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Diego Garcia

Natasha Soobramanien and Luke Williams

Published 25 May 2022
French paperback with flaps, 269 pages

I. DEBT

This is the story of a book we are still writing.

Edinburgh, July 2014. The sluggishness of early afternoon. The sky clouding over, a slight chill in the air. The same uninterrupted sadness, a kind of listlessness that went with everything we did. We’d made it to the Meadows. It had taken us a while to get out of the flat, him offering to buy us a coffee from the Swedish café and one of those cardamom buns we liked so much if she would come to the library. We noticed how people passing noticed us. She noticed how much thinner he was than in London, joggers slipping down on his hips, constantly tugging at the waistband. We slowed our pace. We were still talking about the morning as if something out of the ordinary had happened, when really we’d spent it the way we spent every morning, him coming to her room with coffee, her accusing him of switching the heating off, him denying this. He’d told her, We really must get up earlier. It won’t help to stay in bed. This because we sometimes spent entire days in bed. In the kitchen she lit a tube, picked the raisins out of his cereal, milk still unpoured, put them with the other raisins extracted from other breakfasts. Currency she said, They’ll see us through The Emergency. He ate. We stared at his opened screen. We argued about whether to cycle to the library. But the sky seemed unsettled and unusually close from up here, on the sixth floor. We decided to walk. The billboard above ScotMid still read ‘Straight Talking Money. Wonga’.
    In the Meadows, some kind of fair. Tabletop stalls and food tents. Let’s mill she said. He began to look for something – a set of Encyclopaedia Britannica 1911 – he was always looking for a set of Encyclopaedia Britannica 1911. By the time we met again the rain was falling. She took him to a stall and said, I’m buying this dress. Is that a dress? Yes she said. She paid then disappeared with the dress, made of material with some kind of special effect, like oil on water. When she came back she had it on over her jeans and raincoat. Just imagine there are whole loads of famous people who were never photographed she said. He thought about this. She thought: He looks like a young Nosferatu. Max Schreck. He would not know which screen star to liken me to because he’s ignorant about these things.
    A fine rain. Dim light through the cherry trees. We walked away from the fair not speaking and when we reached the part of the Meadows that opens onto the tennis courts, just before the university library, we turned up onto Middle Meadow Walk. Ignoring the unbroken row of posters – comedy acts appearing next month at the Festival – not ready to stop – not ready for a coffee or a bun or the library – we took flight at the traffic lights and cut through Bristo Square, after that letting ourselves be carried by chance. And the sadness opened out.

– 

The city is built on several hills. There are valleys and there are bridges and there are stairwells that connect the two. In those days we would stop on one or another of the bridges and lean over to observe the streets. Sometimes we watched the gardens but never the rail tracks. It was frightening and thrilling to come upon these sudden and dramatic views, which made us think of the postcards sold everywhere on the Royal Mile and all over the city for that matter. ‘The Old Town and the Grassmarket’, ‘Cowgate at Night’, ‘Princess Street Gardens’, ‘Princess Street Looking West’. We would stand there looking down but she didn’t say what she would have said before: We’re too fuckin scared to jump.
    Because, when we walked, we failed to take in our surroundings, and because when we stopped walking we usually stopped on one of the bridges and looked down, we always had the sense of living above the city, of looking down – dizzy – on its many faces. We watched people flowing past as though caught in a flood. Knowing the city this way, from above, having arrived only recently, we didn’t feel part of it, though it had once been part of him, the city of his student years. We were nervous and irritable. This seemed to increase our togetherness. It gave us – only us together, not individually, never alone – a place in the world that we had not had before. We wandered the streets, unwelcome, leaning miserably into the wind or drinking ourselves stupid in a pub. All of this under the ugly haar-obscured sky that we didn’t realize we’d invented ourselves.

– 

The first time she saw him was in a photograph on a website for a magazine. She thought he looked odd and his story sounded odd. She couldn’t find the story anywhere but found his email address. He could not send her his story because he had bought all the remaining copies he could find of that particular issue of the magazine and had shredded them at the vulgar, pseudo-political, faux-Dada readings he had given for a while at various art schools and gonzo bookshops – though he didn’t tell her any of this. The first time we met she said, I hope you’ve brought money and he said, I have. She showed him a photo of V. S. Naipaul and said, This is my dad, we don’t speak. He pointed out a figure in the audience and said, That’s my brother, he rarely speaks. Or else he never stops. Later when we went for a meal, Daniel came too and he and Daniel ate like rats let loose in a grain-store, even finishing the leftovers on a nearby plate, and it was sad but in the end it didn’t matter all that much. The second time we met it was at a party in a library. The party was honouring a famous English writer – one of those realists who writes like a politician – whom she approached saying, Do you want my autograph? The second party we went to together was a few months after that. We happened to be in Edinburgh at the same time. We found ourselves in a basement bar. We talked beautifully about Can Xue, Dambudzo Marechera, Elfriede Jelinek, all the while drinking ourselves stupid. At one point he came back from the bar with two shots of vodka spiced with hot chillies, we chimed the glasses and she said, To the Mauritian Greats, Devi, Pyamootoo, Appanah, Patel. I am indebted! We drank the vodka down and he said, Hang on! He ran downstairs to the toilet and boaked into the bowl. Meanwhile she’d gone and got talking to a dangerous-looking character who could not look or step or speak without a sparking flow of words conveying his stupid thoughts spilling into the smoky room. By the time he returned from the toilet she and the character were on their way out. She said, Come on come on, we’re going to a party. We left the bar and hailed a taxi. We drove through town. We looked out the windows at the passers-by, many were dressed as police, or perhaps they were police dressed in uniform, and many others were dressed in kilts, and we burst out laughing because we remembered it was New Year. The party was at Restalrig then it wasn’t so we drove on further out of town.

[...]

Edinburgh, 2014. Two writer friends, Damaris and Oliver Pablo, escape London, the city that killed his brother. They spend their days trying to get to the library, bickering over their tanking bitcoin, failing to write or resist the sadness. Then they meet Diego, a poet. He tells them he is named for his mother’s island in the Chagos Archipelago, which she and her community were forced to leave by British soldiers in 1973. Damaris and Oliver Pablo become obsessed with this notorious episode and the continuing resistance of the Chagossian people, and want to write in solidarity. But how to share a story that is not theirs to tell? And how to account for a loss not theirs to grieve? A tragicomedy interrogating the powers of literature alongside the crimes of the British government, Diego Garcia is a collaborative fiction that opens up possibilities for the novel and seeks other ways of living together.

‘Intimate yet expansive, heartbroken but unbowed, and a book about writing that is anything but solipsistic, it’s a stirring novel that lights a way forward for politically conscious fiction.’
Anthony Cummins, Observer

‘As an experiment in “fictive criticism”, this is a new type of social novel, one that avoids stable conclusions. Instead it demands the reader’s own critique.’
Gurnaik Johal, TLS

‘As one digs further into Natasha Soobramanien and Luke Williams’ beguiling, wilfully disjointed quasi-novel Diego Garcia, certain details begin to link together, even as the form becomes stranger and less linear… There is a prevalent sense of mild interior-life chaos, simmering anger at spiteful injustice, and the feeling that events herein are profoundly real, perhaps because they are.’
Noel Gardner, Buzz Magazine

Diego Garcia is a beautiful, poignant, anarchic experiment in collaboration and collectivity. This novel does wonderful, innovative things to form and to politics – to style, to voice, to creolization, to propaganda and power and archipelic thinking – and especially to the denials inbuilt to British novels and British politics. Somehow it finds a way of exposing Britain's ongoing shameful occupation of the Chagos Islands while also being a document of literary resistance and originality. It offers models for future thinking.’
— Adam Thirlwell, author of Lurid and Cute

Diego Garcia is an important and highly original work, incredibly well-researched and thought-through.’
— Philippe Sands, author of The Last Colony 

‘As affecting as it is intellectually agile, Diego Garcia achieves what few novels even aim at – it opens up fresh ways of reading both history and fiction.’
— Pankaj Mishra, author of Run and Hide

‘I read Diego Garcia as a manual to navigate the present: pull any thread and follow where it takes you. Use your higher education to understand abstractions: cryptocurrency, legal fictions, national debt. Mistrust love, trust friendship. Exercise solidarity like a muscle. Come out collectively on the other side of sadness.’ 
Annette Weisser, TEXTE ZUR KUNST

‘Through the intricately woven histories and the corresponding fictions within fictions, the compassion expressed in Diego Garcia highlights the absence of it in those who, forsaking their obligations towards other human beings, exiled the Chagossians from their home. Written in a language at once distant and interior, dazzling, we see that until the Chagossian people are home, nobody is home.’
— Vanessa Onwuemezi, author of Dark Neighbourhood

‘Focusing on the ongoing atrocity of the Anglo-American occupation of the Chagos Islands and displacement of their native people, Diego Garcia is a subtle contemplation of the uses of fiction and narrative (for good and bad) and how, where and why individual and collective narratives meet. Taking in artists from Kader Attia to Sophie Podolski, as well as depictions of the Chagossians in poetry, documentaries and essay films, it is a moving study of friendship, allyship and creative forms of political struggle.’
— Juliet Jacques, author of Trans: A Memoir

‘This thought-provoking, brilliant book sends a hypersensitive probe into the subduction zone between solidarity and exploitation.’
— Nell Zink, author of Avalon

‘Listless and urgent, dulled by sadness and yet dancing with anger, moments of unexpected beauty and strange, bright comedy – in Diego Garcia, these tensions are held together by the energy of a singular collaboration, where the interplay between fundamental separation and common cause is staged even at the level of page layout, the writing of the sentences themselves. It is a novel of shared and unshared experience that is wholly unapologetic about not knowing how such a thing is to be written, but risking it nevertheless. The result is compelling, challenging, unprecedented, essential.’
— Kate Briggs, author of This Little Art 

‘This book attempts a new way of speaking and being: a practice of closeness, warmth, and friendship. Not a solution, but a method. We all hold a place for other people’s stories, and in doing so, remind ourselves: stories are collective enterprises.’
Orit Gat, Art Agenda

Natasha Soobramanien, British-Mauritian, and Luke Williams, Scottish, are the authors of Genie and Paul and The Echo Chamber, respectively. They used to live in Edinburgh but Natasha now lives in Brussels and Luke in Cove.