Why I Wrote True Brits

I’m fucking terrified.

True Brits opens tomorrow and as the writer it’s a funny sort of helplessness to that terror. At this point, pretty much nothing you can do will change anything, save for you pulling some “oh captain, my captain” speech out of your arse if necessary. I’ve hauled boxes with texts, sat it in final rehearsals and, to busy the writing side, I’ve responded to a fair few interviews. A question that comes up more often than I thought has been: “Why did you write this play?”. Each time I answered, I talked about wanting to capture certain feelings but it is a bit more complex than that and I wanted to elaborate on a few of them here. Not all of them are good-minded artistic or social reasons but I will try to be honest.

**Contains Minor Spoilers**

REASON 1) BROWN DUDES BEING NORMAL

Not just in the life of the character, but in the action of a piece of drama. I can’t tell you how sick I was of seeing entirely regressive families, drug dealers, terrorism, arranged marriages, honour killings etc. It was as if these were the only spheres you could have a main Asian character (no, that doctor character with a few lines every episode doesn’t count). Not that these don’t have a place or aren’t interesting to delve into but none of it chimed with the reality of my life or young people like me that I knew…at the very least, where was the funnies? Where was the getting on with it? Of course there’s a sort of confusing cultural violence to being an integrated kid of immigrant families. You get pulled every which way from a young age and after events such as 7/7 you are made to choose in lots of tiny little ways – but honestly, most of the time you just want to hang out with your mates and you don’t think about it. And I hadn’t really seen that reality portrayed (Ishy Din’s Snookered a notable exception) in a play.

It wasn’t until I watched a rehearsal yesterday that I remembered how much that frustration has fed itself into the form of the show. What you get for the first half is a slight mis-sell to the blurb. Yes, it talks about the Olympics for a bit, but it’s mainly just a kid doing what kids do. His background inflects Rahul’s life, there’s a little in every scene, but it never dominates until the second half. Even then, it’s much harder to be treated as a normal kid by those around you than it is for him or to, say, resist an urge to hop off to Syria or escape an arranged marriage.

Not, perhaps, the most radical thing in the world for most people – to have a character be normal – but I can’t stress how important this was to me to have snapshots of a complex emotional life in a different sort of Asian character that’s fun to be with in a theatrical space (mostly anyway…)

Following on from this…

REASON 2) BROWN DUDE BEING KINDA MIDDLE CLASS

It’s a small one this but I’m always amused when people tell me they’re glad that theatre’s trying to get past its “middle-class moment”: ask anyone of a minority background if it ever existed for them.

In timely fashion, Kayvan Novak has written about similar in the Guardian yesterday.  This in particular struck a chord for me:

I think I decided…that I was not prepared to have my identity dictated to me. That simply “being myself” was never going to satisfy me or get the job done. That the odds were stacked against me somehow, that the world was not about to adapt to me, but that I needed to adapt to the world. I had to fool the world into accepting me. I didn’t seem to fit the mould of my idols. My idols were all white or black, for a start, and working class, and northern, or American, drug addicts, rock stars, the same as anyone’s. But definitely not brown. I wanted to belong. But I never did. I was lost.

I felt all of this as a young man, and it was the loneliest place to be in since I had no way of expressing it to people who didn’t quite get it. Writing True Brits and seeing the responses to it have made me feel a little less lost and a lot less alone.

REASON 3) I WANTED BOTH THE FEAR AND THE HOPE TO EXIST IN THE CULTURAL MEMORY BECAUSE I THINK IT WILL, IN A TINY WAY, MAKE THIS COUNTRY A BETTER PLACE TO LIVE

So this is the wankiest of the three but I can’t say it wasn’t part of my process. I think a lot about how our cultural memories are affected by the arts. I’d wager the way a lot of people think about Vietnam is affected by the movies about it. It’s why there’s so much discussion around American Sniper. I hadn’t seen anything that captured what it was like to be a brown teen in this country but in London specifically after 7/7. Stuff like see-through backpacks, relentless stop and searches and people seeing a beard and moving seat will fall away from people’s minds as it probably should but you want to be able to look back and have some repository where it can be recalled. If you don’t, you’re not moving on from something, you’re just sort of erasing it. I wanted to be able to point to a piece of cultural work and go “I feel like a well-integrated fella but fuck me, sometimes it was bloody hard work to be the (relatively) nice guy that I am today, and likely harder than you might otherwise comprehend.”

BUT, and this is perhaps the most important thing behind this play for me. I am hopeful about my place in this country. In fact, in a slightly unfashionable way, I think I love it here. Not ironically, and not in a “God Bless America/All Hail The Motherland” way. Rather, like an album that catches your heart when you’re young and remains the soundtrack to your life, I feel it’s always going to be a part of me. I’ll always step off a plane after a holiday and whilst I’ll complain about the weather I’ll secretly want to wrap myself in the inevitable cold blast. It’s home.

Being repeatedly called a ‘paki’ as a kid, having my nose smashed in by various goons as a teenager, being told by sniffy posh bastards that I deserve airport searches as a young adult…this has all tested that feeling, but I’ve come out of it with a strong affection. I know this is not unproblematic. Britain’s ridden with problems, with corrosive ideologies, and its worse instincts are almost sort of an integral part of it. But I also know I want to be responsible for doing something about that. I want to do what I can to make it better. I think attempting to create a mostly harmonious ethnically and culturally diverse country is one of the nobler projects that can exist, we do do it relatively well here and y’know, it’s basically the future of the planet.

There’s a knobby, aggressive way to do this kind of thing (Bobby Jindal, I’m looking at you). But erasing difference will never sit properly. The post mass-immigration world is necessarily messy and confused and it’s hard to deal with that for some, but embracing and becoming comfortable with that confusion (confusion is a big part of True Brits) is the only way to go. Zadie Smith, a person far cleverer than me, frames this idea well in her lecture about Obama. Speaking in different tongues isn’t deceptive – it’s how we really operate, so seeking to polarise identity into “this is genuine, this is not” is how you end up with extremists in every sense. They claim to provide solidity and easy comprehension but really give nothing but a purist fantasy that isn’t honestly human. Confusion is scary, but it’s not a mush or a nothing, nor only endorsed by the tabloid-favourite “cosmopolitan, multicultural elite”. Being comfortable with confusion shouldn’t be something that’s out of the hands of, say, a white dude from Birmingham who’s had a trauma free upbringing. It goes all ways. To my mind, if something exists where you live, it’s all fair game to embrace and love and claim as a part of you. I feel like the reverse of that glorious Goodness Gracious Me sketch – Kebab shop? British. Italian Deli? British. Not wrap-it-in-a-flag British, just “you’re both here, you’re both each others to enjoy, and you’re both re-shaped by each other in a combination unique to where we are” kind of way where the British imagery and terminology becomes the platform on which to host all of that.
In the play the Olympics stands in for that desire because my experience of it was seeing people wanting to be able to love the smorgasbord country they lived in, and refreshingly without a lot of the jingoistic shit or old markers of ‘True’ Britishness. Welsh and don’t fancy singing the national anthem – fine. A black Muslim immigrant – super. Mixed-race from Sheffield – love it. Both sides of your family been here for yonks – fab. All of these are us and ours.
That’s what I hope the future of this place looks like and it’s what a lot of British Asians want and strongly believe too, if you look at the research. I don’t prescribe whether that hope is naive or worthwhile or necessarily interrogated enough – but it seems like a good place to start and I just needed to show it exists, even if it’s just to myself.

(If it doesn’t do it itself, skip to 12 minutes in).

One thought on “Why I Wrote True Brits

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