In praise of being in a room with people and talking about books

In praise of being in a room with people and talking about books

Earlier this year Dead Ink hosted a conversation between academic researcher Priya Sharma and author Preti Taneja. Preti's book Aftermath is written from the wreckage of grief, doubt and political fury that followed a shocking double murder committed by Usman Khan, to whom Preti had earlier taught creative writing in prison, alongside Jack Merritt, one of Khan's victims. Blurring genre and form, Aftermath is a profound attempt to regain trust after violence and to recapture a politics of hope through a determined dream of abolition.

Below, Priya reflects on the event and her conversations with Preti and the audience, and the joys of being in a room, with people, talking about books.



One of the hangovers of the numerous COVID-19 lockdowns is our continued reliance on engaging with events through laptop screens; often, it ends up being the only option for attendance. For some, online engagement eases anxiety and is more accessible; whilst for others, it is jarring or technologically difficult to navigate. I find myself falling into the latter and I have come to realise that I do not enjoy the limited screen space and bandwidth we are given to discuss the subject of whichever event we have zoomed into. There are no tea or lunch breaks to open up other possibilities for discussion, no time to check in with that acquaintance I haven’t seen for a while and no real opportunity to understand the people around me. The way we move, the way we dress, the way we react to things being said and the way that each one of us contributes to the atmosphere of the room is something both terrifying (because of its unpredictability) and deeply satisfying. 


When I was invited to host a conversation with author Preti Taneja at Dead Ink Books, I looked forward to the serendipity of being in the physical company of family, friends and strangers. I was also anxious to hold the attention of a room – I’d gotten used to the limited framing of the screen that was either an unwelcome barrier to or protection from the other attendees, depending on how well the event in question was going… One thing that made this occasion exciting was a real desire to discuss Preti’s latest book Aftermath, to meet the writer herself and get to spend some time discussing it with an eclectic group of people. Perhaps for some people, this desire is fairly basic, but I found myself slowly being socially deskilled during the lockdowns, unsure of whether the joy I’d previously experienced at these kinds of things would be replaced with a dread that I would never be able to shake off. I am sure many of us found and still find socialising for prolonged periods of time difficult. I try to find where my new limits are and where the boundaries of numerous relationships, impacted by time and distance, now lie. 


What did sustain me during deep lockdowns was literature. I have always read a lot, but books took on a greater significance, their pages became one of my few escapes from the screen when going outside was no longer an option. The qualities of a physical copy, previously taken for granted, found new significance when the choice was limited to sliding fingers across black smartphone glass or tapping at a wireless keyboard. A cardboard front cover, paper pages loud when you turned them at 2 am, bent corners, oil marks, spilled food and tea rings from mugs. Marks of my life with the text. 


My copy of Aftermath looked like this as I pulled it out at the start of the event and nervously told people what it was about. I introduced Preti to everyone and began by asking her why she had decided to write about grief. I am thankful that the book can place the British South Asian diaspora that I come from within the complex historical context it deserves – one that has given rise to right-wing politicians like Rishi Sunak and Priti Patel, whilst simultaneously countless Black and Brown men are imprisoned for terrorism-related offences. I will not dedicate words here to the themes of the book, as this is well recounted in brilliant reviews by the likes of Abolitionist Futures and the Los Angeles Review of Books, instead I would like to end by highlighting the importance of these kinds of spaces in our lives. I watched Preti answer questions from myself and the audience thoughtfully, with the large bookshop window framing us from behind. People on the street would walk past looking in, surprised to see a small audience staring straight back at them – I always love seeing that. 


When the event was over, my dad and cousin went over to talk to Preti (both are quite shy, so this was great to witness), as did many others. The subject matter was heavy, but we all shared the weight/sadness/hope/anger/whatever you want to call it together, and that is the joy of being in a room with people talking about books. 


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