Selma Carvalho’s three non-fiction works – Into the Diaspora Wilderness (2010), A Railway Runs Through: Goans of British East Africa (2014) and Baker Butcher, Doctor Diplomat: Goan Pioneers of East Africa (2016) – document the Goan presence in colonial East Africa. Between 2011and 2014, she headed the Oral Histories of British-Goans project funded by a UK grant and archived at the British Library and the Bexley Libraries.
Her debut novel Sisterhood of Swans (Speaking Tiger, 2021) was shortlisted for the Women Writers Prize (India) and listed among six notable fiction books of 2021 by Asian Review of Books. She is also founding editor of the Joao Roque Literary Journal.
Selma is the quintessential adult third culture kid, who grew up in Dubai, then lived in America for many years before moving to the UK. Although she is London-based now, she says, “No matter where I live, Goa is the centripetal location of my heart. I grew up in the traditions of Goa, my cultural compass is finely attuned to Goa, and I really can’t articulate a perception of myself as anything other than Goan.”
She started writing when, fifteen years ago, her friend Eddie Fernandes, owner of GoanVoice UK, invited her to write a weekly column for his newspaper. That same year, the late author Valmiki Faleiro, published a few of her articles in O Heraldo.
In addition, the late Dr Maria Aurora Couto, a great mentor to young writers of Goa, took Selma and others under her wing and encouraged a second wave of writers who would carry the writing baton.
Selma says, “She suggested to me that I should venture into fiction. I did not think I would make any headway, but incredibly when I started submitting my pieces to literary journals and competitions, I got published or shortlisted, both in India and the UK.”
Selma’s second novel, Notes on a Marriage is about a couple with a twenty-year old marriage held together by middle-class sensibilities and a secret that simmers just below the surface.
Set in Horton, London, the protagonist, Anju is of mixed heritage whose father is a disillusioned Indian Marxist and mother a submissive English woman. Anju is married to serial philanderer Freddo, dealing with his many infidelities and eventually embarking on an affair of her own, which changes the course of their marriage.
While discussing the book’s main themes, Selma reveals that it’s a close-angle look at modern day monogamy, and that this line from the book sums it up: ‘It takes vigilance over one’s desires and the ability to endure the failings of those we love.’
Selma adds, “Themes of forgiveness are very important to me. Forgiving ourselves and those who inhabit our private spaces. Increasingly, I find myself living in a world of white noise where everyone is a justice warrior but when I look at the brittle nature of their interactions, they come across as totally lacking in empathy, compassion and forgiveness. I think, we have lost the subtle art of nuance in relationships, we have a very poor understanding of the work it takes to build relationships. This book explores how forgiveness and compassion is one of the threads that holds a marriage together.”
Talking about her writing process, she says that her long fiction takes a year to complete which is why in both her novels, Sisterhood of Swans and Notes on a Marriage, the narrative spans the four English seasons.
She’s very attuned to nature and this bleeds into her narratives. When she’s working on a non-fiction book, she writes every morning as a form of discipline. But, with fiction she has to wait patiently for an emotion or conversation or just the muse to gently nod her in the right direction.
She shared that, in terms of getting her novels published, she first submitted a collection of her short stories to Speaking Tiger, which they bought, but then encouraged her to write long fiction. She considers herself very lucky to have found a publisher who actually let her grow as a writer.
When I ask her what she’s working on now, Selma reveals that, “For the past two years I’ve been working on my magnum opus. It will be an unprecedented capture of a nineteenth century Goan society as the in-between people caught between Europe and India. It has never been done before, bringing characters to life, looking at the minutia of their lives, their thought process and how inevitably they transformed themselves into a liberal, progressive community. I’m very excited about it. I aim to finish writing a first draft by this year. The book is already agented.”