A Year in Reviews

OK so this is not what I promised I’d write. Not exactly.

What I had promised was an article about how to cope with reviews. The idea was that it was the article I wish I had when I started out. Now I have written that (it’s bloody long) and if you want to skip straight to it, click here. I won’t judge. But if you want a bit of preamble about what this year has meant for me, I promise it’ll enrich the reflections in the review piece and morever I’ll keep it brief.

Still reading? Ok so, here’s what happened.

Trying to writing this blog post in the context of having had three pieces of work out within the space of three months made me naturally reflect on the year that’s gone by. I started 2018 needing to take a month out. I find myself ending it in the same place, just with less ability to do it. (Do you ever really get to take proper time off? The answer to that is probably yes and that’s top of my list of things to figure out for 2019).

I’m very, very, very tired. I feel like I’ve been very, very, very tired for a very, very, very long time. At least though, with An Adventure at the Bush and Doctor Who finally meeting their audiences, I’ve put to bed projects that took up many years of my life. They both require a giant amount of research. In fact, it’s only in the last few months that I’ve been able to read a book again for pleasure instead of work. They both pushed me as an artist who wants to be responsible in the stories that he tells. They put massive strains on my personal life in ways that I regret.

When I ask myself why I let that happen, what was it that made them so important, once I ducked past the “this story is very important to tell because of x” (all of which is true), what sits at the bottom of it all is that for me both those pieces of work and Sticks and Stones, a play I wrote for the wonderful Paines Plough were all about proving that my earlier projects weren’t a fluke.

I reckon I’ve done that – all three were fairly favourably received, and I’d gladly work with everyone I made those pieces with again. There is the impulse to make art that proves something to others, whether you’re conscious of it or not. And then there is another impulse to make art that is solely for your own comfort and consumption. It’s the equivalent of cooking potato faces and spaghetti hoops for dinner. If others like it – great! – but that concern doesn’t sit at the very top of your thinking. More often than not, there’s some cross over at least.

An Adventure was 95% potato faces and spaghetti hoops. I thought of the audience in terms of how I was taking them through it and how they might approach the play, but the way it was made and the way it was presented – it’s the most “me” thing I’ve ever made. In its style and concerns yes, but also it was the play I needed right then, more than anyone. I knew on the final preview that no matter what happened after that, this play had already given me what I needed. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, my paternal grandfather died whilst I was writing the play. He did, in fact, die a week after my telling him I was doing so for the first time. Making that play allowed me to grieve him in a way that I couldn’t have managed without it. I felt like it was a gravestone for him that the act of cremation naturally robs one of. Here lies Jayanathibhai Patel and his story – or a version of it – was told.

It won’t surprise anyone that knows me even a little bit to know that I think about my place in this country a lot. I think about the fact that once all my grandparents are gone, I have no real connection to anywhere else. Both culturally and legally. In a world that’s increasingly pulling up the drawbridges, this is where I am, whether I like it or not, with this face, in this country. My grandparents did a wonderful job of trying to make Britain a place that might work for me, but I never quite felt that connection I was aching for. I asked myself: How can I, in turn, make this a less lonely island? An Adventure was also that for me.

In that and Who, I worked with two predominantly South Asian casts this year and whilst I kind of wish I could say it didn’t mean much to me, it really did. I had conversations I’ve been wanting to have since I was fifteen. I felt both lighter and more driven. Sitting on a lunch table in the South of Spain, with an actor who’s been in the game for decades, a couple who were around my age, and one that had just graduated from drama school, I finally felt like this was an industry where I not only belonged but could make work that was important to me and enjoyable for others for a long, long time to come. To be, alongside the great Malorie Blackman, the first writers of colour on Doctor Who is a horrible honour, but I’m sure glad it was for the sake of that story.

Doctor Who also marked the occasion of my moving from being a local storyteller (theatre and domestic dramas which feels manageable) to being a global storyteller which is one hell of an eye-opener, particular if it’s a beloved show that you’ve made that move on. Your Who ep could be someone’s favourite ever and it could be the one that destroys someone else’s love of the show. It could go down horribly here and be a triumph in the States. There is absolutely no real emotional logic you can arm yourself with to make that less weird or easier to take. It is ridiculous but I’ve learned a lot and (mostly) loved it.

All in all then, it’s a banner year?

Sort of. Because if 2018 marks anything else, it’s also – being absolutely honest – the closest I’ve come to wanting to end my life in four years. I don’t say that to try and elicit a shock or sympathy and I don’t want to linger on it for too long. I took the steps I needed and I’m in an alright place now, but I want to drive home the point that there isn’t necessarily a correlation between success and a sustained peace. I’m sure a part of me thought that was the case when I was a younger man, but the final thing 2018 has taught me is that this is categorically not true.

So I look forward to a 2019 where I can embrace my limitations in some parts of my life, take the limiters off in others, keep pushing for excellence but to also find a joy in being a beginner again. Maybe I’ll learn to bake. 

You guys are all so into baking right now. Is it cause of the show? Are the baking and the judging inexorably linked? Oh! Speaking of…

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APPROACHING CRITIQUE: A BRIEF GUIDE FOR THE PANICKED AND SOON TO BE PUBLICLY JUDGED

Getting critically evaluated, be it by Lyn Gardner or your twelve-year old cousin is fucking nauseating. Even if the review is good, you’ll probably feel more relieved than joyous. Happy that you didn’t throw up on your shoes rather than suddenly assuming you’re a God. And every time I think “I’m used to it. I won’t care.” Every time I’m wrong. I suppose it’s good in the sense that if you find yourself not caring at all then that’s probably a bad sign. I want to care til the end of my days because to me it means that I’ve invested in it and that I’ve left a bit of myself behind in the work.  But how is that possible? In a world where even the most addictive substances create a tolerance, how is there no inoculation to this horrible effect?

My theory as to why you keep caring (which, to repeat, I think is healthy) and why it always stings a bit is that there is so little time to steel yourself for it even if you want to. Most new productions are being worked on right until press night and you’ve probably spent months before that trying to be open to changes and improvements and being a good collaborator. In order to do that, you need to be quite vulnerable and open as an artist, willing to accept critique and work on it which is tough but made easier by knowing you’re making the play with people who want it to be good and who (hopefully!) like you as a person. The gap between final preview and press night is not enough time to disengage that mode of being and close yourself up. By the time people come to review the work – people who don’t have that investment in you or the play – you’re still in quite a vulnerable place.

By the by, if you don’t know anything about me and are wondering what’s informing what I’m writing here: I’ve had four or so full-length theatre pieces reviewed and the same again for telly, so whilst I’m not deep into my career, I’ve had enough experience to throw out some pieces of advice that I wish I’d known before I got started. I’ve not had anything out and out panned and I’ve not had a runaway critical smash either so I hope that most of what I’m writing speaks to the middle range of responses which will be most artists’ experience.

We’ll do this in three parts. The first will be about approaching reviews when the play (or other public piece of art) is out in the world. The second will be how to consider the response after the fact. The third will be about actions and techniques to try when you’re a few months post show and in that blissful in-between stage of making work that won’t be out in the world for a while. My focus will mainly be on dealing with critics but will encompass some aspects of audience response too.

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WHAT TO DO WHEN IT’S ON

These are the main approaches that I’ve seen other people try and those that I’ve tried myself. You won’t find what’s best for you until you give a few of them a go. Also, some techniques work better for different projects.

It’s also worth noting that each carries a different load of stress. Nothing you do will make the experience *entirely* stress free or less nauseating I’m afraid, that’s just part of the deal of putting your stuff out there to be publicly judged, but you have some say in the *type* of stress you have which I suppose is some comfort. 

Anyway, here’s what you can do:

1) Don’t Read The Reviews

2) Read Them, Don’t Engage

3) Read Them, Engage

Let’s dig a little into each of these…

DON’T READ THE REVIEWS

This is something I see writers do once they’re a few plays into their career (using the term ‘career’ loosely here). They might look at them after the fact, but the aim is to not go anywhere near them whilst the play is running. For a writer just starting out, I think it’s pretty impossible to bring yourself to not look at reviews, hoping as you are for critical validation (who doesn’t want to read a good review? And they’ll be good because you are, obviously, a genius. Or at least so you think. Sometimes.)

When I started out, I found this approach a bit high-minded. It felt so dismissive – “I don’t care what they say. I know it’s great.” By the time An Adventure came around *totally* got it. I was so sick with worry, felt so fragile and that play was so close to my heart that I couldn’t bear to sit and take what might be a mauling. So I tried very hard to not read the reviews. And you know what? I managed it and felt great. For a bit. 

Because the big problem with trying not to read the reviews is that they will probably, in some way, leak out to you. With An Adventure, this happened in what feels like now quite a hilarious fashion. I had actively told everyone that I wasn’t reading the reviews to pre-empt them showing them to me. So I was sitting on the wall of the terrace outside the Bush, blissfully unaware, feeling pretty good about life. The press night the evening before had gone well – for me it wasn’t quite as good as the preview before it, but well enough despite some Prominent Director’s phone going off in the quietest scene. Just then my phone went off and it was Madani. We had a friendly opening exchange, just shooting the breeze and then he says “so listen, here’s the rundown” and I realised I had told everyone I wasn’t reading reviews *except* for the director. Whoops. Before I could stop him, he’d given me the summary: “They’re all good. But there’s an outlier.” For fucks sake. No bliss for me, ever again, just the gnawing question: “Which one, which one was it?”

Social media is another way you’re going to hear about reviews. You might post telling people not to tell you, but there’ll be a proud/combative relative or old school friend tagging you in a post saying how the reviewer really gets it/should burn in hell. Sometimes the actors will leak opinions from reviews to you. There might be a summary floating around the office of the theatre the play is in.

Basically, this approach is probably the best thing for your mind, but it’s also really, really hard to maintain, especially if you’ve got a long run and still have some plugging to do for the show. If that’s you – there’s an app called Buffer that lets you set up social media content ahead of time and not see the replies or have to go on the platform itself. Invaluable. Otherwise, get off social media and make sure you tell absolutely everyone and their mum that you don’t want to hear anything about the show. Get the hell away for a bit if you can. This isn’t an approach that I think works for me long-term because I find it hard to cut myself off from the world. I like to stay involved in the show, I like to be able to talk to the actors as much as I can, I like to hang around the theatre, I like to talk to audiences after, I like to suffer and celebrate communually so I’ll never be able to dodge the feedback. But if you can do it, you’re an absolute hero and have my respect.

READ THEM, DON’T ENGAGE

This is my default (and mostly where I ended up with An Adventure after my attempt to dodge reviews failed). Partly it’s out of curio-vanity, partly it’s because I don’t want to hear it from anyone else and partly because I want to be able to respond to questions or concerns within the company with the full knowledge of what they might have seen. It’s hard to be an effective cheerleader for the team when you don’t know where they are in the league.

A way to do this that’s kind to yourself is to not try and seek them out as they come in. Instead, go do something completely non-work related the day after press and then set aside an hour or two by yourself in a quiet place and Google away.

If the thought of that makes you queasy, find a partner or a good friend, and ask if they’ll look at the reviews and give you a summary. At least that way you get to maintain some distance.

Try to resist the urge to dismiss responses out of hand, even if you think they’re unfair. The horrible thing about an unfair critical opinion is that the critic won’t be the only one to have it. That review will speak for at least one other person. So if you’re interested in understanding the range of responses, you’ve got to face it.

The benefits of this approach is that you get to know and move on. It provides some degree of that looked-for inoculation. Once you know that someone has had that opinion, it makes the next time you encounter it easier. Let me tell you, this is particularly useful with something like Doctor Who. The consolidated viewing figure for my episode was eight million people in the UK. That, like the vastness of the universe, is a fucking terrifying thing to consider when lying in your bed late at night. However, that’s not eight million opinions, that’s probably about four or five generalised responses. Knowing “Ok so broadly people love it because of X though some folks really hate Y” made it easier for me to just get on with my life.

With plays, once you’ve taken in the reactions, more often than not things get brighter because there’s so much to enjoy about your work being on; the way the actors’ performances deepen, the way the scenes get tighter, the morbid thrill of seeing how different audiences respond, the utter weirdness that sets into a cast’s inter-personal relations when they hit the four week mark.

READ THEM, ENGAGE

Red Alert. This is the most fraught approach. It takes time, it takes energy, it takes tonnes emotional fuel. I’ve only really done this once with a theatre critic who’d reviewed my first play and given away a massive plot point and I wanted them to adjust the review to not do that. Unless they’re massively misrepresenting your play to a potentially broad audience, I think there’s little to be gained from engaging with critics, especially if it’s in response to a negative review.

Having said that, audiences can be different, and I don’t think engaging with them is bad per se. I liked doing a tweet-a-long for Doctor Who that exposed my process and I made a point of doing it with Murdered By My Father because it felt important to talk to the young demographic that we were targeting with researched-backed knowledge and clarity about the quite harrowing piece they’d put themselves through and how it manifests in the real world. Talking to people about An Adventure and what it had meant to them made all the work I put into it worthwhile. Even playing whack-a-mole with trolls on social media has its charms (as long as you don’t let them burrow too deep into your head).

If you’re going to respond to/engage with either critics or audience members, be sure to ask yourself what master it is in yourself that you’re serving. If it’s ego, be wary, if it’s curiosity careful to not mine too deep or you might end up in self-loathing, if it’s anger or hurt, take a step back and breath before you dive in. The world of the creative industries is small. If you have to piss someone off, make sure you’re super clear about why you’re doing it. People can be arseholes. Categorising the arsehole helps diminish their power and it useful when explaining their arseholery to others (ok, this image needs work.)

Some other tips: Learn to take a compliment. Even if it’s just “thank you, that’s very kind.” Resist the urge to tell the person who’s told you they like what you’ve made a list of the things that are wrong with it. They probably don’t care and it’s only really you who needs to reflect on that. If you’re a leading creative on the project, get in the habit of spreading praise amongst the team (Please remember your goddamn designers, lads) and reasonably absorbing blame rather than reflecting it. Even if it doesn’t seem fair, it’ll do you well in the long run.

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THE REVIEWS ARE OUT. HOW TO COPE WHEN…

THEY LOVED IT

Wonderful! Thank Santa for that. Enjoy the crown of daisies. Be pleased for yourself and your collaborators. Let a bit of yourself feel vindicated. Put it on your website. File it away for a rainy day/an Arts Council application. Line up your most audacious project that you’ve squirrelled away. Ring your Dad and tell them you were right to ignore them.

But don’t believe the hype. I know you want to. But you can’t. Even when it’s earned, you can’t get hooked on validation because it’s dangerous for your sense of self but also your ability to just do your job. It’s the same when actors get laughs in a play – it’s such a clear and immediate response, that to find you don’t get that response another day is devastating and can really throw you off course. You grasp for it to the detriment of the rest of what you’re doing and you can’t let it do that. Eyes forward, focus on the work and moments to come.

THEY HATED IT 

Fuck those guys! What do they know? Well…they know they didn’t like what you’ve spent years slaving over and I’m here to tell you friends that it sucks and not only that but it will always suck.

Worst of all, your friends probably know. And you know they know. And they know you know that they know. But nobody wants to talk about it. If you feel they’re itching to be supportive, maybe bring up – vaguely – the spectre of a couple of bad reviews and watch as the floodgates open and they tell you how it doesn’t matter, and you’ve made what you wanted to make etc etc. Some of it will be true. A lot of it won’t. But it’ll still be nice and you’ve earned a bit of nice.

The aforementioned “outlier” than Madani told me about turned out to be probably the worst review I’ve ever had. That it was from The Guardian and written by someone with a not dissimilar background to me made it doubly hard to take. Never mind that it was otherwise across the board positively well received, humans have a strong negativity bias and it magnetises your attention on responses that push firmly against your hopes. 

You’ll feel miserable. You’ll draft witty, cutting responses to the reviewer. You’ll dig into their biography. You’ll look at their other reviews and that’ll either validate you or horrify you (“They gave four stars to what?”). You will basically be looking for a way to dismiss the opinion. Sometimes that’ll be valid. Often it won’t. That’s why it’s hard.

Especially since a bad review can be an absolute body blow. That Guardian review basically put me to bed for three days. A friend of mine who otherwise had a wildly successful and much loved show had exactly the same feeling and response to their one bad review. They’re a smart and rational and wonderful person. Doesn’t matter. You can’t really push the feeling away in the first instance, you just have to sort of go through it. Let yourself feel really shitty. You’re allowed to feel shitty. You worked hard and it mattered to you.

When you pick yourself up, remind yourself how you felt about the show before it got reviewed. Outside of all the framing you tell yourself of certain things not being right or needing time to settle did you, fundamentally, create the piece you set out to make. If the answer is no, you can self-evaluate and consider why that happened and how to avoid it next time. If the answer is yes then for the love of God, embrace that. I’m so bad at this but trying to get better and An Adventure was one of the first things that let me do that. I adored that play. I adored that company. I had made pretty much exactly what I wanted to put out into the world and I felt so lucky to have had that opportunity. Wallowing for a bit is fine but I would be an idiot to dismiss the joy a project like that gave me because of some dissenting voices. If it’s still running, keep your focus on finding the audience who need that play, for whom it means more than anything. If you’ve made your work with care, they will be out there.

Eventually, with time, you make your peace with naysayers objections and when you do it helps to learn this phrase by heart: “I guess it just wasn’t for them.”

THEY SHRUGGED AT IT

Honestly, I think this is the trickiest one to deal with and it’s hard to give advice for. We hope for our work to elicit a passionate response, one way or another, and someone going “yeah, it was fine” can be incredibly disheartening in a way that is disproportionate to what is a fairly positive reaction. You can’t get fired up from the thrill nor can you galvanise each other to fight back against a mauling.

The careers of even the greatest writers you adore will be pocked with Shruggy work. It might be the audience wasn’t up for that kind of work in the time it was made, it might just be it’s a fair effort that didn’t quite find its fullest expression, it might have suffered in contrast to another similar show. For whatever reason, there’s no shame in this, even if it feels disappointing in the moment.

I find the best way to at this kind of response is as a bit of an emotional score-draw. “Thank God I don’t have to get too wrapped up in a response!” Both bad and good reviews can be addictive (and I screenshot segments from both). Take the calm that only comes from “They liked it! They mildly liked it!!”

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IT’S OVER. NOW WHAT?

Finally, beyond press night and the run of the play, here are a few things to consider trying in order to make myself feel more zen about reviews and life as an artist.

UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU’VE MADE 

With a bit of time and space away from the project, I think it’s useful to sit down and try and grapple with what you’ve done. That might be, finally, looking at reviews if you haven’t.

Consider the basis of the critiques you’ve received. Turn them over in your mind, ask yourself whether you honestly agree with it or not. If so, what might you keep an eye on next time? Ask if the project did what you hoped it might do. Did it surprise you in ways you didn’t see coming? When my first play, True Brits, finished its run at the Edinburgh Fringe, I discovered an unexpected feeling in that one of my proudest achievements with that play was for it to have a brown man on a theatre poster at the Edinburgh Fringe, a fringe where the only other brown man on a theatre poster was a browned-up Italian man, starring in a musical about Buddha. In that context, that poster felt mighty to me and I’ve been obsessed with my show posters ever since.

Otherwise, this part usually involves trying to get a grasp of how the work was received by the people in the industry (I’m so sorry for using this word) whose opinions matter to me, considering my next steps and if I need to change my process or my priorities.

For example, if the show was a success, I think about what projects I might like to work with that team again on if I can. What might be the stories that could fire us up? Can I put it to the front of the queue so it can in the works before that actor disappears into the stratosphere?

If you’ve made something absolutely heinous which you think was a disaster in every way and you hate everyone involved, perhaps you need to dig back into short pieces, applying for scratch nights, search for art that you think will reenergise you, seek out new collaborators. On that note…

CONSIDER WHAT YOU’LL MAKE NEXT

If you’re anything like me, you’ll get a bit of a creative wanderlust in the aftermath of a project. “I should make a musical next!” “I should make an epic!” “I should make an easily tourable intimate two-hander that in some tangential but beautifully metaphorical way refers to Something Big In Science.” Some of this energy comes from other things you’ve seen but often some of that energy can also come from the reviews and responses and that can easily lead you astray. A touch of “I’ll show ‘em!” is useful for an artist, if not just to get you going in the morning, but you can’t let it dominate the big artistic choices you make. Be clear about what’s driving you.

In that respect, the single most useful question I’ve found to ask myself when looking to start a new project is “what compels me?”. What’s that conversation you find yourself coming back to again and again when you’re five hours deep into a session at the pub or thinking on at three in the morning. You might, honestly, find it’s nothing. In that case, maybe don’t write for a bit. Definitely not for theatre. I find it’s a medium where it’s easy to sniff out the lack of compulsion in a writer. Try something else for a bit. For example TV – though it definitely can and should tell soulful stories driven by people invested in the tale they’re telling – sustains itself more heavily on narratively driven, episodic, high concept pieces than theatre does. This means you can be part of a wider writing team (something theatre has no real equivalent of) and it can be a place to tell stories that don’t necessarily come from the deepest place within you but still allow you to be playful, exercise your craft with flair and learn a lot.

TALK TO SOME CRITICS

You may not be in the frame of mind to do this immediately after the show is done, but I’ve found it invaluable to talk to people who review about what they look for, what the pressures are on them, what their process is, why they do it. If not just out of curiosity, it makes me consider what a tough job it is and how I’m really glad I don’t do it. Of course, you don’t have to become best mates (it’s probably quite difficult if you’re both still active and a conflict of interest to some extent) but you might find it enlightening. And hey, if you add them on Facebook you might get some decent pictures for your dartboard.

SOW THE SEEDS OF YOUR OWN DESTRUCTION

This sounds a bit counter-intuitive but what I mean is that it’s incredibly healthy both for your mind and the industry for you to put a bit of time and thought into how you can support those coming after you. Depending on your situation, it will take different focuses. For me, as A Visible Minority In The Arts (TM) I’m obsessed with thinking about how I can bring through more People Like Me, if not just to take the burden of representation off my own shoulders. I don’t want to do this job forever. I’m excited by what other people are making. I want to help if I can. Any experience you have will be gratefully received by someone with none, even if it doesn’t feel like it. So make yourself useful.

The one caveat here is that this should be on your own terms. People might be eager to hear from you but you can’t give and give all the time. Be clear about that from the start – you’re not mugging anyone off, you’re just protecting yourself in what can be an emotionally demanding job. They’ll come to understand when they get to your position.

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CONCLUSION (AKA THE TLDR)

Critiques are emotionally tumultous. The bad ones drag you to the floor, the middling ones make you wonder why you bother and the effusive ones run the risk of turning you into a right dickhead. There’s lots of different ways to navigate them, but they will always be a part of your life. Finding some way of embracing/negating that early will make your journey easier and if you’re really lucky, one or two will tell you something about your work you never expected and when that happens it’s luminous.

Wear none of them too heavily, hold the friends who absolutely understand what you’re doing close (what a heart-filling pleasure it was to have peers I’ve known for years see An Adventure and tell me “that felt like everything you’ve been working towards since I first met you”) and always remember that the only critic you truly need to please, to care about, the one who will be there judging your work before and after, forever and ever is you.

You made a show. It’s hard. Harder than people whipping off a casual thought can know. So be nice to yourself, yeah?

 

Housemates

I once asked my grandma why she was so obsessed about me getting married. She gave me an answer I didn’t quite expect:

“I’m worried you’ll get lonely.”

But I have never felt lonely. I’ve had surrogate-housemate relationships since I was eighteen.

I lived with eight people at that point when I was a wide-eyed fresher. That become five people when I was nineteen and thought I was a little more discerning when I definitely wasn’t. Four when I was twenty one and had an image in my head of who I wanted to be. A steady constant of two others throughout my twenties as I made that image a reality until I got to just one at aged thirty one. Stephen. He too has now gone.

Though he was relatively late to the party, Stephen had an outsized affect on my life. When I was at the absolute worst of my depression in 2015, the day I felt my feet inching towards the front of a speeding bus, it was Stephen I went to and said that I needed help. Dramatic though it is to say it, I’ve no doubt I would be dead now if not for him.

But it’s not the big things I’ve missed, really.

It’s the knock at the door and a cup of tea when you’ve got a steaming hangover.

It’s living vicariously through a disastrous dating life.

It’s sharing the tiny triumphs when you’re trying to build successful careers.

It’s someone to let you in when you’re locked out.

It’s being asked “pint?” and saying “sure” without having to book a person five years in advance.

It’s been a month since my last housemate left. Looking at his room, now just a room, a room that hasn’t really been empty for nearly eight years, eight seminal years when I was just striking out into the world, I find myself realising that at this point there probably aren’t anymore housemates, not like the ones in your twenties/early thirties. There will be no one to share that next stage of life with.

I finally understand what my grandmother meant.

Some Words on Writing, Depression and Not Enjoying Barcelona Very Much

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.

Why Master of None Isn’t Just Good Telly – It’s Everything I Always Hoped For

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.

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Dev & Rachel

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 central character, 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 Britsand 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.

It’s wonderful.

A Haircut

You might have noticed I don’t write on this blog as much as I used to. I want to believe this is because I’ve only a limited amount of words in me and that I need to save them for paid/creative work. In reality it’s a fudge of garden-variety laziness and having projects that don’t allow me to really talk about writing process as much as I’d like to. (I intend to work around that in future).

But as I’m currently in a state where sleep-deprivation and sheer brute force of deadlines have combined to leave me crying whenever I listen to the Jurassic Park soundtrack (top writer tip: It is *the* soundtrack to write to) here’s a quick 7/7-related post. I’ve held off a for a few days because it’s quite a self-involved post about image and how it implants itself in the soul. I have no meaningful insight into domestic terrorism or the pain of those who died or were injured on the day itself – there are a lot of excellent reads on those topics out there that I can point you to if you want.

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On Tuesday I got my haircut. I got my haircut because after a month of trying to be a hero to my trade I was rocking quite a trampy look, which is generally fine by me except that my passport had just run out and I needed a new mugshot. A mugshot that would broadly hold true to my personality/look over the next ten years. That idea – of an official photo as statement of personality –  started as an idle thought and strayed into me thinking more seriously on my old passport photo which I had taken in June 2005, a month before the London bombings.

I’ve made a lot of jokes about that photo – the long hair, the beard, the slightly dead eyes. Lots of people look back at photos of themselves looking supposedly cool years later and ask “what was I thinking?”. It’s rarer to go from “You know what, I look bloody cool” to “You know what, I look like a bloody terrorist” in the space of a month and it’s, to put it mildly, a bit of head fuck.

The vaguely beardy, vaguely brown, dangerous young male has become one of the defining images of the last decade and it’s humbling to think how much such a thing can shape your life from the minutiae to the profound. The way others see you, the way you are expected to be seen, the way you see others. The stories you write and are expected to write. The injustices you connect to. The time you spend going through airport security. The guilt you feel as you’re questioned. The near constant wondering “what’s my face look like at the moment? Angry? I hope not angry?”. The smile you develop to thrown on at times of uncertainty. The insidious but pervasive thought at your bathroom mirror: “oh I’m starting to look a bit terroristy – maybe I had better shave.” (For me this perhaps explains my not joining whole-heartedly into the hipster beard revolution though I am clearly a prime candidate.) Reflecting on my naivety back then and how it contrasts to who I am today dragged up a well of feeling I’d forgotten existed in between those two states. I mean, I certainly remembered what it was like to be at a party amongst your intellectual peers (wanky but I was excited) and be told by someone that you should be stopped and searched at airports, white people shouldn’t, and that’s just the way it is. And no-one saying anything. I remember that. The stares, the comments in the streets, the suspicious parents, the headbutts, the cracked teeth, I remember all of it.

What I’d forgotten, perhaps repressed a little, was how fucking furious I felt. I wanted to hurt people, including myself. What a lie I’d sold myself that this place was where I belonged. The slightly paranoid, often xenophobic comments some of my family would spout were actually true. These people around me would never really be my friends. How could they be? They’d never understand. In fact, whilst I’m not proud to admit it, I was genuinely angry with my white friends for a while. I really hated them and felt increasingly distant. Forgetting that we all have our own troubles, I hated their easy access to society, I resented everything that I’d gladly done to appease. Every awkward joke made to basically go “look, it’s fine! I’m no threat!” Most of all, I hated that this was even a thing in my head and that it would never be in theirs.

I wanted to talk to someone about it, but didn’t really have an outlet (I didn’t have a huge amount of Asian friends at the time), so it ended up in my diaries, on this blog, in my creative work instead. Part of that anger dissipating over the years has led me from going: “I want to write brown stuff *as well as* “normal” things” to “I want to write as many, diverse, wonderful, terrible, powerful, angry, sexy, passionate, depressed, hopeful, scheming, anxious, brown folk as possible and for that to *be* normal and identifiable and everyman and everywoman and, fuck-it-why-not, popular if it’s possible.

I still wonder about the counter-factuals. If 7/7 had never happened, would I have been driven to write half the things I have? Maybe I’d have ended up doing a law conversion like every other person I know did. After all, I’m not a Muslim and for better or worse, people have gotten a bit more nuanced in their intolerance and the worst of it passes me by now. However, I never want to be grateful for that. I don’t want to co-opt a suffering, I just don’t want to make it easy for people to make others suffer, whether it be through direct action (abuse/violence) or my tacit acknowledgement or my actively distancing myself. I don’t want to let a man sitting next to me at the airport ask cautiously “You a Muslim?” and, when I reply in the negative, have him follow up with “oh you lot are all right, but those guys…”.  I don’t want to, as many a family member has suggested, shave because otherwise you’re “asking for it.”

And yet for that new passport photo I’ve short hair and I’m relatively clean shaven. I’d like to believe that’s a conscious choice, that I now think *that* looks cool, rather than trying to dodge airport inconvenience. I’ve got the two photos, the two mes (what *is* the plural of me?) sitting side-by-side on my desk: One, a 29-year-old, face grown fatter and a hairline grown thinner through alcohol and ageing. He seems a bit pissed off but can’t help that – the deep dark circles around the eyes aren’t going to become anything but deeper and darker soon. The other, a skinny 19-year-old who had been waiting 4 years to grow his hair out and thought he looked so awesome, so like Dave Grohl, that he wanted to make that his official face for a whole decade. You weren’t allowed to smile, even back then, but there’s a hint of it on his lips and why not. He was super enthusiastic, still a bit overwhelmed by university and saw little but possibility ahead. Well, possibility and Pot Noodles. Whilst life has settled into a place I’m broadly happy with, the outlook has diminished a little and criminally so has the diet, so I miss the 19-year-old quite a bit.

But I don’t envy him the years ahead.

Jyoti

I’ve not seen the name ‘Jyoti’ around as much as I have the last few days, for obvious reasons surrounding the “India’s Daughter” documentary, and it’s made me think about my maternal grandmother who shared that name. I had the good fortune of being raised and tolerated by some kind and very patient women who are thankfully still in my life and so today seems a good time to reflect on the one who isn’t.

My “Biji Ba” (basically meaning ‘other grandma’, which isn’t a great nickname in hindsight but felt affectionate enough growing up) was really bloody small, I think the smallest in a family of tiny ladies. I sometimes forget her face and voice, but the *lightness* of her is baked into my muscle memory.

She got to ‘pick’ my granddad from a selection of other blokes. My granddad showing me the photo that won it for him – casual pose, smart suit – is one of my favourite adult memories. She was a lot younger than him and it was still effectively an arranged marriage, but theirs was the strongest, most loving relationship in my family and I still hold it as a model for the affection and utter respect that married life should be built on.

She was naturally excellent at maths, despite not really having an education, which served her well when she moved over here and worked in a screw factory, enduring the taunts and spits of the other workers, some of whom I understand were members of the union that my granddad was a representative of. Which must’ve led to some interesting dinner-time conversations…

Of course, she wasn’t a saint herself, she had some objectionable old-school views, but she was progressive in enough ways – including regarding difference in caste between my Dad and my Mum – that overall I’m ok with giving her a pass.

Her death, nearly ten years ago now, had as a profound effect on me as her life, since she was the first person close to me to die. The dissonance between her last physical states – seeing her scared and struggling to breathe in a hospital and then hard as granite in the backroom of an undertakers a few days later – still sits with me. But her last act does more so: She gave all the money she had to buy computers for a girls’ orphanage in India so those kids could get the education she was always denied. I remember hearing about that as a scruffy, sad 19 year old who just delivered a speech at her funeral and that fact punching through the misery and just leaving me totally in awe of her.

My Biji Ba, and the women of her generation, have a legacy of courage and perseverance that’s flourished into better lives with varied prospects for those that followed them. I see it in my sister – a former marine engineer, fixing engines on ships all over the world, now back home running the shops that my mum was a driving force in creating. I see it in my cousin who’s overcome horrific illness that I can’t imagine how I’d begin to handle with resilience and grace and now has a job in law as she always wanted (even if she is a bit mental when it comes to cats).

They’re incredible, sophisticated, messy people whose narratives and aspirations, as a gender, tend to get buried under the histories of Great Men, so it’s been wonderful seeing some of those tales get excavated over the last few days and it excites me to imagine all the stories our daughters will get to tell – both of their lives and the ones that are yet to come.

Ba Indian Family

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).