Thursday 8 October 2020

Interview with Gautam Bhatia, author of The Wall

Lawyer, academic, and author Gautam Bhatia has been editing non-fiction articles at Strange
Gautam Bhatias debut novel
The Wall is the sort of book that
you keep pondering weeks after
you finish reading it. 
(Image via Amazon) 

Horizons magazine for more than five years. The Rhodes Scholar has written two non-fiction books about constitutional law, and in August saw his fiction debut The Wall released by HarperColins. The book, which is set in a city that has been trapped within an impenetrable wall for 2,000 years mixes insights into sociology, law, and the nature of rebellion. Bhatia, who is completing his PhD at Oxford, spoke via Skype with blog contributor Olav Rokne in September.   

The Wall is a powerful metaphor. Never more so than in the current political context, in which world leaders have used walls as a totemic symbol of their own xenophobia. Was this book in any way shaped by that political environment?

The idea of the wall was part of the story from the beginning. It was there when I started writing the book in 2008, long before walls … you know … really became such an unwanted part of our daily imagination. 

 But many people have always lived with walls.

I mean, the India-Bangladesh border has always inspired rhetoric about infiltration, so-called illegal migration, fences and walls. So there have been people who always suffered because of walls.

It strikes me that The Wall is actually an almost exact mirror image of what Iain M. Banks did; The Culture was entirely post-scarcity and the world of The Wall is one in which scarcity is turned up to the Nth degree.

There’s one little line where someone says that “you can vote for many things, but you can’t really vote against the wall.”

That line actually is a little sly tip of the hat to a statement made by one of the European Union commissioners when there was a popular protest movement in Italy against austerity, and he said that “look you can’t vote against the treaties.” There’s a sense that for the European Union, when a country wants to rebel against austerity, it’s treated as if they’re rebelling against the natural law of the world. How can you possibly vote against a natural law? 
And so I thought about what would happen if something like neoliberalism took a physical form in the shape of a wall; you literally can’t vote against The Wall.

In the world in which we live, scarcity is a rhetorical device that is used to suppress popular aspiration. What would happen if scarcity wasn’t just rhetorical, but actually physically there in front of you? 

Author Gautam Bhatia's
keen legal mind informs
his rich and nuanced 
(Image via The Times of India)

What other writers influenced your writing?

[Ursula K.] Le Guin was a massive influence.

When I was seven or eight years old, my parents got for me a copy of the Wizard of Earthsea. There were three books I read when I was very young. One was the Hobbit, the second was the first Harry Potter (a Canadian colleague of my dad’s actually brought it from Canada when he came visiting and it hadn’t become a cult phenomenon yet), and the third was Earthsea.

At that time, I really loved Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter both. I kind of passed by them after a point, but Le Guin has been a continuing and formative influence.

Dispossessed, as you can see is a huge framing influence on this book in many ways, not just in the shape of the political conflict, but also what Le Guin kept telling us all: that we should imagine alternatives to capitalism, and that it was possible to imagine those alternatives even in constrained spaces.

There’s a scene early in your book that reminded me of The Dispossessed, how our words constrain our language, and how our languages can constrain our worlds. It’s the scene with Methila learning about the word “horizon.” I wondered if you were deliberately setting this up as a metaphor for the ways that our imagination can be constrained by a hegemonic set of ideas.

You’re right that it is a metaphor, but also I wanted to explore in literal terms what impact that kind of constrained life would have upon your language and what impact the inability to frame certain words would have upon how you could visualize certain things.

One thing that's fascinated me has been the interplay between language and the way we perceive the world. Samuel Delaney’s work was in that sense very interesting for me and more recently China Miéville’s Embassytown.

Can you tell me a little bit about the legal system, and what ideas were you trying to explore with it?

The exploration of the legal system in The Wall obviously stems from my other life as a lawyer — as a constitutional lawyer specifically.  

I realized over the years that legal structures — in a certain sense — form the hidden plumbing of the world. Many of the things that you don’t think have anything to do with the law are still very much undergirded by what the legal system allows or doesn’t allow.

[For example], the so-called free market itself is entirely a construction of a series of legal rules involving property contracts. So law is kind of the unarticulated basis of many things we do in our daily lives. It’s relatively unexplored in speculative fiction.

Law is so connected to the material realities of any society. If you were to change something as basic as having a wall that ensured a literal scarcity of resources, and created actual restraints on mobility, then the way the laws would be framed to express that material reality would also be very different. I thought it would be very interesting to explore.

Are you working on any books after these two?

Right now mentally and emotionally completely consumed by Book Two and finishing the story. I have some vague vague ideas for another series that continues to play with Ursula LeGuin’s whole idea that the task of speculative fiction writers is to imagine alternatives to capitalism. That’s just something that I’m obsessed with. I’m just thinking about how to work with that within a space opera framework.

It’s something a bit like what Iain M. Banks did, but he didn’t really explore how The Culture worked. He often focused more on the conflicts The Culture had with other non-Culture societies, and I’m more interested in how a post-capitalist space-faring society would work — how the mechanics of it might work from the inside. I just have some very very vague ideas which are completely unformed right now.

But for the moment, I’m investing my energy on Book Two and finishing that now.

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