Writing with Fewer Limitations: The Millions Interviews Natasha Brown

January 27, 2022 | 1 book mentioned 4 min read

The world of high finance tends to figure in thrillers rather than slim literary novels. Now comes Natasha Brown to disrupt that presumption. Brown, who is young, Black, and British, takes readers inside the experience of a young Black, British woman working in the City of London.

Brown’s unnamed protagonist and narrator may be “succeeding” in her career in finance, but her work life is slow, steady torture. She’s done “all the right things;” attended the right schools, taken the right jobs, bought the right apartment. She even dates the right prospect, a young white man from privilege and connections.

Nevertheless, her daily experience is one of constant microaggressions, which is to say aggressions. She spends lunch time in the end cubicle of the ladies’ room, “waiting either to shit or to cry or to muster enough resolve to go back to her desk.”

A male superior regularly dials her desk to comment on what he sees: “her hair (wild), her skin (exotic), her blouse (barely containing those breasts). She is surrounded by mediocre men whose intrusions are unceasing. They gawk and comment, stand too close to her, and ask inappropriate and violative questions. She is British, but is frequently asked where she’s from—“Africa, right?”

Brown’s narrator speaks in understatement, providing dispassionate commentary, searing for what she omits.

I feel. Of course I do.

I have emotions.

But I try to consider events as if they’re happening to someone else. Some other entity. There’s the thinking, rationalizing I (me). And the doing, the experiencing, her. I look at her kindly. From a distance. To protect myself, I detach.

Injustices splatter like rain in a storm. The protagonist soldiers on, recording her experience in a voice silent with rage.

Assembly eerily reflects my early experience working in corporate law firm (including a partner who frequently dialed my desk to ask what I was wearing). Although I am a white woman in America, I suspect this book very accurately reflects the experience that American Black women face daily, hourly.

Brown’s literary skills shine from start to finish. She has mastered the deadpan delivery; her sentences are lean and fraught. At 102 pages, Assembly is a treasure of concision.

I feel lucky to have been able to interview Brown, who is described on the book jacket as having “spent a decade working in financial services, after studying mathematics at Cambridge University.”

As an interviewee, Brown presents a different side. She declined to answer questions about her work life, replying to my other questions in her pithy, to-the-point style.

The Millions: Tell us about how you came to writing.

Natasha Brown: I’m really interested in the question of whether language can be neutral. I began writing in 2019 to further explore some of the ideas about language that I’d been researching and thinking about. Before that, I didn’t have much interest in writing. But I’ve always been a keen reader.

TM: Can you say more about that? What kind of reader were you as a child?

NB: As a child I had varied interests: classics, sci fi, and a little nonfiction. These days I’ve added contemporary fiction, poetry, and much more varied nonfiction to the mix.

TM: How did you come to write this book?

NB: There’s a very limited range for the sort of book someone like me can publish, at least as a debut. (Arguably due to a cycle of selection and confirmation bias at play within the cultural sector.) But I took that narrow scope as a creative challenge, starting from the narrative restrictions of the genre I was effectively confined to, and attempting to reveal and examine its conventions from within.

TM: How did you organize your time so that you could write? Do you have a writing practice?

NB: I prefer to write first thing in the morning, ideally for at least an hour. I spend weekends editing and planning. Evenings are usually for reading. It can be very difficult to find the time to write around life’s other commitments, so I do always try to make it my first priority in the day — which has often meant waking up quite early. But there’s worse ways to start the day than with coffee and a notebook.

TM: Can you tell us about your book’s path to publication?

NB: I sent the manuscript to agents last year. That’s how I found my agent, Emma Paterson, who’s been an incredible champion of the book. It was published this past summer in the U.K. (autumn in the U.S.). Since then, the Dutch and Brazilian editions have also been published.

TM: That is wonderful to hear! How have your U.K. and other readers received the book?

NB: It’s been wonderful to get the chance to speak with readers—both virtually and at live events. I’m happy to see the novel take on new meanings and interpretations as people read it. That’s been one of the most interesting aspects of seeing it published.

TM: Did you get feedback from colleagues?

NB: Feedback from other writers can be really valuable; I found workshopping key to understanding the effects of different choices in my writing. It’s certainly a helpful part of my writing process.

TM: What is your sense of whether corporate culture is changing in the U.K? Do you see changes in attitudes toward women? Toward Black women?

NB: I’m much more interested in the higher-level economic shift that’s taking place. As the quaternary sector [intellectual, knowledge-based economy] becomes increasingly important to the U.K. and U.S. economies, we’re seeing a range of reactions to the resulting effects on our society and lives—within corporate cultures, yes. But I think it’s broader than that. Such moments of social flux are, at least to me, fascinating to explore within fiction. That’s what I’m interested in writing about, in all of its complexity.

TM: Are you engaging in these conversations publicly in the U.K. or elsewhere?

NB: I sometimes think it’s strange that I’m so often expected to. As a novelist, my goal is to create immersive worlds and stories for readers. That’s what I’m focused on. Wading into such conversations might, I suspect, weaken the effect of any fiction I write.

TM: What books and/or writers have influenced your writing life?

NB: Roland Barthes’s essay “Myth Today,” bell hooks’s  “Postmodern Blackness,” Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely.

TM: What’s next for you?

NB: I’m taking the opportunity to write with fewer limitations, now that my first novel is out of the way. I remain fascinated by questions of language and rhetoric, and it’s exciting to approach those ideas more directly in my new work.

's debut novel, Three Muses, won the Petrichor Prize for Finely Crafted Fiction and came out in September 2022. Martha is a frequent contributor to NPR Books and to The Millions. Please visit her at marthaannetoll.com and tweet to her @Marthaannetoll.