Q&A with #Merky Books New Writers’ Prize winner, Jyoti Patel

Q&A with #Merky Books New Writers’ Prize winner, Jyoti Patel

Jyoti Patel won the 2021 #Merky Books New Writers’ Prize (which aims to discover unpublished, underrepresented writers aged 16-30 from the UK and Ireland) with her début novel, Six of One, in April. She talks to us about winning the competition, her writing and future projects. 

How long have you been writing for and what themes do you explore in your upcoming novel, Six of One?

I’ve always loved writing creatively but the first time I considered taking writing seriously was in my mid-20s, when I started confronting the sense of dissonance I felt around my own identity. I was born in Paris, raised in London, my ethnicity is Indian, and my parents were both born and raised in Kenya, so I've never known how to answer the dreaded "where are you from?" question. 

I started writing my novel, Six of One, to explore the social code switching people with mixed upbringings have to manage, and how that all plays out in practice. The result is a coming-of-age novel told from the perspectives of Avani and her 18-year-old son Nik, as he searches for answers surrounding the circumstances of his father’s death. It flits between the past and present, comparing Nik’s experiences as a mixed-race man in post-Brexit-referendum Britain, with Avani growing up as a young British Indian in 80s London. Beneath the plot, the novel explores identity, racialisation, and the reality of what it means to be a person of colour in Britain today.

You were crowned the winner of the #Merky Books New Writers’ Prize earlier this year. Why did you enter the prize and how did it feel to win it? 

I entered the prize after seeing a close friend of mine share it on Instagram. I’d just finished a Masters in Creative Writing, but hadn’t yet really thought about approaching agents or starting the process of trying to get my book published, because I was in the midst of redrafting the story and I knew it needed much more work. However, the beauty of the prize is that you only need 1,500 words to enter. I submitted a chapter of Six of One that I’d written just a few months prior. It’s one of my favourite moments, when Avani is in India looking out at the River Ganga. The whole chapter is essentially just a close exploration of her innermost thoughts and it sets up the themes of the novel quite nicely.  

I was surprised and delighted to be longlisted, and it gave me the boost I needed to get back to the draft and keep writing. By the time I was shortlisted, I was writing 1,000 words a day around working full time to finish the fourth draft. I completed it just a week or so before being announced the winner. The day I found out was unreal. I wasn’t expecting it at all, which you can probably tell from the announcement video. I’m so grateful to everyone at #Merky Books for seeing a future in my writing and for everything they’re doing to foster space in the industry for novels like mine. 

As part of your prize, you have received a publishing contract with #Merky Books. Where are you at in the publishing process and what has that been like so far?   

I’m about to receive my first edits back, so will be spending the next couple of months revising the novel and polishing it up. The process so far has been really smooth, and my agent Holly Faulks has been a dream to work with, as have the team at #Merky. The book will be on shelves in January 2023.

Your short story "Break" was recently published on WePresent’s new literary series, Literally. What is the inspiration behind the story? 

About a year ago, I came across a Japanese art form and philosophy called kintsugi, which is all about finding beauty in brokenness. As an art form, it involves repairing broken pottery with gold filament. Instead of hiding the damage, kintsugi is all about making the 'brokenness' itself the appealing and unique part of each item, with veins of gold highlighting the cracks instead of trying to disguise them. It’s a powerful art form and philosophy that I kept finding myself returning to. 

When I was approached for the WeTransfer commission, I knew I wanted to write something that transcribed the art of kintsugi into the human experience. The result is a short story titled "Break". It follows Tara, a woman who is trying to come to terms with her estranged mother’s death. In the fictive present, she pieces together a broken plate from her childhood using kintsugi, but as the narrative flits back to her past, the reader is invited to piece together what’s brought her to this moment. So beneath the physical process of kintsugi, there’s a slow and quiet revelation of the pain Tara is trying to come to terms with in her own life.

At its core, the story is essentially about looking back at the painful parts of our lives, and the things we believe "break" us, with a sense of reverence as opposed to trying to bury them or hide them away. It also explores the beautiful philosophy of Wabi-Sabi, which is all about embracing transience and imperfection.

What is coming up for you next in terms of your writing career? 

I had a lot of fun speaking at my first ever literary festival last weekend, and have a few more coming up this year — the next is the Evening Standard and Netflix Stories Festival in September. I’m enjoying venturing into the industry, meeting other authors and speaking to writers who are also at the start of their journey. 

It was also a real boost having such positive feedback on "Break", as it’s the first piece of writing that I’ve had published. I’m considering writing a couple more short stories and already have plans for my next novel, which I hope to start writing later this year.