"It's important to challenge that narrative," an Interview with Anbara Salam

Updated: Jul 30

Anbara Salam is the author of the upcoming novel Belladonna, a glittering coming-of-age story set in 1950s Italy. Bad Form spoke to her about the rise of the unlikeable female protagonist, writing about mixed-race characters, and queerness in the 1950s.

So let’s jump into the deep end - your main character Bridget, is mixed and white-passing. Do you feel as a mixed-race person that you have a responsibility to represent mixed-race characters?

I think there’s a tricky balance between reflecting the real diversity of the world, and being snared into expectations that mixed-race authors can only tell stories about *issues* related to their ethnic background. However, something that has always struck me about historical fiction is how white it is, as a genre. This is a subtle act of whitewashing that locates white people as the centre of the historical imaginary, and I do feel it’s important to challenge that narrative.

There’s been a rise of really interesting discourse about white-passing women of colour and the advantages we have. Why did you want to write about a white-passing woman who ultimately uses her ability to pass to her advantage?

Last year, I spent a night in an Airbnb in the UK with my partner to attend a wedding. I used a generic pseudonym on my booking form, and we didn’t need to show ID. And then, during a polite conversation with the host, she stopped me in the middle of a sentence, and said, “You - you’re something, aren’t you? What are you?” And my first thought was - ‘Damn! I thought I was passing so well!’ It’s such a minor interaction, a version of a conversation I’ve had thousands of times, but in that moment I wasn’t irritated by her question, but by the fact I’d been ‘caught out’ while trying to exchange anonymous pleasantries with someone who I’d never see again. While writing Belladonna, I was thinking about that kind of interaction, and about the slippery, fraught privilege of passing. I wanted to explore a character who weaponizes her white-passing privilege in a way that wouldn’t make her the archetypal ‘model minority’ we may have seen before; but someone for whom the paranoia and entitlement of white-passing is brandished to achieve her own selfish ends.

Building on that, you wrote a really fascinating piece for penguin.co.uk about 'the rise of unlikeable female protagonists'. You’ve called Bridget 'self-victimising' before, and outright said she’s 'unlikeable'. Why did you want to write an unlikable female protagonist?

I’m not sure that I set out to write an unlikeable female protagonist! But I really wanted to write a story about unrequited love, and there is nothing more entitled than the sentiment that you are *owed* someone’s affections, just through the force of your longing. That, on its own, is a pretty unlikeable quality, and the more I explored the nature of unrequited love, the more it became clear to me that my protagonist would end up being problematic.

The cover of Belladonna is really beautiful, but you wouldn’t have any idea that one of the characters was mixed from it, or indeed that it was a queer love story. It’s quite different to the American cover - how do you feel about that?

The American cover is so striking, and very different actually, to the initial graphics that the team imagined for the novel. What I love about the UK cover is the 1950s feeling, and its immediate situation in Italy. And while it’s not immediately obvious that it’s a queer love story, or has a mixed-race protagonist, in a sense that reflects accurately on the themes of the novel.

This is a queer love story, but Bridget’s sexuality is never part of her identity crisis. Why did you write the character like that?

Honestly, there’s a level of self-examination required in exploring one’s one sexuality, and I don’t think that Bridget is capable of that. I also didn’t want to write a novel about a queer character agonising over their sexuality. In a strange way, the time-setting of the novel was helpful for this, as the level of naivete and cultural cosseting that the characters experience meant that sexuality of any kind was not an appropriate discussion topic for ‘good girls’. This allowed me to inhabit Bridget’s feelings without dissecting them.

This novel is also beautifully set in 1950s Italy - not exactly a period known for its tolerance of queerness or mixed-race people. Why this setting? It’s quite a 180 from your last book!

From a narrative perspective, the 1950s are so fascinating. I love the paradox of this moment where ‘modernity’ as we might recognise it, and pre-WWII values are washing against each other. In the novel, Bridget feels herself to be the ultimate victim of racial prejudice, which she is clearly not, and I wanted to explore two different queer, mixed-race characters, and how the 1950s would have treated them differently based on their ability to ‘pass’.

How do ideas come to you for novels?

I wish I had a good answer for this! Obsessive people-watching, perhaps? I’m the weirdo at a party cataloguing every micro-interaction and working out relationships between the guests. I’ve also always been a history nerd, and often get inspiration from historical research. For Belladonna, for example, I initially really wanted to write about the Connecticut flood of 1955. I spent weeks researching, and it was a critical plot point in early drafts. But then it just wasn’t working with the timeline anymore, so I had to cut the whole section out.

You’ve said you spent two years editing this book after writing the first novel in just six weeks. Is that a normal process for you? And has the final novel changed much from the initial draft?

Yes, I wrote the first draft in six weeks and then spent two years editing! I tend to try and smash out a first draft as quickly as I can (sometimes that could be months), and then take much more time editing and re-shaping the manuscript.

You tweeted recently that 'publishing a book is the work of so many people'. Is there anything you wish you’d known about publishing before you’d entered the industry as an author?

I do think it’s important to be flexible; maybe this isn’t terribly romantic of me, but I sometimes think of it as if I’ve built a house that I’ve now sold to a new owner. If my editor(s) want to make changes to the layout, or paint it green, then ultimately, I have to honour their opinion, unless it really risks damaging the foundations of the house.

Belladonna by Anbara Salam will be published by Fig Tree on July 16.

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Quarterly literary review magazine by Black, Asian, and marginalised community writers.