Sunny Singh’s new novel Hotel Arcadia plunges readers into the midst of a terror attack in a 5-star hotel in an unnamed city. War photographer Sam, known for her haunting portraits of the recently dead, has picked the wrong place to wind down after her latest assignment, but can’t resist her impulse to document the attack. Meanwhile hotel manager Abhi, sealed in his office watching a wall of CCTV footage, is determined to do all he can to keep the survivors safe from the gun-wielding assailants now wiring the building with high explosives. Amid the tension, Sam and Abhi make a touching connection that has the makings of a lifetime bond. I fire off some questions about the tactics of terror and the creation of a compassionate and compelling piece of fiction.
MR: The 2008 attacks on Mumbai were controlled remotely, with the attackers’ handlers monitoring and reacting to news reports and Twitter feeds. Like the 2013 Nairobi shopping mall siege, they were also geared at maximising international news coverage (including the insight that CCTV footage would be picked up by news outlets). What do such attacks tell us about the evolving tactics of terror?
SS: In retrospect, and given the changes in terrorism and counter-terrorism tactics, increasing problems with who we consider ‘terrorists’, developments in technology as well as mediascape, the Mumbai attacks almost seem primitive. Kabul, Mogadishu, Nairobi have shown remarkable shifts in tactics and technology deployed by all parties. However, there are a couple of constants. First, terrorism has always had an expressive, symbolic side. The more eyeballs an attack or group can grab, the more ‘effective’ it can be considered – at least in the short term. This means that a small group or even an individual such as Anders Breivik can cause havoc. At the same time, looser group and/or ideological affiliations – in some ways, these are the perfect post-modernist expression of our times – mean the older forms of ‘terrorist groups’ or even cells are transforming into something quite different.
At the same time, the power of narratives is becoming clearer than ever, especially in what we consider ‘terrorism’, so events like the German Wings crash or even Breivik’s carnage are rarely considered terrorism. Europol statistics, for example, show that less than two per cent of the ‘terrorist’ attacks in Europe are carried by Islamists. The overwhelming number of ‘terrorist’ attacks are by various political, non-religious groups with separatist and/or nationalist agendas, yet we rarely speak of those as ‘terror’ and they rarely make it to our TV screens and newspaper headlines. In many ways, the dominant narratives about terrorism show just how degraded, politicised and nearly irrelevant the terminology we use has become in the 10+ years of the ‘global war on terror’.
Governmental chipping away at post-Enlightenment and post-WW2 political ideals, structures and rights has been dressed up as ‘protecting our values’. It’s the perfect – if sinister – form of Orwellian double-speak.”
How would you characterise the media coverage and government response to such attacks?
In one word, for much although not all of the media: sensationalist. We rarely gain an understanding from such coverage although that is in part due to the ever-shortening news cycle. But when an incident is covered in isolation – and there seems to be increasing investment in ensuring no links are drawn – we get nothing more than sensationalist news. We never understand how events, narratives, histories are linked together.
What is increasingly horrific for me is how the mainstream media – even in Europe – overtly employs irresponsible hate speech, such as tagging minors as ‘jihadist brides’ or terming nine-year-olds as ‘suicide bombers’. It is as if all our empathy and policy on child protection disappears in face of bigotry and fear.
And of course, the entire ‘global war on terror’ has been a golden opportunity for governments all across the world to push back against hard-won human rights. The lack of understanding and fear whipped up by irresponsible reporting has gone hand in hand with eroding civil and even basic human rights. Ironically, all the governmental chipping away at post-Enlightenment, post-Industrial Revolution, and post-WW2 political ideals, structures and rights, at least in Europe and North America, has been dressed up as ‘protecting our values’. It’s the perfect – if sinister – form of Orwellian double-speak.
Is it any surprise that government agencies are tracking our private communications like never before?
Not at all. And that is not the end of it. We now have a government that wants to repeal the European Convention on Human Rights, one of the continent’s key post-war achievements which long pre-dates the EU, and ironically one drafted by British lawyers and endorsed by Winston Churchill, who is supposedly David Cameron’s hero. It is a basic convention that in some ways is the expression of our collective will to protect each other from ourselves. Anyone who has read the convention would find it impossible to oppose its content and will recognise its foundations in the horrors of the Second World War, and yet we are being blindly led away from it, thanks to a combination of ignorance and manufactured fear.
When can a perceived act of terrorism be justified?
Let us be very honest, all acts of violence can be justified, at least by and to those who are invested in that violence in some form. This goes for terrorism – which has become the catch-all term we use for violence carried out by non-state political actors. But it also goes for wars carried out by states. Remember that Mandela was considered a terrorist and was a founder of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC. Going further back, one could argue that the Boston Tea Party was an act of political violence – and thus of terror.
The issue is not really about justification or, as I would call it, rationalisation. Violence is never purely about politics. It is about our individual and collective morality and in a sense the moment of violence is the perfect human dilemma: no matter how we justify it to ourselves, an act of violence automatically ruptures not only international treaties and social contracts, but also our sense of our own humanity. And yet, violence is very much a part and parcel of our human existence, instinct and history. This is why our reactions to violence are so complex, and often discomfiting.
When did you start planning Hotel Arcadia?
This is a difficult question. I was a journalist for quite a large part of the 1990s. In different ways, I have been researching and analysing political violence since university. I could go back to pre-liberation South Africa, or Peru during the problems with the Shining Path, both situations which I followed quite closely. Or the state-backed terrorism of the 1980s in various parts of the world that I also saw up close. Of course some of the messiness of the narrative was lost after 9/11 when the US – and many other governments across the world – realised they could simplify the definition and narratives for their own purposes. So I suppose, all of those years of thinking and analysing went into Hotel Arcadia.
But stories have their own timescale and I believe that they choose what form they will take and when they will shape themselves. Moreover, my skill as a writer often doesn’t match up to my ambition, so I have to wait till I get the requisite expertise to write the story I want. This was very much the case with Hotel Arcadia. I seem to have carried the story inside for at least a couple of decades, but it only came together recently.
How many drafts did you go through before settling on the final structure, combining the ticking time-bomb element of a thriller with a three-stranded love story?
I carried a notebook around for nearly three years, making notes, drawings, complicated plotlines, you name it. But I knew from the beginning that I had Sam as my lead character and that whenever she decided to speak to me, I would be okay. She was so all-consuming that she nearly took over my mind. There came a point when I was walking into traffic, getting lost in my own neighbourhood, or would be staring blindly out the window, completely engrossed in her world. Along the way, she introduced me to Abhi and that’s when I started to see how the story would pan out.
I actually wrote the whole thing out in a single full draft. Of course then I went back to revise repeatedly, and to polish and clean up. But really the first draft was pretty clean. I have to confess that in my own mind, I am a lazy writer – I wait till I know my characters really, really well. Then all I have to do is to follow them around and write out what they do.
What was the key insight that led you to shape the novel in that way?
I always go back to Dante’s Inferno when I am stuck creatively as it always gets me thinking. In this case, the first point of inspiration – if you can call it that – is the story of Paolo and Francesca. I know that within the Christian tradition they are in hell and doomed to desire each other for eternity without consummation, and that is their punishment for their ‘sin’. But for me, and given our times, that sense of absolute eternal love seems more of a gift than punishment. So that was my starting point: I knew Sam and Abhi would become bound to each other during the course of the book, in some ways creating an intimacy that they don’t even have with their romantic partners. I wanted to explore the idea that delaying or even foreclosing the possibility for consummation can make a love more intense.
Part of the narrative of the ‘global war on terror’ has re-inscribed the idea of terrorism that happens ‘over there’ and somehow is carried out by the ‘other’. But in an intimately connected world, we are all linked.”
How tricky was it to switch between tense, fast-paced real-time events and the more reflective flashback chapters?
I wanted to construct that listlessness and oppressive boredom of a siege and the reflective chapters became a way of recreating those moments. It also allowed the pace to be varied as no siege unfolds entirely with guns and bombs and wild adrenalin rush. I wanted to recreate the structure of action, boredom, pushing oneself to an emotional and physical limit, and then the final bone-weariness. This is also why the length, frequency, and indeed intensity of the flashbacks vary through the book, and then fall by the wayside when the final assault begins.
Why was it important to you not to set the action in a particular city or country?
I think part of the narrative of the ‘global war on terror’ has re-inscribed the idea of terrorism that happens ‘over there’ and somehow is carried out by the ‘other’. And yet in an intimately connected world, we are linked by histories, actions, economic and political structures. At the same time, there is a strange, artificial flatness to hotels and resorts which seems to erase local links and rootedness. So in some ways hotels are a strange refraction of a particular global reality – a place where many different people cross and interact, and yet rarely do they become intimate or learn anything beyond the superficial about each other.
Moreover, in a global world, whether we like it or not, whatever we – as individuals, organisations, governments, countries – do ‘over there’ eventually comes home to us. So the city or country is really irrelevant because whether we like it or not, we share just this one, albeit very messed up, planet.
Did Sam’s character come to you fully-formed, or did some of her traits and working methods fall into place as a result of your research?
I felt I knew Sam from the first moment. I have been a journalist, although thankfully never covered the kinds of assignments she does. But I have a lot of friends who are journalists, aid workers, and otherwise involved in conflict zones so there are elements of her that are familiar. Moreover, PTSD is very familiar to me as I have grown up with people with intimate knowledge of combat zones. But other parts of her came from research. I read a great deal and interviewed a lot of people to understand her. The part that was hardest for me was her photography and her relationship with the different cameras. So that definitely required a lot of research.
Do you share Sam’s fierce independence, or any part of her tendency to put herself into life-threatening situations?
I don’t think so. I am quite independent but I have very close relationships so not much like her at all. The best part of writing fiction is that I can create characters that I am curious about. I guess Sam is precisely that.
Which of Abhi’s qualities do you most identify with?
I love Abhi’s courage. We seem to think that bravery is all about guns, bombs and machismo. Yet some people, especially men, have this quiet, emotionally intense courage that is unflinching and completely self-possessed. I have seen it up close and have always been intrigued because it seems so counter-intuitive, even subversive. Abhi has that kind of bravery and strength. He is – for me – the moral core of the book.
How did the YouTube trailers for Hotel Arcadia come about?
I knew I wanted a book trailer as it is easy to share online and also because it is another creative outlet. I reached out to independent and upcoming filmmakers, explaining that we had a miniscule budget (although I am very clear about paying creatives for time, expertise, energy) and a brief of what I wanted. But it was quite sketchy as I wanted the filmmakers to run with their vision drawn from the brief.
We have had two trailers so far, with very different aesthetics and politics. The first, by Will Scothern of Box Room Films (above), is very slick, very upscale, action/thriller-style. The second, by Samantha Asumadu of The Feminist Filmmaker (below), is gritty, urban, really edgy, with a completely different aesthetic. We are taking a break, but there may be other trailers or shorts in the future. For me, the book trailers have become a way of exploring how different aesthetics, politics and creative impulses can engage with my book, which is very exciting.
Finally, although the book trailers started off as another way of reaching out to my readership, they have grown from there. I love that they are a way of showcasing upcoming filmmakers and their talents as well as promoting Hotel Arcadia. They are also a form of creative collaboration that I hadn’t considered – it has been fascinating to see my novel, and the initial briefs, grow into film clips that have a strong and independent presence.
How many different countries have you called home, and are you now permanently settled in London?
I have lived in about ten or perhaps dozen countries, perhaps, although am never sure if any of those counted as ‘home’. The great thing about being a TCK (third culture kid) is that home is – as the saying goes – wherever you hang your hat.
I love London and have lived longer here than any other city in the world. I am about to complete ten years in the city. Having said that, I moved here in a moment when the city and country felt outward-looking, and welcoming of highly skilled people from across the world. In the past few years, it seems London – and UK as a whole – has grown quite insular and increasingly closed to the world. There seems to be a backwards move and increasing casual – and often violent – bigotry seems to be increasingly mainstreamed by politicians and popular media. So no, I don’t know if I will stay on permanently. London was a safe space when I moved here and a city I loved. But I am not sure if that is still the case, or indeed will be so in the future. I would like to stay on but if the city becomes unpleasant, well, there are other places in the world.
How did you and your family adjust to the frequent upheavals that went with your father’s job in the diplomatic service?
It’s quite funny you ask that because for me that is normal. We never thought of it as upheaval or something odd. Everyone we knew lived similar lives. All our friends – right from childhood – were TCKs who grew up all over the place. In some ways, we were more like each other than our own compatriots, or indeed the local people from whichever country we were in. Moreover, my parents loved travelling, learning and discovering. They still do – I am always fascinated how their eyes light up at even the idea of going off somewhere new. So every move was really a big adventure, and one that all of us could undertake together.
When and where are you happiest?
If I am to be completely honest, I am happiest when I am at home writing. However the beach always makes me happy and the desert calms me down so I suppose I should include those. Beyond that, I am quite easy to please – a relaxed meal with people I love is all I need to feel completely happy.
What makes you angry?
Injustice, cruelty and the wilful ignorance to maintain our complicity in both of those make me angry. I think we often forget that our complicity does not protect us. Instead it makes us more vulnerable.
How often do you return to India, and where have you travelled to most recently?
I return to India at least once a year and sometimes more often. It depends on what is going on. I was in Jordan last winter because I needed the desert to clear my head before Hotel Arcadia came out, and let the book go emotionally. I go often to Barcelona. I studied there and it is still my safe space when I need to unplug and – in some ways – revert to being the carefree student.
What is the first rule you try to instil in your creative writing students?
I start with a lesson I have learned the hard way: never assume you know anything. People often say ‘write what you know’ but I am increasingly convinced that we ‘know’ very little. So for me, a conscious sense of oneself, the ability to examine what we ‘know’ or don’t, and then to fill the gaps with research is crucial for writers.
What are you currently reading?
I am reading Conducting Terrorism Field Research: A Guide edited by Adam Dolnik. And I am re-reading René Girard’s Violence and the Sacred. They are quite different reads but I find them useful.
What are you writing next?
At the moment, I am finalising a book on Amitabh Bachchan for BFI’s Film Stars series. It is an academic study of stardom, films and popular culture in India. I am also working on a series of short stories around contemporary armed conflicts. There are other ideas floating about in my mind, just beyond reach, so I hope one of them settles down enough to start growing soon, but we’ll see.
Sunny Singh was born in Varanasi and brought up in various Indian cantonment towns, Islamabad and New York City. She studied at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachussetts, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, and the University of Barcelona, and currently teaches Creative Writing at London Metropolitan University. She has published three novels, a non-fiction book on lives of single women in India, numerous short stories and essays. Hotel Arcadia is published by Quartet Books. Read more.
Author portrait © Walter White