Interview with: Raphael Selbourne
by Kerrie Anne
Image of Raphael by Stefano Luigi Moro
Beauty is the story of a young Muslim Bangladeshi girl trying to avoid an abusive arranged marriage to a much older man. She finally runs away from home only to find life outside her somewhat sheltered existence is not as she expected. Out of her depth in Wolverhampton, she encounters all forms of life and people from the seedier side of the road to those with ulterior motives and discovers that help can arrive from the most unexpected people.
Beauty shows us many parts of life that most of us choose not to see. From the elderly thrown away by their families into nursing homes to the drunken behaviour during a party at the Club.
Through Beauty's naive eyes we gain a view point, many of us would prefer not to see. It would be easy for Raphael to judge Beauty's way of life and her religious views in a harsh light; to show her as the victim of abuse and beaten down as is the case of so many, but he chooses not to. Beauty holds an inner strength gained from her faith and strangely from her family which will endear her to the reader.
A balance is struck between judging others for their beliefs and our own way of life and Beauty is a social commentary pointing out many of the strengths and weaknesses of both worlds. Beauty, as she grows, takes the best and worst of these cultures and it is up to the reader to see what she does with it.
I was surprised at how hard it was to put this one down and highly recommend it to those with a thirst for a great read.
'Selbourne has a brilliant ear for dialogue and real compassion for his characters' - Maggie Gee
About Raphael Selbourne
Your fondest memory as a child?
Going to Blackey Barn (a large stagnant pond in a field in Oxfordshire) with Daryl Austin and his Jack Russell, Nipper.
What motivated you to become an author?
My experiences and what I saw around me in Wolverhampton motivated me to write. I may once have had a fanciful notion of becoming ‘a writer’, but without anything to write about the notion remained fanciful.
How has your study of politics shaped the way you see the world?
Everything I have studied or read has shaped the way I see the world and it is a continuous process. If what you study or read does not shape your views then it probably wasn’t worth studying, reading or publishing.
Oxford is a far cry from Wolverhampton not only in distance but socioeconomic diversity. What were the most striking differences and were you shocked by anything you experienced?
I can’t answer this without being horribly reductive of Wolverhampton, Oxford and perhaps more relevantly northern Italy, where I had spent the best part of my adult life before coming to the Black Country. However, the lack of aspiration and hope, the appalling levels of illiteracy amongst the ‘socially disadvantaged’ are failures of our society, and not the fault of the people affected by it.
Has your perception of the world changed since working with the long term unemployed and those who through circumstances are disadvantaged?
My perception of the world has not changed but I am better informed about it. I have seen first-hand the terrible damage that a combination of forces has wreaked on that section of society which most needed its protection and encouragement. The failures of the ‘progressive’ education system and the dismantling of the manufacturing base of the economy have led to the abandonment of those most in need.
Given your father, David Selbourne, reputation as a political philosopher and social commentator, as well as a highly regarded author, Beauty is to my mind very much a social commentary. Although the characters are fictitious, the story is one which could be played out in any community. In what way do you think he has influenced your writing?
I was fortunate enough to have had the intellectual influence of both my parents throughout my life. Without it I would not be the person I am, nor would I have been presented with the literature which contributed from an early age to my intellectual formation. To be able to discuss my father’s work with him has allowed me a far greater understanding of the way we live today and of my own experiences. Surely all influences and experiences inform the writer’s view.
Where did Beauty come from?
The real world and my imagination.
Many things about Beauty have a profound impact on the reader. If only to gain an insight into a world very few of us would experience otherwise. Given the confronting nature of so much of Beauty’s story what was your driving force to put it on paper?
My driving force was exactly that confrontation (and clash sometimes) between peoples and belief systems, between the generations and the sexes; as well as to tell a story.
The life Beauty runs away from is violent and the book is painful at times to read. But you must; it drives you to continue. However the things learnt about western life are just as painful to her. Things we take for granted, the nursing home, the Club night, the things we see as basics freedoms she has never experienced and doesn’t want to. As you wrote Beauty how hard was it not to fall into a more judgemental view point?
We live in non-judgmental times. Even the words ‘judgement’ and ‘moral’ are uttered by some (arguably in positions of immense influence on our lives) with distaste. Any novelist who feels the same way about those words will never write anything worthwhile. That’s a moral judgement.
They'll kill you. And stealing's a zinna.
That stuff's mine. They was wedding gifts. I can sell them."
That said, however, no one wants to read a moral, political or social tract dressed up as fiction, and a writer has an obligation to search for the truth and keep an open mind.
Beauty's violent and yet sheltered life gives way to the harsh reality of western culture a throwaway society where even our parents are expendable. Her shock and horror in finding out these people have family’s who threw them away shows a moral and ethical strength of character which is refreshing and unexpected given her background. Where do you think her strength and courage comes from?
Her strength comes from her own sense of right and wrong, informed and influenced by her experiences, her faith in God and His laws as she understands them. She has a very strong sense of what ‘the family’ should be and the roles of all the members. Despite having suffered herself from the Asian or Muslim excesses of ‘a strong sense of family’ she is determined not to abandon, or be abandoned by, her own. Her own sense of freedom must be balanced with her sense of duty. These were once universal values.
They can't drag me off the street.
Your telling of Beauty’s story is tender and confronting, compassionate and empowering. The contrast between the main characters couldn’t be starker. Your portrayal of the three main players gives the reader a powerful insight into the lives of seemingly normal average people. Where did you find them? And do you think they give a fair cross section of the general population?
Again, I found them in the real world. Without models there is no art. They will seem representative only to the academic obsessed by ‘gender, race and class’, who rarely leaves her ivory tower.
He can't be worser than a Hindu."
We live in a multi-cultural society. There are surely many successes and good intentions to be celebrated. But this doesn’t mean that all peoples mix freely with each other, or have anything more than a superficial knowledge about the different cultures which make up the whole. In fact, there is in some a shocking level of ignorance and mistrust of their neighbours. Perhaps it can only be overcome when the powers-that-be oblige us to ‘celebrate’ the values we have in common, and not the ‘diversity’ which separates us.
As for reflecting these aspects of the way we live today through fiction, the writer has a duty to be as accurate as possible, neither alarmist nor complacent about issues which affect the way we live.
Do you believe Beauty's new found or awakened inner strength and courage an asset or detrimental to her?
She takes from ‘white’ society that which does not offend her most strongly held values, and rejects what does. She strives throughout her journey to find the balance between her own freedom and the duties that we all have. From her experiences ‘on the outside’ she is emboldened by her new found sense of self and entitlement (with regard to her family), and by the rejection of the unfettered freedom to do as one pleases which she witnesses.
As far as you see it, is there any solution to the issues you raised in Beauty, the growing divide throughout many countries between socially disadvantaged and Ethnic Groups and
the rest of the population?
I don’t claim to have any solutions although I think it is time for new and old ones to be considered. If what I wrote encourages the reader to consider these matters and to question themselves and others, then I have achieved part of what I set out to do, and, I hope, fulfilled one of the purposes of literature.
What do you hope the reader will take away from Beauty?
A sense of having witnessed something they may not otherwise have seen and of having been on a journey; questions, laughter, understanding, sympathy for the seemingly unsympathetic.
Being an author
What makes an author?
Experience, imagination, sensitivity, a sense of humour, a keen eye and ear. And a publisher.
Your thoughts on winning the Costa?
It is encouraging to be recognised in such a manner, and clearly helps get the book noticed by the reading public, especially coming from a small publisher. However, the awarding of prizes seems sometimes very arbitrary and it is perhaps unfortunate that it is such an important part in the ‘marketing’ of literature.
What advice can you give to anyone starting the journey of becoming an author?
Try and make sense of the world around you, for yourself and others. Leave history to the historians and to those who wrote about their times. Writing should be an escape for the reader, not for the author. And there is more to be gained from reading the classics of world literature - those that have stood the test of that arch critic, time – an English grammar book and life experiences, than there is from an MA in Creative Writing.
Thanks Raphael it's been fascinating talking to you.
Beauty is published by Tindal Street Press. Visit their website and order the book here.