The narrative of Shiromi Pinto’s Plastic Emotions charts an imagined love affair between an important yet forgotten Sri Lankan figure of 20th Century architecture, Minnette de Silva and the Swiss-French legend Le Corbusier, told through the use of lyrically flowing prose. The novel only began to take shape as a friend of Shiromi told her about the time he had worked with de Silva.
“He told me fascinating stories about this eccentric woman who seemed to know everyone who was anyone in the 1940s and ’50s, and she was Sri Lankan. I thought, who IS this lady? That question set me off on a journey through many years of research, and ultimately ended with my novel,” she says.
Here, Shiromi chats about why she chose de Silva, how ethnicity and gender play a role in overlooking talent, and the rigorous research process that she undertook for her novel.
Why Minnette de Silva? What led to her being the focus of your narrative?
Minnette fascinated me. She also intimidated me. I wanted to know her better — understand who she was — and bring her story to a wider audience. If I found her an arresting character, I felt sure others would, too. In the end, I felt her story deserved a much wider audience. And, I thought I might help make that happen with my novel.
Do you feel that in architecture, much like most fields, women have rarely received the attention they deserved while men were just as easily hailed as geniuses? Was it the same with Minnette?
Whether science, art or architecture, women rarely get their due. In my view, there is no doubt that Minnette was overlooked because of her gender — and, on a global level, also because of her ethnicity. Men of so-called genius are cut all sorts of slack. Their peremptory demands are cast as eccentricity, their arrogance as confidence. Women are denied this indulgence. Far from lionised, they are pilloried for daring to challenge accepted norms of behaviour.
What was the kind of research you undertook while penning this imagined love affair between Minnette and Le Corbusier? Any particular instance or revelation during the process that stuck with you?
Research for Plastic Emotions was a painstaking process. I spent years in libraries: the British Library and the (now defunct) British Newspaper Library. I had to really get to know these characters and their contexts, which meant spending time with their writings as well. Minnette’s fantastic autobiography, The Life and Work of an Asian Woman Architect, was an essential source, as were her letters to Le Corbusier, held at the Fondation Le Corbusier in Paris.
What was surprising to me was the occasional desperation in those letters. Everything I had read suggested she was a wilful, strong character, yet here was this woman pining for a letter from her friend. It was difficult for me to reconcile with the person I thought she was, and I think this is why people critique my text as well. I wanted to be true to reality and therefore the letters in my novel carry the flavour of the originals. But people tend to react as I did, thinking why is she behaving this way? My answer is that people are complicated, and sometimes loneliness makes fools of the best of us.
The very intimate act of writing letters shapes how the reader is drawn into their love story. Was that a conscious choice, to make writing itself an act of love?
I like that. Yes, writing is a kind of act of love, especially as executed by Minnette and Corbu. Even when they are at their most glib, they can’t escape the deep affection they feel for one another. For me, letters are a way of entering that intimate space, but they are also a constructed truth. Minnette and Corbu only reveal what they want to. I deliberately set the first against the third person at times to show how our representation of truth is a carefully curated thing.
Were there any literary models that you were influenced by while structuring the lyrical flow that the novel takes?
I can only point to novels that I love and that inspire me, like David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet or anything by Toni Morrison. But inspiration is where it ends. My novel falls rather short of such accomplished works.
What is your writing process like? Do you have a dedicated writing space?
I am a tortoise when it comes to writing. When I am actively working on a book, I set myself an achievable target (X words a day) and get it done. Before I start writing, I set out the basic structure of the book, create character profiles and timelines. In my mind, I have a geometric visual of the narrative (this one is a diamond, or that one is a curve), and I write to create that shape. I don‘t have the luxury of a dedicated space. I need a window and silence. Once I have those two things, I can write.
What are you working on next?
Something completely different. We’ll see.
INR 499, Penguin Random House.