It took the birth of my daughter six years ago for my dreams of becoming an author to crystallise. I’d always devoured books and studied literature at university but as my belly grew, I realised I wanted something more for myself than the political world I was swimming in. I already had a portfolio of unfinished stories on my hard drive. Admitting writing was part of my identity was freeing.
My natural preferences as a reader and writer are for literary and fantasy fiction. My shelves are lined with Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Angela Carter, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jonathan Safran Foer, Khaled Hosseini, Erin Morgenstern, Sarah Waters, Max Frisch, Zadie Smith, Cormac McCarthy, Sylvia Plath, China Miéville and Virginia Woolf. I like my fiction dark and truthful. I want to feel and I don’t always need a happy ending.
What I do need is well realised female characters. That need has heightened as I have aged. I want to read and write about what it means to be a woman, and as a Muslim woman of Indian heritage this has become more important with my increased awareness of the risks to women based on geography and religion.
I want the same for my female characters as I do for the male ones. They don’t have to be strong in the traditional sense of the word. I don’t need muscles or superpowers, although they have their perks. I want characters with agency, who make decisions that drive the plot. I want nuance rather than stereotypes, female characters who embrace their sexuality but are not enslaved by it. Step-mothers should not be wicked witches, nor do they have to be perfect. I want to see flaws and authenticity not cardboard cut-outs, for them to have their own story arcs even if they are not the protagonist.
None of this is new. We have been given reams of compelling female characters in past stories and scripts: Jane Eyre, Scout Finch, Hermione Granger, Arya Stark, Liesel Meminger, Buffy Summers, Alicia Florrick, Beatrix Kiddo and Peggy Carter. But I want more. I don’t want female characters to always be the ones in the background of movie posters to prop up a male lead. Let’s aim for a better ratio of men to women. Give Black Widow her own vehicle dammit. I want female characters not to pass the Bechdel and Sexy Lamp Tests but to surpass them. I want them to break out of Gail Simone’s refrigerator with an axe. I want them to be interesting, conflicted, have their own story purpose and be as significant as their male counterparts.
It won’t come as a surprise then that my debut novel, out later this year, features strong women, each fighting her own battle. The Voyeur is a novel set in Mumbai, where romantic love is traditionally played out behind closed doors. The question I asked myself is can a literary novel with romantic elements, set in India featuring a male protagonist, be a vehicle for strong female characters? I hope the answer is yes, and that you’ll grab a copy later in the year to find out.
Until then, you can follow this link for a limited time to receive a literary short called Flashpoint set in 1970s London. It is a story about two very different women: Malek, who is forced to flee Uganda with her two sons and Joyce, whose made up face and pretty window boxes betray what really goes on at home.
There’s also an excerpt of The Voyeur below, in addition to my website and social media links. I’d love for you to keep in touch.
Excerpt of The Voyeur
Tonight had come to pass like every other night since he lost her. As darkness fell, he made his way through the city’s streets in the sticky air, drawn to a white-washed mansion in Juhu he hadn’t visited before. Glittering white lights framed the house as if from a fairy-tale and, as Akash approached, the pungent smell of pink rose bushes overwhelmed him. He crept across the courtyard, camouflaged by the grime and dust that had become his natural attire. It was the best and worst decision he had ever made.
As he peered through the glass, a maid with flour in her hair kneaded dough for roti. A baby slept in a basket, wrapped in a deep orange swaddling blanket despite the heat. Nearby a woman in an embroidered salwar kameez sat in a rocking chair. At the table, a young man with fine eyebrows read a newspaper, his shirt buttons popping across his belly, his dirty bare feet in contrast to the sterile extravagance of the floor tiles. From time to time, he looked up to speak to the woman by the baby. Then an older woman entered the kitchen and Akash’s stomach lurched as if he was riding a ramshackle fairground ride.
She stood taller than the average Indian woman. She pushed her shoulders back with pride and her sari pulled tautly across her body in haughty dismissal of accepted styles for older women. Akash recognised her before she turned. The hair on the back of his neck rose in anticipation and his chest constricted as he caught her in profile. As she turned towards him, Akash’s head emptied for a moment before an explosion of unwarranted thoughts filled its cavity. Then, his mouth slackened, and he thought only I wish I could be someone else. Someone without my history. Someone cleaner, fitter, richer, deserving of her. His legs shook, and he flailed as his feet became tangled in the fairy-lights, falling against the pane of glass with a dull thud. For a moment he held his breath, considering himself lucky. Then all hell broke loose.
“Ye kya hai? Maa, call the guards! Malini, stay inside with the baby!” shouted the man as he grabbed a flour-covered rolling pin from the kitchen worktop and dashed out of the room.
Akash staggered up, held captive by the almond-shaped eyes of his lover for a long moment before stumbling back into the shadows on feet that did not want to do his bidding. She had not recognised him, he felt sure. Relief replaced his shame at his sad state. His legs felt submerged in tar as he ran, passing landscaped gardens and a swimming pool. He headed for the street, still reeling from the sight of her, and made it onto the gravel drive before the man even reached outside. His pursuer fought against his plumpness and the humidity, slow and heavy, cursing as the gravel slowed his bare-footed progress. Glee bubbled up inside Akash as if from a dormant volcano, uncontrollable and unwelcome. Joy at finding his lover threatened to send every other emotion into the stratosphere.
He had to get away. Experience taught him the rich were the most vengeful if they caught him. Like gods in their palaces, with iron-wrought fences, sleeping guards and noisy dogs to keep them safe, they rose up in squawking outrage at their pillaged sanctity. Fat, manicured men, with great wealth and photo-ready families, belonging to the ranks of the privileged few in a city where the streets teemed with the god-forsaken. This one continued his cries of outrage as he chased after Akash, his breath heaving, driven on by his anger and hatred.
The guards, woken by their master’s shouts and the old woman’s call, unleashed their snarling hounds. He screamed when a large dog, its fur ravaged, sank decaying teeth into his bare leg. Fear filled Akash’s belly at last, like a serpent unfurling and stretching deep within him. The men surrounded him, their eyes filled with glee and self-righteous anger. Vice-like they gripped his forearms, paying no heed to the dogs still snapping at his legs. An outbuilding with dimmed lights nestled in bushes a few hundred yards away. There they made their way as Akash’s leg bled and bruises sprang up beneath his skin as if he were an ageing piece of fruit.
Nillu Nasser Stelter is a writer of fantasy and literary fiction, poetry and essays. She is happiest barefoot and a book hoarder. They are the first thing she unpacks when she is somewhere new. She has a BA in English and German Literature and an MA in European Politics. After graduating she worked in national and regional politics, but eventually reverted to her first love. She is now writing her debut novel in her garden office in London, UK, where she lives with her husband, two children, one angelic and one demonic cat, though she secretly yearns for a dog.
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