It’s not often that a book is simultaneously described as a ‘madcap adventure’ and an exploration of race in the countryside, but Wanderland: A Search for Magic in the Landscape, my first non-fiction narrative published in April managed the feat. I don’t think either description is accurate but what do I know? I’m just the author. ‘Cross-genre’, and ‘cross-cultural anomaly’ – these are phrases that have begun to trip off my tongue. The book straddles nature writing, memoir, travel and spirituality, and I was born in London, raised in Montreal, Canada to Indian parents who themselves were born and grew up in South Africa. Neither I nor my book fit into any neat boxes.
This has proved to be both a blessing and, if not a curse, then at times, a cause of frustration. In the months before publication I worked with my tireless book publicist at Bloomsbury on the campaign. I was keen to reach readers who might be a fan of any one of the above genres, and equally those who, like myself, come from multi-cultural backgrounds, and are Black, Asian or from another under-represented group, and who have rarely seen themselves mirrored in this kind of literature (or been marketed to.) It’s been a rocky road, but since the book launched at the end of April, at the height of the Covid crisis, I think we fared brilliantly.
My launch day, happened on Twitter: an outpouring of support which I hadn’t anticipated but which kept me buoyant, and washed away the disappointment of a cancelled launch party, and the closure of bookshops. The press reviews and features generated were plentiful and generous. That a book not easy to pin down was reviewed at all felt nothing short of miraculous. In lockdown, a number of independent booksellers across the country helped to spread the word. I found their kindness and thoughtfulness at such a difficult time touching.
Like every other author, I’ve learned hard and fast that when a book leaves you and goes into the world, it becomes the property of others. How any one person might perceive my book would depend on their filter. Some authors of more traditional nature writing were keen to dispel the notion that I might be a nature writer at all. Others called it ‘new’ nature writing. Some saw it as a quirky UK travel memoir, while the more spiritually inclined seemed to enjoy the fact that such a theme had even made it into the mainstream.
When you finally have a voice, nuance matters. But inevitably, at times, the nuances got lost, and I found that hard. As the events around Black Lives Matter began to unfold, so too did the invites to speak on podcasts and book talks or write features increase. Of course, I was grateful for the interest. But many sought to angle a conversation around race. The book has elements of memoir, so yes, I did bring something of my experience of otherness to bear on the narrative, but it really it is a tale about searching for a numinous relationship with nature, a different kind of Other.
Time and time again I was expected to field questions on how to improve access for people who are Black or Asian in the UK countryside. The fact that I’d grown up in Canada was deemed worthy of a bypass. It didn’t fit the story. The fact that I’d travelled widely and therefore journeying in the UK countryside was not some great, daunting expedition into alien territory, didn’t fit a narrative often projected onto me. Meanwhile, those with a more whimsical, alternative focus longed to know how to conjure up magical experiences for ‘wellbeing’ or a deeper connection with the natural world. I was expected to provide a recipe, on demand, when there isn’t one. It was a consistent challenge to shift conversations to a more subtle footing.
Why am I sharing all of this? Because I feel intersectional nuances (for want of a better word) are a story in themselves, not something to be reduced to a more ‘manageable’ state. Diversity isn’t just a matter of skin colour or cultural background, or about diversity of ideas, and alternative philosophies – sometimes it is all of it at once. It’s the ‘all of it at once’ that some in the industry seem to struggle with. I feel I reached a fresh, untapped market with the book – the emails I receive from readers who themselves don’t easily fit any boxes tell me so – and I think lateral thinking, a willingness to engage with those nuances, can go a long way to making authors feel more at ease in those brief, intense months when the spotlight is on them.
Jini Reddy is the author of Wanderland (Bloomsbury), which was shortlisted for the Wainwright Prize.