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Isabel Waidner: ‘Different doesn’t need to be scary. It can be fun’

Posted on Jun 19, 2021

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 ICA’s online literary chatshow This Isn’t 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 Belá writes “awkwardgarde fiction”. Is that how you would describe your work?
That was my starting point, it’s true. I was always thinking about how to produce formally innovative writing to address some of the questions I had about fiction itself, and that’s where this term “awkwardgarde” came from, but I probably wouldn’t 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 I’ve created now is less “awkward”!

Sterling, the protagonist of your new novel, works as a cleaner while co-producing a crowdfunded performance art project…
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. I’m staging a complexity we don’t always see in novels: working-class characters often do one thing – work – and then maybe they’re a little bit criminal, and that’s it.

When Sterling is unjustly put on trial after being assaulted, the judge offers to drop the case if he can appear on Sterling’s show…
That was partly for comic effect, but it’s 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 – if anything is marketable, they’re 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, don’t think we’re so harmless; maybe people in power feel it’s 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 there’s 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 “Franz Beckenbauer” 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 shouldn’t be surprised if my work looks so different; instead, people should ask, why are other books so similar? Because it’s really simple: when different writers publish work, you get different forms of literature. What am I trying to say with my work is that “different” doesn’t 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?
It’s probably not a coincidence that I’m doing this kind of unusual writing, because I had a German education and that shaped me fundamentally: my parents don’t read books but I was introduced to ambitious literature as a kid at a state school and that’s 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 don’t know how much it’s 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 I’m excited about and it’s coming through in the UK now – Shola von Reinhold [author of Lote, winner of this year’s 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 “new narrative” writing, people like Dodie Bellamy, Robert Glück 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 they’re queer and working class, they’re not getting the credit they deserve.

Sterling Karat Gold is published by Peninsula Press on 24 June (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply