15th November, 2021

In conversation with BOTY shortlisted author: Sreedhevi Iyer

In the lead up to the 2021 Book of The Year winner announcement on Friday 26 November, Associate Producer Emma Kellaway sat down with Sreedhevi Iyer to discuss the shortlisting of her novel The Tiniest House of Time (Wild Dingo Press 2020). 

Critically acclaimed for its brilliantly complex style, research and storytelling, The Tiniest House of Time explores the depths of identity, undocumented history, and the concept of time through a tale that crosses continents and generations. 

Finding lost history 

The book started from a place of grief when in 2003 Iyer was unable to attend her grandmother’s funeral due to geographical separation. From there Iyer set out on a journey to discover the woman her grandmother was. 

‘I had a very old notebook with me of things she had spoken about and I wanted to discover her as a person, not just my grandmother, it all grew from there,’ she said.  

Iyer’s research ramped up when she travelled with her mother to Burma (now Myanmar) in 2006. What unravelled was a fragmented record of history with many unknowns. 

‘My idea was to dig around and do as much research as possible and I realised that in a land with so much of the military junta around, it was really quite impossible … The libraries there had all been converted into military quarters.’

The challenge of finding those missing pieces only further inspired Iyer. ‘It got me thinking about unknown histories and lost histories and how easy it is to lose histories that way,’ she said. 

‘Everything that has happened has happened before’

Guided by the mentorship of Madeleine Thien, Iyer wrote the novel in a back and forth chronology across 60 years, from colonial Burma in the 1930s, Nationalist Malaysia in the 1990s, to what was set in present day Malaysia 2007. 

The style choice was used to explore the concept of time by looking at repeated history. During her research for the novel, Iyer said it became very apparent that events in the world happen in parallels. 

‘So much of the contemporary realities of Malaysia in the 1990s at the time, very oddly reflected things that I was researching about Burma in the 1930s.

‘We seem to think that time progresses in a linear fashion, from point A to point B. When actually, if you read a lot of the ancient texts and philosophies, they view time as somewhat circular and perhaps even somewhat spiralling.’  

The human condition to label everything

Based on her personal experiences, another big theme of the novel is identity and the ever-present need for humans to categorise everything. 

‘It’s a human tendency to try and categorise people the same way we are used to categorising things and ideas because it helps to make sense of the world.

‘Growing up in Malaysia, I was seen as Indian and growing up in Australia, I was seen as Malaysian. I spent four years in Hong Kong where people found it hard to categorise me because I am an Australian citizen, so I said I’m Australian and they looked at me and said, there is no way you’re Australian!

‘From my own experiences, some of which can be seen in the book, what then happens is that that label becomes the most defining part of a person’s identity and I think that is a false definition of a person.’  

Wild Dingo Press

Catherine Lewis founded Wild Dingo Press in 2010 to publish fiction and non-fiction literary works that explore social, cultural, political and environmentally significant issues. 

Iyer said something she adored most about publishing with Wild Dingo Press was working with editor Karia Ariel who ‘semi-adopted’ her book, an act she was grateful for, and other staff at the publisher whose attention to detail and ‘getting the history right’ was admirable.

Iyer is a lecturer of writing and publishing at RMIT in Melbourne. When she is not writing academic articles or grading the large pile of final semester papers, she is working on her next novel which will explore the trope of the virgin sacrifice. 

The 2021 Book of the Year award winner will be presented by the Wheeler Centre as part of its Next Big Thing series, via Instagram Live on 26 November 2021 from 6:30pm.

You can buy a copy of The Tiny House of Time, all the other BOTY-shortlisted books and books written or published by IPC2021 speakers at the special SPN bookstall powered by Readings.

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