In her new book Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton, £11.89 / Audible, £19.99) the Man Booker-shortlisted author Deborah Levy returns to themes of sexuality, identity and exile in a story of a co-dependent mother-daughter relationship set in southern Spain and exploring hypochondria.
Are the recurring themes in your work intentional?
I’m guessing we all have recurring themes and we turn them over in different ways at various phases in our lives. We might ask the same questions of the things that preoccupy us – but if we think deeply about them, we don’t always have the same answers.
Sofia is half Greek but her Greek father is absent. What were you exploring in terms of identity and was it informed by your own upbringing in South Africa?
I will always be onside with people who are “a bit from here and a bit from there.” So, I give Sofia Papastergiadis an interesting problem. She is asked to spell her surname every day – no one can pronounce it. She has to carry the identity of her father without knowing very much about him.
Sofia’s identity is also embroiled in her role as a carer – what is the significance of her emulating her mother’s symptoms rather than compensating for them?
Yes, she is a loving and furious daughter who cares for her witty, distinguished and controlling mother. She sometimes finds herself limping, as if she has borrowed her mother’s symptoms. And then she starts to make a life for herself and finds that she is really quite agile and physically strong.
Are mothers and daughters bound to have their relationships defined by mutual caregiving at different life stages or is it a social construction?
Mutual caregiving is a part of any civilised social and personal contract. At the same time, all children (daughters and sons) have to make their own stories and make new memories.
To what extent is illness a social construction rather strictly a biological entity?
My interest in illness in Hot Milk is to do with how symptoms do the talking. So, for example, headaches are often biological – but we know they can also occur when we feel stressed or angry. Symptoms can express things that are too awkward or shaming to voice. If Sofia’s mother has been undermined, and her wishes for herself have been dispersed in the winds and storms of a world that is not arranged to her advantage, perhaps the body steps in to express her rage. This is a question, and the answer is not set in stone. In this way, Hot Milk explores the relationship between language and illness.
You are a playwright, essayist and poet as well as a novelist – which form do you favour?
In this phase of writing, I reckon I am most interested in the novel. Why? Because in a brutally consumerist and corporate culture which disenfranchises so many people, the novel is a home for the reach of the human mind – with all its dimensions and contradictions.