Jonathan Tel: ‘There are only three stories journalists ever write’

From left, Jemimah Steinfeld, Jonathan Tel, Preti Taneja and Mahesh Rao at the session 'Asia's Forgotten Lives'

Pictured, from left, are Jemimah Steinfeld, Jonathan Tel, Preti Taneja and Mahesh Rao at the session 'Asia's Forgotten Lives'

Jonathan Tel: ‘There are only three stories journalists ever write’

09 June 2016

By Naomi Canton

Unlike many Western authors who pitch up in China and write a book, Jonathan Tel says he has no interest in writing about the ‘foreigner experience’ in Beijing.

“I prefer to see China through Chinese eyes and not through foreigner eyes,” the British author said, during a session at the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival titled Asia’s Forgotten Lives, which focused on short story writing.

“I like to see it from a Chinese perspective,” he added.

He also said his goal was to write in fiction the stories that journalists ignore. “I want to write differently to journalists,” he said.

“In 2007 I first thought I could write about China and I knew it would have to be about the Chinese in China. I did not want to write about the foreigner in China,” he explained.

“It’s not interesting to me. I prefer to get into the heads of people not like myself. I always knew it would be based in Beijing. I wanted to cover the very rich and very poor, old and young, migrants and those born there, so I published a book of short stories called The Beijing of Possibilities (2009) set in modern-day Beijing.”

The book was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Award.

His next story was focused on financial crime in China. “There is a central character  who everyone is linked to including poor people by some degrees of separation,” he said. “Corruption is so omnipresent in China and it’s a way of linking people at different levels since everyone can be linked by it. It’s one way to talk about the modernisation in China too. There was a time when this didn’t exist – that was the Cultural Revolution. It’s all connected to China’s past where there are stories about corruption too. China has thousands of years of history and people in China are connected to that and so when something happens today they often refer back to some story in history,” he added.

Another of his short stories is about the average person in China. “People don’t talk about the average person. What about people who work in an office? It’s about a junior civil servant from a provincial city in China,” he explained.

Seduction of a Provincial Accountant won the £1,000 Royal Society of Literature V.S. Pritchett Prize.

Jonathan Tel

Jonathan Tel

“The way I write fiction is I talk to people to get stories and then it enters my subconscious and then I make up my own stories. I am not consciously working against stereotypes. I just ignore them as I am seeing China through Chinese eyes,” he said.

Tel is currently researching his next story which will be about Syrians and other refugees in Germany and elsewhere for which he has volunteered in Kos in Greece and is off to Turkey soon.

“I don’t know why journalists work within stereotypes,” he said.

He said a journalist friend of his had interviewed some of the refugees arriving at Munich railway station.

“I read the article and she had also told me personally some of the things she heard and the things she told me were so much more interesting than what was in her article,” he said. “For example, she interviewed a family fleeing ISIS and she interviewed a teenager in that family who said ISIS came to town and he thought they were so cool that he wanted to join them and his elder brother threw him on a truck and then they fled. Isn’t that more interesting than the kind of thing you normally read? That’s the kind of thing I can write about in fiction. Journalism is a very constrained format.

“I want to write differently to journalists and I want to understand the lives these refugees in Germany had in Syria 10 to 20 years ago before the current war and explore as many lives as I can. There is no such thing as a generic Syrian. They are all different but there are only three stories journalists ever write,” he said.

Another panellist at the session, Preti Taneja. was born in the UK to Indian parents and spent most of her childhood holidays in New Delhi.

She spoke about her first novella Kumkum Malhotra which won the Gatehouse Press New Fiction Prize in 2014/15. The story draws from her own memories of travelling back and forth to India in the 1980s and 1990s and details how slowly the West was being introduced in that period to the middle classes in Delhi.

“The novella details a specific moment of economic change in India,” said the author, academic and activist.

“It spans two decades. I grew up between here and there going back and forward to my father’s house in Delhi and we often used to carry things from the UK because India was a closed economy then. We used to take suitcases of biscuits, M&S underwear, underwired bras and other goods that you could not easily get in India and that were deemed desirable from the UK to India and that said about an Indian household ‘there are foreign relatives coming back to visit.’”

The story is focused on one woman who did not leave India trying to deal with the pressures of being a wife and mother and trying to negotiate those relationships in her family.

“It’s about women to women relationships and the special kind of intimacy between women as well as competitiveness,” she told the audience.

“There is a sense ‘how dare it be so modern?’ among some of the NRI diaspora when they arrive in India today and see the modern airports, flyovers and taxis queuing that doesn’t fit with the idea of exotic India,” she said.

“I think it’s important to try and ways of expressing different points of view in a story. I don’t want to just show exotic India and the mangos. India is always very bittersweet and often without the sweet, because life is tough there,” she added.

Her next book is a rewriting of King Lear set in contemporary India titled We That are Young. The full-length novel is set to be released in January by a Norwich publisher and is based on a thesis she wrote of the same name.

All of the panellists agreed that full-length novels were still more popular than short stories.

Taneja said: “Indians are much more impressed by the novel.”

Tel added: “The great thing about novels is they go on a long time and you can live in them.”

Mahesh Rao, who also spoke at this session in addition to the closing night of the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival, summed up the mood saying: “If you are on a short story panel, people like to say ‘short stories are having a moment ‘but I don’t know they are. It’s certainly extremely difficult to get a collection of short stories published.”

Asia House is currently holding a 20th anniversary Benefit Auction to raise funds for our arts and cultural programme. All the artworks, predominantly donated by artists and galleries from across Asia, can be bid for on the Paddle8 website here.For  more information click here.

To read what Mahesh Rao had to say about his books, short stories versus novels and his career to date at the Festival, click here.