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Friendship in Fiction: Open Book at the 2021 London Literature Festival

The second day of the Southbank Centre’s London Literature Festival was marked by a special episode of BBC Radio 4’s Open Book, bringing both institutions - and the audience - together in a particularly apt display of the main theme of this year’s Festival - friendship.

Image credit: India Roper-Evans

The usual hosts, Elizabeth Day and Johnny Pitts, were joined by writers Andrew O’Hagan, Emma Jane Unsworth, and Ayisha Malik, to discuss how books can form friendships, both within their texts and outside them. The discussion to come felt yet more meaningful as Day opened with her own anecdote to start the show: that the friendship between Day and Pitts was initially formed during last year’s national lockdown, on the basis of their shared radio segment, ‘Open Book’, but they hadn’t actually met in-person until this summer. It would have been hard to tell this given their seamless dynamic as friends and coworkers, which made them the perfect hosts to lead such a discussion.

Unsworth, author of the novels Animals and Adults, opened the talk with a comparison between romance versus friendship in literature - a topic which frequently recurred throughout the discussion, producing insightful responses from the whole panel. Her first comment regarded friendship as something incredibly complex and durable despite the lack of milestones that we are accustomed to celebrating otherwise in romantic relationships (such as engagement and marriage). This was thoughtfully added onto by Malik, author of Sophia Khan Is Not Obliged and This Green and Pleasant Land, who suggested that we understand romantic love through the lens of friendship, and use what we have already learnt from platonic relationships to inform how we behave in romantic ones. Unsworth and Malik equally shared the view of friendship as something we take for granted, and which involves an underappreciated depth and range of emotion - “the intensity of childhood friendship [...] reaches to animosity, and almost hatred”, Malik said, while Unsworth later added, “Ferocity in friendship is something we don’t often talk about, that passion.”

The discussion then took on a personal dimension, when O’Hagan provided the context for his latest novel, Mayflies. “I hadn’t read the book I wanted to read yet,” he said, when prompted for an opinion on male-male platonic affection in fiction. This led to a consideration of the ‘foreignness’ of male-male affection and even male-female working-class friendships in the second half of the 20th century, something which only started to change in his own generation. He also expressed how natural it was for him to draw on real, autobiographical material for his fiction, which really came through during his reading; the extract involved a poignant moment between two young boys who are only just finding their feet in the world. This evoked both the tenderness and excitement of youth, as well as the ephemerality of it all - like the titular mayfly, who rarely lives for more than one day.

Unsworth followed up on this by agreeing on the necessity of drawing on real material that reflects our modern-day world. Her focus involved rewriting narratives to fit our present society as it is, and breaking away from the stereotypical fairytale ending for both platonic and romantic relationships, presenting dynamics that are far more emotional and nuanced.

The discussion of subverting these stereotypes led Elizabeth Day to ask about the tragicomic nature of novels about friendship. “Having the tragedy juxtaposed with the comedy makes great literature,” Malik answered, citing Jason Reynolds’ novel Long Way Down as she did so. She then performed a reading of her own tragicomically-tinted novel, This Green and Pleasant Land, where her characters Rukhsana and Shelley are able to forge a shared bond despite their lack of shared language. When asked about the potential and importance of these relationships, she said, “It’s about shared grief and how it transcends language [...] spoken language isn’t as important as body language and expressions.”

Moving onto the last few minutes of the talk, Day was eager to broach the topic of friendship as especially invaluable among marginalised communities, both in the world of the novel and the physical - particularly online - space outside of it. Referencing Torrey Peters’ novel Detransition, Baby, she asserted “just how important friendship is in finding your own identity, especially in a community where you have to make your own rules”.

This led O’Hagan to raise the interesting point of the multiplicity of social media - the way in which one person can have several realities online; the digital space is international, sexually free, and more fluid. “Is online space really lacking in intimacy and consistency?”, he asked. Unsworth was quick to respond with the fact that “Digital communication is less ephemeral than people think”, while Malik mentioned the idea of only being able to say what you really feel to people who don’t really know you - those you have only met online. O’Hagan then pointed out that the idea that geographical closeness is needed for a strong friendship may not always be true - as the lockdown following the pandemic has persistently brought to light, making the question of the connection between geographical and emotional closeness more interesting and relevant than ever.

Finally, Malik was asked to comment on the camaraderie between writers themselves - a relationship which she noted as being very different to that between a writer and a non-writer, because of the shared experiences and understanding between them as practitioners of their craft. There are certain things that it’s difficult to discuss with others, as Unsworth pointed out, but it’s invaluable to have friends who share that understanding, and who you can engage in political, contentious, or fear-inducing topics with. “Friends bring each other to their full imaginative capacity, make each other’s lives fuller,” said O’Hagan, and there was a resounding feeling that this should be both for the good times and the bad - yet another boundary that friendship transcends. Whether it’s crossing the barriers of emotions, language, geography, identity, or something much smaller and more mundane - this panel showed me that there really is no barrier that can’t be crossed if there’s a friend by your side to help you along.

Open Book is broadcast live on BBC Radio 4 every Sunday afternoon and repeated every T

hursday, and covers everything from literary classics to - as Rob Ketteridge, the BBC Radio Head of Arts, Documentaries and Drama, put it - “the newest writers on the literary block”. You can listen to the live recording on BBC Sounds here.

Edited by Maisie Allen, Literature Editor


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