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 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:
Hahaha, well, that's how I feel when I watch all the white people shows. https://t.co/wCpxrBsxXX
— Aziz Ansari (@azizansari) November 7, 2015
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.
Lambeth, yer testing me.
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.
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.
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.
And this is what you waited for
But under lights, we’re all unsure
So tell me
What would make you feel better?
As night has such a local ring
And love and rock are pick-up things
And you know it
Yeah, you know it
Yeah, you know
Now True Brits is over, I can listen to this song without absolutely bricking it again.
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.
(If it doesn’t do it itself, skip to 12 minutes in).
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