An Interview with Natasha Brown By Nataliya Deleva
Guest writer Natliya Deleva interviews Natasha Brown on ASSEMBLY: an unflinching novel which draws a sharp incision into the society we live in.
NATASHA BROWN has spent a decade working in financial services, after studying Maths at Cambridge University. She developed Assembly after receiving a 2019 London Writers Award in the literary fiction category.
NATALIYA DELEVA is the author of Four Minutes, which was originally published in Bulgaria (Janet 45, 2017), where the book was awarded Best Debut Novel and was shortlisted for Novel of the Year (2018). It has since been translated into German, English and Polish. Deleva’s second novel, Arrival, is forthcoming in the UK from The Indigo Press in 2022.
Nataliya Deleva: Assembly is a brave, powerful novel which draws a sharp incision into the society we live in and takes out to the surface themes such as racism, identity, capitalism, misogyny, tokenism and choice. A slim book at only 112 pages, it is thought-provoking and packed with existential questions, demanding the reader’s attention from the first page. Why was it important for you to write on these topics, and why today?
Natasha Brown: Unfortunately, some people are politicised simply because of who they are. For Assembly’s narrator, it isn’t possible for her to move through the world as a person; she is always seen and treated as a black woman. The impossibility of opting out of this ‘identity’ – even when it’s utterly exhausting, and reductive – was an idea that I wanted to explore within the novel. Those themes are the unavoidable consequences of that impossibility; in our cultural narratives, women like the narrator are always contextualised within such topics.
ND: You wrote Assembly after receiving the 2019 London Writer Award from Spread the Word for writers from backgrounds underrepresented in publishing. It’s a narrative which meanders through uneven surfaces and complex grounds. How did you find the process of writing the novel? Was it transformative for you in any way?
NB: With Assembly, I was concerned with the construction of myth – particularly how language and stories can serve to reinforce our present day mythologies. In the essay Myth Today, Roland Barthes defines myth as appropriated language, used to naturalise history. He writes that myth removes ‘the contingent, historical, in one word: fabricated, quality of colonialism’. This definition helped to clarify my understanding of the mechanics of cultural hegemony: why do we, as a society, hold the beliefs we do – without even recognising the act of believing? How do our stories affect what we understand as factual? Or as political? I wanted to examine these questions precisely, but also with a light touch. I think that precision and lightness are essential when navigating complex ground.
ND: You mention Roland Barthes who in the essay The Death of the Author gravitates towards the idea of liberating the text from its author, and reading it as a narrative in its pure textual form vs. the personal experience projected on the page. In this context, how would you like the reader to interpret your book: taking the author's identity in mind, or not?
NB: I probably align more closely with Barthes' view in The Death of the Author than is the current fashion, I think. Trying to understand a novel through the lens of its author seems limiting. I do hope readers feel invited to bring their own interpretation and ideas to Assembly.
ND: The form in Assembly is as captivating and inventive as is the narrative: it focuses on the detail, on fragments of conversations, of memories, of seemingly mundane corporate environment events imbued with passive aggression and offensive acts experienced by the narrator, but it also spans over centuries and expands to high concepts as capitalism, colonialism and the historical grounds for racism. How important was form for you in depicting the themes in Assembly, and generally for your writing?
NB: I aimed to make form inextricable from the story, leveraging it to alter how the events of the novel felt to read. Form was a major part of the narrator’s arc as she develops her subjectivity over the course of the novel. Towards the end, she alters form at will – using footnotes, poetry, embedded quotes, flowery description, straightforward imperatives, dialogue, and a meta-discussion of the novel that contains her. I wouldn’t say this type of formal experimentation is characteristic of my writing style (I try to aim for clear and concise!), but it felt right for Assembly’s narrator.
ND: The narrator, a young, top-educated Black British woman from a Jamaican heritage, is diagnosed with cancer and is faced with a life-or-death question, literally. I find a correlation between the disease, the uncontrollably spreading malignant cells through the body, killing it as the tumor grows, and the racism and microaggressions which the narrator experiences daily, spreading through society and being equally destroying. The metaphor seemed to me frightening at first, but also true. Was this parallel drawn on purpose and what was your basis for creating it?
NB: Sadly, it’s a very real phenomenon. The ‘Weathering Hypothesis’, first proposed by public health researcher Arline Geronimus, draws a link between systemic discrimination and the poor health outcomes experienced by black women. In the UK, there’s many heartbreaking examples of such racial disparities: from death in childbirth to breast cancer mortality rates.
ND: I find the way you layer all the different meanings of injustice peremptory, unappealable. You quote a tweet (removed since) from Her Majesty’s Treasury’s Twitter account. “Here’s today’s surprising #FridayFact. Millions of you helped end the slave trade though your taxes.”
And then you continue, relaying this fact to the narrator’s relationship with her boyfriend: “Is it true that his family’s wealth today was funded in part by what bought freedom in the loan my taxes paid off? Yes. […] Yet, he lives off the capital returns, while I work to pay off the interest? Yes.”
These are all brave statements, and conversations that need to take place. But are we there yet, or are we, as a society, still “making small talk, absently”, just like the narrator and her boyfriend’s mother converse at the party?
NB: I think the bridging question between those two is key: “And he is an individual and I am an individual and neither of us were there, were responsible for the actions of our historical selves? Yes.” We’re in a nuanced situation; it’s a nuance that requires acknowledgement, and empathy. Without that, I think it’s harder to have meaningful conversations.
ND: Assembly is about class and societal perceptions, as it is about race. The unnamed narrator is from a working class background, working her way upwards in a hostile corporate environment, achieving, striving for promotion, aiming only for the best. Her boyfriend, on the contrary, is entitled to his ancestors’ properties and privilege. He only notices her when she’s advanced in her career, gains wealth and thus, social status. “My own capital had increased”, you write. “Money, even the relatively modest amount I’d amassed, had transformed me […] And he sensed opportunity”. It’s a powerful statement. What do you think needs to change in society to transform these perceptions?
NB: Two constructed concepts are at play in our economic system today: ‘race’ and ‘meritocracy’. As the tertiary and quaternary sectors continue to expand within the UK economy, meritocracy is perhaps emerging as a more useful idea, now, than race – when it comes to allowing (or restricting) access to opportunity, at least from a commercial perspective. At the same time, the entrenched ideas of class distinctions also seem less well-suited to describing life today. In his book Social Class in the 21st Century, the sociologist Mike Savage proposes a new set of social classes for modern Britain, based on recent research. It’s no longer the working/middle/upper split.
I think the narrator is right at the forefront of this: ‘meritocracy’ as a metric affords her opportunities that ‘race’ would have disqualified her from. At the same time, it threatens the stability of those who benefited more within the ‘race’ metric, leading to resentment. (Upwards mobility, of course, necessitates downwards mobility.) She does not feel at ease as a symbol for ‘meritocracy’, mythologising it at schools and universities. In this context, she perhaps represents, like Changez in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a moment of transition, or possibility.
The narrator is defined by an absence of choice, in my view. Regardless of what she does, or does not do, it’s cast into a political light. Everyone she encounters coopts her existence into a narrative, denying her agency. She is treated as a representative of a demographic, rather than an individual. Even death, I imagine, will not allow her to escape this.
ND: You depict masterfully the different manifestations of non-acceptance, of not belonging, of identity clash with societal expectations. I loved this sentence – clear and sharp: “Born here, parents born here, always loved here – still, never from here.” What’s the way to change this? Is narrating these experiences, very common experiences, enough?
NB: It seems to me that ‘black’ fiction is often assessed on a basis of activism. Yet, simultaneously, much ado is made about not politicising fiction. I wouldn’t say that Assembly aspires to change. Rather, I hope it’s an engaging read.
ND: The language you employ in Assembly is poetic, with a strong sense of rhythm. I couldn’t restrain myself from reading some parts of it aloud. It felt like spoken words, written. I found it beautiful, strong, stunning. Was this something purposely crafted for this book, or is it more of a personal writing style?
NB: Because the narrator’s voice carries most of the novel, it had to be compelling – particularly when she diverges from a standard narrative approach. As with the form, I approached her voice with the intent to make it wholly a part of the story itself. I’m very happy to hear it worked for you.
This interview has been lightly edited to fit our style guide.