Arifa Akbar longlist author interview
Arifa Akbar, longlisted author of ‘Consumed: A Sister’s Story,' talks to us about the very personal journey she went on when writing the book, alongside the truths she discovered about families in general.
How does it feel to be longlisted?
It is a surprise and an utter honour given the heft and calibre of the other books on the list. I have always seen this prize as a touchstone of quality and I am especially delighted because this is my first book. It will probably never happen again so I am thrilled about making the cut and impressed by the scope of the list more generally.
Consumed is a very personal story, but also involved research. How did you conduct your research?
I did a fair amount of reading around medical history as well as talking to experts in tuberculosis but because this is a multi-disciplinary book – it takes in everything from Sophocles to Edvard Munch, 19th century opera, my sister’s art and medical notes as well as the social history of the infectious disease – I spent time digging across these fields to alight on the books, films, plays, paintings, that I wanted to focus on. I took trips across Europe to study representations of tuberculosis in art – Norway for Munch, Tuscany for La boheme, Rome for John Keats. Most of these were made before the pandemic but some between lockdowns which brought uncanny parallels and a sense of urgency.
Did you find out things you didn’t expect when exploring your sister’s story? What does it say about families?
I made certain discoveries about my late sister by going through her artwork, her diaries, her medical notes, and encountering things I hadn’t seen or had misunderstood while she was alive. I am not sure what the book says about families in general. In narrativising my early family life I began to see, more clearly, that there is not always one definitive version of ‘what happened’ and that families can harm each other without meaning to, passing on pain and trauma.
Do you have plans for another book?
There are the shoots of a new non-fiction idea but it is in its very early stage. Just like Consumed, I want to give it lots of thinking time before I put pen to paper.