Natasha Brown’s Assembly is a concise, fragmentary novel that runs to 100 pages. Within these tight constraints she finds room to examine the lingering colonial structures that prop up British society, as well as the legacy of slavery, and the pinpricks of everyday misogyny and microaggression. The novel outlines the lengths one Black British woman will go to challenge these constraints and reject what is expected from her, even after she has achieved what looks to be enviable status in the world of finance. When Brown’s narrator is asked by her employers to speak to young students at school assemblies, she is held up as an example of diversity and achievement. But does this path to assimilation come with its own cost?

Assembly is set at an estate in the English countryside where the narrator has been asked to attend a party thrown by her boyfriend’s parents. As she prepares for the event, she considers the path that brought her into the heart of inherited wealth and old money. What happens if one lets go and refuses to ascend? What happens if one’s body no longer cooperates, no longer functions in such a society?

Five Dials spoke to Natasha at her home over Zoom.

Five Dials

What did you read as a child?

Natasha Brown

My childhood reading was largely dictated by the books my family had. Especially my grandparents’ collection. I used to spend the summer holidays at their house and often explored their bookshelves.

Five Dials

What sorts of books were on the shelves?

Natasha Brown

My grandmother was a nurse, so they had quite a few medical books. A lot of other non- fiction, too—there was one called Black British. It’s from the sixties and featured contemporary data and commentary on what’s now referred to as ‘the Windrush generation.’ They also had a lot of classics, which I enjoyed reading. Plus some children’s encyclopaedias.

Five Dials

When you weren’t leafing through Windrush statistics.

Natasha Brown

I wasn’t reading that one as a kid.

Five Dials

Were you still reading a lot when you went on to study maths at university?

Natasha Brown

For a while, I stuck to a single set of books. It was familiar. Self-Help by Lorrie Moore, Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Hanif Kureishi’s Intimacy. Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It was a small collection, but it shaped my tastes.

Five Dials

You don’t get seduced into reading about the lives of writers, the biographies?

Natasha Brown

It didn’t really occur to me to do that. For me, books were self-contained.

Five Dials

Did you encounter books early on that shocked you? Books that created some sort of feeling that you hoped to emulate with your own writing?

Natasha Brown

I’ve read a few things that I found unsettling. Bret Easton Ellis’s Less than Zero, probably more so than American Psycho.

I didn’t aim to shock when writing Assembly. The narrative elements aren’t especially shocking. It’s a story we’ve seen before, I think. Perhaps it’s the narrator’s agency that unsettling, it’s a slight subversion of the genre’s conventions. I suppose I did want to draw attention to that.

Five Dials

Were there any books that held shocking or resonant imagery for you?

Natasha Brown

Maybe not a book, but the film Death Becomes Her. I caught a glimpse of that when I was younger—a point where one of the characters had a hole in her abdomen. The image stayed with me. My parents eventually let me watch the entire film, so I could understand the context.

Five Dials

I’m always interested in what lingers as someone progresses through their creative life. I didn’t expect to hear Death Becomes Her.

Natasha Brown

That was definitely one.

Five Dials

Your novel is around 100 pages long. What is special about short books? Were there short books earlier in your reading life that made an impression?

Natasha Brown

I’ve always enjoyed shorter books as much as longer ones. It surprises me that sometimes shorter is expected to be less substantial. It feels arbitrary—why would length be correlated with impact?

Five Dials

Is there a longer version of Assembly somewhere?

Natasha Brown

Not at all, I didn’t edit it down from a longer version. I tried to follow the screenwriting advice that every scene should be essential to the story. And each scene should achieve multiple storytelling or thematic goals. It necessitated a carefully planned approach, with lots of rewriting, but that was my goal when writing.

Five Dials

I picture you sitting with paragraphs and patiently working over sentences rather than producing a profusion of language that has to be sheared back at some point.

Natasha Brown

Exactly. I like to focus in on each sentence, editing excessively as I write. My daily writing target is a hundred words, which sounds small, but it can take quite a bit of time to get there.

Five Dials

There’s so much implied in the novel, so much left for us to uncover. How did you ensure that?

Natasha Brown

There’s an emergent sub-genre I’ve noticed in fiction, the ‘black millennial woman.’ It seems that the genre and the identity are perhaps becoming conflated. I wanted to interrogate this relationship, but it was also something I could lean on.

While I wouldn’t call the novel satire, I borrowed from the techniques of satire. Assuming the reader is already familiar with this identity/genre and its conventions, only a light touch is required to establish the story. Writing this way, I hoped, would allow space for readers to bring their own interpretation.

Five Dials

Has Lydia Davis been an influence?

Natasha Brown

One of the things I love about Lydia Davis’s writing is that language itself feels like a character. Her story ‘French Lesson 1: Le Meutre’ is a perfect example. It introduces a few French nouns, and by the end the subtleties of those words are apparent and contribute to the narrative.

Five Dials

You’ve mentioned before your admiration of the poet Claudia Rankine. What did you learn from her? Did you want to emulate her ability to weave politics into the work?

Natasha Brown

There’s a precision in Claudia Rankine’s writing, especially with the use of the second person. When I read Don’t Let Me Be Lonely it changed my understanding of what writing could achieve.

Five Dials

At one point in Assembly Britain’s colonial history is addressed directly.

Natasha Brown

Yes, but I was interested in the process of politicisation: how, even in the information age, recent history is rendered uncertain. That was the focus, rather than an attempt to debate any specific facts.

Five Dials

How much did you need to know about the beliefs of your protagonist before writing?

Natasha Brown

Not much at all. I focused on all the other characters first. I wanted the narrator to be a person who fills the space that’s left behind by all these other people. That’s her defining characteristic. We don’t learn much about her or her beliefs. Instead, we hear what other people think of her, and what they assume she thinks. I wanted to create an experience of being denied agency, of being wholly defined by the assumptions of others.

Five Dials

Do you draw from real life? Do you sometimes see something resonant or mysterious and file it away?

Natasha Brown

Assembly required a lot of research. When a translator asked me for specifics about one character’s house, I was able to send over the listing I’d used as inspiration.

Five Dials

With all the external research, what are you taking from your own life?

Natasha Brown

The book has been interpreted as very personal and very biographical, which I guess is a compliment.

Five Dials

A weird compliment.

Natasha Brown

It seems to me that within publishing there’s a belief that women like the narrator don’t exist—or if that if they do, they’re anomalous. I think it comes back to the phenomenon of a genre being conflated with a real-life identity. Because of course, a handful of books can’t possibly span the breadth of a diverse demographic. But the requirement for comparative titles essentially causes confirmation bias. If we haven’t seen a character before, how can their story be ‘comped’? I guess the idea that the narrator is me offered one route around that.

Five Dials

Is there a satisfying element of writing about small moments, small but telling moments like microaggressions?

Natasha Brown

Not really. I didn’t find a lot of those satisfying or even interesting to portray. I think it comes back to the genre: we expect to see this character slighted, so that’s what we get to see. For me, a key idea in the book is the impossibility of transcending such conventions—in fiction, or in life.

Five Dials

How important has bell hooks been to you?

Natasha Brown

The essay ‘Postmodern Blackness’ was a key influence for my approach when writing Assembly. hooks makes the case that ‘racism is perpetuated when blackness is associated solely with concrete gut level experience conceived either as opposing or having no connection to abstract thinking and the production of critical theory.’

Even though it was written about twenty years ago, much of that essay feels so relevant to now.I found it especially encouraging while approaching some of the more ‘experimental’ aspects of Assembly.

Five Dials

When did you come across the essay?

Natasha Brown

I’ve made an effort over the past few years to broaden out my non-fiction reading—more postcolonial theory, along with more critical theory in general. I encountered that essay in the book Colonial Discourse and Post-colonial Theory, which was a great jumping off point.

Five Dials

Why was this omnivorous reading so important to this particular project?

Natasha Brown

So much scholarship has been done in the decades past that is relevant to today. Familiarity with what has come before is crucial, I think.

Five Dials

What do you hope people will take away from the book?

Natasha Brown

I prefer to leave it open—death of the author, and all that. ◊

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