Kavita Bedford and her debut, Friends & Dark Shapes
25th November, 2022

In conversation with BOTY shortlisted author Kavita Bedford

Friends and Dark Shapes (Text Publishing) is a coming-of-age story where the age is 30; Bedford captures the almost unendurably protracted end of things, the end of a life, the end of a relationship, the end of a sharehouse, the end of a way of being in, and with, the world.

—BOTY 2022 judging panel

We had the most exciting opportunity to sit down with Kavita Bedford to ask about her debut novel, Friends & Dark Shapes, one of the shortlisted titles for the 2022 SPN Book of the Year Award. The award ceremony will take place on 25 November and will feature readings from Eleanor and the other shortlisted authors.

To see the full shortlist, click here.

To book a ticket to the BOTY award ceremony, click here. All the shortlisted books will be available for purchase at the Independent Publishing Conference and at the BOTY award ceremony, through our conference bookseller, Readings. They can also be ordered through the Readings website.

Q. You mention how you wrote this novel in many different places: first starting in Mexico at the Under the Volcano program, moving to Tepoztlan, Barcelona, Chennai, London and Berlin. Did these places ever affect the way you wrote about Sydney or any other location in the novel? Did this separation from Sydney allow you to view the city in a different way?

I think it makes a huge difference where you write from. I’ve always been really interested in outsider perspectives on cities, and a lot of the literature (including expat literature) I’ve read is about that. Being an outsider gives a really unique perspective on a place because you can see things (and maybe this is my old background in anthropology) with a cultural lens, paying particular focus on patternings. But what I think is really interesting is writing as an outsider when you are from a city.

So, for Friends & Dark Shapes, what does it actually mean to live in Sydney but not necessarily feel part of the city you’ve grown up with? I thought that was a really interesting perspective, and it is one that I know a lot of migrants and first, second and third-generation kids feel—where globalisation, migration and people move from place to place all the time. That sense of what is a home and what is an insider and outsider takes on a really different perspective in my novel, so in order to do that I found writing away from Sydney was really helpful because it deepened something that I already feel within the city. And then I also wrote a lot of it in the city, so sort of playing and juxtaposing those two.

Q. On this theme of location, Sydney is almost another character in your novel, something that is stagnant and set in its ways. I have heard that the novel had its origin as an angry letter to Sydney, and I want to explore this notion a bit more. Australian fiction, traditionally, is colonialist and given our current climate and what has been reported in the news as of late, we have not moved past our history of racist Australia. Is this where your anger sprouts from or are there other areas you feel are unexplored?

Some of Friends & Dark Shapes’s origins were in a letter that I wrote to Sydney. I was really interested in writing to a place as if it were a character because I felt really heartbroken at the time. And so, I wrote this letter that contained a lot of rage in it. In the final draft, one of the characters, Nikki, asks what it actually means to have a home. Does it not mean the place that you’ve loved and lost in? Is that not enough to secure a home for yourself? So with Sydney, and this current generation, so many people are affected by housing crisis issues, and issues around jobs and security. A lot of people feel like they are pushed out of the city. It feels like, in many ways Sydney—as well as a lot of Western, democratic developed cities—doesn’t have a lot of room for those who do not fit into the main narrative. And whether that is from a race perspective, or whether that’s from an economic perspective, it is a city that doesn’t often allow for ease of other people to exist in it. And I, along with a lot of friends, felt really heartbroken because I was seeing a future of a city that I had grown up in that I might not fit in.

There is an anger beneath Sydney. It has a very dark history, despite presenting sparkling harbours and Bondi beaches to outsiders as some kind of sparkling place. But I was curious because a lot of people I have talked to feel quite similar, where there is an unsettledness, a sense of not really feeling like they belong, and a confusion around who gets to belong in a city like this. So leading on to what you mentioned around a lot of colonialist history, there are definitely a lot of elements about how we’re all borrowing this city. And I was really interested in exploring that with this book: what it means to be second- or third-generation migrants where you exist on borrowed land of a place with Indigenous histories. Especially where you don’t feel a part of the mainstream histories. And there are so many nuances that don’t often get explored with migrant stories about how we’re also part of the understanding and issues on who belongs here and who gets to belong.

Q. The novel is filled with powerful vignettes, capturing mostly the mundane in the most exciting and nuanced way. What was the writing process like with writing in different short vignettes?

Yes, it was a really interesting process. I think it came about for a few reasons. One was the nature of the novel, initially written as this letter. I found myself writing a lot of episodes, and it took me about three years to write a first draft of the novel. I ended up having to entirely scrap it because the vignettes didn’t have a backbone. And I think one reason for this is that the way Sydney is set up feels off. It’s quite segregated in some ways. The city has lots of tracks, through estuaries and waterways, and people stay in their enclaves. Part of this is because it’s a very sprawling city, and its whole geographical make-up is very hard to travel off of. So there are real geographical logistics behind it. But, it also kind of made me think it’s almost like vignettes: the city itself. You get lost in streets and you wander down back alleys. Sydney’s incredible because, unlike Melbourne, there’s nothing grid-like about it. You’ll turn to go parallel, and you’ll just find yourself in a totally different area. So it felt very vignette-y already to me as a city, and I think before I had necessarily thought of making this a complete novel, I was writing scenes and bits of Sydney. And as you said, the city itself is such a character that it almost seemed to take over and form its own way of wanting to be written.

I also stylistically love vignettes, and I love short chapters. A lot of the stuff I was reading—flaneur writers, modern stuff and female writers like Natalia Ginzburg (a much later Rachel Cusk) and Brian Washington—fed into this. I love these short stylistic chapters, which are different to vignettes, and which is where the book ended up going. But I think it still kept that vignette quality to it.

Q. A theme throughout the novel is navigating as a young woman through many transformations and changes. Did any real-life experiences inform the way you told these stories?

The whole idea of fiction being based on real life is such an interesting one, and it’s one that people always want to know about. And it can’t be helped, in some ways. There are always parts that are based on reality. Once you’ve undertaken a novel or fiction, it becomes so highly curated, and you are going back to it, and editing it, and changing it around so many times that it becomes a work of something other. It becomes a work of art or fiction, but it surpasses that—it would never be right to say that it is completely based on reality.

Having said that, there’s definitely a lot of autobiographical content in my novel. For me, the parts that stayed true were to do with my father. It was very much an ode and something that I wanted to write. I was writing it while I was losing him, and then after when I lost him. So, the emotional quality of it, and some of the biographical details are absolutely me and my father’s relationship. It was something that I really wanted to write about, firstly out of love, and secondly because I think in literature it’s so rare that we see positive relationships between fathers and daughters. They’re not something that is covered in a way that shows its strengths and qualities. And as I write about in the book, it has a porous quality, it’s such a delicate world. We know a lot more about the hardships around father/daughter relationships. So, I really wanted to write something as a testament to the relationship I had with my father. But the rest of the book is drawn from conversations I’ve had with friends, drawn from moments, things. However, there is no real character in any of those friends. It’s an amalgamation of things; a lot of it was creating scenes that felt true to something that may have happened here. I think one of the best compliments is when people have said ‘I was at that party’, or ‘I had that conversation too’. And even though they were fabricated, it’s always trying to create a semblance of the world we live in, and the best thing you can have is someone say that it felt so authentic and real. I was definitely aiming for that with the rest of the novel.

Q. You have previously mentioned that you spent the first three years of creating this novel writing ‘something quite different’. What has changed between your first draft and now, and how have you shifted focus to really capture the diversity in the heart of Sydney?

It was really different, and I think one of the ways it was is that it didn’t have an arc. It didn’t have a backbone. It was very sprawling, it was all over the place. And a lot of people I know say that when you’re trying to write your first novel you try to put every single thing you want into it, which just makes it into this sprawling beast. But once I realised how big a part the share house had to play in my novel, I realised that that was the backbone. Also, the time frame of one year helped as well. So you know, the novel begins, ‘I moved into a share house one year after my father died.’ And that was it, it created limitations I needed to contain that sprawling-ness. It had one year, which I divided into seasons, which gave it some form. And then just the gentle arc of moving into a house and, in the end, moving out of the house. It is a gentle novel in terms of plot, and that it needed a structure to hang off, to allow those vignettes to be threaded with something else without taking over.

The novel is an amalgamation of many different share houses I’ve lived in and moments and conversations I’ve had. At the time of writing it, it was what I was going through—I was moving houses constantly. It felt so mundane to make it about that but I was trying to write this novel while just constantly moving which [helped in discussion with] this is a big preoccupation between this generation and the housing crisis. And it became this wonderful way to place impermanency and grief within forming and losing connections. It allowed all of these deeper themes that I was trying to write about to resonate within this shell structure of the share house. That was the big thing and once I realised that, I actually did a rewrite. So, a lot of the vignettes still found their way into it, but I wrote all of the bits to do with the characters in the share house and their trajectories. That allowed all these other bits that I’ve been writing for years and years to find their home.

Q. Gentrification is another huge theme in your book (and it would be a sin of mine if I did not bring it up). You have said previously that you carefully crafted your novel so that you were not blaming any particular group. Was this to focus on those particularly affected and their stories? Or to get a differing perspective on gentrification that we don’t often see expressed in Auslit?

It is something that I think is so interesting and important to talk about. I think it’s really important to bring back economics and economic structures, looking at the sociopolitical ramifications that are going on. It’s been said many times that the novel is inherently political in many ways and a lot of those things need to come back into it, like the viewing of society through that lens because gentrification and who has and who doesn’t have is a class issue. We pretend to be a classless society. Gentrification does show that.

I really wanted to have this group of young millennials in Redfern—which was an important place as well because of its Indigenous history—bringing ideas about forced relocation of Indigenous populations and the new strata of society moving in. You’ve got all of these people rubbing up against each other: new young professionals, students, artists and then also the next element, which is migrants. Belonging to and understanding that your family perhaps came from somewhere else or, in my case, was born here but understood what it was like for others to give up their home and lose something. Then also participating in the very act of displacing others. I’m not saying, and I believe it rarely comes from a malicious point of view, but I do think it’s important and complex to look at that. There is often this narrative of poor migrants, and I wanted to shake some of that stuff up because I think it is way more interesting and complex and nuanced than that. So, I wanted to have these young people, second-generation Australians, coming from different countries—part Indian, Cambodian, Palestinian—and the issues they’re going through while living on stolen generation land and operating in systems where they’re being displaced and they’re displacing others. This directly fits into the broader narrative of Sydney, but also Australia. In a very global context, this is happening everywhere: when we’ve got wars, displacement of people and everyone is searching for a home. I was interested in this idea where we’re often trying to blame or find who took something of ours. But there is always this seeking to blame someone because it hurts to lose things, and that’s also a very big theme in this novel of the loss of a father and trying to find why? Why do we have to lose? And so I wanted to wrap a lot of these themes into each other and they don’t feel separate to me. They feel all part of the same bigger ideas of loss and how we accept our own ideas of loss without seeking blame. 

Different perspectives in Auslit—absolutely! That was absolutely a huge concern and preoccupation of mine where I want to see more diverse perspectives through voice, through representation in the Australian literature scene. I think it’s happening, there’s some really exciting literature being produced. I think there is a lot of need and desire to hear that. I think we’re bored of the same old narratives, and who got to own stories, so I definitely see a push for that. And it’s something I feel excited to be a part of.

Kavita Bedford is an Australian-Indian writer with a background in journalism, anthropology and literature. Her writing has appeared in Guernica, the Guardian and Griffith Review, and she was a recent Churchill Fellow exploring migrant narratives. She works and teaches in Sydney in media and global studies.

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