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Written by: Huck
A version of this story appears in Huck Issue 77. Get your copy now, or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
Sitting on the River Lea, next to the historic Essex-Middlesex border in Northeast London, is Walthamstow Wetlands – a 211-hectare reservoir site and one of Europe’s largest urban wetlands. It’s a haven for wildlife, from grey herons, kingfishers and peregrine falcons to speckled wood butterflies and thick-kneed beetles.
It opened to the public in 2017, and it’s no coincidence that residents of the sleek new high-rise towers in nearby Tottenham Hale and Blackhorse Road – developments with snappy names like Blackhorse Mills and Hale Works – can enjoy views of it from their balconies and rooftop gardens. The main entrance on Forest Road is just a three-minute drive from where an unarmed Mark Duggan was shot and killed by police on 4 August, 2011, and exactly a mile away from the steps of the police station where his family arrived demanding answers two days later.
On an angler’s pontoon overlooking one of the 10 reservoirs, bathed in comforting spring sunlight, is where I meet multidisciplinary artist Tice Cin. We’re here to discuss her critically acclaimed debut novel Keeping the House and a pair of Egyptian geese have joined to keep us company. Tice and I have met once before, during the first national lockdown in 2020, at an online book club. The text we were discussing was Elif Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul, a novel centred on two families connection through the events of the Armenian Genocide. The responsibility fell to Tice (a Turkish Cypriot) and me (an Armenian) – connected to the communities on which the book is focused – to add context to the discussion. It was an intense, healing experience for both of us, and we’ve stayed in touch since.
Ostensibly a crime novel about “the North London Heroin Trade” – as described by Tice herself in the book’s blurb – Keeping The House has featured in both the New York Times and Washington Post, and was named as one of The Guardian’s best books of 2021. It has since been longlisted for both the Desmond Elliott Prize and the Jhalak Prize. The scope of the novel is far greater than its description as a crime novel implies. Tice says this framing was a deliberate misdirection. “If you’ve read the book, you’ll know there’s a lot more going on. So it was this political cheekiness, like a way of Trojan-Horsing in other themes,” she says.
“I’ve written before about Trojan Horses and my way of writing them into crime fiction,” she continues. “I think you’re subverting the traditional reader who might arrive at crime fiction. The audience – the people who read crime fiction – will pick up the book based on that topic. I’ve had a lot of Turks read Keeping the House, and through that I might’ve changed their minds on other things, or made them look at girlhood or campness differently. That’s what the game plan was with the book, I have to say.”
At the core of Keeping the House is the story of Ayla, a Turkish Cypriot woman living in Tottenham in the late 1990s, who’s got her incarcerated boyfriend’s heroin to sell and a grand scheme to smuggle loads more into the U.K from Turkey, by growing cabbage leaves around the gear and then transporting it in the back of trucks. All she needs to do is recruit some well-connected men from a local Kahveci (working men’s cafe) to put the plan in motion. Then there’s her mother Makbule, whose mind is slowly unravelling as dementia takes hold and resurfaces past trauma, and her quietly wise, watchful daughter Damla, who sees more than she should. This story is the anchor of the novel’s broader themes. Through concise, potent chapters of prose and illuminatory fragments of poetry, the novel moves back and forth through time, exploring ideas of belonging, community and diaspora, family, gender, love and memory.
As we settle into our conversation surrounded by nature, the noise of construction can be heard in the distance. The local skyline is altering, populated by more and more imposing towers full of expensive, high-spec apartments. They’re unavoidable reminders of the gentrification underway in Tottenham, and London as a whole. It’s fitting then, that Keeping the House was born in part out of Tice’s desire to see her city in writing. She is very much a part of the community she writes about, having lived in Tottenham, Edmonton and on the Hertford Road in Enfield. The majority of Turkish Cypriots live in the diaspora, after fleeing ethnic cleansing in the 1960s and 1970s. This is how Tice’s family came to live in North London.
“I was doing a module [at University College London] on writing the city, thinking about Ballard and High Rise, and Zadie Smith’s NW. I was thinking, ‘I’m not seeing my city,’” she says. The pockets of North London she describes are neglected by the capital’s collective consciousness; hidden worlds that buzz with the vibrancy of secret lives in cafes, living rooms and smoky snooker halls. Tice is embedded in it all. “I’m around them, aren’t I? I’m still here. I’m writing from inside the community, I’m not outside it. So I’ve got to be mindful. When I move, things will be a little bit different, I’ll be chatting a bit more.”
Tice describes herself as an “under-the-table kid” who, like Damla, observed more than she should have growing up. She explains what this means: “They’re the kids who see too much, no one cares what they’re seeing. And they’re there because they understand that knowing gives them power. When children have nothing, they do have their eyes, their wits about them. So they intuit what’s going on around them and internalise it in whatever way they need to, to get through to the next day.”
An alumnus of Barbican Young Poets, a development initiative for writers, Tice is an artist in the most complete sense of the word. She also creates digital art as part of Design Yourself, a collective based at the Barbican Centre, exploring what it’s like to be human in the ever-changing technological world. She’s currently writing and co-directing three short films, after signing with United Agents, and is seeking production for adaptation of Keeping the House. She’s a producer and DJ too, and is releasing an EP of music to accompany the novel, which features members of the fwrdmtn collective she belongs to, like Kareem Parkins-Brown and Latekid. It’s an immersive, transportive listen. If you’re not from North London, it will take you there. If you are, it will feel like home.
Poetry serves an important role in Keeping the House, allowing Tice to transition from neutrality to intimacy, and write about trauma, and its effects, in a deeply personal way. “There were moments when I felt I really needed to express how complex PTSD shatters your mind, pauses your thought process and accelerates with dementia. Poetry felt like the best way for me to express the diminution or crescendo.” She explains that some poems were elongated and stretched into blocks of prose, while others stayed as they were written.
The process of writing Keeping the House served as an antidote to the isolation Tice was feeling at the time. “I think it was loneliness. This feeling of not connecting to a place, or to the people in a place, and trying to reclaim that connection through writing how I honestly feel about it. And that way, the area or the people may not feel that way about me personally. But it’s a love that doesn’t need to be mutual. If I invest my love into this fictional story, maybe some of that reality is embalmed.”
The love that Tice put into Keeping the House radiates from its pages. Its depictions of Tottenham’s Turkish Cypriot community are written with observational richness and an unsentimental poignancy that can only come from within: Tulay places a sock over her hand to wipe dust from the walls and her daughter Filiz throws decorative towels over cutlery inside the drawer before houseguests arrive; Yusuf’s henchmen Ali, Mehmet and Ufuk take the piss out of each other in the Kahveci; Ayla’s Greek Cypriot neighbour Panny insists he’s not eating her helim and karpuz (cheese and watermelon) because his wife has prepared food at home, and then a plate is placed in front of him nonetheless.
But Tice’s exploration of belonging in the book is not solely focused on Tottenham’s Turkish Cypriots. It shows the life-saving value of support from the wider community, through Ayla’s friendship with Zade – a Tottenham OG – and Damla’s friendship with Angela. “I think Keeping the House shows disownment. These characters are getting disowned by their communities. And then it takes your surrogate communities to come in and envelop you in love. It’s about the importance of neighbours,” she says.
“When I think about Tottenham, it’s the way the Jamaican community and the Ghanaian community, especially around Broadwater Farm, took care of us. I think it’s important to emulate that in writing, otherwise we risk creating monolithic literature.” One of the book’s most moving passages comes when Damla’s mind drifts towards a memory of being with Cemile outside the local community centre, waiting to see King Tubby’s sound system (“our hands on the floor, feeling the bass from the clash inside”). Her reverence for Black British music sings loud.
“Growing up around soundsystem culture is a blessing,” Tice tells me. “I feel for people who didn’t. Feeling the rumble in your feet, that’s just the best feeling. It makes you feel alive. And scurrying around after people, I’ve definitely done that before. I’ve helped wrap up many wires in my time, just a teenager bombing around town.”
Beyond her writing, Tice has broader ambitions of supporting the communities she belongs to – communities living with trauma. She wants to give people the agency to forge their own futures, and create resources to best support that goal. It’s indicative of a writer who remains committed to the place that helped make her who she is. “It’s definitely on my mind, having tangible ways to affect change, going to people who feel powerless and giving them power,” she explains.
“Instead of just handing someone a book and saying, ‘Read this, it will change your life,’ get them to a point where they feel emotionally secure enough to sit down and read that book. I loved to read, but growing up it made me vulnerable. It was a vulnerable state for me, because my eyes were elsewhere and my instincts were off. So it’s on my mind now, as I look ahead into my career, how to create hubs where people can be themselves.”
Keeping The House is out now on And Other Stories.
Follow Robert Kazandjian on Twitter.