Exploring Memory: An Interview with Davina Quinlivan

Davina Quinlivan is a British writer and lecturer.

Her book Shalimar: A Story of Place and Migration is a mix of memoir, travel and nature writing.

Davina is a lecturer in the Department of English and Creative Writing at the University of Exeter, and Writer in Residence with Literature Works/Quay Words and the Royal Devon and Exeter Institution Spring 2023.

Davina runs creative writing and film courses at The Freud Museum and is part of the founding teaching ensemble at The New School of the Anthropocene.

Her creative non-fiction essays and short stories have been published in The Willowherb Review, Litro, Arty, The Clearing, and Caught by The River. Davina has also written books on film, including Filming the Body in Crisis: Trauma, Healing and Hopefulness; and The Place of Breath in Cinema.

I spoke to Davina about how she wrote Shalimar, her family history (her heritage includes Burmese, Shan, Indian, Irish, French, German and Scottish), her own journey as she moved from London to rural England, and the meaning of home. She also talked about her father, who was a child in what was then Burma during the Second World War.

The conversation is part of the HLF Online series, organized by the Hyderabad Literary Festival.

Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

Davina spoke about giving visibility to the untold stories of her family.

DQ: There’s a sense of these untold stories, making them visible not only for the reader but for myself, knowing that they have not vanished, but they are actually there in the present, in our everyday life in the way I tell those stories. There’s something almost political about it, but it’s also a creative choice of wanting to bring those stories to life. That’s why I would describe it [the book] as creative non-fiction rather than a straightforward memoir.

There was a voice inside of me that was also looking for some interpretation and exploration of memory, exploration of the way that we remember things, or the way that we think about the world we inhabit. So I tried to tell the story through their eyes as well. Quite early on I described the idea of my grandmother, who is the daughter of colonials and of Asian heritage, climbing the Blarney Stone in Ireland. I try to imagine it because there’s something so sensuous and rich and tangible about this really small mixed Asian woman climbing this monolith in Ireland that had really no meaning for her. She has inherited the surname because she has married someone who is of Irish origin. I turn it around and I explore the idea, is it a kiss or is it a metamorphosis?

Davina talked about how she pulled together the diverse elements that make up her book—her family history, old English legends, raising her children in the English countryside and much more—and how she found the connections between them.

DQ: It’s like I was looking at my own life through this kind of cinematic lens. Cinema is a really good medium for time because, like my book, time is non-linear: each kind of memory touches upon itself, and we can move through memories in a kind of fluid fashion. So my child knocks over a glass of water, and it reminds me of my father drinking water, and swimming in the pool in Shalimar. I tried to connect all those images into one narrative. There is a loose structure of the six or seven moves through deep England, which connects with nature writing. Then there is also some commentary on culture and identity. I go back through to my childhood and I think about what it felt like at the time, growing up. And then realizing that my father really lived in that moment too; he was always a child in a way, and his childhood was cut short.

There’s quite a lot of back and forth in weaving those things together. We move from my father as a child being carried through the hills in Burma. His aunts or the women who helped my great-grandmother would carry him in a sort of papoose. He would talk about being carried through the village and smelling the Burmese tea leaves on his hands. I moved from that to standing in the car park in Ealing Broadway, being told that he doesn’t have much more time to live, he’s literally got a couple of months.  And moving from the past to the present and how I can connect those through causes and breaks and ellipses. And the meaning is actually in the gaps.

Read my review of Shalimar: A Story of Place and Migration for Women on the Road.

Go to the Hyderabad Literary Festival website.

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