Interview with Sunny Singh

We discuss discrimination in UK publishing, how universities misunderstand creative writing, and the benefits of arguing with lecturers

March 17, 2016
Sunny Singh, London Metropolitan University
Source: Walter White

Sunny Singh is an internationally acclaimed author-academic. Her bibliography includes numerous fiction and non-fiction works. She is a senior lecturer in English and creative writing at London Metropolitan University with research interests that include gender, sexuality and armed conflict. Her most recent novel, Hotel Arcadia, has received critical acclaim in the UK and beyond. She recently launched the £1,000 Jhalak Prize for Book of the Year by a Writer of Colour.

Where and when were you born?
I was born in Varanasi, India, on 20 May 1969.

How has this shaped you?
I didn’t entirely grow up in Varanasi, one of the oldest cities in the world. But the city taught me that history is a living thing. It also is a city of stories and art and music, not in a high culture sense but in a lived, quotidian, on the street, every single moment way. My view of culture, life and the world is very much informed by this.

Why have you and Nikesh Shukla decided to launch a prize for writers of colour?
The prize had been gestating for quite a while. But in the past few months, it all came together. The industry figures themselves demonstrate the need for the Jhalak Prize.

Do you think there is still latent or even overt discrimination in the book world?
Often discussions about discrimination are limited to individual morality, as if being racist, sexist, homophobic or suchlike were only a case of moral shortcoming. But these are structural issues, and an industry populated by a very narrow demographic is likely to perpetuate a narrow view of the world. The publishing industry has wonderful individuals, but collectively it tends to perpetuate implicit biases of various kinds that in turn become exclusionary, conservative and, yes in practice, discriminatory.

Does the recent success of Man Booker prizewinner Marlon James give black and minority ethnic writers hope, or are these successes too rare?
I love Marlon James, and his book is amazing, but the media narrative around his win is deeply depressing, especially in the UK. We seem to be happy publishing big books out of the US and other former colonies and pretending that we don’t need to do more at home.

What do you think is the perception of creative writing courses within the academy?
After 10 years in higher education, I don’t think that much of the academy quite gets creative writing courses. This is in part due to a lack of understanding of creative writing as a subject area, partially due to a systemic devaluation of humanities and arts as a whole and not only in academia, and partly because often the courses themselves and their practitioners are not quite able to explain what we do. And that is a shame.

Do you get as much enjoyment from writing monographs as you do from writing novels?
Yes I do. I learned after my first novel that non-fiction works as a kind of creative palate cleanser. So I finish a novel and then spend time researching a new area. In the past few years, my novels and monographs have begun conversing more intensely. After my first novel, I did a non-fiction book on single women in India. That research helped me pull together my second novel, With Krishna’s Eyes. By the time the novel came out, I was obsessed with film-making and cinema, which then became my PhD subject. The cycle continues, with fiction and non-fiction nourishing and feeding off each other. So far, it has worked quite well.

What has changed most in global higher education in the past five to 10 years?
I think the biggest shift has been in the amount of needless administration foisted on academics. It is part of a larger sectoral shift where there is a growing divide between faculty and “management”. There are fewer academics involved in managing and leading universities, and I think that often means they [the managers] don’t understand or indeed value what exactly academics do. 

What are the best and worst things about your job?
Best is easy: that magical moment when I can almost see a young mind open and grow. There is an excitement to intellectual growth that reminds me of a child learning to walk. There is a point when students just click into intellectual growth. To be part of that process is a privilege and a joy. Worst is the admin, the endless paperwork that disappears into a bureaucratic vortex and makes little difference to our core responsibilities and duties but takes up most of my time.

What’s your biggest regret?
Not sure if this is a regret, but I wish I were kinder to and more patient with those I love.

What advice do you give to your students?
Resilience is more important than instant success. Being a writer is about delicately balancing massive hubris and absolute insecurity. Resilience helps to negotiate those two extremes.

What’s your most memorable moment at university (as a student or academic)?
After a massive falling-out in class with my Dante professor, we met for a discussion. After we made amends and agreed on my plan of study, he said: “I can’t teach a poem about transformation if I don’t offer my students a chance for the same.” I was only an undergrad, but that has stayed with me. I always stop to think of it when I am having difficulties in class or with a student.

If you were the higher education minister for a day, what policy would you immediately introduce to the sector?
Make the first year of undergraduate study more expansive; so have students in science, technology, engineering and maths [STEM] subjects take at least an introduction to humanities, and vice versa. It is something I value very much from my own undergraduate experience in the US.  

john.elmes@tesglobal.com


Appointments

Tracey Lancaster, currently director of corporate affairs at Sheffield Hallam University, has been appointed deputy vice-chancellor (corporate communications) at Leeds Beckett University. Ms Lancaster, who takes up her position in August, has reshaped and united Sheffield Hallam’s corporate affairs functions and overseen a significant rise in the university’s national and international media profile. “I look forward to joining [vice-chancellor] Peter Slee’s team to achieve the ambitious vision that he has set for Leeds Beckett, and to highlight some of its outstanding academic research and teaching,” she said.

Alec Cameron has been appointed Aston University’s new vice-chancellor and chief executive. He will take up his position in September. Professor Cameron is currently deputy vice-chancellor (education) at the University of Western Australia, a position he has held since 2013. He was previously president of the Australian Business Deans Council. “I feel privileged at being given the opportunity to lead Aston University at a time of success, and to showcase the distinctive Aston strategy to an international audience,” he said. At the same time as Professor Cameron’s announcement, Helen Higson, currently deputy vice-chancellor at Aston, has been named provost and chief academic officer.

Simon Lee has been appointed professor of law at the Open University’s law school. The University of Nottingham has appointed three new social scientists. Anthony Chum will join as assistant professor in quantitative method in human geography and geographic information science. Nora Wikoff arrives as assistant professor in quantitative methods in sociology and social policy. And Scott Moser will become assistant professor in quantitative methods in politics and international relations. They will join later this year. Andrew Clare has recently begun his role as associate dean for corporate relations at City University London’s Cass Business School.

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