Third in our series of interviews with writers, discussing the impact of the pandemic on their work and creativity, Aisha Phoenix talks to Golnoosh Nour about her virtual book launch under lockdown.
At the time of writing, there have been more than three million cases of COVID-19 globally and more than 26,000 people have lost their lives to the virus in the UK. In an effort to stop the spread of the virus, the UK has been in lockdown since March 23. However, the impact on businesses and the self-employed has been devastating, with nearly a million universal credit claims in the first two weeks of lockdown. Many writers are self-employed and in a precarious position, dependent on teaching, and literary events that have been cancelled or postponed. For example, important events such as the London Book Fair, the Hay Festival and the Edinburgh International Book Festival are not going ahead. In our Writing In The Time of COVID-19 series, I talk to writers at different stages of their careers on the effects of the virus on their lives and work and their expectations and hopes for the future.
This week poet, short story writer and tutor Golnoosh Nour discusses the launch of her short story collection under lockdown, losing her teaching posts, and the joy of having more time to read.
Congratulations on the publication of your short story collection The Ministry of Guidance and Other Stories, published by Muswell Press. For those who aren’t familiar with the collection, can you tell us about its key themes?
The Ministry of Guidance and Other Stories is a collection of short stories that contains 13 short stories about the lives of Iranian queers both within and outside Iran. It explores the fluidity of sexuality and how heteronormative constructs and societies can damage the natural flow of sexuality and sexualities. It would appeal to anyone who is interested in debates about sexuality or people who are exploring their own sexuality.
I made sure that all my protagonists are firstly queer and secondly Iranian because it is also a matter of visibility. As an Iranian queer myself, I felt invisible in contemporary literature, even within the queer canon. I felt I had to create my own literature in order for me, and other Iranian queers, to be seen. I interviewed many of them in order to be able to compose some of these stories. It is not all based upon my own personal experiences.
It is about queerness, but it is also about Iran. Some of the representations of Iran in the West are incredibly simplistic. The dominant narratives about Iran are quite right-wing, even in the arts and literature scene in the West. I was sick of that as an Iranian and I didn’t want to be represented by those narratives about Iran and Iranians. Iran is one of the characters in the book itself, with all its complexities, nuances and beauties. It is also a book about Iran right now as an incredibly contingent country.
How has COVID-19 affected you?
My book launch was cancelled to begin with, which I did not take very well. I was booked to perform at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. There was a conference about Aubrey Beardsley that I was commissioned to perform in. I wrote a poem for that conference, an exploration of the definitions of poetry through a Beardsleyesque lens. I was really looking forward to that conference, which was organised by Sasha Dovzhyk. It was meant to happen at the end of May and it hasn’t been cancelled, but it has been postponed. So many exciting things have been postponed or cancelled. To begin with it was a bit of a shock, but I think everyone experienced that. It has been a collective dilemma.
You said your launch was cancelled at first, but I saw it online, which was exciting. How did the online launch come about?
My fabulous publishers, Sarah and Kate Beal, and my amazing publicist, Fiona Brownlee, were really keen on having a virtual launch. I wasn’t sure, to begin with. I didn’t want a virtual book launch. I was so annoyed when my launch was cancelled that I couldn’t think of the alternatives, but because they were so keen, I said, “Okay, let’s give it a shot.”
I ended up enjoying it a lot. It was, perhaps, one of the best experiences of my life. It was a virtual experience, but this is the 21st century, it has kind of become our second nature.
The response has been overwhelming. It was so beautiful to receive that level of encouragement and engagement from people. It actually turned out to be better. The silver lining was that many people from all over the world could attend my book launch. Many of my friends and family members who don’t live in London could all be a part of the launch of the Ministry of Guidance, which made it very special.
How did you manage it on a technical level?
My publisher’s business consultant organised it. She said it should be in the form of Facebook Live. I had no idea what Facebook Live was, I hadn’t done it before. I am technologically illiterate, so I just left it to them. I just did what I would have done in my launch, but it was a virtual event. To begin with, it was difficult and stressful because I know how bad I am with technology, but one of the other silver linings of COVID-19 is that now I am starting to try a bit harder with technology. I am better now than I used to be.
Has the lockdown led to any other innovations in the way you promote your work?
I have been using social media a lot more. The book launch was virtual, as we just discussed. I even recorded myself reading a poem and uploaded it on YouTube. I never thought I would be able to do such a transgressive thing! One gets used to it. I used to just go out, that was my way of promoting my book. I used to get invitations to read my work once a week in London, but that was just London. Now more people from outside of London can also engage with my work. I was in more of a bubble before this.
I liked what you said about people outside of London being able to engage with your work in ways that were not possible before. Has anyone outside of the UK discovered your work due to your increased online presence?
One of my friends has been on lockdown in Iran for several months now, having got trapped there after travelling from the US for the new year. She’s also queer, but she’s not the biggest reader. Because of my social media, she found one of my stories that’s in Granta about a lesbian party in Shiraz and she read it and sent me these amazing messages saying, “You have made my lockdown much more exciting. I don’t even read, but this was so relatable.” I found it very touching. It meant a lot to me that the story spoke to her.
I have spoken to writers who have said that the pandemic and lockdown have made it much harder to create work and others who have said that the lockdown has not made much difference to them, as they are used to being solitary. How has the virus affected your ability to create work?
I find it hard to concentrate on my writing at the moment, although I have been writing and editing my work. But it is giving me the opportunity to catch up on the reading I didn’t have time to do before. I have been reading so much and reading is so important when you are a writer. I have been discovering writers I didn’t have time to discover before and they have been inspiring me and I think that’s great. It has been wonderful for my creativity. It has given me so many ideas and I have so much time to think. Obviously writing is a solitary activity. Maybe a bit more solitude wouldn’t harm writers because that’s when we have the privilege to think and create and read.
Do you think that the challenging situation and the lockdown will lead to a rise in the number of people interested in writing creatively?
Yes and no. I think so many people are going to find it pointless and so many others will have enough time to write and create and to give it a chance. I think it’s different for different people, depending on why they write and their own temperament as writers.
What do you think the impact of the pandemic and the lockdown will be on writers and the writing industry in the short term?
As far as I am aware, there has been a big increase in book sales. People are reading more because they are bored and they realise that they need art. It’s not a luxury any more, it’s proving itself to be a necessity more than ever. Poetry, literature, art — people are depending on it more than ever. The big increase in book sales speaks volumes. So far so good, from what I have heard from publishers, agents and booksellers.
Do you think any demographic of writers or kind of writer is likely to be particularly adversely affected?
As with everything else, writers from vulnerable backgrounds are going to pay the highest price. So many writers don’t even have a safe space to live in. How can you write, how can you create art when you’re not safe, when you can’t be somewhere that you enjoy? Writers from vulnerable backgrounds are going to pay the highest price, writers from working-class backgrounds, homeless writers. That’s usually the case and this is no exception. It’s not really going to affect established mainstream writers who have already made it, or who have the conditions to make it in the first place. It’s not going to affect them the way it might affect an emerging writer who can’t pay their rent.
What impact have COVID-19 and the lockdown had on you financially?
I am an hourly-paid lecturer in literature and creative writing and I teach prose and poetry. I was one of the first people that the universities got rid of. Before that, I was teaching at three universities, but now they have all got rid of me. It hasn’t been great financially. I also earn money from my performances and they were all cancelled. Those two things were my sources of income.
My other friends who are artists and their main source of income is their performances, have had all their gigs cancelled. Artists and writers and people on precarious contracts are always the first to suffer in a situation like this.
Having lost these sources of income, how do you feel about the next few months?
I am actually stressed, but I am also lucky because I am not from the poorest background. I try not to be too ungrateful because I know there are people much poorer than me, much more in need. It doesn’t mean that I am not pissed off. I am worried about my financial status, but I think most people are at the moment. Obviously, it’s damaging the economy as well. It has been stressful for everyone.
What do you think the impact of COVID-19 and the lockdown will be on writers and the writing industry in the long term?
If I’m honest with you, I have no idea. It’s all so uncertain and nobody really knows anything. We weren’t prepared for it as a society and as a community. I hope it’s going to have a positive effect. I hope the writing industry will be more transgressive, bolder and more innovative. I hope it stops being so safe, tedious and repetitive. That’s my hope for it, but I’m not sure it will happen. I don’t want to be too optimistic about it, but I think it might happen because people are bored and they are interested in art right now. I hope it’s going to have a positive effect on the writing industry. Maybe this will be the shock that the industry needs.
Has anything about the response to the virus and lockdown given you a sense of hope?
Definitely, the way that we can see in practice how right-wing ideas don’t work. They’re failing. People can see that it doesn’t work and we can’t carry on like this. It is going to affect everybody. No one is benefitting from this right-wing capitalist economic approach to life. Even people who were ambivalent about capitalist means of conduct, now they can see that it doesn’t work.
COVID-19 has exposed all the flaws within capitalism quite well. Even the rich aren’t safe any more. That might bring change. Already you can feel more solidarity in a community where it didn’t exist before. So many people who voted for a Tory government that would destroy the NHS are now applauding the NHS. It has exposed so many things that are wrong with capitalism. It’s killing people and now they can see that lives are being sacrificed to capitalism and profit. So many people who weren’t thinking about things in those terms can see it now.
To which outlets or websites would you direct readers interested in purchasing The Ministry of Guidance and Other Stories or finding out more about your work?
If readers want to get The Ministry of Guidance and Other Stories they can purchase it from an Indie bookshop. They can get it from the Lighthouse bookshop, which is a radical bookshop based in Edinburgh, or Waterstones. They can, of course, order it from Amazon if they want to. My poetry collection, Sorrows of the Sun, which was published in 2017, is also available.
What advice do you have for emerging writers at this difficult time?
Take care of your mental and physical health first and keep writing what you need to write. Don’t let anything stop you, not even a pandemic!
Are there any literary organisations seeking support and/or donations that you would recommend to readers who want to support authors or the writing industry more broadly?
I have been teaching poetry to people who have experienced homelessness and who are writing about that at Crisis, the homelessness charity. I have been working with the charity’s literacy section for almost a year now. I can see that they really care and they want to help individual writers who cannot afford monetised education and expensive writing workshops and writing retreats. It has been such an eye-opening experience for me as well. I am grateful to Crisis for providing this shelter for vulnerable writers who do not have access to education otherwise. I imagine Crisis would appreciate donations. From what I can see they are doing an amazing and necessary job. It is good to support these organisations.
What is next for your writing?
I am working on a novel, but it has been a bit difficult because it is about a trauma that happened to me a few years ago. I haven’t decided on the format. It might be autofiction or memoir. That’s hanging in the air for now.
I am excited about my second poetry collection, which is nearly complete. It is about nostalgia, the meanings of home, homesickness, queerness, desire and sexuality. The same themes that I have been interested in for the past 12 years. I am looking for the right publisher for it, so if you are an interested poetry publisher, message me. I have something for you.
Click here for more information or to buy a copy of The Ministry of Guidance and other stories by Golnoosh Nour.
Read the next interview with Patrice Lawrence here