauma and historical shock waves of racism. The third place Jen and Coral come from is the internal battle I fought right from when I started writing fiction seriously in the early 1990s. The battle was between art, i.e. a free and unrestrained imagination informing the task of structuring work, a kind of amoral aimlessness, vs politics, a strategic, collective and moral activity whose aim is to change power structures. Or put it another way: art, unlike politics a lot of which is perforce propaganda, can’t begin with a message that the artist intends to communicate. I find I discover what I want to say as I work on a piece of writing. So back to Dirt Clean, Jennifer is in some respects the canny politician and Coral in some respects the slightly crazy and certainly paranoid artist. Kosi, the other main singular character, is part of the art vs politics argument too. He’s consumed with guilt about abandoning his family back home for the sake of ‘the struggle’.
I know the struggle for African emancipation and the women’s movement have played a large part in shaping your life and your writing. And there are prevalent themes of social injustice and UK-Ghana corruption in Dirt Clean. You spent your formative years in Zimbabwe – do you think you would have been as politically aware if you had spent those years in Oxford instead?
No chance. I would most likely have become an academic living in a gothic type north Oxford house. Thank you, Africa, for rescuing from that fate and for your many history lessons.
As well as your work in journalism and your work on Kilombo magazine, you have also worked as a teacher, grounds person, lorry driver, lexicographer and a receptionist. Have all of these things provided writing inspiration?
Well, each of those jobs had its own horrors and treasures. Teaching just wasn’t my thing and I had two young children. It was what I was expected to do so I gave it up pretty quick, even though I was in probably the – at the time – least stressful end of it, further education. We organised a nursery and went to the Grunwick picket. The grounds person boss had me breaking stones at the bottom of the (boys’ public school) playing field. I did walk away with a nice pair of white trousers though, from the cricket pavilion. And a good umbrella. Truck driving gave me insights into the dirty underbelly of London shops like Harrods. The loading bays were where the guys greased up and foolishly I’d abandoned my bra. This was circa 1979. Lexicography was interesting if not quite my linguistic cup of tea though the union (AUT at the time, now UCU) helped me a lot. But it was my receptionist jobs that were really good for writing, because apart from answering the phone and a bit of stationery delivery round the office, I could be on the computer all the time. But mainly because I met very good women who were all cleaners, both contract and directly employed. None of them were English and all of them taught me about their jobs and their travels to and from southern Europe and Africa over the years. In the office hierarchies I was in, cleaners and receptionists were about equal.
I understand Dirt Clean is your sixth novel – tell us a little about the others. Are you ever planning to re-visit any of them?
I’ve written another novel since Dirt Clean, about an alcoholic who sees into the cannibalistic heart of London, so I’ve not got a lot of time for my early books. The one time I looked at the one before Dirt Clean it came across very dated and would have needed loads of work. It’s about a woman who commits infanticide. I don’t enjoy going over old work. I like writing new stuff. That’s what keeps me going. Editing is a whole other story to which I am devoted.
Dirt Clean was written many years before it saw the light of day, and I know you submitted it to more publishers and agents than – to use your words – you care to remember. Did you ever feel like giving up on the book or did you always have faith in it?
I’d abandoned Dirt Clean quite a few times before a friend said go on, give it another try. So I got down to the three thousandth edit and submission. Friends who are writers can be really important for keeping your spirits up and it was a friend who told me about Victorina Press. I suppose a community of writers is what I’d like. I’m never sure what faith in my work means. I do know that I try to write well and I always think I’m not much good at it, but I do it anyway because it gives me a thrill, and what else is there to do? If by faith you mean not giving up, I’ve never given up writing for publication since I started on novels at 42. Victorina published Dirt Clean the year I was 70.
Victorina Press believes very strongly in the principles of bibliodiversity. What does this mean to you personally and was it a factor in your decision to submit your work to them? Do you think these principles were a factor in the press taking on your book on when it had been rejected so many times prior to that?
I’m sure Victorina Press gave me the time of day, where other publishers didn’t, because of their bibliodiversity principles. It’s no coincidence that the idea comes from South America, that land of many peoples, voices and struggles. Consuelo being a political refugee from Chile I’m sure also affected her reading of Dirt Clean.
Dirt Clean went on to be shortlisted for the Paul Torday Memorial Prize – a great achievement. I know this took you by surprise at the time, but has it helped to boost your confidence in your writing?
I guess so, though I think sales are more important to me than confidence because writing is just what I do, whether I’m good at it or not. No, of course, I was thrilled. And when I submit work it’s great to brag about the short listing. My prize was a year’s membership of the Society of Authors, which is like a writers’ trade union. I was slightly disappointed in the zoom prize-giving event because it was only the winners who got to go on camera and I’d put my lipstick on.
Are you a fast or slow writer, and do you find it easy to carve out time to write? I know you used to write every day before work, and then redundancy forced your hand at an opportune moment. Now that you have (in theory!) more time, do you find you have to be even more disciplined?
I’ve had so many years of disciplined writing time whether I feel like it or not, I’m still quite good at making time for my work. I don’t write particularly fast. I work it out as I write. Another way of putting it is that the work tells me what to write, although I’m not massively into the death of the author. I understand some people have it all worked out in their head beforehand and it comes rushing out. And then there’s the conduit for the word of god experience which has never been mine. What stops me writing these days is child care (my adored grandchildren) and getting tired. Although I think one of the many advantages of getting old is that I now have the time to be tired.
What’s next for you as a writer? I know you have been writing another novel for some time now – and you write poetry too I believe? So what’s in the pipeline?
I’m noveled out I think. My last novel, the one about the alcoholic, was followed by a desire to get my life down somehow, a memoir-ish impetus, which itself got taken over by personal events plus a despair with the idea of beginning and ending a life so to speak. And then one afternoon in Kew Gardens, sitting under a mighty oak with multiple reptilian trunks, I started writing poetry. I love it. It takes me about a day to draft a poem as against a year to draft a novel, plus I don’t have to grapple with enormous narrative arcs plus I can be a proper artist. I’m getting poems published here and there. And I’ll never stop repeating that Victorina Press publishing Dirt Clean changed my life completely.