3rd July 2020
Shola von Reinhold is a Scottish socialite and writer. Shola has been published in the Cambridge Literary Review, The Stockholm Review, was Cove Park’s Scottish Emerging Writer 2018 and recently won a Dewar Award for Literature. Their debut novel LOTE (2020) ‘immerses readers in the pursuit of aesthetics and beauty, while interrogating the removal and obscurement of Black figures from history’. The story follows Mathilda as she traces the path of ‘forgotten’ Black modernist Hermia Druitt from archive to visions to parties to artist residency where secrets and secret societies take her to the depths of a lotus-eating proto-luxury communist cults…
Firstly, tell us a little about the journey of writing LOTE?
It’s funny how difficult it is to recall the actual writing of it (– everything becomes like a very hazy, distant vision of someone else). In terms of the fictional world, the story, the form etc, all of that accumulated as a result of being drawn for a long time to certain kinds of fiction and feeling, in spite of the pleasure derived, alienated and compromised – the compromise of having to divide yourself, partition half of yourself off, in order to achieve immersion.
I’m partly thinking here of lots of immersive fictional narratives, often first-person, ‘outsider’ perspectives such as Isherwood, Brideshead, The Secret History (these kinds of book seem to frequently be by white men or male narrators who often feel more ‘in the next room’ than ‘outside’) and quite a lot more, which broadly share a kind of qualitative aspect – romantic, arcadian, escapist. But the suspension, it became clear, was coming at a cost. Not because Black queer people, working-class people, are only capable of escaping into fictional replicas of our own lives but because there’s only so much escape you can achieve in a literary plane that negates your existence, knowingly or not.
I was interested in clawing back certain formal devices from this literature. Devices which deserve to be more than part of a mostly conservative literary arsenal because they didn’t emerge there and, in my eyes, ultimately don’t belong!
How did you create Hermia as a composite character?
First, Hermia rose up out of an ostensible vacuum in British modernist literary history. Then her feasibility as a Black modernist poet of Scottish and Nigerian descent, living in Europe between the wars, was suggested by the existence of the various Black figures interconnected with (and foundational to) the Bloomsbury Group, the Bright Young People. Also, importantly, from lesser-known places – the so-called ‘fringes’ and lower denominations of these Groups, many of whom would not have thought of themselves as at the fringes of anything! But yes, it seemed very weird that in all of this I couldn’t find a Black British woman working in a formalist experiment. There were poets like Una Marson from Jamaica, living in Peckham, there were Black women painting and sculpting at the Slade and elsewhere, there were performers like the glorious Elisabeth Welch living in Mecklenburg square, soiréeing at the Bloomsbury and Soho bars, friends with Barbara Kerr Seymour and Kenneth Macpherson. There were Harlem Renaissance poets like Claude McKay, but I couldn’t find, specifically, a Black British woman, and it’s almost definite such a person existed, wrote a masterpiece which is maybe still in an attic somewhere — maybe there’s someone doing work on it right now. Or maybe it’s been ‘lost to history’ because of the way Black women have been deprioritised in the archive and factored out of multitudinous literary histories.
The Transfixions reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando as an experimental way of imaginatively traversing historic figures and embodying them. How do you see history and temporality working in the novel?
There are definitely questions about chronology and periodisation in the novel, and some of those play through the binaries it poses like arcadian/utopian, futurist/fantasist (since fantasy is seen to be couched in historical visions), modernism/decadence, modernism/post-modernism and so on. It certainly engages in a tradition of queer anachronism too.
Some of the novel’s temporal features are held up by the Hermia sections, set in the late 20s/early 30s. Their source is kept ambiguous. It could either be a fictionalised account of Hermia by Hermia or a close friend from the period or alternatively experienced more like out-of-boundary flashbacks. It could read like a traditional roman-a-clef (except the names are given) with brief experimental interruptions in the form of temporal shifts which would reflect the influence of Bergson and other theorists on Hermia. It could also be a fictionalised account of Hermia’s life by the novel’s protagonists Mathilda and Erskine-Lily.
On two occasions, Mathilda’s narrative is briefly switched to third person with the typography matching that of Hermia’s narrative suggesting an act of self-mythologising – of Mathilda projecting her own existence into the mode she experiences her Transfixions. But we might also read these latter passages as Mathilda in the light of a utopian vision of Hermia’s. In one of the Hermia sections, Hermia, feeling the strictures of her race, gives way to fantasy about a Black woman in the future:
She looked out of the library window, at the neighbouring hills – sculpted and half-hollowed by cold, freezing blissful winds. The light struck the remaining glass in the fountain lavender, hurled up cool javelins of light. She pined, as she often did. Fantasised about the future. The Glittering Proletariat, skin perhaps as dark as her mother’s would have been. She lies upon the black-barred galleria of her tower. Later she would ascend to Café Utopus, where there were quivering trees… a garden upon the rooftop… and the people were attending a lecture about the Past.
Earlier in the novel Mathilda references lying on the balcony of the council tower she grew up in. But this could easily be coincidence. All of these readings are pertinent.
How do glamour and decadence operate as a form of resistance in the novel?
Interestingly, I don’t think the book really directly deals with glamour as a category but glamour does correspond in that LOTE is interested in ideas of ornament, artifice and beauty and there is maybe a conversation about ‘minor taste concepts’ going on somewhere as well.
The word ‘decadent’ has been used a lot to describe it and I’m guessing people are invoking fin de siècle stylistics which I would agree with in the abstract – meaning again a concern with artifice and ornamental detail, all of which figure into the book as valid forms of resistance in their queerness, and in their relation to Blackness and gender.
The Stylised and the Decorative don’t fare very well in our rules and idioms about good taste, or in the aesthetic tract such rules are inherited from i.e., Palladian conceptions of harmony, grandeur and simplicity, which persist in contemporary notions of secreted style, or invisible style, or, unfortunately, even in the history of leftist aesthetics, particularly endorsements of anti-style where bourgeoise life is related as perverse through its effeteness. Rather than dismantling capitalism in all its patriarchy this reinscribes colonial equations of a simple masculine style with an honest, productive life. Whereas interest in form, in the image, issues from deceitful, vacuous fascination the surface world which is the supposed to be the realm of women, inverts and barbarians.
In an essay for the Independent, you quote Isabel Waidner, who noted that the most ‘politically acute avant-garde writers’ are not necessarily being found in prose fiction – why do you think this is?
I think there are so many reasons – contemporary prose fiction in Britain has not been an encouraging field for formal innovation. It’s also been considered ‘uncool’! It’s been contingent on middle-classness. Its provenance is bourgeois. The novel is constrained in very specific ways by capitalist machinery. Then there’s the demotion of genre fiction, of the speculative. All of this I’m guessing has something to do with it.
Of course, something Waidner also mentions is that spaces outside the traditional and commercial come with problems. Avant-garde, innovative, experimental, whatever – in terms of scenes and spaces – is perhaps even whiter than lots of prose fiction milieus. I’ve been wondering recently with regards to the history of Black British cultural output whether Black progenitors have always operated outside these binaries, taking in experimental and popular forms in its stride. I’m thinking of Jacaranda who publish commercial, romance, literary fiction, crime, experimental genres without having ever really made a big deal out of the fact.
Finally, what is next on your horizons?
It’s very early but another novel!