Should We Fall Behind

By Sharon Duggal, 
Bluemoose Books, 2020

INTERVIEW BY LUCY BROWN

Brighton author, Sharon Duggal, launches her latest book Should We Fall Behind on October 22nd. The novel is a piercingly accurate depiction of unnoticed lives. From the homeless protagonist Jimmy, to the carer tending to her silent husband and the single mother battling to raise her daughter, Should We Fall Behind is a story of loneliness and connection, difference and similarity.

Duggal is unflinching in her portrayals: the rawness of Jimmy’s existence; the bitterness of a grieving widower, the abuse suffered by a mother now guarded and fearful for her child: the characters are not perfect, just human, and behind the hurt are glimpses of compassion. It is in the optimism of newly homeless Betwa, the lack of prejudice in the child Tuli and the generosity in the maternal but childless Rayya. Should We Fall Behind is a tender account of the ordinary; a book that is ultimately about us, not them.

Sharon talked to HIP about her work. 


What is it that draws you to write about the lives of those largely forgotten?
I read a lot but rarely see the world as I know it reflected in the books I come across, and when I was younger, this made me feel as if those books were not for the likes of people like me.  I try to do my bit to redress the balance with my own books by trying to write about the lives of people I walk past every day and in doing so, I hope others may see a little of themselves reflected. 


Is there a character with whom you most identify?
I identify with each of them a little bit – any one of them could be me, or you, if our lives were slightly different or if we’d had something happen to us to throw us off kilter. 


Where did the inspiration for Jimmy come from?
About twenty years ago I discovered a young man sleeping in my old car. I have thought a lot about him over the years, where he came from, how he had arrived at such a low point in his life, how any of us could find ourselves in a similar position if something devastating happened in our lives. More recently I worked as a volunteer in an emergency shelter for rough sleepers, and also I have friends whose life experiences were not dissimilar to Jimmy’s in one way or another.


The characters in the novel are all lonely in one way or another. Social isolation is spoken about now more than ever, but do you see it as a longer standing condition?
Yes, I think loneliness and social isolation are closely related but also distinctive. Loneliness is an age-old condition which can affect us all at different points in our lives wherever we are, especially as we become less connected to family or friends.  Social, and specifically urban, isolation are probably more recent phenomena born out of the way we live now, in nuclear families or on our own, often in big bustling cities, surrounded by other people but in a way which can make us almost anonymous.


Tentatively the characters connect with each other, their small gestures effecting big change – is this something you see in reality in society?
Essentially, I think most people are good, caring and decent but sometimes we can get wrapped up in our own lives and fail to see if others may be struggling around us. Sadly, I think we have been driven to be more individualistic and less community-minded over the last decade or so, and this has been exacerbated by a more recent shift in the political landscapes both globally and closer to home. The world seems very divided at the moment with the rich getting richer and a lot of ordinary people slipping further and further behind, and this seems likely to get worse as a result of the Covid pandemic. I do worry that we are being led to blame the wrong people for this situation – refugees, immigrants, those with less than ourselves – rather than those who are in control.

On the flipside of that, I thought it was indicative of the true nature of the vast majority of people when all the mutual aid and other support groups very quickly came into being at the beginning of the Covid outbreak. I am also optimistic that people, including many young people, seem much more motivated to affect meaningful change and right some of the wrongs of the older generations, including my own. Young people in particular seem determined to reverse the racial and economic inequalities which should have been eradicated centuries ago. Also, people are finally taking environmental issues seriously and coming together to address the climate emergency. 


There is strong female representation in the novel. How important was it to you to place these women at the forefront?
It is very important to me, but also something I do naturally without thinking too much about it because I am a woman I suppose. I get fed-up with stereotypes, whether they are gender-based or culturally based, and I want to read about all kinds of people so I write about all kinds of people. Many women – from my female relatives to my friends and colleagues to my own daughter – play an incredibly important part in my life, so yes, it was important to put them at the forefront of the stories I write.


Your novel is published by Bluemoose Books who have dedicated 2020 solely to female authors. How do you feel to be part of that list?
I feel very privileged to be published alongside these other incredible female writers. Data shows that women get published less so than their male counterparts, and when they do, they tend to get less support from publishers in terms of promotion and advances, plus they don’t get nominated or shortlisted for prizes in the same numbers as men. My publisher, Bluemoose Books are brilliant – they constantly put their heads above the parapet to try and bring new voices and stories to the fore, so I am very proud of them for doing this and I am very proud to be included in it.


You work supporting writers from under-represented back-grounds. How difficult is it to get heard as one of these authors? 
My day job is with New Writing South, the literature development organisation for the South East Region. We focus on providing opportunities for writers from under-represented backgrounds where least opportunity currently exists. It is very important that a diverse range of writers are able to get published so readers have the chance to read across a spectrum of stories – not least because it’s boring to always read the same kinds of stories about the same kinds of people! I hope things are changing in the industry but I worry that until actual structures change – i.e. people from different backgrounds are in decision-making positions – any progress will be short term.


Finally, do you have plans for a third novel? Will you continue to write about those whose stories we don’t often hear? 
I am just beginning to develop my third novel – all I can say about it at the moment is it’s based on a road trip and a true story from within my own family. 

I will always write about the world as I see it, and inevitably this includes stories, people, places we don’t see enough of in books.

More information can be found at www.sharonduggal.com  


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