Tice Cin on North London, North Cyprus, and sensitivity reads.
PEN Transmissions is English PEN’s magazine for international and translated voices. PEN’s members are the backbone of our work, helping us to support international literature, campaign for writers at risk, and advocate for the freedom to write and read. If you are able, please consider becoming an English PEN member and joining our community of over 1,000 readers and writers. Join now.
Tice – why are we here [in Capital, a Turkish restaurant in Wood Green]?
There’s some distance here for me. Wood Green is a portal, a strange vacuum where nothing ever really changes. Even though the restaurant we’re now in used to have plastic tables and all you could smell was lamb, whereas now there’s glitter on the walls and Europop playing in the background, nothing has really changed. And where the wealth is coming from – I find that interesting.
Something strange always happens when I’m here. A couple of months ago, a clown and a leaflet-salesman got into a fight and were rolling around on the street. I love the fact that I come from areas that are quite bizarre. As much as other people would clutch their collars and run away, for me there’s a steadiness in knowing that things are always at a certain level of chaos.
How important is place to you as a writer? Is that where a lot of your artistic resource comes from?
I like the way that the lines of a road project a certain mood; how spaces are designed to give us certain routines, structures, feelings. But there are locations that have their own languages and codes; you can run up stairways that only residents know about and slip away.
Tottenham is an area with so much history – to do with police brutality, but also with resistance. I grew up with this feeling that the area could always swallow things up – could swallow up corporations and spit them out. As much as people try to reduce the area’s identity through gentrification, or the way it’s represented in the media, it always resists. The media tried to represent Bernie Grant as an inflammatory man who encouraged the community to be volatile. But the man and the community were never those things.
There’s a great sense of collective knowledge, and purpose, and creativity in the community – which is why so many artists have come from it. I really wanted to showcase that with people like Shireen Ramezani on my upcoming EP, and with my book cover, shot by my friend and local artist Richard Dixon.
How have things been for you since Keeping the House was published?
I’ve been returning to my creativity. I feel like I have worked with focus on the book’s publicity – writing essays, doing events. And I will still go on to do that, but now I feel I can also hop onto my new projects. I’m shooting two short films, preparing a treatment for Keeping the House, and writing book two.
Did you enjoy the publicity essays and that sort of thing? Did you feel a sense of creativity in writing them?
Yeah – I think I tried to repurpose what the publicity essay could be, pitching towards turning them into creative criticism or something like that. I like it when the genres blur a bit, you know.
We’ll talk about that in a bit! And what’s the second book?
Well one of the short films was going to be the second book. So I suppose the third book has become the second. The short film looks at domestic labour – what it’s like for a cleaner to enter a private space, interrogating the ideas of privacy and safe spaces; what it’s like to clean somebody’s house, going in and recognising the person because you’ve been in that house before.
The book – and people have discouraged me from writing this – is from the perspective of a young man who is sectioned. It looks at how he got there, and how he got out. I’m really interested in toxic masculinity, vulnerability, and writing from a queer femme perspective about it. Throughout my life, I’ve always had people confide in me. Perhaps I didn’t give off the vibe that a straight woman would give off to a straight man. I wanted to think about how I could play with that, with form and language. I love writing men.
Why do you enjoy it?
Well – I don’t feel I ‘write women’. I write characters; I write what makes them who they are. Because my thinking comes from outside the gender binary anyway, ‘writing women’ or ‘writing men’ or ‘writing nonbinary people’ feels more like an exercise of leaning into who they are and how they got there.
I do like writing really macho cishet men, though, where I feel there’s a campness at work. They’re characters so open to stereotype, and I like subverting that – characters who walk in with jackets over their shoulders, exuding power, but who aren’t really very powerful at all.
When you talk about stereotypes, I think about the ‘Who’s in’ cast-list at the start of Keeping the House. It’s like a Tarantino film. There’s something very human and rich about the little one-line descriptions of these characters, but there’s also a sense of stereotyping bound up in them, which is then deconstructed in the following 200 pages. What was your intention with that?
Max [Porter – Keeping the House’s editor] encouraged me to put in the dramatis personae. He thought I could have fun with it as a poet. There’s a sense that, to write something experimental, you have to position a piece of information very firmly at the beginning – give the reader enough information to go on – and then push it. And we wanted to consider that.
That you can only push an envelope if you have an envelope in the first place.
Exactly. I decided to run with the idea of a cast; there are people in ‘Who’s in?’ who don’t then really appear in the book. But they still have their story, and I’m interested in how stories emerge from how people interact.
I felt like Keeping the House was a book of glances – of looking in and catching people at things.
Is that something you gravitate towards as a reader?
I think I do – there’s something in reading that’s fundamentally voyeuristic. And you catch your reader in the act with this book.
I wanted to ask about how you inhabited all these characters. None of them are you and none of them are people you know, but they’re all you and all people you know.
I think it was my biggest challenge. Most of the publishers who had issues with the book wanted me to sort out my characters. They thought there were too many, or that some were too similar to each other. But people repeat themselves; in a group, everyone becomes closer in character to each other. Üzüm üzüme baka baka kararır– two grapes on a grapevine ripen each other.
I think also that, coming from a poetry background, writing huge swathes of extended prose without getting distracted was difficult. And with Complex PTSD, you find that your mind gets glitched quite often. You need to give yourself a prop – when writing, literary tools, to help your focus. I interviewed a lot of people for this book, and would flip what they said backwards and try to find a character in that.
How did you find that interviewing process?
Well, you have to have full consent – people knew what those interviews were for. It was harder with archival transcripts, though. That was where I was worried most about having consent in using research into individuals and their stories in my characters.
Could you talk about Cyprus a little, in relation to that?
I’m glad I’m Turkish Cypriot. But being from an island where there’s a sense that conflict might bubble up at any moment – that’s painful. I found that, when people there discovered I was a writer, they wanted their stories to be told. When I was writing the novel, I was walking around the village and people – particularly older people – would stop me and want to tell me stories. I remember sitting in the sea and an old man – a very round, little old man – swam towards me and said ‘You alright darling’, and I said, ‘Yeah I’m alright, abi’, and he said ‘I heard you’re a writer’. I said ‘Yeah’ and he said ‘My wife – she’s got amazing stories’. And I said ‘Oh really?’ and he said ‘You must come round my house sometime’ and I said ‘Well I’m actually flying back tomorrow so I can’t’. He said ‘Well, I’ll tell you: she found the bones of her brother in seven different places across this island’. There’s this discordance: we’re sitting in the sea, and it’s quite merry, and he’s got his bucket hat on. And he’s telling me about this.
He said, ‘You’ve got to find a way to put this in your book’. And I did. I’ve since spoken to them about that and they’re really happy about it. People feel seen. When you’re interviewing people for something like a novel, you find a lot more people come to you than you go to. And those are the people whose stories I feel most comfortable sharing.
It’s interesting. Context – obviously – is important, with storytelling. There are contexts where there’s a guardedness about stories, for different reasons. And then there are contexts where bearing witness to stories that might otherwise go untold is important. I think it’s often out of contexts of conflict, and other forms of collective and cultural trauma, that people most want their stories to be told.
You’ve mentioned cPTSD. Would you like to talk about that?
I was never under any illusion that I’d be published and suddenly my life would be sorted. Trauma ricochets. When I go towards art or sharing conversation – which I think is art – I see it as an opportunity to communally find solutions and escape routes, to build and reach places of safety. I think poetry is a good solution for some people. I find it a nice place to be. It’s part of a solution.
One of the refrains of Keeping the House is damla damla göl olur– drop by drop makes a lake. Some people would see the lake as something that will overfill and knock down skyscrapers. But I see the lake as a bountiful place, which creates something that can become a source of information, or comfort.
Do you worry that people will read you into the book?
They have! It was called a memoir. And that’s dangerous – I’m still in the area, and it’s not exactly a book about roses (there are lots of roses in it, actually, but you know what I mean). I have felt unsafe in certain spaces since, but I have friends from ends who look out for me. I’ve gone to such lengths to hide myself from the book, so I’m always surprised when people think they read me in it.
I think there’s a pervasive critical problem of reading writers into their fiction – and it happens particularly, I think, when writers have identities routinely underrepresented in fiction publishing. What you’ve just said throws into contrast for me that there’s an artistic danger in that, but also, in some instances, a very real danger.
I think about that a lot – the difference between artistic annoyance and real-world threat. In theory the conflation of writer and writing works great – I’d have a feature in a magazine where I’d be positioned as an omniscient heroin babe. But it’s not straightforward. As a debut novelist, there’s a lot that you would do to get in the eye of the media. You give a lot away, but return isn’t guaranteed.
I’m very mindful about how I present myself. I know that if I were to put myself out there more it would probably accelerate things for me. But putting yourself out there is challenging and so I want to do that with ownership over my message and image. I’m still here. This book has outed me in various ways to a lot of people in the community.
Do you feel guarded as we talk now?
No – not as much. I also think there’s inherent safety in literary publishing, and knowing that things like this have a particular audience helps. It’s a part of why I chose to write a literary novel. I pushed myself hard to write in a different register – in the hope of getting a publisher who would safely and communicatively publish me, while still trying to be as accessible to readers as possible.
Could you talk a little about relationships between the individual and the community?
I grew up in a very sheltered way you know. I wanted access to the community, which – for various reasons – I couldn’t have when I was young. We moved a lot. But I was always there, wanting to play out. And I write, I suppose, from a place of isolation – of people who want to be part of a community, and who both are a part of it, and yet are at once separated from it.
Everyone’s in but everyone’s out.
Exactly. And that’s something I was circling around a lot as I was writing: there’s something about me that I don’t understand, and I want to put a finger on why a character has that; is struggling to get societal rules; things aren’t clicking.
Can I ask a bit about translation? Some words and phrases are translated in the margins of Keeping the House – from Turkish, Kurmanji, Turkish Cypriot idiom. Why translate?
I sometimes love resisting translation – resisting the sharing of community secrets through it. I saw translation in the book as an opportunity to toy with that. I wanted the translation to feel like a character.
Whispering, sometimes heckling. Joining in on the fun. Sometimes we reduce translation to a linguistic arrangement, but it’s so much more than that. I do often think that translators are the best writers. Something liminal is happening when translation does or doesn’t occur. In Keeping the House, I translated some things myself, and others I asked friends to translate in their way.
And that relates interestingly to the ideas of individual and collective identity; who translates, how, and why.
100%. I very much wanted the process of translation to be the same process we undertake daily as multilingual communities and individuals. I had a lot of fun trying to translate mainland Turkish. It’s very different to Turkish Cypriot. Turkish Cypriot is very cheeky and fragmented. We say things in the quickest way possible and the naughtiest way possible. If someone comes into the kitchen wearing a bikini and a sarong we don’t say, Why are you dressed so skimpily? we say, Why have you come out dressed like a whore in the sun? If you said that in the mainland, they’d be horrified. And with the increasing Turkification of North Cyprus, I wanted to use the book in some small way to preserve Turkish Cypriot identity. I’ve had a lot of Turkish Cypriot writers message me and say that they felt they had to change their writing to catch the mainland market – and that’s a great loss.
You had a lot of sensitivity readers. Could you talk about that – the value of sensitivity reads, the different kinds that were commissioned for the book?
I would have had more if I could! Having sensitivity reads was a necessity for me when signing with my publisher. I’m dismayed by the number of people who need a sensitivity read and don’t want one, or get one provided by their publisher by someone who reads across infinite different cultures for a living. That makes no sense.
It’s not very sensitive.
Yeah. The people who read your work and don’t feel represented by it, or who feel wounded by it – those were the people I wanted. And, often, those are people outside the publishing space. It means they read in a much more immersed way.
I’ve been in the publishing industry, so I do understand that there are economic concerns involved (not just for the publisher, in commissioning them; but for career sensitivity readers, whose comments and recommendations and pushbacks are understandably shaped by the fact that they need to get future jobs). But they’re so essential. My sensitivity readers were, really, collaborators. And that’s something I think we need to consider: the creative potential of sensitivity reads. I think we need to reduce the shame about this collaboration – your editors, your translators, your sensitivity readers are all collaborators.
I think there’s value in reconsidering sensitivity reads as part of the natural and collaborative process that we do as writers. People would never say they don’t need a first reader; people would never say they don’t need an editor. And it should be the same for sensitivity reads.
I think there’s still a hangover of the way they were seen previously by the industry: as something Penguin paid for because they had loads of expendable income.
Yeah – and we don’t say that publishers only have editors because they have expendable income.
Finally, could I ask: What are you?
I’m a kraken. I’m trying to get at something with as many different tentacles as possible. Gobble it up. I consume a lot of different forms of creativity, and that takes form in the different ways I’ll try to get to a story. I’d call myself an interdisciplinary artist. I hope there will be a point where the writing and the music and the film all come together. It’s not to be controlling; I just love moving between forms.
Tice Cin is an interdisciplinary artist from north London. A London Writers Award-winner, her work has been published by Extra Teeth, Lit Hub and Skin Deep and commissioned by places like Battersea Arts Centre and St Paul’s Cathedral. She creates digital art as part of Design Yourself – a collective based at the Barbican Centre – exploring what it means to be human when technology is changing everything. A producer and DJ, she is releasing an EP, Keeping the House, to accompany her debut novel of the same name.
Interview by Will Forrester, Editor.
Photo credit: Eric Aydin-Barberini.