We That Are Young is the debut novel from Warwick academic and human rights activist Preti Taneja. The novel is a modern reworking of Shakespeare’s King Lear, transplanting the tragedy from the castles of Medieval Britain into the meeting rooms of the hospitality industry in modern day India. It was awarded the Desmond Elliott Prize for new fiction in 2018.
What drew you to writing an adaptation instead of an entirely original text? How did this affect your role as a writer?
No text is entirely ‘original’ not even Shakespeare’s plays. He took older stories and made them new, finding fresh ways to comment on his times and explore the depths of human nature. It’s a powerful way of linking histories while critiquing how ideas travel – Shakespeare’s plays were used as part of the cultural colonisation of India by the British in the 19th Century so there was a strong rationale for me to take the play and set it there in We That Are Young. It’s a way of thinking through the impact of Empire on language and the social world.
I think of We That Are Young less as an adaptation, and more as a translation of language and form. Working with King Lear in my own way was like a trying to solve a puzzle, marvelling at its complexity while knowing there are infinite possibilities in how it could be done. That potential is built into how Shakespeare uses language – that’s what makes his work so thrilling.
What were some of the challenges you faced adapting a play into a novel?
Time is a big challenge since the three dimensional space of a theatre allows time to bend and overlap in ways a novel has to work harder to achieve. King Lear doesn’t have a fixed timescale for the action, nor is it really clear what exact year it is set in, but readers of novels need that fixity for the rest of the action to make sense.
To capture that epic timescale I had to play with structure and voice, and also draw on other epic myths to lie beneath the surface of the day-to-day action. There are lots of other texts woven into We That Are Young from the Wizard of Oz and Snow White, to Indian myths and poetry such as the Mahabharata and Ramanyana.
What prompted you to write the story in a mixture of English and Hindi?
That’s the reality in the world the characters come from; that is how they speak to each other – again that’s a legacy of colonialism. (There’s a few other languages in there as well, including Sanskrit, and Napurthali, which is made up.)
Your adaptation works as not just a compelling story but a strong commentary on the politics of modern day India. What do you believe the role of a fiction writer is in political commentary?
The best art to me has a statement gaze. It just says, ‘here is the world.’ It presents alternatives, working to reveal what is under the surface, the things we all know but don’t admit consciously to ourselves. That’s not ‘political’ to me; it’s just what being a writer is.
If you could travel back in time and give one piece of advice to yourself when you started writing the book, what would it be?
Doubt is your friend – embrace it, and keep working.
Interview by Zoë Wells