When my friend Tutku asked me to write a short for a night of plays responding to Brexit I, again, remembered that I wasn’t meant to be writing any shorts this year and now I sort of have to accept I definitely am and have, between this, Come To Where I’m From (literally the post before this) and The Pathfor HighTide (who, as a quick aside, I’m super pleased to have joined the board of). I am lousy at saying no, which often makes my agent very sad.
In this case however, there was an idea knocking around my head that I wanted to give a go. How does an individual create resilience, in particular to words, if you can’t rely on others not to use them? It’s an idea that my grandparents – who get fazed by very few words – would be on board with, I’m sure.
Following the reported post-Brexit hate speech spate (one incident of which I witnessed, and one that affected by grandfather in hospital), I thought about it again so I tried to get some conception of the idea down, which Tutku took on with grace, even if I was delivering a draft just hours (an hour?!) before her first rehearsal.
Shorts are tricky things to pull off in that I think people assume you can just bang them out and certainly some folks I know can do that, but for me to write a half-way decent one, it takes almost as much thinking as a full-length play. If that sounds nuts, consider that everything you write is the act of taking a topic and trying to conceive it in an imaginative way (in this case through the lens of theatre also). There’s usually one big idea at the heart of it. Both shorts and full-length pieces needed the time for that big idea to come through.
This is my roundabout way of saying I taking fucking forever to write these things and they take up huge parts of my thinking which is why I’ve tried to dodge them, since I’ve got plenty to be getting on with at the moment. This might be a piece I come back to in future.
Sadly, I didn’t get to see this performed since I was up at the Roundhouse for an event showcasing The Good Immigrant (plus raising money for The Good Causes). I hate missing stuff other people have made the effort to put together, and doubly this one because sitting in that audience would’ve been a real part of the, for lack of a better word, fun. Heard it went well though!
I know I’ve been neglecting this blog and its purpose – to make the writing and the challenges it causes to the life behind it clear to anyone who wants to do it – but will shortly put up a proper longish update about what I’ve been up to and how life has changed in ways large and small (honest). Just realised that I’ve been writing it, on and off, for a little over six years now. I’d just got going with my writing back then. I wonder what I’ll be writing about in six years from now? Complaining about short plays, probably.
Exit Strategy, performed at the National Theatre, 1st August 2016, as part of Artist Directors of the Future Talks Brexit night.
Director: Tutku Barbaros
Cast: Ashraf Ejjbair & Tamsin Newlands
The blurb is: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will always haunt me. B wanted to leave. A is finding it harder to stay. If you can’t rely on society to change, the only option left is to change yourself.“
Exit Strategy script is here. (Very strong language warning)
Catching up a with a couple of shorts I’ve done of late (after saying I’d not do any across this year…).
The first was a Come To Where I’m From for Paines Plough, in collaboration with Tamasha. I’d heard about this before and I’d always wanted to do one so was chuffed to be asked. The deal with these plays is that not only does a writer write about where they’re from (in whatever way they interpret that) but they also perform the piece themselves. Writing and life wise I was still going through a tough time so I wanted to set myself a task to do something I’d never done before. In this case, it was drop my trousers in front of a crowd of people and try and make that meaningful. I definitely managed one of the two. I was terrified I was going to catch my boxers on the way down and whip out my balls in public (which I’ve done as an 18 year old in front of several members of the Evangelical Christian Union – a story for another time) but thankfully any shocks were limited to the words themselves.
The other writers performing that night were Miran Hadzic, Adam Brace, Roy Williams, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and Sandra Townsend – all pictured below. Their pieces were a proper lovely mix, which you don’t always get at a shorts night. Japes, wine and fun times. Gave me the nudge I needed. Glad I did it.
Come To Where I’m From, performed at the Oval House Theatre, 4th July 2016, as part of Paines Plough’s Come To Where I’m From
The blurb: “As a biographer posthumously sets out the key moments of the long-dead Vinay’s life, fifteen year Vinay takes to the stage, keen to make some corrections.”
I’m going to preface this by saying I realise a lot of what I’m talking about below comes under the heading of “small violin problems”. All I can say in defence is that since starting this blog five or so years ago I’ve always wanted to document my writing journey (ugh) as honestly as I can. I hope there’s enough about the topic that’s clear and possibly familiar, despite the lens through which it’s looked at. I’ve been wanting to write it for a while, but held off until I was feeling a bit better and now here we are.
So. I really wanted to write one of those beautiful pieces about working through depression – you know, the ones with a lot of wanky water metaphors, illustrated with a cute little picture of a stick figure staring at a black dog (who’s in the water?) or similar – but I don’t know how to do it since the main problem seems to be that I don’t think or feel as keenly as I used to. For me, when I write, I sit at the computer and the images form like on a little TV in my head. For the last half a year or so that TV has mostly been screening static.
It’s an insidious process watching the person you understand yourself to be slip away in increments. Eating a bit more. Running a little less. Cracks from your housemate about how you’re sleeping late. Flagging instead of answering emails. Seeing your pile of work build up and up – work you solicited to get – and having no desire to touch it. Wondering when you last had a thought, an actual thought. Not answering party invites. Until one day you realise your clothes, the ones you’ve bothered to wash, don’t fit and you could be quite accurately be described as a lazy person who doesn’t care about anything very much. Wait. What? I love parties. I love people. I love my job. I’ve worked so hard to get here. This is not me. Or is it? Does this goes back or is this me now?
I don’t quite know what sent me in this direction, and I’m not sure if looking for trigger-cause links is particularly useful. It’s post-rationalising, isn’t it? There are things that seem likely, but how can you ever really know? Nevertheless, here are some things I suspect:
1) Getting to thirty. This was a psychological barrier for me as my mum didn’t make it to that age (29 years, 3 months) and I’ve always had a thing about doing as much as I could before I got there. Now I am, I guess the future feels a lot harder to formulate since, in a way, I figured thirty would be the end of it. I hear athletes can get a bit fazed after tournaments, even if they win a medal, because their whole life has been geared to make sense of that one moment. When it goes, it can be hard to replace it. Maybe it’s a bit like that.
2) The process of making Murdered By My Father. I’m less sure about this one, but the intensity definitely did a real number on me and I’d like to use this space to reflect on that whole experience so bear with me. It feels pathetic to talk about it in these terms considering the subject matter – especially since the incredible people we worked with at the charities deal with it every day – but I guess I wasn’t really prepared for what it would entail. MBMF was my first piece of television and I knew it was going to be quite a visible one. Plus the turn around on it was, from the perspective of someone coming from theatre, ridiculously short. PLUS I already had two theatre commissions to work on that I also needed and wanted to throw myself into.
So there were a lot of balls to juggle, but MBMF by necessity of its looming shoot date became my main concern. I had two maxims floating in my head at all times whilst working on it. The first, “Do right by the victims” the second “Don’t fuck up the honour killing drama for the BBC, Vinay, that would be really, really bad.” It was a hell of a privileged position to be in, I knew that, and it sucked up every thought, every feeling and I became monofocused like never before. I was very, very neglectful as a person during that time and probably not much fun to be around. I’m not going to seek out confirmation of that, but finding myself sobbing uncontrollably in the corner of an AirBnB room in Edinburgh during the Fringe (familiar to the Fringe, perhaps, but I didn’t even have a show on) told me all I needed to know. In way, this is the level of dedication a project like that needed, I don’t regret that at all, BUT! But…you can still probably approach it better.
I had an interesting conversation one day on set with Adeel where I asked him how he managed to play a character like that and still keep himself sane. I had so many dark nights writing him. Adeel told me that there was a tiny part of his brain that he didn’t let that character access. The part which had everything he cared about in it. Shahzad could take over every part of his mind apart from that part. At the time I think I dismissed it as an actor-y thing, but thinking on it later, I wished I had known how to do that myself.
I don’t think I fully grasped how much MBMF haunted me until it actually came out and I felt all the anxiety again but ramped up further still, exacerbated by the responsibilities you have to take for it existing. I love theatre deeply (despite my moaning) but it hadn’t prepared me for the very public responsibility that comes with television. TV can and does go anywhere and everywhere, which is both its strength and its curse. There’s the potential to be judged not just for your take on a topic but on your reasoning for doing it and that judgement can come from literally anyone on earth with access to an internet connection.
Within the production, we had had discussions about staying off social media for the duration of its launch. That was a sensible approach, but I vehemently disagreed with it. I don’t think you can drop something like that show on people and then not be out there, so everything that happened was stuff I was asking for, I accept that. No one forced me to be involved. But it felt necessary and part of my job to take responsibility for what I had helped create. This was no Roland-Barthes-Death-of-the-author stuff. We wanted it to have an impact, so I felt like I needed to take the resulting “hit”. It also was – somewhat contradictory to this post – the first thing in ages that gave me a sense of purpose and frankly I was grateful to grasp it. I did all the interview requests that came in, I wrote articles, posed for some pictures, the lot.
I was surprised and humbled by the overwhelmingly positive response that piece got, but within that there are things that stick and you have to take the good with the bad and sometimes the line between the two isn’t that evident. There’s the man who finds you on Facebook to tell you it reminds him of his own father’s abuse in 1950s Wiltshire and how that experience traumatised him forever. You can’t ignore him, but are you qualified to talk to him about that? Do you risk hurting them even more? There’s a woman who tweets you to say that her Pakistani friend in Northern Ireland was approached by a stranger and asked “Is this what you all do to your kids?” The friend was shaken and furious. My response that I was sorry to hear that (and I was) but sadly, this mostly stems from a lack of diverse representation on TV beyond dramas on these issues, felt truthful but still handwring-y. There’s nothing you could’ve done about it, but it’s still partly your fault.
The few out-and-out bright spots from this time was watching all types of kids take on this issue fully and discuss it with nuance. I also got to chat to so many young adults making their first forays into journalism and fiction writing and activism. I got to do interviews with them (and I liked them way more than the ‘bigger’ ones). I got to read some beautiful response poems. I got to go to an event in a pub in East London where what must’ve been near a hundred young women and men gathered to hear talks and performances about what feminism was and want they wanted it to be.
I was particularly heartened that so many of them were Asian too. It’s everything I wanted to exist when I was a kid and had tentative dreams of wanting to work in the arts but wasn’t sure how to ever make that happen. There was no path that was clear to me. How lovely then to engage with kids who see many different paths ahead of them.
Considering my low bar for MBMF was “don’t start a race war”, this was all a massive bonus. But making it wrung me out and responding to it wrung me out more and was a lesson in being careful in both how you approach a project and how you decompress from it. I was very lucky that by this point I had taken my misery to a GP (it took me getting drunk and swearing aggressively at some nice strangers for me to do that) and I had started four weeks of CBT just before it came out. Those sessions acted as a buffer against the worst of it.
3) Burn out. Again, a bit vague, but I suppose it makes sense. When I first told people I felt a bit off in October last year, just after MBMF had wrapped, they were very insistent that I’d been Working Very Hard For A Very Long Time and that I Needed A Holiday. I’d been on a couple of trips the last few years, mostly for weddings, but I genuinely couldn’t remember when I last went on a proper holiday. I wasn’t even that sure how you did it anymore. Truthfully, I’d rather have spent it in my pants, on the sofa, playing the PS4 I had bought but had not unboxed any games for because there was too much to do. I was then convinced by others that this wasn’t good enough.
So I tried to have a holiday. A few weeks later I found myself in a hotel room in Barcelona, quite a nice hotel room since I’d decided that I Deserve This. It was ok. I walked around a lot and listened to podcasts. But I found the stress of finding vegetarian food in a hugely carnivorous city enormous. I couldn’t bring myself to get on the subway. The football team weren’t even playing that week. I found myself on Diwali night sat in an Indian restaurant alone, overhearing a furiously red-faced Englishman explain curry to a patient Spanish woman, and all the while I wishing I was back home on the sofa, in my pants, playing my PS4.
The morning after I sat in my hotel room all day, writing an email that still sits in the drafts of my inbox that I never sent but can’t bring myself to delete. It was a long plea to my friends to not hate me if they didn’t hear from me for ages because I wanted to just disappear. I didn’t know how to be a good friend to them or how to be present in any meaningful way. I loathed everything about myself in that moment, probably more than I ever have.
So maybe it was this stuff. Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was just lingering concerns I have about my personality, my inconsistency, my ability to be a functional adult human enlarging themselves til they clouded out everything else. But what’s the upshot of it all?
The bad is that I’ve turned down loads of projects. I’ve even paid back a commission. I chastise myself for not being able to take better advantage of or more enjoyment from this moment in my life and career which by all measures is going fine. More than fine, pretty damn good. I want to grasp every opportunity, I want to be able to have a Jack Thorne-esque level of consistency and productivity but the truth is I can’t really handle it and it’s been better for me to consciously step back and sharpen my focus on fewer things. I might manage to get myself back to spinning lots of projects at the same time, but definitely won’t be doing that soon. It hurts me to say no, but I know it’ll hurt me more to say yes.
The good is that the CBT has started to give me a bit of a framework to make a comeback from. The hourly journalling of mood let me see when I was best placed to operate. Setting tiny goals has been an unexpected revelation. When the big goals disappear as a source of drive and value, I’ve found pushing yourself to consistently do the little things really does help. Cooking a meal for my housemate. Making the time to ring home. Read a book (until this month, it’d be nearly a year since I’d read a work of fiction that wasn’t a play. And even then, not many of those).
Slowly by slowly, through diligent little acts of humanity and progress, the static is coming into focus. I’ve even started using wanky metaphors myself.
I’m currently writing what is, I think, my first explicitly genre piece, a play called Known Unknowns, that I’m billing as a “radicalisation rom-com”. I really, really enjoy seeing those words put together because I think the story premise and the experience it suggests you will have is quite clear.
I’m an unashamed lover of genre stories and particularly rom-coms and I’ve always wanted to write one. Now that I am, I’ve spent a little time thinking about why I love it and how I hope to use genre as part of my broader aim of creating more inclusive stories.
What is so compelling about genre as a tool of inclusion is that, in the mix of elements that will satisfy an audience, the narrative and thematic expectations of a genre tend to overwhelm the need for strong character identification. So if you have a character whose experiences/background you think a broad audience will find more difficult than usual to get on board with, by placing them in a well-wrought genre story you can give them those characters, be truthful to their experiences *and* satisfy reluctant viewers.
The hope then is for a legacy of identification via familiarity. The next time that viewer encounters a similar character, perhaps in something more challenging, (and, being a bit grand, perhaps in real life) they’ll more likely stick with it because of them having a greater pool of empathy, drawing as it will from the previous experience. One they potentially didn’t even realise they were getting.
Genre is just a widely-understood set of story tropes and our innate knowledge of those tropes bridges what ever boundaries exist between us.
There is a moment from my year as an MA writing student that haunts me and I bring it up a lot because, for lack of a less wanky phrase, it was a moment of social awakening.
As part of the course, we were split into groups and had to individually develop characters in a sitcom. I got given the everyman lead character in my group, and I made him black. I remember that decision clearly because when doing it, it felt like I was being deliberately antagonistic. Which was a bloody weird way to feel. Like I’d internalised the neutrality of whiteness and any other race as “statement.” I’d already caught myself saying “I want to write stories about Asian characters, but also normal stories as well” earlier in the course and wanted to throw up over myself when I realised I’d done so so I stuck with the decision, interested to see what would happen.
We went back into class the next week and explained how we had enriched our respective characters. When I mentioned the details of what I’d done with mine, both the tutor and a fellow student said words to the effect of “Oh no, I didn’t see him as black.” And no-one else seemed to find this a problematic statement. To be clear: it would not have impacted the narrative in any significant way. It wasn’t a show about race. Yet that was the casual reaction from my peers. From my instructors. Now I don’t think they’re bad people for that, it just demonstrated to me how deep the unconscious bias sits. Characters of Colour (as it were) feel unable to be platforms from which to tell “everyman” stories. It’s not quite a “yuck factor” but in the moment it really didn’t feel far off.
It isn’t just me worrying about this, of course. On a scheme I was a part of last year, I had a long conversation with an American writer of Mexican extraction. He was a phenomenal writer (who’s doing big things now so kudos) who said he wanted to write something about his family, but felt it wouldn’t be considered American enough. I was very much “Dude, America as a state is an immigrant nation – any story is American. The lives of Mexican-American families are for everyone to know, indulge in, consume, enjoy.” But of course I know what he meant. You probably know what he meant too, right? It’s inside and out.
Bearing these stories in mind, I want to explain why Aziz Ansari’s new sitcom (?) Master of None is such a big deal to me and why I can finally (hopefully) exorcise that MA story from my mind. You can enjoy MoN as a sharp and witty and insightful sitcom about being a middle-class thirty something in the Big City. And it is that. Kids! Weddings! Friends With Real Jobs! Nothing groundbreaking story-wise. You could watch it all on a long weekend afternoon and have a nice time.
Yet I think for me watching it has been a seminal moment in my writing career and, heck, life. It’s the positive anti-thesis to that awkward classroom five years ago. Does that sound too grand? Right from the opening I knew I was watching something that would mean a lot to me, even if it seemed small potatoes to others. In that first scene, there was a straight Asian man on my screen, existing as a sexual being. I realised I’ve actually seen more gay Asian male characters given sexual characteristics in drama than I ever have hetero characters which, you know, is great but – well, there was a gap I hadn’t seen filled, as it were. (I’m so so sorry).
An idle “checking out” of the series, rapidly turned into an instant binge watch. By episode six I kicked my knackered housemate’s door down and demand he watched it with me. Having both (relatively) recently broken up with people, we cringed in recognition as the broader comedy gave way to hard truth in the brutal arguments Dev had with Rachel, his girlfriend. We both recognised ourselves in that relationship. Both of us. Keep that in your head, it becomes important later.
I should probably state right now that I don’t say this all as an Ansari fanboy. If anything, knowing him mainly from his standup, I used to find his delivery mildly annoying and his whackier physicality (and voices) not particularly funny. In contrast, I laughed out loud a lot whilst watching Master of None. It might be that I grew familiar with Ansari’s style and accepted it, it might be the more humane touches that he applies to the work that lets you in beyond the “front”. You can feel the Louie influence in this series, even if this is very much its own beast.
But I also think though I was just enjoying being able to fully identify with a lead character’s predicaments for once, in nearly every sense and having their predicaments in their entirety be the central point of empathy for the show. I’ve spent my entire life (happily) transmuting stories of white Western characters/families into my own experience. It doesn’t ask a lot of me. I still want to be Indian(a) Jones. Here, in this show, was the first time I’m properly seen a modern Western Asian character in the mainstream that a majority white audience would have to engage with as their anchor in a show. The “mainstream” part of that is important to me.
Here is an admission that is likely not music to the ears of people who I am currently under commission to. As a writer, I’m more driven by the roles I can create, the cultural artefacts that I can make exist than the stories themselves. That’s not to say I don’t care about stories, of course I do, but it’s the potential social shift around them as well as within them that really gets me going and drives me through the doldrums. This is part the stories, part audience development, part placement/marketing and doing all of this in attempt to mainstream marginal narratives seems one of the most important you can do. It feels radical to move those stories into a non-radical frame within the industry/people’s expectations. And when I say I want to mainstream, I mean it to include the entirety of the lives of those characters within those narratives.
That’s a distinction I’ve been making to a lot of my writer friends of late, particularly theatre ones: What I want most of all is not parts that could be played by anyone, I want what I guess I would call the possibility of Stage Four diversity. What are Stages One, Two and Three, you ask? Here is a rough guide that I just made up.
Stage One – Ethnics exist. Somewhere. Usually at the back. They may be doing some cleaning, or maybe have a couple of lines. If they’re in space, they will likely do both before dying horribly by airlock/alien/asteroid.
Stage Two – Ethnics exist. They’ve a significant presence. And an accent. They’re downtrodden folk from a land elsewhere…but hopeful! It might be great. It might be a “crossover hit”. But it’s mostly in a box. In the corner. And it’s something you usually feel like you should see rather than something you want to see. This is more likely than not an art house movie. You probably saw it on a date. It was probably nominated for an Oscar that it didn’t win (or if it did win, people will question why).
Stage Three – Ethnics exist as a main character. Usually not quite the centralcharacter, but up there as significant in a gang show. If they aren’t the lead, they might still have a funny accent. Crucially, if they are the lead, their ethnicity/background doesn’t affect the story in any way. They are led by the plot. They might have been called “Dennis” and renamed to “Dinesh” to meet ethnic quotas. Or a “Gary” that could easily have been white, but you’ve let a black actor play. Less cynically, think Luther. Now there’s a lot to be said for Stage Three. it’s a great and useful space. It’s important that it exists.
Just many consider this the “everyman” space, the Promised Land, and it sort of is. Sort of. But the true everyman experience is…*bing*
Stage Four – Ethnics exist as a main character (in a mainstream work). The character is a lead and their ethnic/cultural background inflects the story and their world. But it’s not an overwhelming part of the show. They are great. They are flawed. They are you. They are read as everyone in the way that white characters traditionally are.
This is the important part, so I’ll say it again with a little more oomph: The character is a lead and their ethnic/cultural background inflects the story and their world to the extent that they are not interchangeable but said background doesn’t dominate the broader context and concerns of the show.
To me, this is truest form of integrative, empathetic diversity in storytelling you can create. Everymanning with detail, not erasure. It’s saying in a more complex way than the blank canvas of stage three “Hey! This is someone that doesn’t look necessarily a lot like you or you mates, some of their ways are alien to you, but it’s still you in there.”
Master of None does this, and well. It doesn’t compel you into the character’s journey via an integration story, it’s an intergrated story. It doesn’t ignore the racial/cultural specifics of its characters yet the show is so damn generous with its invariably niche material when it delves into it. For a large part, that’s because it runs said material through its comic set ups which we all get because we all understand comedy. Like the pre-titles sequence of episode two with the two Asian dads (South and East) is amazing and funny and a little heart-rending if you recognise those characters from your life. But as a comic beat, it’s presented as a “parents work hard and kids are such assholes in comparison”. You don’t need to be Asian to recognise the structure of that joke, even if the detail might be lost on you:
On a couple of smaller notes, can I just take a second to say this series *looks* great too. Mostly filmic and the only times this looks like TV is when it wants to. (Even though that aesthetic difference has collapsed in recent years…anyway, for another blog, that). I also love how each episode functions as its own explicit exploration of themes that all feel relevant to me as a young(ish) tech-head in the city. In its construction, it references work I adore, including the awkward character comedy of (good) Woody Allen and the humane pacing of Richard Linklater. There’s even a quasi Before Sunrise episode.
Of course, whilst I think the show is ambitious and interesting beyond its central characters, it isn’t in any way perfect. The very segmented episodes can leave the wider show feeling a little bit uneven. The non-actor parents might annoy (Nida). I love them for their awkward performances, the mum in particular reminds me of my own gran’s discomfort at being filmed, but I get that at least. And yes, Dev is still not quite me. He’s not even the same kinda Indian (Tamil and Gujarati folk being found at complete other ends of the subcontinent) but the cultural identification was still strong. Honestly, even just the visual identification felt like a rush. I don’t think my TV has had to hold the colour brown in the centre of the screen so frequently since I last watched the beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan.
Master of None nails and transcends everything I’ve wanted to do in my writing, particularly with True Brits, and it *probably* torpedoes a couple of things I had in the works. It probably does what I’ve wanted to do better than I ever will. I don’t care. This feels like a fucking great moment. Maybe this is how some of my friends felt when Girls turned up (Or, for that matter, Michaela Coel’s excellent Chewing Gum, currently on E4.)
I exist in the world that I love. In a way that doesn’t deny background but that anyone can empathise with. And just fucking enjoy if that’s all you want to do. People of all sorts have too, and that matters. It’s rocking it, critically and ratings wise.
Watching Master of None has refreshed me more than a holiday I’m about to go on.
In what is a first in motivation experimentation, nothing focuses the mind to the task of writing like sitting diligently by your sink, bailing out the wastewater that backs up into it from the public sewer.