Rosie Dastgir, Novelist
Rosie Dastgir in Whitechapel Market
Rosie Dastgir lived in Ashfield St in the shadow of the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel for ten years from 1995 – 2005, and while she was there she began to write a novel. Then she went to live in Brooklyn, New York, but five years later completed her debut novel A Small Fortune, set in Whitechapel and Spitalfields, which is published this week in London. Yesterday, Rosie returned to the East End to take a stroll around her old territory for an afternoon of contemplation before publication day on Wednesday, and I enjoyed the privilege of accompanying her.
“The story was inspired by being in Whitechapel and the characters I met there,” she admitted to me as we walked down Brick Lane together, hunched up against the cold, with the minaret looming overhead,“I took a trip to Pakistan with my father in the nineteen eighties and then later – after he died – at the time of 9/11, I wondered what he would have made of the changes in the Islamic World.” Rosie’s novel is a bitter-sweet comedy about a British Muslim – inspired by her father who emigrated from Pakistan in the 1950s – a man who is losing control of his life and his family, as his daughter is dropping out of medical school at the Royal London Hospital and his cousin is failing as an East End estate agent.
“This is my old stomping ground,” announced Rosie with a murmur of delighted recognition as we turned the corner into the Whitechapel Rd. Then, crossing Altab Ali Park - “No matter how much money they spend on this place it will always resist gentrification,” she reassured me. Rosie’s father came to stay with her in Whitechapel in his final years.“When he died, I found a stash of his letters and diaries talking about Islam,” she revealed, adding that her novel is set in the early 2000s, after her father’s death, thereby defining a precise line between his experience and her fiction.
“I thought, ‘What am I doing, writing this in Brooklyn?’” declared Rosie, rolling her eyes humorously, “I already had the idea for it in Whitechapel and I had written a few chapters.” Her perseverance was rewarded when she found an American publisher for her novel before a British one. “That was a wonderful moment,” she confided with a modest smile, “because I had thought, ‘Maybe no-one’s going to get this?’ but it confirms this is a story that is appropriate to many cultures. It stands upon its own terms.” In retrospect, Rosie recognises that the geographical distance granted her a perspective, liberating her to write fiction.
Weaving through the narrow streets, we came upon Ashfield St and Rosie’s former house. “They haven’t even repainted the front door!” she declared in surprise, turning her back on it in disappointment to point out the houses of friends that once lived here. “I was pregnant at the time and when I saw another pregnant woman in the street, I said to her, ‘We must be friends because we’re both going to have babies!’” she told me with a grimace at the craziness of it. In spite of the chill of the afternoon, Rosie showed a buoyant energy and humour that is reflected the quality of her lively compassionate writing and graceful prose style. We sat together on the swings in Ford Sq and Rosie wondered at the gleaming new hospital tower that has sprung up since she lived here, while boys in white jalabiyas played football around us.
This is a year of significant change for Rosie, publishing her first novel and returning this summer to live in London. “I like my life in Brooklyn, but my eldest daughter is reaching thirteen and you come to the point where you need to make a decision,” she said, in quiet contemplation as we walked back towards the clamour of Whitechapel Market. Yet Rosie Dastgir’s journey has been more than simply trans-atlantic, she returns as a novelist with a distinctive voice and an outstanding first novel under her belt – and all the possibilities that fiction has to offer laid out before her.