Celebrating Difference & Recording a Childhood Journey
Your semi-autobiographical debut novel Anita and Me about a young British Punjabi girl Meena and her friend Anita was yet another groundbreaking work. What compelled you to write the novel?It’s a journey a lot of us had to go through, thinking in order to feel like we belonged, we had to erase our Indian-ness.I wanted to record my childhood in some way as it was so unusual, growing up in a small white working class rural community, the outsider in so many ways and yet desperate to belong. It seemed to me the perfect metaphor for all of us second generation kids, exploring the friendship between a rebellious little Indian girl and the older white best friend whom she worships and wants to be. Through the friendship Meena begins to realize wanting to be like Anita isn’t her way out of her small town. In fact, in many ways she’s the powerful one, and Anita will be the damaged one left behind. It’s a journey a lot of us had to go through, thinking in order to feel like we belonged, we had to erase our Indian-ness, when in reality for many of us, no matter what we did we would always be considered unwanted strangers.
The happy alternative is to embrace and celebrate your differences, hard as it is when you’re a kid, and understand being the outsider isn’t necessarily a bad thing, sometimes it’s the most creative place to be. I guess I wanted to write the kind of book I wished I’d had access to during my own childhood, and one of my proudest achievements is that both my novels are now on the school curriculum here as recommended texts.
Anita and Me explored a wealth of themes from friendship, racism, small town frustration and the general ups and downs of growing up. It’s a novel which resonates with many people from Asian and non-Asian backgrounds. Why do you think that is?
I think firstly that most of us had a best friend we adored and wanted to be and were often dismissed by, and remember how sweet and painful those times were. And secondly, as kids we all feel misunderstood by our families, long to escape them, wish we were somebody or somewhere else. It’s not just immigrant kids who feel that way. Also I had a lot of British people write to me and say that the book reminded them of their childhoods and was something of a tribute to a way of working class British life now long gone in many areas sadly.
With the novel being semi-autobiographical, did any members of your family recognize themselves in any of the characters? And what was their reaction?
Being a good Indian girl, I gave the first draft of the book to my parents and said if there was anything in it they found too invasive, I would take it out. But to their credit, they didn’t object at all after I’d promised them a cut of the royalties.
Emerging Into Film & TV’s Mainstream: South Asians in the U.S. and U.K.
In the years you’ve been active in the arts, would you say the Brit-Asian community now has an equal voice?
We have a voice which is obviously progress, we have amazing talent coming through like Riz Khan, Archie Panjabi, Parminder Nagra. But all of them have had to go out of Britain to get the great roles and that’s still an issue here, not only for us but for black actors too. Talent like Marianne Jean Baptiste, David Harewood and Idris Elba had to go to America to get the meaty roles and be seen as actors rather than black actors. It’s frustrating that we have so much incredible talent here but can’t seem to land the real breakthrough roles/projects that would give us a more constant and more international profile.
How do you think the situation with Brit-Asians in the arts and media compares with South Asians in the U.S.?
It feels like you guys picked up the baton and ran so fast with it, we’re now lagging behind! I do remember feeling a mixture of pride and envy when I heard about Mindy Kaling’s show, so happy that she had got there. So sad that GGM, Bhaji On The Beach, Bend It Like Beckham, East is East had all happened in Britain…yet Britain had yet to put on a comedy show with a South Asian woman in the lead.
It’s also really encouraging to see South Asian actors/writers/directors now just popping up in mainstream work. A decade ago it was just Apu in The Simpsons, so we feel like your trajectory has been impressively fast, though it may not seem it to you guys! But in the end, all our successes hopefully feed each other, and the end result is that we are out there, just being damn good in whatever role it is. We all want to get to a place where we work because we’re the best at what we do regardless of anything else.
The other thing is, we really need to talk to each other more creatively, hook up across the oceans for projects/ideas. The black acting community really connect with each other, support each other, they have learned we need our own network of creatives, and together you are much more powerful as creators and controllers of your work. That’s what we should be doing, no?
What are you up to at the moment?
I’m just halfway through a brand new series of The Kumars at No. 42, now for Sky TV, which is really exciting. Even though we did seven series, won various awards including two International Emmys, we didn’t feel we were done with the family when we weren’t picked up a few years back. Sky realized there was still a huge fondness for the Kumars and that as it’s a sit com/chat show hybrid, every week really is fresh because it’s our celebrity guests that bring the unexpected fresh laughs, plus the huge element of impro in the show. So this new series should be out next January on Sky which hopefully means you can see it too.
And what’s next? Can we have another book or screenplay from you please?
Glad to oblige! I’m almost finished with my third novel (finally, only five years late, my publishers are very understanding). That should be out next summer. It’s set in London and New Delhi and about a rather controversial subject, but I can’t say too much yet. I promise, I will tell you more, nearer the time…
Ben Mirza (@BenVMirza) is a pop culture and current affairs journalist based in the UK. His work appears in the Huffington Post, Untitled Magazine, Hello Pakistan, The UK Asian and others. You can read more of Ben’s writing over at his website — www.benmirza.com.