Author Q&A: Shiromi Pinto

Plastic Emotions
(Influx Press, £9.99)

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Set in England, France, India and what was Ceylon, Plastic Emotions is based on the life of Minnette de Silva, a real-life forgotten 20th century great of Modernist architecture. The book charts Silva’s relationship with Swiss Modernist Le Corbusier and her efforts to build an independent Sri Lanka as it descends into political and social turmoil. 

Who was Minnette de Silva, how did you come across her story and what compelled you to fictionalise it?
Minnette de Silva was the first Asian woman to be made an associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. She was Sri Lanka’s first Modernist architect and she pioneered Modern Regionalism, an architectural approach that synthesises Modern aesthetics with the most relevant aspects of traditional regional architecture. She was also a tremendous socialite, hob-nobbing with some of the 20th century’s most recognised faces: Picasso, Aldous Huxley, Le Corbusier.

I came to Minnette’s story through a friend who worked for her decades ago. Once I began researching her, I realised that the most satisfying way for me to explore her story was through the medium of a novel.

The book begins with a student visiting Minnette’s buildings. What did research involve for you and how much of the correspondence that features in the book is real?
Research for Plastic Emotions was a painstaking process. I spent years in libraries: the British Library and the (now defunct) British Newspaper Library. I had to really get to know these characters and their contexts, which meant spending time with their writings as well. Minnette’s fantastic autobiography, The Life and Work of an Asian Woman Architect, was an essential source, as were her letters to Le Corbusier, held at the Fondation Le Corbusier in Paris. I had some of Corb’s letters as well, gleaned from Minnette’s autobiography. I went through his Chandigarh notebooks, too. I had a limited budget, but I managed to see several of their builds. Seeing a building in situ is essential to translating that 3D space into words.

The correspondence in Plastic Emotions captures the spirit of Minnette and Corb’s letters, but it being fiction, it’s all very much imagined.

What does fiction allow you to do with this story that biography can’t?
Biography is, more or less, a straight telling of the facts. You can’t spend too much time speculating. The backbone of my novel is the relationship between Minnette and Corb – which itself is a point of speculation. Minnette never admitted to being anything more than a good friend to Le Corbusier. I have imagined that their clearly close friendship went further. I think I’m probably right, too, but obviously I would! Fiction gave me the freedom to tell the imagined story I had conceived, rather than remain totally bound by the facts.

What role did architecture play in South Asian countries’ move to independence?
The role of architecture really comes into play post-independence. It is at this point that countries like Sri Lanka and India sought to manifest themselves as modern, new nations. Architecture was key to that, so in India, Jawaharlal Nehru commissioned Le Corbusier to design the new city of Chandigarh – one that would epitomise progress and future living. However, I would argue that Chandigarh was ultimately otherworldly – a city imposed on rather than sprung from this newly independent country. In Sri Lanka, Minnette did something quite different. She wasn’t told to create something by the nation’s leader – she was a citizen with a vision, and that vision encompassed both Modernism and the best and most modern aspects of traditional architecture. It was, I think, a more honest exercise in finding a new architecture for Sri Lanka that wasn’t mired in colonial aesthetics (much as those buildings have their own, classic beauty) or European Modernism. Minnette was designing buildings that responded to the way contemporary Sri Lankans wanted to live. Ultimately, if the spaces you live and work in respond to the demands that modern life places on you, you are liberated. So architecture has this capacity to free the spirit, which is integral to what it means to be truly independent as a nation and citizen.

Is the kind of inequality that Minnette de Silva faced in her lifetime – as a mixed race woman in the shadow of a white male counterpart – still evident in architecture?
When Minnette was practising in the 1940s/50s/60s women were a rare thing in architecture. Her presence in the field was radical. That she was also a woman of colour was even more revolutionary. She aligned herself with a great – Le Corbusier – and in that way acquired some credibility for herself. The fact that she had to do this is of course distasteful, but she did what she had to in order to achieve her goals. I think it’s important to point out that Le Corbusier tried to help Minnette whenever he could. He respected her a great deal. And in being an ally he, too, opened the door for her to be accepted on this world stage – although make no mistake, she had already seized her place there before he tried to help her cement it. Still, nothing could overcome the barriers back then of being a brown woman from a small island nation. I don’t really know how much all this has changed, but architecture is still very male dominated. We know that the late Zaha Hadid faced constant criticisms until recently, and I don’t see things changing for brown or black women in architecture very quickly – at least not for the foreseeable future.

Your book is part of a growing body of work that aims to shine a light on the untold stories of women in history. Are there any other historical women you would point readers towards finding out more about?
India’s Shakuntala Devi, aka the Human Computer, is one. Although she’s been in the Guinness Book of World Records for her prodigious talent for mental maths and even had a Google Doodle dedicated to her, she still isn’t as well known as she should be. She was a writer, a calculation genius and an early LGBTI advocate, having written the first study of homosexuality in India in 1977. Another woman of note is Minnette de Silva’s own sister, Marcia, or Anil, de Silva. Unlike her portrayal in my novel, she was an incredibly accomplished woman herself – a journalist, writer, art historian and political activist. She was the first Asian woman to work in Alexander Korda’s studio at Pinewood – working in production and editing, rather than in front of the camera. In the 1950s, she organised an all-woman expedition to China to explore hundreds of cave paintings of Buddhist art. Her exploits and accomplishments are a book in itself. Finally, there’s Gladys Bentley (1907-60), an African American woman who presided over 1930s Harlem speakeasies, dressed in a top hat and tails, and loved women unapologetically. She brilliantly challenged sexism and sexual violence in her lyrics, and deserves to be much better known. She, too, needs a whole book devoted to herself.

What’s your favourite design by Minnette de Silva and why?
It’s difficult to pick just one, but the one that still sits with me is a design that was never built. Minnette was incredibly far-thinking – so it shouldn’t be surprising that she predicted the eco-tourism wave. In 1959, she designed a holiday “village” – a series of rustic, thatched beach cottages in Kalkudah, along Sri Lanka’s north-east coast. She based her design around that of traditional brick kilns, with wide verandaed ground floors, and tall, pitched-roofed upper floors punctuated by open lookout points set into the gables. Her notes on this build include several instructions to preserve the coral and natural landscape of the site, as well as a desire to make the settlement self-sufficient. “Let us try and get away from the inevitable hotel look!” she wrote, and although her design remained unbuilt, today, eco-tourist villages much like this are found throughout the island.

Photo: Eva Blue

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