Amanda Uhle spoke with Nikita Lalwani about her new novel, You People, which Publisher’s Weekly says, “surges with passion, intrigue, and a rigorous eye toward British immigration policy." From the outside, Pizzeria Vesuvio seems just like any other pizza place in West London: a buzzy, cheerful Italian spot on a street where cooks from Sri Lanka rub shoulders with waitstaff from Spain, Georgia, Wales, Poland, and more. But upstairs, on the battered leather sofas, lives are being altered drastically and often illegally, as money, legal aid, safe passage, and hope are dealt out under the table to those deemed worthy. First released in the U.K., The Guardian calls You People, “a moving, authentic, humane novel which raises fundamental questions about what it means to be kind in an unkind world.”
AMANDA UHLE: One of the great joys of this book is that you give readers a view of restaurant workers behind the scenes — the relationships among them, the frustrations they share. It’s a true world within a world, much like communities of refugees sometimes are. Did you draw on any specific experiences of being part of subcommunities like this in writing the book?
NIKITA LALWANI: There was a time in my life when I used to frequent a restaurant much like Vesuvio in You People. I realized, over time, that it was known as a place where you could go if you were in need. At first, I thought this just meant that they dispensed leftovers as free meals at the end of the night. As I got to know the proprietor, I realized that “need” was multi-faceted, and being assessed on a daily basis. Downstairs you had the hubbub — pizza, pasta, wine, banter — but all the while, people would disappear upstairs for conversation that was off the grid. You might need money, help in court or with immigration forms, some accommodation, a job, dental work, you name it. There was a bag of cash at the end of the bar that would expand and deplete several times over the course of a night. At the extreme end, you might ask for help with finding someone, perhaps a family member who has gone missing. That’s how I got into the terrain of the book: thinking about how you might feel invisible in a big city, as though your life itself is nugatory in some way because you are on the margins. What would it be like to find a portal like Vesuvio, where you might be seen? I’ve really been thinking about that place for over a decade, and the quiddity of it, the essence, what it meant. Why did it have to exist and how did the ecosystem actually work? It was so bizarre and impressive to me, confusing too. Meanwhile, all of these decisions were being made upstairs; people’s lives were being weighed up, their stories assessed for truths, for holes. What was the method? I was a little obsessed with trying to understand it, a good starting point for a novel, I guess!
AU: There is an undercurrent of secrecy in the story of these lives. I found the narrative alternating between celebrating the intimacy of secrets and condemning the systems that make clandestine affairs necessary in our modern political climate. Where do your own feelings about secrets fall on that continuum?
NL: In a novel or an anecdote, secrets are very often beguiling, and in a sense, they are part of the engine of suspense. Someone somewhere doesn’t want something to be known — just that fact — it induces a question: What exactly is the thing itself? It’s not an elegant response, the sudden desire to know what someone wants to hide, and that’s part of the deal. In the book, Pizzeria Vesuvio is a place where you can go and tell your secret, and in that sense, it functions as an escape valve, or a liferaft, even though you don’t know if the person listening will believe you. Carrying certain secrets for too long is a corrosive act for some characters; a secret can scour your insides with loneliness. Not sharing or acting on particular secret knowledge can mean you are courting disaster. One of the questions the book asks is about the law, whether it is necessary to break the law sometimes in order to live an honorable life, something that would, of course, probably require a measure of secrecy.
AU: So much of the book hinges on British immigration policy, and as an American reader, I found myself surprised at the similarities in our respective countries’ policies and shortcomings. What are you hoping your American readers may understand differently than perhaps your U.K. readers did?
NL: It would probably be the attempt at family reunion that is at the heart of the book that I’d imagine might resonate, given, for example, the scenes in recent years of parents and children being separated at the U.S. border. You People is told from the alternating point of view of two characters, Nia and Shan, both of whom are separated from their families, willingly for Nia and the complete opposite for Shan. Over the course of the novel, this existential loss starts to connect them, the way that they are constantly feeling around in the dark for that which they are missing. In Shan’s case, his daily existence in London is suffused with the fear that his wife and child have been killed in Sri Lanka. A reader might consider the moral question around his attempt to find them and bring them over, the danger of it, the illegality of it. Would you classify it as “worth it”? Do you want him to succeed as you read it? Those children who were separated from their parents at the U.S. border under “zero tolerance,” with hopelessly inadequate systems in place to track and reunite them with their parents, might have a view on this issue.
AU: The perspectives in this book and the life you live outside of writing reflect your commitment to social justice. Can you say more about those efforts and how your own experiences informed the novel?
NL: I grew up hearing stories about the partition of India in 1947 and how my parents were both part of the huge displaced populations going from what would become Pakistan to India and vice versa. Traveling on the “death trains” from one country to another, with massacre surrounding them. I’m thinking a lot about that at the moment as I gather myself for the next novel. For example, I think of the experience my father had as a small child, of being in a refugee camp, not knowing if he’d ever see his own father again for many months, then the startling, unforeseeable beauty of their reunion. It was almost fantastical for a child of his age. But also the scarcity they went through as a family, the hunger, and instability after losing everything. The slow build back, and then the huge leaps going to the UK and onward. The resultant knowledge: that everything is possible, and concurrently, that it might all disappear at any given moment. It’s so long ago, and yet, poking around at my current ruminations, that’s probably where it begins for me.
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