Tice Cin’s prose grooves. Her debut novel, Keeping the House, pulses with trap, grime, and club music and is also threaded through with poetry and the sound of the Turkish language. Cin writes in one vignette, “With these tracks, I could move (without restraint) the same parts that my mother had taught me to swirl in belly dance. Control in the core, between letting go and holding tight.”
The narrative arc of Cin’s kaleidoscopic debut focuses on the pursuit of drug wealth and a plan to smuggle heroin to London inside Turkish cabbages. Yet the scaffolding provided by the plot is a secondary pleasure; the radiance is in Cin’s language and her scene-setting; like a long-form DJ set, Keeping the House continually picks up tempo, relaxes into ethereal hollows, and crescendos with new life. “When the beats shift into another wave, you have to catch the moment where your moving changes,” Cin writes. “Dancing as exercise: carry on till you’re gasping”
Also a music producer and DJ, Cin is currently putting together an album to accompany the book. I wrote to Cin to ask her about life in Tottenham, her upcoming album, and her transcendent debut novel.
NATHAN SCOTT MCNAMARA: You have a concept album coming soon. How will your record correspond to your novel Keeping the House?
TICE CIN: I wanted the EP to feel like I’ve given Keeping the House to a team of people to sample from and retell. The same way that we begin a creative process with our literary agents and editors when working on text material, I wanted my relationship with the producers, rappers, and vocalists on the project to feel similarly collaborative and renewing. With the tracks I’ve produced, I’ve distorted and flipped the interviews that fed some of my ideas in the book so that we can peer through that wicker. The project has been beautiful because I’ve been able to work with long-term collaborators like lostintottenham (with his producer hat on) and Domo Gorille then also make new relationships with producers like Acekeyz and Shireen Ramazeni (Namak/ Shiriri). The foley on the record is very exciting to me. I wanted babo’s birds and long-distance drives on motorways to be heard.
Music plays such a big role in this book. Do you listen to music while you write, and, if so, what generally?
I love listening to music while I write, though the type of music depends on my plan of action for a piece. If I need to listen to myself to find a point to sail towards, then I will play binaural waves on YouTube so that I can focus and hear the clatter in my mind. I’ve been listening to isotones and binaural waves to concentrate for the last 10 years and I do feel that the sound memory of it has helped me to automatically switch into gear when I turn it on. More creatively, I love to curate playlists to the type of scene I am writing. Wretch 32 is often on any Tottenham writing. I love listening to Jersey club when I write about people, people like Ase Manuel because of the breath and syncopation in the music.
Keeping the House has an innovative method of typesetting Turkish (while also translating it into English) into the text. What was your method at arriving at this format?
I always wanted translation to feel an active breathing voice in the book. I tried out a few methods of putting the translations around the words and struggled with formatting on Word. I remember I was sat in a little hobbit hut of building with Max Porter for a writing workshop and we both looked at our various drawings. He told me I should ask And Other Stories if they might be able to see it through. Emma Warhurst and Stefan Tobler at And Other Stories were careful to avoid high-kicking translation, and this was helpful for us to consider. Alex Billington, the typesetter, was also a pleasure to work with. We wanted to experiment with the shapes of the translations, so that they sometimes broke up the lines and sometimes formed the word, this was especially the case with the translation for “maydanoz” (parsley). He hand-drew it all tendrilly. Having visual elements like a curvy margin line linking to particular words in the main body of the text means that you can’t change things or rewrite text at the proofs stage, because if the lines of text change, the lines go out of sync — so there was this real close attention to those final reads.
How does it influence all that follows that Keeping the House takes place in the borough of Haringey, rather than some other part of London?
I wanted to write about Tottenham because there were times that I couldn’t be in the area and so I wrote about it as a means of holding the place close to me. Haringey as a borough is a place where community hubs such as the working men’s cafes in my novel collide with sites of gentrification, the usual textbook ones with expensive coffee and staff who balk at a local’s presence. Archiving and cementing the importance places through art feels important to me. I’ve been inspired by people such as Stafford Scott, the co-founder of Tottenham Rights, who co-curated War Inna Bablyon: The Community’s Struggle for Truth and Rights, an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London and called that movement in campaigning direction towards “uptown,” to get more people involved in their work.
Something of great magnetism for me is the secret nooks and crannies you find in community hubs, these vacuums that tug at your toes and take you elsewhere, far from the surface view of a place. I used to write a lot about portals at university and portal fantasies. In some ways, Keeping the House is a portal fantasy where disused buildings and mysteriously boarded up doors are these portals into a neverwhere.
Food also plays a big role throughout the novel, and I’ll always especially remember the scene with the pickled pulya — “small vinegared birds.” Why is eating so central throughout this book?
I think about food and cPTSD a lot because I think that food sits in a place where it can be so triggering but also so grounding for people whose minds are feeling sensitive to over-saturation. I also enjoy writing about the ritual and reverence we have around food. We cook for our lovers as a gesture of adoration, and carry soup to heal.
The codes of a lifestyle are signaled through food too. We recognize food poverty by the way we talk about backbread, or rooting through a sofa for coins to get milk with. I think that food is often a way that communities womb one another. The friendships we see in the book, between characters such as Ayla and Zade, are my way of showing the way we thrive from a shared plate. We learn one another’s meals, and traditions cross roads.
I adore the crystal-clear attention you pay to your scenes, where we, for example, pull apart a McDonald’s chicken nugget and learn about the difference between London and North Cyprus nugget. Do you prefer a London or a North Cyprus McDonalds?
That means a lot! I prefer a London one definitely. I think that’s mainly because in London, the cold weather makes burgers feel like a hot water bottle. The line you mention in the book is also a slightly political joke because to get McDonalds in North Cyprus, you either need to cross the Green Line to get it in Nicosia or you go to BIG MAC, the… well-meaning alternative. North Cyprus has still been fairly untouched by McDonald’s globalization because it is not internationally recognized. Whenever I go to North Cyprus my family or friends in the village will really want to cross the Green Line with us so that they can treat themselves to McDonald’s and the other shops that aren’t permitted to set up where they live. It is considered easier to travel with tourists. We do have the best burgers at our village beach though.
How did you approach your research when it came to the logistics of drug smuggling by Turkish cabbages?
I would say I’m a research-led artist, I love building up a big amount of source material to then distort and use to build a story. I spent a lot of time interviewing people who worked in niche arms of the apparatus, this allowed me to pick out details that made the logistics feel as tightly woven as I could get them myself. For example, I spoke to someone who was a lorry driver for a wholesaler that supply food to restaurants in North London and they gave me lots of information about the worries they would have over the integrity of vegetables surviving long trips. I also watched videos of the cabbage germination process and used some of my own knowledge of gardening — along with communal gardening memories. I come from a line of quite green-fingered women.
What role has Cyprus played and what role does it currently play in your life?
When I started the book, I’d just returned from living in North Cyprus for three months, and I’d spent a lot of time coming across people who felt with urgency that their stories were not being told. Publishing culture in North Cyprus is quite complicated as government funding is low. I was given my village’s yearly roundup magazine from a couple decades ago and felt fascinated by the way our people had had multiple lives. This in part inspired the shifting perspectives in the book.
North Cyprus felt like a symbol of the dance between distance and intimacy in Keeping the House. I wrote the last sections of the book while out on the island, on my auntie’s balcony. There is a real longing amongst Turkish Cypriots to return to the homes they grew up in on the other side of the island, and most of those have since been built over. I feel like that spirit of being cut off from a key part of your life has created a communal humour, Turkish Cypriots are often quite light-hearted and cavalier about loss.
What were the primary influences on the creation of Keeping the House?
I think I felt I had a point to prove. I was doing my MA at UCL in English, and I wanted to write a book that was experimental and offered new literary takes while also coming from a place of realness and struggle. We had a module on Class and the City, and during that we looked writing by J. G. Ballard. Crash. High Rise. For the first time I started thinking about estates and buildings in another way, these intentional mimicking spots. There felt a disconnect between what I was learning about though, and the London of my knowledge, and also the way we write about cities and Complex PTSD. I think there is something about buildings that lock onto those memories.
At the same time, I was working as a property manager for a local estate agent three days a week. So I was fascinated by buildings, by the stories we tie into areas, and the ghosts of a building. One of the first scenes I wrote was of Damla, the main character walking home from her friend’s house. I had this image of brick walls between houses and then suddenly that became the catalogue.
When I look back at the book now, I see that a lot of my influences come from classic crime movies like Goodfellas, with dramatic drug flushing scenes. I always used to watch films like that and find comfort in the dysfunction. I also love pirate radio culture and the way characters could feel like they’re in a cypher. I also loved reading poetry by people such as Kayo Chingonyi.
You set your scenes so deftly, each time getting on the stage quickly and each time exiting gracefully. What are your methods for developing a scene?
I try to have a different approach for each scene. With my poetry background, we’re often responding to prompts. Sometimes, I’ll say to myself that I’d like to write a scene from a perspective of the “baddie” that seeks out their softness. Sometimes I’ll give myself a rule to write in film format (like with the middle of the book). I think this helps me to shuffle different versions of events and skew the reader’s line of vision.
I love your mention of stages. The sonics of my scenes often felt like I wanted to set off a psychedelic smoke machine that gradually filled a room with laughter, lighting, ambience that then allowed a character to step up and have their say.
I wanted to write a book with the structure of a heroin stuffed cabbage, there is one story at the core of it, and then another wrapped around another.
Where do you find your community/communities as an artist?
I feel like I bounce around a lot to be around different energies. Remaining quite rooted in my local scene has been comforting because it has allowed me to connect with friends in the area who are also creative and bond with them over mutual visions that have been born through mutual upbringings. This is where I find a lot of joy. The cover of Keeping the House was shot by Richard Dixon AKA lostintottenham as part of a daylong shoot around Tottenham and the key sites from the book. It couldn’t have been shot by anybody else. The other pictures from that shoot all became my reference as I went back into the book and added extra mood.
Libraries have been of great importance in my career. Growing up it wasn’t very easy for me to focus at home, so I would spend a few hours after school a day in the library. Then in university, it was the same. The library was a safe space. I also didn’t have a computer for the main brunt of writing this novel, so I would use my university’s alumni card to go there and write on their computers — or I would go to the British Library which is one tube journey from Tottenham and spend the whole day there — or as long as my packed lunch would allow.
There are a lot of writing communities that I am lucky to be a part of, and I find a lot of goodness in speaking to other writers about their journeys — I took part in a program run by a brilliant person, Jacob Sam-La Rose, called Barbican Young Poets, co-facilitated with Rachel Long. This is where I learned about the importance of safe spaces forged through communities. Vitally, where I found more access to queer communities such as Pxssy Palace too.
Various writing charities such as Spread the Word have helped me a lot — they’re an organization that develop writers, especially those from financially difficult backgrounds. With any pursuit, you have people who you can share your work with, people who can keep you in check but also inspire you. As an awardee of a London Writers Award, I got to have a critical feedback group with people like Kira McPherson, Riley Rockford, Jarred McGinnis and Sara Jafari. A large part of my creative practice is within group chats where we throw songs in that inspire us or ask questions like “what do you personally think of the moon?”
What are you working on next?
I’m continuing on with the Keeping the House EP and developing my skills in writing for film and TV. I’m building up my production skills to produce music for artists, which I think will be a nice creative challenge, to produce music for vocalists other than myself. I’m also working on two short films which I have written and will be co-directing, one of those inspired by the book that is about the McDonald’s on my local high street, the other is about a cleaner who gets a booking from someone who she met once before. With my friend Domo Gorille, I’m also working on an interdisciplinary project that includes and album and a graphic novel, looking at diffusing mental health stigmas and the importance of reaching out for help — it is a portal fantasy. Book Two is in the works; it looks at isolation from community in another way.