Franciska Soares Brings To Life Spirited, Courageous Women In Her Book, They Whisper In My Blood

Franciska Soares

Franciska Soares, Indian-born Kiwi writer, was raised in a strict Roman Catholic family. This plays a significant role in her life, shaping her choices and in turn her writing process. After being an educator for quite a while, Soares, dipped her toes into the world of fiction. “Fabulous, sumptuous, and enthralling..” know more about Soares’s They Whisper In My Blood, and about the author’s life in her own words.

ELLE: Where did you get the vision for Pippa? Tell us about her characterisation.

Franciska Soares: Like all the characters in the novel, Perpetua, Pippa, was born fully grown, gestated unknown to me in a deep dark place unreachable by thought. The seed was planted all those years ago when I overheard a conversation my parents were having about an ancestor who “did not like sex”. Pippa was this shadow shrouded in fiction that haunted the periphery of my imagination where experience and history bleed together.

In They Whisper in My Blood, she emerges, a shadow no more, as a smart, competent woman who finally decides to go in search of Shyam whom she’d loved and lost. There are three female leads in the novel: Pippa, my modern-day protagonist, Briana, her great-grandmother and Sundhari a devadasi exploited for her beauty and youth. Briana and Sundhari lived in the 1800s but they play a pivotal role in giving Pippa the courage to take control of her life when she is expected to settle for something less than living.  

ELLE: Having written books on accounting which were more educational, when did you come to the decision that being an author of non-fiction was the right career for you? What are some of your biggest inspirations to write?

FS: Yes, I came to fiction after years of writing non-fiction. The textbooks I authored were a practical necessity filling the creative fissure of not writing formed by what I like to term as my ‘waiting-room’ years. At some stage, the artistic side had to take over from the business side. As Paul Valéry said, “The mollusk does not know its shell until it lives it.” I was curled up inside my shell just working and generally biding my time. In my shell was this giant library of books from different worlds and times. A series of life events, spurred on by the pandemic drove me to explore this world of stories.  Now is the time, I thought, to give them form, to allow my dreaming side full rein. 

Unreservedly, the best thing about writing is this ability to share my inner world using words – I love words! – with my readers. Something strange and beautiful starts to activate itself. It’s an exhilarating process, this ability to take something that was once the intimacy of thought and give it life and gravity in the guise of an imaginary tale that has, in the writing of it, often surprised and even unnerved. Writing is such a focused form of thinking. I’ve discovered that I really don’t know what I think about certain subjects until I sit myself down to write. That’s when I experience this thrilling sensation of ideas and concepts falling into place.

ELLE: Any future projects we should be expecting? What do they look like? 

FS: My next novel is populated with rusty characters from 18th-century novels – tomes forgotten on a dusty old shelf in a vast university library in Mumbai – who take on a modern-day cannibalistic fanatic and a philandering English Lit professor. 

I am also planning to write a collection of short stories based around experiences I’ve had when travelling in bulging-at-the-seams Mumbai trains – exciting times when commuting was akin to a game of chance which came with deathly consequences, literally, for those who couldn’t beat the odds. 

ELLE: Which character of your book is your favourite and why?

FS: That’s a hard question to answer – it’s like asking a mother which of her children is her favourite. 

If I absolutely had to choose, I would say, Briana, the woman who started it all. In fact, one of the titles I played around with was Briana’s Legacy. Briana was, as she called herself, ‘an inconvenient woman’, a nineteenth-century woman who wrote her own story. The kind of woman who “left breadcrumb trails of her flirtations” with an impunity born of fearlessness. Her actions bankrupted her progeny. The other legacy she bequeathed to them was fear. A fear that one of the women in the family would inherit her scandalous ways. They Whisper in My Blood is the story of the passing on of this generational fear. 

In the development of any character, there’s a kind of psychic entanglement that results. The characters that excite me are those that appear to pose questions in my own thinking. That’s what Briana did. She challenged the beliefs I upheld as the product of a strict Catholic upbringing.

ELLE:How would you describe your book in three words, if you had to?

Historic Literary Fiction if we want to place it in a genre. Or in the words of one reviewer: Fabulous, sumptuous, and enthralling.

ELLE:Your book has a poignant theme, there must have been certain parts which were tough for you to write. Which was the hardest scene to write about?

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve had a very strict Catholic upbringing. We went to church everyday, not just on Sunday. My vocabulary does not include four-letter words, ever! I have been a lifelong educator. Hence the most difficult scenes to write were the sex scenes which I had to include, as Sundhari, one of the three female leads, is a Devidasi. India was a British colony at the time and the Devidasi custom had degenerated into a form of hierodulic prostitution. 

I am going to digress a bit here as I have to make a point. Girls come of age in literature either by marriage, illness or rape. They are seldom given the opportunity to ‘take their body on a heroic journey.’ More often than not, something happens to it and it’s usually sex that happens to it. 

Rape is an act of violence and I wanted that violence to come through. But without the sensationalism that would read as pornography. The language had to be chosen carefully. I think I succeeded, judging by what this reviewer had to say: ‘There are some magnificent scenes in this book, as Soares describes Bombay (she uses the terminology of the era) and its people. The lush fecundity of the country, with its ethereal beauty existing side-by-side with the most base and elemental realities of human life, is very nearly a character in its own right. The sex scenes reflect that dichotomy, ranging from erotic to brutal – often simultaneously.’

ELLE:What does the research process while writing look like for you?

FS: As a writer of historical fiction, I knew I had a certain obligation, especially to situate my writing in times and places that formed the stages on which my characters played. Clothing, language, technology, the position of the marginalised like women, the Devidasis and gay men in society, were some of the things I researched to ground the reader in reality and also to supply credible context. However, I found that research can become a kind of time sink and it often threw me off course.

The other interesting thing I found was that isolation becomes its own form of research. When I let myself be thrown back entirely upon my imagination to  ‘recollect in tranquillity’ as Wordsworth put it, I was delighted to find how strong my memory was. I discovered ‘productive solitude’, something modern life can become completely stripped of. 

ELLE:Would you write more about Pippa’s journey, or does it end here?

FS: They Whisper in My Blood is a novel where the character’s reality is coloured by the scale of historical phenomenon. Pippa spends her time in a many-chambered palace of the narrative ricocheting between her dread of a loveless future and her preoccupation with a past that has been buffed, lustrous from history’s sleight of hand.

What would a story look like without the history, I thought, where there’s nothing but the pervasive buzz of personality, of the private self? And so I kind of reinvented myself with my next novel: A Smatter of Minutes which is a feel-good, coming-to-wisdom story about a wannabe chef who is blighted by the memory of the foggy day in February when as a toddler she found her parents ‘melting’. Though it is not a sequel in the literal sense of the term – it doesn’t feature Pippa, or any of the other characters for instance – A Smatter of Minutes is also community-driven.

I am because you, my readers are. Hence, if you say you’d like a proper sequel to They Whisper in My Blood, I’ll be only too happy to oblige. 

ELLE:How do you tackle writing about dark societal issues rooted in our patriarchal society? 

FS: While I was a girl waiting for my life to begin, my father, who was an avid reader, gave me books that left me with so many questions. Could one be a feminist and be loved by a man? Would my penchant for independence translate into my never being at home with a significant other? Was marriage a trap? If one lost faith in the traditional goals of a woman’s life as dictated by a hitherto patriarchal society, would life still be bearable? 

Now that I have donned the mantle of a writer, I have tried to sniff out answers to these questions or at the very least, start those difficult conversations which have encouraged me to write scenes in a less plot-centric way.

The three female leads in They Whisper in My Blood have all, in one way or another tried to buck the patriarchal system in which women are treated as property much the same way enslaved people were through the ages. Pippa, a product of the twentieth century when marriage was no longer needed to insulate ‘ageing’ women from a man’s urge for variety, leaves her abusive marriage and finds a raft of freedoms, one of them financial.

Nineteenth-century Briana is a woman before her time, a time when women were maintained to be psychically milked, much the same way ants maintain colonies of aphids to provide sustenance for their keepers. In a conversation she has with her lover-to-be, she refers to herself as a child-bearing machine put to occasional use to inflate the Cabral ranks. Briana’s husband is Thomas Cabral and gay. And finally, there’s Sundhari enslaved to another product of patriarchal greed: prostitution. 

When I embarked on writing this, my debut novel, I told myself I would make it a joyous one. However, the dark ink of exploitation and oppression that has been inflicted on women by societies dictated by the whims and fancies of men, seeped through somehow. I am glad it did. When you read the novel, you’ll know why.

ELLE: Who are your writing role models and why?

FS: My role models are those writers who in my opinion are experts at their craft because they use words to hang around in new literary ecosystems. Annie Proulx and Arundhati Roy are at the head of a list too long to itemise here. 

Also read, In Sport And Otherwise, Men Continue To Ignore The Boundaries Of Consent And It’s Appalling

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