I’m A Fan: Author Sheena Patel’s stunning debut

·6-min read
Sheena Patel photographed by Salam Zaied (Salam Zaied / ES Magazine )
Sheena Patel photographed by Salam Zaied (Salam Zaied / ES Magazine )

What is it like to be obsessed with a person whom you have never met? Increasingly, it’s not such a far-fetched idea, with the many windows into the lives of others opened by social media. Sheena Patel, a 34-year-old from Wembley who works in television and film, has written a mesmerising debut novel about how seductive and toxic this can be. The protagonist of Patel’s book, I’m a Fan, is a nameless 30-year-old woman who works in the arts and lives in south London. She spends hours poring over the Instagram account of a woman she has never met. The woman she is obsessed with is rich, white and well-connected — all things the protagonist, who is constantly made aware of her brown skin, is not. And both women are sleeping with the same man: an artist. The protagonist started her relationship with him by sending him a fan letter.

I’m a Fan is a disturbing, direct and skilfully observed look at race, class and envy. It’s funny, too, with the narrative told from the protagonist’s view and divided into short chapters given mischievous titles, such as ‘I might look innocent but I screenshot a lot’ and ‘Viennetta really is the epitome of luxury’. I’m a Fan is fast becoming the book of the summer, gaining Patel her own fans, with pictures of its lilac and red cover being shared online. ‘I didn’t want it to be an enjoyable book,’ she says. ‘I wanted people to be scared of it. What I didn’t expect was to get so many messages from people saying they needed this.’ She laughs. It’s a humid Friday in Bloomsbury and Patel, an assistant director, has been working on a Horrible Histories series. She is wearing a black dress, has a silver nose ring and an armful of silver bangles and is bursting with facts: ‘The Romans invented pie! Pie!’

The idea for I’m A Fan came to Patel while she was watching the 2021 US Capitol riots. She saw a parallel with the idea of unavailable love. ‘Trump’s QAnon fans were looking for clues in his behaviour — when he got on Air Force One, the QAnoners said there were 17 flags, that’s our lucky number, so it is a sign he is coming back. Dude. You recognise that behaviour when you are thinking [about people you fancy], “He texted me back, he said he would take me to a wedding.” You attach meaning to your fantasy.’

She originally wrote the first chapter for 4 Brown Girls Who Write, a collective she set up with friends in 2017 after a night when they got drunk on a friend’s houseboat, read out loud to each other and then decided to support each other’s work, ‘because we had no idea how to get our work seen by publishers and were not going to wait for permission’. Her DIY attitude worked; she ended up going on tour with Sleaford Mods and reading her work with them. ‘I felt like a rockstar, like I was in Almost Famous.’

Patel never wanted to give her characters names, because it allows the narrator to have ownership of them. The narrator can be unlikeable: ‘She is a victim and a tyrant, and she has a f***load of fun.’ Patel wanted to write a brown character who is not a straightforward hero or villain. ‘I wanted to write about the grey space where you are not trying to be good all the time. I read a story in the paper about a Sri Lankan family; the dad was a science genius and the daughter got A grades and the tone was why does this family get deported when they are doing so much? Why do they have to be perfect? When can they just relax and be people rather than trying hard in the face of a system that does not give a shit.’ She is disparaging of Priti Patel: ‘sending immigrants to Rwanda is self erasure, she wouldn’t have been there with that. The Tory Cabinet is very brown but class comes into it. They are buying into a system that hates them, hoping to get through unscathed by wielding power.’

Patel’s mother is from Mauritius and her father is Kenyan Indian (he doesn’t go back to Nairobi, it’s too heartbreaking). They came over here and met while training to work in mental health in Bristol and went on to work in the NHS. There are no writers in her family. ‘Being a second-generation [immigrant], your parents have done the graft and you sit there saying,’ she puts on a grand voice, ‘“Who am I, how do I express myself?” and they are, like, “Just get a f***ing job.”’ Her family hasn’t read I’m a Fan, although her father has learnt the reviews by heart and quotes them. The Viennetta line comes from her childhood. ‘I felt like we had made it because we had a Viennetta after our KFC. I wanted the book to be about the language of objects and what you aspire to; Instagram raises the ceiling on what is attainable. I didn’t even know mid-century furniture was a thing to want, please help.’

She read a lot as a child, ‘filthy books I shouldn’t have read — Intimacy by Hanif Kureishi was an influence and The Key by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki. And Jean Rhys; she is the ultimate sad girl.’ But she wanted to work in television: ‘I saw how much my parents loved Catherine Cookson programmes, they were an event in our house.’

Getting into the industry was another matter, ‘but I wanted it and didn’t give up’. She studied English literature at Queen Mary University and rails against Sheffield Hallam University scrapping it as a ‘low-value degree’: ‘I use that degree every day.’ She acknowledges there is a need for structural change in all industries, not just publishing, and that ‘everything needs to have more faces from different backgrounds’, but until that change happens she has shown what you can do if you ignore the way things have always been done. ‘All these rules stop you from just doing it.’

Patel doesn’t know what her next book will be — ‘I don’t want to write something for the sake of it’ — and she is ‘hoping to get very drunk at some point’ to celebrate, but it has not had a chance to sink in. ‘This was a project of love but I still think someone is going to turn around and say it’s not real.’

Sheena Patel will be interviewed at Foyles, Charing Cross, on 27 July. Tickets at foyles.co.uk. ‘I’m A Fan’ is out now, £14.99, Rough Trade Books (roughtradebooks.com)

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