Most authors would be distraught if their novel was described as “chaotic” or “random”, but this is music to the ears of talented new novelist Navajo.
He did, after all, pen his debut novella, Ironing, with the express purpose of capturing in print the essential randomness and disorder that characterises our lived experiences.
Reviews have described it as an “audacious” undertaking, pushing the boundaries of what we understand as literature.
But while it takes serious writing ability to be able to convey the chaos of everyday existence in a way that is not only true to life but relatable to the reader, you find when speaking with Ironing’s author that his own fortunes have been equally guided by chance and accidents.
Take his penname, ‘Navajo’, for instance, which harks back to his first ventures into creative fiction, when he was writing short stories for a football-related blogging site, A Fine Lung.
“It was a nickname given to me on the site,” he explains. “I liked the name and it stuck, so when it came to writing a novella I saw no reason not to continue with it.
“But it’s more than just a penname for me. ‘Navajo’ is a persona that I use as an author, which gives me the freedom to write as if I was writing as a completely different person.
“If I was writing as me then I would feel the need to avoid the controversial and to monitor what I write. As Navajo, my stories can run where they want to run and without fear of being held back.”
The same air of unintentionality pervades across Navajo’s life.
As he freely admits, he never had any lofty aspirations to be a writer, or to one day get to work on an experimental, ultra-realistic work of fiction that is as challenging as it is fascinating to read.
Born into a working class family and raised on a council estate in the East End of London, Navajo didn’t have any particular expectations about his future.
“In all honesty I’m not a very literary or sophisticated person. I have dyslexia and because of this I was never considered the ‘academic’ type by my teachers.
“I hated every minute of high school. Back then nobody really knew about dyslexia so it was an alienating environment to be in. You got the sense you were not clever in a world that expected you to be.
“I left school at the age of 15 with, so I was told, the reading age of a nine-year-old, and became a brickie, working on building sites for the next 15 years.
“I’d have probably stayed a brickie but I had an accident on the site one day and broke my arm. I was signed off work and popped into an adult education centre, just to fill the time.
“They suggested an access course for university, supported by a grant. This was great for me as it meant I wouldn’t have to work, and I’d be paid for not doing it!
“I had to get my Maths and English ‘O Levels’ and then enrolled for a degree in Economics at the end of my access year.
“I’d started reading The Guardian to try and overcome my dyslexia and the reason I chose an Economics degree was because I wanted to understand the world from the point of view of those who run it.
“But before starting university I hadn’t even known that degrees existed. I thought that they were something that middle-class kids did, not for the likes of me.”
Navajo’s world changed thanks to university, opening up his mind to new vistas that he’d never previously considered. Upon completion, he decided to become a primary school teacher.
“It seemed the best option for me, a former brickie, because of the holidays. How wrong I was!”, he laughs.
Despite his thwarted quest for an easy life, Navajo found teaching “extremely rewarding”, giving him the chance to pass on the same enthusiasm for learning that he’d discovered through university.
He continued in this career until his retirement in 2017, by which point he had started writing for the football blog.
Navajo says: “I was just writing for fun. I still am, frankly. I got some good feedback for my short stories from other blog members and it prompted me to join a writer’s group.
“I went and, at first, felt like a fool, but the group was so supportive and it made me think that I could write a book if I wanted.”
That book was Ironing, the title signifying nothing in particular — true to Navajo’s principle aim of representing the sheer randomness of our daily lives.
It also taps into the sense of the mundane, of the ordinary, that he felt was “lacking a voice” in contemporary fiction.
Being an astute observer and avid ‘people watcher’, Navajo says that, like with the short stories that came before, he fictionalised overheard fragments of conversations and everyday occurrences to shape the storyline.
It’s difficult to explain the plotline of Ironing as, honestly, there isn’t really one. Plot points appear and disappear without serving any grander narrative, just as do characters. If pushed, you could sum it up as a collection of little incidents stitched together with a loose framework revolving around three schoolgirls taking a bus ride to the dog races.
This, however, totally belies the staggering richness of the novella, which runs the full gamut of emotions in its mini-tales of hopes and dreams, joys and fears, triumphs and disasters. There are moments when you laugh at the absurdity of a situation, and others where you’re dumbfounded at what has, without warning, just gone down.
Then again, when the cast of your book is the public as they go about their lives, how could it be otherwise?
In writing Ironing, which on a deeper level explores how we are all shaped by the environments we find ourselves in, Navajo has also channelled the DIY spirit of British punk.
It’s not surprising to learn that the author was a big punk fan in his day, being around in ‘Year Zero’ to watch iconic bands such as the Sex Pistols and The Clash.
“Yeah, it’s definitely written with a DIY punk ethic,” he confirms.
“I saw all those bands in pubs back when the scene was fluid and open. It was more of a happening at the start, with no real distinction between band and audience. It felt like a revolutionary concept and something to be part of, not something to be consumed.
“Those ideas of constant flow, of things influencing each other randomly, and of equivalence, has carried over into Ironing.”
Navajo adds: “I’m very proud of Ironing, not only because it gives voice to all the hidden voices around us but because of the feedback I’ve received.
“Being dyslexic, I rely on my proof-reader to make sure that what I write makes sense and usually she never comments on anything other than what needs to be corrected.
“When she finished the novella, however, she said that she would miss the three girls in my story. For something I’d created to have that impact, to have another human being identify with those characters on an emotional level, was utterly amazing. That one thing made it all worthwhile.”
Ironing by Navajo is out now in paperback priced at £7.77. Visit www.Bookmarksbookshop.co.uk
Q&A INTERVIEW WITH NAVAJO
With a mischievous spark, author Navajo answers our questions about his new novella, Ironing, and his views on writing.
Q. What has been the impact of Covid-19 on your work as a writer?
A. I have to compete with all those people who wanted to write a book but never had the time. There is so much wasted talent. Lockdown has given those talented people the time and space to write. I’m gutted.
Q. You are severely dyslexic. How have you been able to overcome this to write your novella?
A. I have two friends, one of them who very kindly and patently proofreads all my work. The other friend never gets tired of me asking to spell ‘disadvantage’. “Hey Siri, spell disadvantage”, I say. And you know what? Siri never gets fed up of telling me. No slight irritation in her voice or helpful tips on ‘sounding out the letters’ — just the word spelt. Perfect. Navajo isn’t dyslexic, but he is trapped inside my head. He keeps trying to escape, but I won’t let him.
Q. What benefit do you think you have had from joining a writing group, and would you recommend that other new authors join one?
A. The writing group I belong to, Hackney Writers’ Group, is brilliant. They are supportive, positive and encouraging. Not all groups are like this so be warned. The advantage of joining a writing group for me was I heard such accomplished writers, learned how hard they worked on their writing, and discovered how knowledgeable they were. They listened to my work and laughed. I took their laughter as laughing with me, not at me. Whatever their laughter meant, I took it as encouragement — which spurred me on to write more. So blame them amongst others.
Q. Do you think it’s important to keep an authentic sense of self when writing fiction?
A. Yes, I think. Maybe. I’m not sure I have an ‘authentic sense of self’, to be honest. If you have an ‘authentic sense of self’ can you lose it? I don’t really know what an ‘authentic sense of self’ is? Is it self-esteem? I think I tried to think or imagine how the characters I created would act and behave in any given situation, I tried to discard myself and be them. To be honest I don’t get the question. It sounds cool though.
Q. You have published your novel under the persona of ‘Navajo’. What would you say is the relationship between you as a person and your author identity?
A. Navajo is cool, irreverent, uncompromising and confident. I’m not. Navajo can create unconstrained by social hegemony. Navajo is the writer in me, the author. Being an author doesn’t define me as a person. Writing creatively is just something I do, Navajo is that part of me that is the author. I do many other things that aren’t ‘Navajo’. I like his writing, he makes me laugh. Some of the things he writes I’m not comfortable with. He never talks to me, but then again I never talk to him. He just writes. Navajo does talk to his characters. I’m not sure who is answering these questions, me or him.
Q. If you could meet one person from fiction or history, whom would you meet and why?
A. Sylvia Pankhurst. She worked in East London, she opposed WW1 — unlike her mum and sisters. She supported universal suffrage. She wore nice hats.
Or God, and ask WTF?
Q. What for you is the biggest satisfaction of writing?
A. My biggest satisfaction is knowing people enjoy my work. Also, giving voice to those who we don’t often hear from. I also like seeing a blank page and then writing on it and suddenly the blankness is a thing, an object, even if it is an object in cyberspace until it is published in hard copy. It’s like I’ve created something from nothing. That feels strange and wonderful somehow. It is like I’ve created value from nothing. I don’t mean monetary value; I mean value in that people get enjoyment from it.
Q. What do you think the secret is to writing engaging characters?
A. The characters have to seem real so they need to be multidimensional, emotional, flawed and vulnerable. The characters’ dialogue needs to be commensurate with the setting. To be honest, I don’t know how to create engaging characters. I’m a lazy writer; I just write what I think and feel and my characters emerge. I don’t even really edit my work, I write it and then, that’s it, done. I think I do base my characters on people I know. Or the people I know are the starting point for the characters. Once the character is formed it takes on its own persona, its own character.
Q. What would you say to someone to entice them to read your novel?
Take your pick…
- Read it or die.
- Read it, it’s fun, it’s easier to read than Ulysses but harder than The Cat in the Hat.
- The voices in my head say you should read it.
- The voices inside your head say you should read my book, I can hear them.
- You should read it, there isn’t really a beginning, or an end or a middle. It just is. It sort of flows ceaselessly from one thing to the next. Like when you’re out and you are desperate for a wee and you are looking at every possible place to go, but they are never quite right so you move from one place to the next. Searching, searching, always moving, becoming increasingly more desperate until you think you are going to pee yourself. My book’s a bit like that.
- I’m not very good at enticement. I can iron though. I like things flat.
- God said you should read it. And God is nearly always right, well maybe with the exception of humanity. But, you know you can’t get everything right. Right?