Q&A with Preti Taneja

We spoke to Preti Taneja about her debut novel, We That Are Young, and what it’s like to be longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize.

Money, power, corruption and desire. Unimaginable wealth. Unspeakable hardship. A family divided.

When Jivan Singh returns to his childhood home after a long absence, it’s only to witness the unexpected resignation of Devraj, the founding father of the Company – a vast corporation at the heart of Indian life. On the same day, Devraj’s youngest daughter absconds – refusing to submit to marriage. Her older sisters Radha and Gargi are handed their father’s company… So begins a vicious struggle for power, ranging from the luxury hotels of New Delhi and Amritsar, the Palaces and slums of Napurthala to the beautiful, broken city of Srinagar, Kashmir.

Praise from the Desmond Elliott Prize: “A commemorative portrait of a destroyed dynasty, a triptych dedicated to three departed sisters: one thinks of We That Are Young in painterly terms, the gravest of themes rendered in glorious colour, multiple canvases depicting intensely moving individual episodes. The voices equally enthral, from his daughters’ fervid dialogue to Bapuji’s mad soliloquising. Prose as sensual, perfumed and parti-coloured as a wedding basket of ladoo, inset with gems of pure poetry. Yet pungent enough to match the Dhimbala’s fetid starvelings. Everywhere as remarkable to the ear as it is revelatory of the soul.”

Where did the idea for your debut novel come from?
The book is set in India and based on Shakespeare’s King Lear, which I did for A-levels and I remember having that ‘oh yeah!’ moment that you get from poetry, where you realise a word can mean so many things at once – so women can seem obedient while critiquing patriarchy – and riddles can show up the absurdity of power – and elders are not always right. At home I was reading about Partition, ‘divide and rule’ and about Indian mythology. It must have all mixed together as sediment; it took years to surface as an idea I could work on.

How does it feel to be longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize?
It’s wonderful. The book was a risk on so many levels, and being longlisted feels like recognition that something new can form where, if you grow up navigating many worlds (as most of us do), you don’t have to choose one – you can express through form and language what it might mean to embody them all, and readers will understand that and embrace it. The prize celebrates compelling work – something every writer dreams of being noted for.

What was the most challenging thing about your journey to becoming a published author?
Getting the individual voices, the structure and the details of the world in the book right was challenging in the best way. In terms of becoming a published author – I’m that writer whose manuscript was rejected by many, many publishers over years until it found its perfect home. A belief in the story and the support I got from family, friends and mentors kept me going and after a while, the rejections felt liberating: the more I got, the less I had to lose, and that’s when things got interesting!

What one piece of advice would you give to an aspiring novelist.
Trust the process (and drink lots of water). It’s all there is.

What is your favourite debut novel of all time?
OK, shortlist of three: Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory, about women, Haiti and American imperialism, Mahasweta Devi’s The Queen of Jhansi about the Indian Queen who lead the resistance against the British in 1857, and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, which was published just ten years before those events. The threads of roots and rootlessness, of women’s lives, colonialism and the heartfelt desire for liberation, connect them but Jane Eyre is the one I read first, literally sitting in a window seat on a rainy day at home on a very different kind of estate. It’s a perfect social portrait of the place of women in Empire, told from an insider/outsider perspective. It meant even more when I worked out who Bertha Mason actually is and what she represents. I once played her at school, wild haired and in a borrowed nightie, screaming at the top of my lungs.