Hair Raising: Americanah and the Changing Space for Hair in Literature


“Hair is political.’ I don’t think I truly understood what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie meant by this until I had my head shaved for charity.

There was literally no other reason for my head shaving except that I hadn’t had a new experience in a few weeks. When work suggested someone do it to raise money for charity I jumped at the chance.

Even just a few days afterwards people started staring and making strange comments. I was oblivious until someone came out with it and asked if I was a lesbian. It was then that I realized that my hair was more than just the stuff that grew out of my head- it was part of my identity. By shaving my head but not altering my identity to suit social stereotypes I messed with people’s view on the world, and it angered some people (a woman in a nightclub actually told me it should be illegal to have a shaved head and Doc Martins and not be gay).

It is worse for women than for men. A friend of mine had his head shaved for a part as an extra in a BBC drama a few years ago in order to preserve historical accuracy, and the only comment he ever has on the subject is that it “was the easiest 15 quid I ever earned”. The reason for this is fairly obvious- the reduced judgment on men for their appearance- however it is still confusing that a man with such an openly extreme haircut receives less social backlash than a woman.

However it wasn’t until my recent reading of Adichie’s latest novel, Americanah, that I began to fully understand the politics of hair, particularly in relation to black people’s hair. The first time the reader meets the protagonist, Ifemelu, at the start of the novel she is travelling to have her hair braided. Throughout the novel the subject of hair, and how it shapes our identity, is called into question, as Ifemelu struggles to adjust to her new life in America and the specter of race, something she had never considered when she lived in Nigeria.

Her hair is a key part of her identity that Ifemelu decides to reclaim when she realizes that she is being changed by America, as she realizes that she is changing herself to suit the views of others. It is the realization that damaging her hair to achieve an ideal created by someone else was not worth it which causes her epiphany;

At night she struggled to find a comfortable position on her pillow. Two days later there were scabs on her scalp. Three days later, they oozed pus. Curt wanted her to see a doctor and she laughed at him. It would heal, she told him, and it did. Later, after she breezed through the job interview, and the woman shook her hand and said she would be a ‘wonderful fit’ in the company, she wondered if the woman would have felt the same way had she walked into that office wearing her thick, kinky, God-given halo of hair, the Afro. (p204).

So does this mean that hair is definitely the reason people judge us? Is it simply a small, intrinsic part of a wider social judgment or something much more?

Whilst Americanah does not answer these questions- indeed no novel could without being incredibly long and dense- what it does do is change the space hair takes up in literature. Although other novels have touched on the issue of hair and identity, for the most part hair is merely a descriptive device, used in characterisation in the same way that a handbag or a pair of shoes is- to provide an overall view of the character. Stiff hair makes the character uptight; hippies always have dreadlocks; pretentious types have perfectly coiffured up dos, etc. But in Americanah, hair becomes something more; here hair is a political issue, a social problem, a construct to be overcome. The same goes in real life, as emphasised by the people who told me off for being a straight girl with a shaved head, the people who claim that braids and afros are not professional hairstyles and try to have them banned from schools in order to intimidate and control black children. The fact that this has worked its way into mainstream literature shows that we are opening up to the idea that judging someone based on their hair is both wrong and abhorrent, and this can only be a good thing.

Rajeev Balasubramanyam Interview: “I suppose, like most writers, I was a reader first”


Author, traveller, and meditation specialist Rajeev Balasubramanyam was kind enough to take the time to talk me through his work, its enduring popularity and the role meditation plays in his creative process.

What is your background in writing and how did you come to define your writing style?

I suppose, like most writers, I was a reader first, and discovered that what comes in must come out. The more I read, the more I needed to write. My father used to tell me stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata when I was little. He was a superb storyteller, and very funny. He gave me a real delight in telling stories, an understanding that a story could be wondrous, hilarious, serious, heart-breaking, exciting, frightening and silly all at the same time, but that the storyteller’s job was to make sure the reader remained absorbed, that so long as the story goes on, the writer has to own the reader’s attention. I’m not sure if I can define my writing style, but this is the source of my approach.

Tell me about the books you have published currently. What are the central themes and how did you come to write them?

My latest book is STARSTRUCK, a collection of interlinked narratives each one of which ‘stars’ a celebrity. It began with a story called ‘The Day George Bush Sr. Came to Use the Bathroom’, a surreal comedy about an apolitical husband with a highly political, Muslim wife, who has a night of drunken laughter with Bush that goes awry. I tremendously enjoyed taking the form of someone so famous and turning him into a character – he became a symbol, an archetype, like the gods in those epics I was told as a child. So I did it again, with David Beckham, and then again with Tony Blair, and ended up writing ten of them.

Your books have received really wide critical acclaim and won awards. What do you believe is the secret behind your success as an author?

All I can say is that I have total commitment to what I do and the idea of doing anything else is unthinkable. This is a very dangerous attitude, all single-minded attitudes are, but what it means is that while failure is inevitable, so is picking myself up and trying again.

How do you go about researching your books? What information do you feel is essential before you settle in to writing a new piece?

I don’t need to get the facts exactly right to write my first draft, I just need to have a feel for what I’m writing about, a sense of it, so that I can describe it without feeling like a fake. Without this, it’s hard to have a sense of solidity behind the writing, a sense of confidence, which is essential to keeping the reader under your spell. As for my research methods, I guess they’re the same as everyone else’s, but the really valuable research has been accidental, has come from life experiences, almost all unplanned.

Alongside your writing, please tell me about your other interests and works. How do the experiences you gain, or have gained in the past, influence your novels?

Over the last ten years, I’ve been very committed to meditation. I sit for two hours a day and spend ten or twenty days a year on retreat, sometimes more. It has, without question, changed my life. Like a lot of writers, I’m very sensitive, which often felt more like a curse than a blessing, but meditation has given me an awareness and an equanimity that I couldn’t find anywhere else. Two years ago I was awarded a fellowship from the Hemera Foundation, for writers and artists with a meditation practice. I ended up wandering the length and breadth of the United States, going from meditation centre to meditation centre and writing about it in my online diary, AMERICAN PILGRIMAGE, which is still on-going and can be found on my website. Some of these experiences helped inform my new novel, which is in the finishing stages right now.
Where do you take your inspiration? Are there any rituals you do to get yourself in the mood for writing?

Well, meditation, obviously, but not much else. I used to have rituals, but the older I get the busier I seem to be, so now I just try to sit down and do it. The important thing is never to stop reading, no matter how busy I am, even if it’s only half an hour or an hour a day.

What genres and authors do you enjoy reading yourself? How do the books you read influence your own writing?

Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of books by American writers and have really enjoyed the experience, discovering several new writers alongside some of the big hitters: Celeste Ng, Coleson Whitehead, Mira Jacob, Emma Cline, Junot Diaz, Jade Chang, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and others. For reasons I’m not sure of, I’m now turning to contemporary African fiction, realising there are several writers from that continent I’ve been meaning to read for years but haven’t read: Imbolo Mbue, NoViolet Bulawayo, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helon Habila, Chigozie Obioma. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit I’m reading my country or continent, as I frequently get irritated that literature is so often categorised in this way, but maybe I should just accept that nation still matters, as much as I might dislike it.

Everything I read influences me, but once in a while a book comes along that seems to just set me on fire. I remember this happened with The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami, years ago, and the first time I read Borges, and most recently with A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, and The Wizard of the Crow, by Ngugi wa Thiong’o. It’s always hard to say what effect such books have on one’s own work; sometimes they become a part of you, you can almost feel them living within you; sometimes they don’t, no matter how much you love them; and sometimes you simply don’t know.

If you could collaborate with a writer, either alive or dead, who would it be and for what reason?

I wrote a film script recently with my girlfriend and really enjoyed it, and I hope we find time to write another. I can’t really think of collaborating with anyone else.

Have you got any projects coming up that you are particularly excited about?

My new novel, Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss, and the novel I have planned for after this, of which I’ve already written an early draft. I needed some time to figure out where to take this project, and I think I have.

Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to later in the year?

Hari Kunzu and Zadie Smith have never novels, which I’m looking forward to. I don’t know if David Mitchell has a new book soon, but it seems about time and I always look forward to whatever he writes. Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Girl, the sequel to A Suitable Boy, was supposed to be out a while back, but I’ve heard nothing for a while. And Arundhati Roy’s second novel is on its way, I believe. All exciting prospects.

Many thanks to Rajeev for talking to me; you can read all about his latest work HERE.

The Top Ten Film/ TV Adaptations of Crime Fiction Books


Adapting a beloved book or series of books for television or film can be tough, especially as every reader has their own idea of how it should be done. As the latest adaptation of a revered novel, The Girl on the Train, hits cinemas around the world, I decided to showcase my top ten adaptations of other famous crime novels.

  1. Dark Places: Much like The Girl on the Train, Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl was a smash hit which flew off the shelfs; however, it is Flynn’s other novels which are real masterpieces, and Dark Places is one of the best. The film adaptation starring Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult and Chloë Grace Moretz is a full of stylish shots and snappy dialogue, showing a real willingness to show the grimier side of life, paralleling the novel itself.
  1. Lord Peter Wimsey: The TV adaptation of Sayers’ famous novels was a triumph from start to finish, featuring the wonderful performance of Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter himself, wonderfully supported by Glyn Houston as the ever faithful Bunter. Carmichael does well not to overdo the humour in this series, portraying the gentleman detective with just the right nuance and humility to make him a true representation of the man Sayers envisioned.
  1. Agatha Christie’s Poirot: David Suchet’s excellent performance easily eclipses that of the previous actors who have tried to capture the quirky, curious and fiercely intelligent Belgium detective (including the second best, the great Peter Ustinov). Coupled with strong dialogue, attention to detail and stunning costumes, this excellent TV series is a great introduction to Christie’s famous detective and his ‘Little Grey Cells’, as well as being the perfect way to indulge further for those who are already committed fans.
  1. The Talented Mr Ripley: Patricia Highsmith’s psychological thriller is expertly adapted by Anthony Minghella, featuring brilliant performances from Matt Damon and Jude Law. Whilst other films based on the later novels were less successful, The Talented Mr Ripley offers the perfect combination of raw emotion and cinematic flare, making it a definite must watch.
  1. Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple: There are a number of adaptations of Christie’s classic detective, but in my opinion none can beat the Julia McKenzie, who is less haughty but more cerebral and witty than some of the others, encapsulating the humour of the character whilst still being able to deliver a scathing barb when required.
  1. Wallander: There have been three screen portrayals of Henning Mankell’s famed, morbid detective, however the very best stars Swedish thespian Krister Henriksson is truly outstanding. Kenneth Branagh’s tough and depressed Wallander is often dry and monotonous, Rolf Lassgård’s is slow and dry, although it is the most faithful to the books. Henriksson’s series, which features screenplays by Mankell himself, is a true masterpiece; the stunning natural beauty of Skåne is an additional character as it is in the books, brooding in the background as the detective riles against the horrors of the world around him.
  1. Sherlock: Whilst many other screen adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic detective and his ever faithful accomplice have miscast one of these two central characters, the BBC’s famous modern day incarnation of the eccentric Sherlock Holmes perfectly casts both, with Martin Freeman’s Watson providing the perfect everyman foil for Benedict Cumberbatch’s tense, dangerous Sherlock. Stylistically this is one of the best TV shows around, and as such it is no surprise that it has a cult following around the world.
  1. Inspector Morse: Clever, witty and cerebral, John Thaw plans the titular detective with an almost unnerving ease, whilst his sidekick, the ever faithful Sergeant Lewis is transformed from a diligent, elderly welshman into a young and excitable Geordie. Despite this key alteration this popular TV series is remarkably faithful to the books, and as many of the Colin Dexter himself had a hand in its production there is no doubt that this is the perfect for show for both fans and those who want to be.
  1. Endeavour: Perhaps (dare I say it) slightly better than the original Inspector Morse series, and certainly better than the slightly stilted Lewis, Endeavour provides an insight into the man before the books even started, although there are many links to Dexter’s novels which make this the ideal series for a die hard Morse fan.
  1. The Big Sleep: The famous film adaption of Raymond Chandler’s first Philip Marlowe novel starring Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart portrays the humour and wit that captured the reader’s imagination as no other incarnation of the great American detective in a way that no other cinematic version of Marlowe has ever achieved. The sexual chemistry between the two, which sparked an affair akin at the time to the modern scandal that was Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt on the set of Mr and Mrs Smith, helps to ramp up the tension and create a truly electrifying film.

Gareth Sparks Interview: “I try to capture something fleeting, the sense of time passing”


As a nice Sunday afternoon treat for you all I speak to the inspiring poet, scriptwriter and novelist Gareth Spark, who released his debut novel, Marwick’s Reckoning, earlier this year. Alongside this intense and exciting novel, Gareth also talks us through his various other works, and the issues around being a writer in the digital age.

Please talk me through the various styles (poetry, prose, screen) that you write in. How do they differ and which do you prefer and why?

I’ve written poetry for a long time, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop writing it as it allows me to craft something immediate on a direct hit to the emotions. Prose is something else, prose is architecture; it’s planning a building and then spending several years building it, whereas poetry, you know, it offers an immediate and perhaps more honest reaction to the world. Screenplays, or at least the kind that I write, have more in common with a poem than they do with a novel being that they’re compact, a reduction, a condensed meaning. Also, you can write them faster.

Tell me about Marwick’s Reckoning. What made you choose to go into the thriller genre and how has the book been received so far?

The book started as a way to express the experiences I had in Spain, the land, the culture, the vibe I got from the place. I wanted a character to embody the journey and came up with Marwick; it’s been compared to Graham Greene (thank you, by the way!) and I get that, in that it’s a moral book; it’s a book that tries to deal with the impact of a terribly violent life upon a man with some degree of morality/ spiritual understanding.

What books do you personally enjoy reading and how does your taste impact on your own writing?

I read everything, every genre, from science fiction to Victorian novels to underground literary stuff; it’s hard to say what influences my writing, Hemingway, definitely, was a huge influence in the lyric way he had of capturing a scene, a sense of place. I prefer reading older literature because so much contemporary commercial fiction has been strongly influenced, almost infected, by the rigid structure of movies. That whole ‘save the cat’ screenplay ‘heroes journey’ thing is terribly unyielding when it comes to allowing a writer room to experiment with alternative modes of narrative, of story. I prefer my fiction to be complex, subtle, without being overtly ‘crafty’.


From where do you take your inspiration? Do you have any particular focuses when writing which help you to create the style you aspire to?

I try to capture something fleeting, the sense of time passing, perhaps, something beautiful. I would like to make the novel expressive of a certain kind of beautiful, bittersweet nostalgia. I sometimes feel I’ve set myself an impossible task, taking a form such as the novel, which is an epic mode, a story, a journey, and trying to impose on it something of the lyrical mode…trying to make the novel sing. I’d like to have these little passages in the narrative that stand outside of it, that transcend it. However, trying to give the novel some of the effect of music, or another non-narrative media, is like trying to square the circle…but it allows for some interesting poetry in what is an otherwise literally prosaic medium.

If you could collaborate with any writer, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?

Ooo, good question. It would have to be Alan Moore, whose ideas about the nature of fiction are, quite literally, magical and have been a huge influence on me.

How do you feel about the current literary market? Why do you believe it can be so tough for new writers?

Simply because the market is over-saturated. There are countless, digital books being produced. The vast majority of them, yes, are terrible, but how do you stand out among all that noise? The difficulty these days isn’t in the struggle to ‘get published’, it’s in creating a profile that might stand out against the howling multitudes of soi-disant writers producing ‘content’ rather than Art. I think the answer is to go the traditional route, trad publishing is still the only real way to have any kind of impact -the odd freak occurrence aside- then one doesn’t have to worry too much about distractions such as marketing, branding, and all that horrible business. You can concentrate on your Art.

How do you feel about the notion of ‘exposure and the idea of providing your services for free which has come about with the rise of the internet?

It’s vital, at least at the beginning of your career. One needs to build a profile, and the best way, however iniquitous it may be, is to publish on-line for free. You need to have something out there for people to read, to have your work in people’s lives. Build a presence on-line and try to translate it into publishing books traditionally. That’s the key.

What does the future have in store for you as a writer? Are there any exciting new projects or collaborations that you would like to share with us?

I have a story coming up in an anthology produced by Zelmer Pulp, a kind of alternate future thing, and I’m working on another novel.

Within the wider literary market are there any new books or projects coming up by other writers that you are particularly exciting about?

Scott Robinson, author of The Hard Bounce, is a writer to watch, and I’m looking forward the next book from Benedict Jones, as well as Brian Panowich’s sequel to ‘Bull Mountain’ and anything Paul D. Brazill’s got in the works.

Is there anything you would like to add?

Support the small presses, that’s where you can find the most exciting work being done today, and check out crime fiction sites such as Near to the knuckle, Shotgun Honey and Out of the gutter.

Thanks ever so much to Gareth for taking the time to speak to me, it has been a pleasure and it is fascinating to hear your insight.

The Monogram Murders: Poirot is back and the little grey cells are anything but diminished


As Sophie Hannah releases the second in her series of reboots of Agatha Christie’s Poirot novels, Closed Casket, I would like to review the first book, The Monogram Murders. Although at times the novel feels stilted, this tantalising book has all of the thrills and narrative techniques prevalent in the author’s other notable works such as Little Face and Kind of Cruel. 

The novel portrays the great Belgium detective as he shares rooms with Scotland Yard Detective Edward Catchpool, who discovers three bodies at the illustrious Bloxham Hotel, each in separate, rooms, and each with a monogramed cufflink in their mouth. The murders take the pair to a small village where  petty squabbles, sexual rivalry and religious bigotry reminiscent of a real Christie novel surface. Poirot, who has his own reasons for investigating thanks to a run in the previous evening with Jenny, a young woman who warns him of the crime but, cryptically, declares that it must never be solved, bustles through the investigation with his trademark pensiveness, and finds the solution despite the scant evidence.

Modelled on Poirot’s famous sidekick, Captain Hastings (who is not present in the novel but receives a brief and fond mention), Catchpool is an intelligent and fascinating character, with a traumatic history and a yearning for the truth. He acts as a foil to Poirot’s genius, but through his status as a policeman he combines the role of Hastings and Chief Inspector Japp, using his authority to allow Poirot access to all aspects of the case, including the victims, suspects and evidence.

Hannah’s vision of Poirot can, at times, feel like a caricature of Christie’s original; there are occasions where the outbursts of French and fussy habits feel overdone, as though they are being used as tokenism to show that Hannah really is a true Christie fan, a fact which does not require proving. It is evident in her excellent narrative style and the small details she places in the characterisation of her suspects, all of whom share the same traditional troupes which Christie prided herself on.

Overall, whilst there really is no substitute to reading a real Agatha Christie masterpiece, The Monogram Murders is a great tribute to the great author, and this and Hannah’s latest reincarnation of Poirot are the perfect way to relive the experience of enjoying a brand new tale of the adventures of the quirky and cerebral Belgium detective.

An Introduction to Colin Dexter in Five Iconic Novels


A little late, I know, but I have been busy galloping around the world seeking the places that Kurt Wallander listened to classical music. Whilst I was away, Colin Dexter- the man who created the character which is arguably the British cultural equivalent of Wallander, Inspector Morse- celebrated his 86th birthday. As a lifelong fan of his works I would like to share the five best choices for those looking to break past the excellent TV series, which, although based loosely on the books, is completely different from them in both plotting and characterisation. Many fans of Dexter’s work are put off by his heavily literary style and frequent references to other works, but these five books are among his best and are guaranteed to engross even the most dubious of new readers.

5. The Last Bus to Woodstock: The first Inspector Morse novel is a great place to start for anyone looking to enter into an obsession with Dexter and his methodical, quick witted narratives and red-herring laden plots. Characterisation is central to Dexter’s success, and it is never more evident than when he introduces his intellectual yet emotionally stilted detective and his everyman Sergeant (who, in the books, is an elderly Welsh ex-boxer with a fondness for his overzealous superior and a thorough approach to police work, as opposed to the excitable young Geordie we are presented with in the TV series).

4. The Secret of Annexe 3: Quite possibly one of the most confusing and convoluted of Dexter’s novels, The Secret of Annexe 3 remains one of the most challenging and interesting of the Inspector Morse series, and one which provides the reader with an array of stimulation whilst showcasing Dexter’s narrative skill, as he ensures that this deeply twisted plot does not become tiresome. For those looking for a fun yet stimulating read this really is the perfect novel.

3. The Remorseful Day: It might sound a bit odd to start at the end, so to speak, and read the final Inspector Morse novel as a way of introducing yourself, however the final novel demonstrates many of the series’ best qualities, arguably better than some of the other, more dense books. A true representation of Morse’s detective prowess, filled with wry humour and wit through to the very end, this book is both thrilling and humbling, frightening and deeply emotional, as the reader sees the demise of one of the world’s finest fictional detectives through the unfurling of a very personal case.


2. Death is Now My Neighbour: Intelligent and subtle in its plotting and determined in its narrative, this novel explores human nature in much greater depth than many of Dexter’s works. Whilst affairs of the heart and complicated human emotions abound throughout his bibliography there is a true rawness to Death is Now My Neighbour thanks to the strong characterisation of the main suspects and the tense dialogue incorporated throughout the novel.

1. The Way Through the Woods: Partially set in Lyme Regis, a stunning seaside town on the Jurassic Coast which I am well acquainted with, The Way Through the Woods is Dexter at his best, as he provides Morse and the ever faithful Lewis with a puzzle designed to showcase his protagonist’s ability to construct a story, without necessarily having the evidence to support it. This clear satire of the traditional detective story narrative is brilliantly woven to produce a novel which is both intellectually stimulating and intriguing on a more base level, as the reader seeks to identify the culprit to an ever evolving crime.

Hingston’s Box: Review


Decima’s Blake debut crime novel, Hingston’s Box, is a dark and frightening novel which focuses on the exploitation of children, something the author is passionate about, as emphasised by the fact that a percentage of the book’s profits go to the charity Embrace Child Victims of Crime.

The novel follows the story of Jason Hingston, a Detective Sergeant who is put on medical leave whilst investigating the disappearance of two young twin boys who were on their way home from school when they vanished. Suffering from nightmares and visions, Jason takes his uncle up on his offer to help him redecorate the kitchen in his Dartmouth home, escaping London for the countryside, where he finds a mysterious box which leads him to a mystery which has a creepy connection to the present.

With notes of the supernatural, Hingston’s Box is atmospheric, although I was slightly disappointed that the beautiful Dartmouth setting was underused, with the full potential of the inherently creepy and frightening landscape not realised. However, despite this there is a real old fashioned style and depth to this novel which lends a real tension to the narrative and allows the reader to become really interested in the cases’ conclusion.

It is this interest that is a true testimony of Blake’s narrative skill- the victims themselves hold little inherent fascination, but it is the rich characterisation of the protagonist, Hingston, and the descriptive writing style which draws the reader in. The supernatural elements to the novel are not overstated, and as such it does not fall into the common trap and become farcical, as many other such books can.

Overall this is a truly fascinating book, and one which is difficult to put down. Although it starts off a little slowly, the pace is soon picked up, and the reader will be fully transfixed until the novel’s brilliant conclusion. Hingston himself remains free to start a fresh investigation in a new novel, and personally it is my sincere hope that he does.