BackStory: Five Questions with Kiira Rhosair

Happy Valley Tea Estate, Darjeeling

BackStory: Five Questions with Kiira Rhosair
Author of From Darjeeling, with Love

What inspired you to write ‘From Darjeeling, with Love’?

I was researching varieties of tea for my novel and came across some academic pieces about the history of tea plantations in India. Due to shortages of labour in West Bengal and Assam in the mid 1800s, low caste illiterate workers were uprooted from neighbouring states where famine had brought poor folk to their knees. Although slavery had been made illegal by the British in the 1830s, they were hired as indentured workers and forced to labour in dire conditions: long hours, very few rest breaks, poor nutrition and, most heartbreaking for me, no access to drinking water on site. They would have to get up before dawn and walk some distance to a spring to get water for the day. If it ran out, tough. The mortality rate was shockingly high. They were not allowed time off for illness and if they tried to escape, they were flogged. Sexual violence was rife. Although housing was part of the deal, the shacks were tiny with several people crammed in. Due to the job being linked to housing, subsequent generations became tied to the same work to keep their homes. So, there was very little chance of escape or aspiration. Despite various bits of legislation since independence, to this day, tea plantation workers suffer horrendous working conditions. I decided to write a flashback piece about a tea worker in the 1940s because to me, history should teach us lessons but eighty years on, this one still has not been imbibed.

What are your favourite pieces of historical flash, prose poetry or hybrid work? What do you like about them?

I love FBF stories, my recent faves have been ones by Nick Black and Anita Goveas. It was wonderful to see humour in Nick’s piece and Anita’s one about the first x-ray was just fascinating. I really admire Patricia Smith’s poetry. Her evocative use of rhythm and language makes the history of African American slavery almost tangible to a reader.

How much research did you do while writing and editing this piece? Did you discover anything that surprised you?

I went into a bit of a vortex, yes! I discovered that tea plantations had their own time zone to get an extra hours work out of the pickers and by law, no visitors, even policemen, were allowed inside the tea gardens, a practice designed to hide malpractice. As with many historical incidents, it is sometimes difficult to believe how humanity stands by for protracted periods of time without challenging blatant injustices.

If you could live for one year in any historical period, when and where would it be, and why?

I’d quite like to be the fourth Brontë sister for a year or two (perhaps their talent would rub off on me!) I watched this BBC dramatisation of their lives and they seemed to sit around a living room writing all day long and then, by candlelight at night. No TVs or phones, just an annoying off- the-rails brother to occasionally stir up trouble. Sounds good to me! I would also appreciate a longish chat with Emily about her amazing poems, there has been plenty of speculation over the centuries but what do they actually mean?

How important is historical accuracy to you in your own writing?

For me, stories are always about the human protagonist. A lot will be forgiven if the emotion rings true to a reader but getting the setting and language right adds to the authenticity and atmosphere in a piece. For instance, this is set in Happy Valley but I imagine an illiterate character in that period would replace the ‘V’ sound with ‘B’ which is why I’ve spelt it differently in the narrative.

Faber academy alumnus Kiira Rhosair is putting final touches to a YA mythological fantasy for submission to publishers. She writes micro-fiction in her spare time with pieces published by Flash Flood Journal, @Funny_PearlsUK, @cafeaphra and shortlisted by @TSSPublishing (Spring 18). She is on Twitter @kiirawrites.

Image detail from photograph by Matt Stabile (cc-by-2.0) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.