Book Festival: Meera Syal | Cecilia Ekback | Robyn Cadwallader

British comedian, writer, playwright and actress Meera Syal CBE. Picture: Gary Doak/Writer Pictures
British comedian, writer, playwright and actress Meera Syal CBE. Picture: Gary Doak/Writer Pictures
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SURROGACY, feminism, the infertility industry, troubled teenagers, corruption, murder, dragon-slaying female saints, a Santa Claus who looks like a terrifying grey goblin – we had them all in Charlotte Square yesterday. And that was before lunch.

The first five figured in Meera Syal’s talk about her latest novel, The House of Hidden Mothers. Its subject – surrogacy – is one fraught with moral uncertainties, and Syal has evidently set out determined to use it to tug her readers’ sympathies all over the place. She started out, she said, thinking of Margaret Attwood’s dystopian vision of the future in The Handmaid’s Tale in which, in an age of increasing infertility, a class of women are kept apart for breeding. But that image softened when she thought of the genuine love her protagonist, Shyla, a 48-year-old British-Indian woman, had for her younger partner Tom, and how much they yearned for a baby together.

Shyla’s age (she was, apparently, 44 in the first draft) is just one marker in the debate. Her ethnicity isn’t, though it adds a huge amount more depth. So many more layers of irony are added to the usual story of an infertile white woman visiting a surrogacy clinic in India in search of a baby at over £6,000 a pop when it’s a well-off second-generation British-Indian feminist instead.

For the drama to work, she added, she needed Mala, the Indian surrogate, to be a lot more than a cipher standing in for third- world poverty: “The balance of power has to be able to shift between the two women. So Mala is intelligent and aspirational and if she had Shyla’s opportunities, she’d be running a multinational company. But for those Sliding Doors-type twists of fate, they could each be living the other’s life.” All very neat, and the subsidiary characters – Shyla’s partner and her angrily independent daughter Tara – seemed to have a similarly dynamic balance. If she’d been pitching a script and I were a film producer, we’d start filming (Syal in the lead to role, naturally) tomorrow.

Syal has long been the go-to person for discussion, drama and comedy about multiculturalism, but she is no less interesting on a whole range of other topics. In India, where half of the population is under 25, she detects a rising tide of optimism about tackling corruption and sexual inequality.

In her daughter’s generation in Britain, she deplores the objectification of the female body that social media has drawn in its wake (“I’d hate to be a teenage girl now”), but at least her son’s school has a Feminism Society “and half the members are boys and they’re not just on the pull”.

Earlier, Cecilia Ekback and Robyn Cadwallader had provided yet another one of Charlotte Square’s globe-shrinking (Ekback’s from Swedish Lapland, Cadwallader’s from Australia) starts to the day. Both of their debut novels were strong on claustrophobia – Cadwallader’s particularly so as its subject was a 13th century English anchoress. She had, she revealed, first found out about these strange women – who lived alone entirely within a cell until they died within it – as a result of her PhD research into the dragon-slaying St Margaret of Antioch. Ekback’s novel is set in the wider, wilder world of early 18th century Lapland, and informed by some of her ancestors’ superstitions. These included thinking that Santa Claus, far from being a jovial, bearded cove in need of a diet, is really “a little grey goblin who will punish you if you’ve been bad”. You’ve been warned.

If all the world were American, there’d be no room for such doubts about what Santa Claus looked like. But all the world, said Peter Conrad, effectively is American already, for good (huddled masses pursuing happiness) and bad (homogeneity, guns, wars etc).

Cultural imperialism, he argued mischievously, isn’t always a bad thing. It gave us, for example, Ella Fitzgerald singing Mack the Knife at the Deutschlandhalle in Berlin (that old monument to the Third Reich’s far more destructive brand of imperial vanity), scattily removing all of the cynicism in Brecht’s lyrics in the process. It gave us Duke Ellington touring the world playing what he always made sure to inform his audiences was “the music of freedom of expression”. It gave us abstract expressionists touring Europe and a cinema that conquered the world. And as Conrad pointed out, it also gave us him, a young Tasmanian seduced by the lure, the brashness – and yes, the violence – of America.

Our own brand of cultural imperialism wasn’t, he added, much less potent. Before they decided to name their new capital Canberra, Australians were toying with naming it after the most famous Englishmen. A city called Shakespeare, anyone?