2018 BAME Prize: Gurnaik Johal Q&A

Gurnaik Johal is one of our six shorlisted authors for the 2018 Guardian 4th Estate BAME Short Story Prize with his story The Piano. Get to know him a little bit better with this Q&A! Find out more about all six shortlisted stories here.

The story: The Piano

Reggie, a widower, is determined to make something good from grief. He misses listening to his wife’s music so puts her old piano out on the street for anyone to use, and the music that people play starts to bring a community of strangers slightly closer together.

What’s your name?

Gurnaik Johal

Where do you live?

I live in Northolt, West London.

What’s your main occupation?

I’m 19 years old and still a full-time student.

Can you remember the title of the first story you ever wrote?

I’d never written a story until university and the first one I wrote was called The Cave— it was embarrassingly bad.

What are you reading now?

Right now I’m reading lots of books at once: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan by Yasmin Khan, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer and American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes.

What’s your favourite word?

I don’t have one, but I quite like words like ‘stream’. It’s interesting how many words for natural things are repurposed to describe technological things; words like ‘stream’ naturalise and normalise new technology.

What’s one book everyone should read?

I’d recommend Building Stories by Chris Ware. He creates really 3-dimensional empathetic characters in 2-dimensional drawings. There’s one story in the collection that has no dialogue at all but still manages to make me emotional reading it.

Which writers have influenced you most?

My influences come from lots of places but in terms of writers I would say my biggest influences right now are Yiyun Li, Tracy K. Smith, Alison Bechdel, Jhumpa Lahiri, Miranda July and Gish Jen.

What’s the most memorable sentence you’ve ever read?

I’ve just finished Tommy Orange’s There There so that’s still fresh in my mind. One sentence that stuck with me was “You were two halves of a thousand different kinds of possibilities, a million heads or tails, flip-shine on a spun coin.” I don’t normally like second-person writing, but I’ve reread the opening to that chapter over and over (it’s excerpted for free on The New Yorker website if anyone is interested).

Where’s your favourite place to write?

I do most of my work at home, but like writing in The John Rylands Library.

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