Review: Niven Govinden, in conversation with Preti Taneja, about ‘Diary of a Film’
Diary of a Film (Hachette, 2021) is a novel about cinema, flâneurs, and queer love – it is about the sometimes troubled, sometimes ecstatic creative process, and the toll it takes on its makers. But it is also a novel about stories, and the ongoing question of who has the right to tell them.
Niven started the event with a reading from his novel, outlining the scene in which our main characters meet for the first time. It’s a film-maker meeting a writer, looking at a mural in great detail and talking through a range of different art forms.
Niven knew he wanted to make a novel about film, and he was often referred to as a ‘cinematic writer’ due to his background in film-making. The real catalyst for this novel was his viewing of a series of polaroids on display at a show in London. He was blown away with their ability to tell a narrative. These photos traversed a filmmaker’s experience of travelling, working on set and inspired Niven to merge his interests in writing and film.
Our two main protagonists have an interesting relationship, as our unnamed film-maker outlines various experiences which are dissected and discussed alongside a creative writer named Cosima. There’s a great tension between these two artists, with one being a famous director and the other being an unknown, local author.
When considering this battle between envy and fame, we see the subversive nature of the famous director being envious of the other’s autonomy, and the unknown author envious of the other’s status. Niven suggested that this is a book about “creativity”, and the many emotions and enquiries that emerge in the pursuit of art. “What it is to create work and to be around other creators, and detailing the respect, or sometimes lack thereof, that grace these communities”. When Niven started this book, he saw it as a clean slate, as he does all of his literary works, but wanting to be better than his last, embodying a conflict which we see throughout the novel’s narrative. He suggests that his time at Goldsmiths instilled a sense of movement in his work, that after finishing one creative process one should quickly start on their next adventure. He’s already started writing a new novel.
The structure of the novel is quite unique, very much one constant stream of consciousness with very few paragraphs and run-on sentences. As soon as Niven started writing the book, it emerged in that manner, writing by hand and being inspired by its first-person raw insights. In a conventional novel, whilst reading the page, you may see spaces as ideal places to stop reading and put the novel down. Niven didn’t want this. Having one big blog of text ensured a gripping read.
Niven’s work-ethic and drive has accumulated in years of writing. He uses his queer and Taneja argued that the un-named director models this for the two young actors in his film, creating a queer, non-nuclear family. This theme of family was extremely important to Niven, traversing chosen family and the love and care that comes when new families emerge. It’s a very paternal novel, as a father considers the significance of what his work will inspire in his child and whether he can be proud of the spectacle associated with his work, as he looks into the future and considers how his nuclear family will reflect on his legacy.
He’s also seen as a paternal figure for the queer actors in his film, as this mid-50s director has experienced the revolution and conflict of queer love as he was growing up in Eastern Europe, but can now provide loving, protective and comforting experiences as his two actors engage in an off-screen relationship.
Cosima, who Niven has acknowledged was a fantastic character to write, is seen as the catalyst for the novel, as her relationship with the un-named director is explored in its narrative. She is faced with the reality that her work is present and understood, as the director reveals he’s actually read one of her novels, and she has to come to terms with the fact that her legacy is being created. In this way, she is a strong and challenging figure, the ideal candidate to dissect the director’s stories.
Grief is seen as a significant theme throughout the novel, and especially now under our current COVID climate. Niven suggests grief is an anchor, with Cosima’s late partner pushing her towards art. The director has a different approach to grief, considering all the opportunities he’s lost and the death of possible relationships that never occurred whilst growing up. This grief may explain why he’s overprotective and nurturing of the relationship between the two actors in his film.
When closing the event, Niven discussed his political inspirations which grace his presence online and on social media. To quote: “You can’t be a queer writer of colour and not be seen as political. You can’t be a wallflower”. For Niven the whole point of being an artist is speaking up, using your platform to, as he suggests, “call bullshit out”.
Niven answered questions that were sent in by the live YouTube audience:
Q: How can we make all of these different mediums (polaroids, film etc) intersected but also excluded? What can we learn from each of the different art forms explored in the novel?
A: “For me, I always think about where the connections are. Being outdoors I find it very helpful in terms of my process. Taking photographs outside is very helpful, and it’s really about finding ways to connect and give me a sense of movement when I’m static. People are always on the move and want to shake something off in some way. Sometimes they don’t connect and they jar, so it’s really about mining obsessions and making conscious and subconscious links. You can realise your patterns of behaviour.”
Q: Could you have written this book any earlier in your career?
A: I could have, but it would have been a different book. It would’ve been far more about film, and I can’t explain how I did it this way but I realised, as much as I wanted it to be about film, that was just the umbrella term for it being about work and art. I had to be honest about how I mine my obsessions.”
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Niven Govinden studied film at Goldsmiths College and is the author of five previous novels, most recently This Brutal House, which was longlisted for the Jhalak Prize and shortlisted for the Polari and Gordon Burn Prizes. He has also written a number of short stories.
Preti Taneja is a lecturer in prose fiction at Newcastle University.
Thomas Moorcroft, the author of this post, is a third year English Literature and History student currently on placement with the NCLA.