Isabel Waidner, 47, is the author of three novels, including We are made of diamond material, which was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Award and the Republic of Consciousness Award. In his 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 Iraq story, and the death of footballer Justin Fashanu. Waidner, who hosts ICA’s online literary chat program This is not a dreamHe spoke to me through Zoom from his home in London, where they teach at the University of Roehampton.
In your first novel, Eye-catching ornament, someone named Belá writes “awkward garden fiction.” Is this how you would describe your work?
That was my starting point, it’s true. I was always thinking about how to produce formally groundbreaking writing to address some of the questions I had about fiction itself, and that’s where the term “awkwardgarde” came from, but I probably wouldn’t use it now. Eye-catching ornament it was more rooted in traditional avant-garde strategies such as puns, 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 have created now is less “awkward”!
Pound sterling, the protagonist of your new novel, works as a cleaner while co-producing a crowdfunded performing 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 while juggling the oppressive structures that impact our lives. I worked minimum wage jobs until the mid-30s, when Roehampton awarded me a scholarship to do a PhD. I’m staging a complexity that we don’t always see in novels: working-class characters often do one thing, work, and then maybe they’re a bit criminal, and that’s it.
When Sterling is wrongfully tried 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 is true that the power structures and institutions that have long been involved in the oppression of trans and black people suddenly want a piece of the pie; if something is marketable, they are there as an opportunity. That part of the novel ended up being a kind of revenge fantasy, because it gave the main queer characters a chance to determine the narrative and they take advantage of it. I guess I was saying, don’t think we’re so harmless; Maybe the people in power feel that it’s okay now to capitalize on marginalized writers, but giving us real power could result in real change.
Why do you play with real life figures in your work?
I wonder that sometimes! Using Franz Beckenbauer as a character allowed me to introduce some of the history of racism and homophobia through the context of football. But autobiographical things are also happening; I merged figures from my life with the real Beckenbauer. My dad played soccer so he wanted to use a 70s footballer around 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 by working on different registers without smoothing out the differences between them.
How easy was it for you to post?
The art world accepted my work more easily to begin with. I posted Eye-catching ornament through Aspiring Dostoevsky, two working-class people operating a print-on-demand press [in Manchester] with zero capital. We presented it to the Republic of Consciousness award, and then We are made of diamond material I was eligible for the Goldsmiths Prize because I was British by then. Being shortlisted meant that without any traditional infrastructure we began to reach a fairly wide audience. But people shouldn’t be surprised if my work looks so different; instead, people should ask themselves, why are other books so similar? Because it’s really simple: When different writers post jobs, you get different forms of literature. What I’m trying to say with my work is that “different” doesn’t have to be scary, boring, or difficult; It can be fun.
You were born and raised in Germany; Do you see yourself as a German writer?
It’s probably not a coincidence that I’m writing this kind of unusual writing, because I had a German upbringing and that fundamentally shaped me: my parents don’t read books, but they introduced me to ambitious literature as a child in public school and that’s one of the differences of the German education system compared to the UK. But the truth is that I really feel estranged from Germany. I come from the Black Forest, a small conservative part of southern Germany, and I came to London in my 20s, not knowing anyone, to start a life where I could come out as a queer person. We are a lot; Queer migration used to be a thing, but I don’t know how much is happening since Brexit.
What have you read lately?
America has longer traditions of innovative queer / trans writing and a new press call Encryption press is posting cool stuff, like Big animals by Jess Arndt. This is the type of writing that excites me and is now spreading in the UK – Shola von Reinhold [author of Lote, winner of this year’s Republic of Consciousness prize] it is obviously part of that.
What authors inspired you to write?
Kafka: When I was a teenager I read everything. Later, I discovered the American queer tradition of “new narrative” writing, people like it Dodie bellamy, Robert lucky Y Kevin Killian, whose poetry sequence Kylie Action it’s about Kylie Minogue. This is the material that has influenced me the most, but it has never reached the UK; because they are gay and working class, they don’t get the credit they deserve.
Sterling karat gold is published by Peninsula Press on June 24 (£ 12.99). To support the guardian Y Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism