Isabel Waidner, 47, is the author of three novels, including We Are Made of Diamond Stuff, which was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths prize and the Republic of Consciousness prize. In their new novel, Sterling Karat Gold, a non-binary migrant cleaner is arrested after being attacked by bullfighters on a London street; the story also involves UFOs, the history of Iraq and the death of the footballer Justin Fashanu. Waidner, who hosts the ICAâs online literary chatshow This Isnât a Dream, spoke to me over Zoom from their home in London, where they teach at the University of Roehampton.
In your first novel, Gaudy Bauble, someone called BelÃ¡ writes âawkwardgarde fictionâ. Is that how you would describe your work?
That was my starting point, itâs true. I was always thinking about how to produce formally innovative writing to address some of the questions I had about fiction itself, and thatâs where this term âawkwardgardeâ came from, but I probably wouldnât use it now. Gaudy Bauble was more rooted in traditional avant-garde strategies like punning, giving agency to the materiality of language. I always wanted to do something different with experimental fiction, something contemporary and queer/trans, but I also wanted to combine that with an engaging narrative. What Iâve created now is less âawkwardâ!
Sterling, the protagonist of your new novel, works as a cleaner while co-producing a crowdfunded performance art projectâ¦
That reflects my life until a few years ago. Many people who come to London as migrants, especially queer and trans migrants, work these jobs while trying to do something more ambitious and at the same time juggling the oppressive structures impacting on our lives. I worked minimum-wage jobs until my mid-30s, when Roehampton gave me a scholarship to do a PhD. Iâm staging a complexity we donât always see in novels: working-class characters often do one thing â work â and then maybe theyâre a little bit criminal, and thatâs it.
When Sterling is unjustly put on trial after being assaulted, the judge offers to drop the case if he can appear on Sterlingâs showâ¦
That was partly for comic effect, but itâs true that power structures and institutions that have long participated in the oppression of trans and black people suddenly want a little piece of the pie â if anything is marketable, theyâre in there like a shot. That part of the novel ended up a bit of a revenge fantasy, because it gave the queer main characters the chance to determine the narrative and they take advantage of it. I guess I was saying, donât think weâre so harmless; maybe people in power feel itâs fine now to capitalise on marginalised writers, but giving us actual power could result in real change.
Why do you play with real-life figures in your work?
I ask myself that sometimes! Using Franz Beckenbauer as a character let me bring in some of the history of racism and homophobia via the context of football. But thereâs autobiographical stuff going on too; I merged figures from my life with the real Beckenbauer. My dad played football, so I wanted to use a 70s footballer roughly his age, and my âFranz Beckenbauerâ is gay and has died of Aids, which is what happened to my uncle. One of the things I like to do in my fiction is to produce tension and energy from working across different registers without smoothing over the differences between them.
How easy was it for you to get published?
The art world embraced my work more readily to begin with. I published Gaudy Bauble through Dostoyevsky Wannabe, two working-class people operating a print-on-demand press [in Manchester] with zero capital. We submitted it to the Republic of Consciousness prize, and then We Are Made of Diamond Stuff was eligible for the Goldsmiths prize because I was British by then. Getting shortlisted meant that without any traditional infrastructure we started to reach a quite wide readership. But people shouldnât be surprised if my work looks so different; instead, people should ask, why are other books so similar? Because itâs really simple: when different writers publish work, you get different forms of literature. What am I trying to say with my work is that âdifferentâ doesnât need to be scary or boring or hard; it can be fun.
You were born and grew up in Germany; do you see yourself as a German writer?
Itâs probably not a coincidence that Iâm doing this kind of unusual writing, because I had a German education and that shaped me fundamentally: my parents donât read books but I was introduced to ambitious literature as a kid at a state school and thatâs one of the differences of the German education system compared with the UK. But the truth is I feel really alienated from Germany. I come from the Black Forest, a tiny, conservative part of south Germany, and I came to London at 20, not knowing anyone, to start a life where I could come out as a queer person. There are lots of us; queer migration used to be a thing, but I donât know how much itâs happening since Brexit.
What have you been reading lately?
America has longer traditions of innovative queer/trans writing and a new press called Cipher Press is publishing interesting stuff, like Large Animals by Jess Arndt. This is the kind of writing Iâm excited about and itâs coming through in the UK now â Shola von Reinhold [author of Lote, winner of this yearâs Republic of Consciousness prize] is obviously part of that.
Which authors inspired you to write?
Kafka: as a teenager I read everything. Later, I discovered the American queer tradition of ânew narrativeâ writing, people like Dodie Bellamy, Robert GlÃ¼ck and Kevin Killian, whose poetry sequence Action Kylie is about Kylie Minogue. This is the stuff that has most influenced me, but it has never really crossed over into the UK; because theyâre queer and working class, theyâre not getting the credit they deserve.
Sterling Karat Gold is published by Peninsula Press on 24 June (Â£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply