By Farhana Shaikh
Q. Tell us a bit about yourself and how you started your writing journey?
Like most writers I have always written in one way or another but as a working parent with three children it was never going to be easy to make it a priority, at least not until the kids were a bit older. When I was on maternity leave with my youngest child and my twin boys started school I did an online creative writing course with UEA. I had a fantastic teacher who was very encouraging. It was just a 10-week course, I think (this was about 12 years ago so my memory is a bit vague) and we had to produce a short story at the end of it. Mine was a very simple story about a grandmother and grand-daughter. I didn’t think it was up to much but we were encouraged to submit for competitions as part of the course so I did and was gobsmacked to find I was a runner-up in the Decibel-Penguin Prize for Short Stories. My prize was a manuscript assessment from The Literary Consultancy and the feedback really spurred me on. We relocated as a family soon after that and finding paid work and bringing up a young family meant writing took the back-burner until about six years ago when I started writing more seriously, did an MPhil in creative writing at Sussex University and the novel began to form as a result.
Q. The Handsworth Times is your first novel. Tell us more about the writing process?
I’d like to say I have a routine and a set process for writing but it would be a big fib. I am quite unorganised and a bit sporadic as a writer but I do always carry a notebook, jot down ideas as they arise and revisit them later. I have taught myself to write quickly through necessity and I can bang out a shoddy first draft at speed. This is because I know my time is short due to other commitments so I have to get whatever is in my head down on paper before it is too late. From there I revise and redraft a lot and I suppose that has organically become my process.
Q. You’ve set your novel in a regional area of Handsworth, the place you grew up and has at its heart a Punjabi family. What personal experiences did you draw on to write this story?
I grew up in the 70s and 80s in a British-Asian family in Handsworth, surrounded by the joint values of traditional Indian culture of family loyalty and an emphasis on hard work as a way of progressing through life and becoming upwardly socially mobile. However, I was also surrounded by people of diverse cultural backgrounds living in reduced circumstances, struggling to make ends meet, and it soon became apparent that actually, for the working-class communities that I was in the midst of, opportunities for social mobility and aspiration were severely restricted whatever we did. Having said this, Handsworth was also an extremely lively and exciting place to grow up, with the street central to community life, doubling as a playground and a welcome alternative space to the cramped conditions of row upon row of terraced housing. Like many similar areas, it was and still is typified by its diverse communities, where adults share similar economic deprivations but generally live culturally segregated lives while their children play out alongside neighbours of all backgrounds with whom they identify on a peer level, sharing popular youth and music cultures. This was very much my personal experience and the one I wanted to reflect in the story and through the fictional characters.
Also, I come from a big family with lots of siblings, cousins and other extended family so there was a rich pool of material to draw on for ideas and characters. Like most large extended families, stories about legacy and family history get passed down and become fragmented over time but some things, even though you don’t quite know whether they actually happened or not, do stick in the mind and resurface when writing.
Q. We’re in 1981 – a very different world to our own and while we’re in the realms of fiction, it feels as though we’re very much grounded in reality. How much research did you do about the period and were you surprised by what you uncovered?
I am not sure it is so different from today. The early 80s was a very tumultuous time both politically and culturally with both positive and negative consequences for individuals and communities – growing up in that time definitely formed who I still am today. For example, the cultural tastes (music especially) and political opinions I formed as a child then are still with me today, and a lot of what was happening in society then is not so different to today, especially in inner city areas. I lived in Tottenham up until a few years ago and the kinds of issues that are reflected in The Handsworth Times were still very much present in Tottenham when I lived there – inequality, lack of access to opportunity resulting in disaffection, little investment in young people, unemployment, poverty, etc, with economic immigrants (as my family were) and refugees bearing the brunt and often taking the blame. We now have the added issue of gentrification, in London in the first instance, which is creating another layer of problems – forcing poorer communities to be broken up and literally be pushed out to the periphery of society.
The novel started as part of a research degree so I was well placed to do research as part of the process, but, rather than heavy academic research, I found what I had to do was a lot of googling to check things like TV listings and pop charts from the time. I do remember certain things about the period but it was a long time ago so I did have to do my homework, especially on the cultural and news references. In fact, in the first draft I got a couple of things wrong. For example, I put in a reference to Australian TV soap Neighbours at one point and the publisher quickly pointed out that Neighbours wasn’t actually broadcast on British TV until 1986, five years later than the setting of the story. I could have sworn I’d watched it as a kid! After that, I even checked the weather forecast for some days –although that was probably a bit excessive.
Q. What made you want to write about the riots of 1981?
Birmingham in general is underrepresented in mainstream literary output. Not enough stories about Birmingham get published and I don’t know why. The city is hugely interesting both for its industrial past and how that has shaped its present including its demography. It must be among the most multicultural places in the world yet for some reason publishers are not choosing stories based there. This, coupled with the political landscape of the 80s, of which the riots were a consequence, continues to be of interest, not least because our politicians and governments don’t seem to have learnt anything from what happened then. Unfortunately, as ordinary people get squeezed tighter with welfare cuts, archaic education policies and lack of investment in communities, and as racism and xenophobia rise, stoked as political tools by certain politicians and by their media mouthpieces (or vice versa?) manifestations of social unrest like rioting have and could so easily happen again at any point.
Q. We see the struggle within the household juxtaposed against the one happening in the community. What were you interested in exploring by setting the story firmly within the space of domesticity?
I suppose I was interested in exploring how the personal becomes political, especially for the younger female characters, and how the domestic world and the social external world are inextricably linked. The world beyond the house very much influences how characters develop, and this in turn begins to transform how they exist alongside each other in the domestic sphere. They each go on a journey of some kind that helps equip them for the challenges of the world beyond the domestic sphere, or, in the case of Mukesh, the father, a journey that actually contributes to his demise. I also wanted to convey something of the claustrophobia of living in a large family in a small house and how this can mirror the claustrophobia of living a seemingly fish-bowl like existence in a community like Handsworth.
Q. As a first time writer was it challenging to find a publisher? Tell us more about that process?
Like almost everyone I know that writes, I had a number of rejections from competitions, call-outs and agents before I even got to the publishers. This was quite disheartening so I made a conscious decision not approach any other agents or submit to anywhere until I had finished the whole book. That was until I saw a submission call-out for the Writing the Future report which aimed to explore the lack of diversity in UK publishing, commissioned by London-based writer development agency Spread the Word. I sent in a short extract of The Handsworth Times and it was selected for a showcase section of the report. After the report came out, the publisher got in touch with me and asked to see three chapters and a synopsis. A friend of mine is published by Bluemoose Books so when they got in touch I knew they were a small, exciting independent publisher based in Yorkshire who only published books they felt passionate about. I hadn’t actually finished the book at that stage so they told me to get back in touch when I had and they would consider my novel then. Six months later they offered me a publishing contract based on the full first draft. I realise I am incredibly lucky to have got to this point and still can’t quite believe I am a published author. I am very grateful to Bluemoose, not just for publishing my book but also for being both enthusiastic and committed to putting different voices into the mix.
Q. I really enjoyed the writing style. How did you find your voice as a writer?
It kind of just happened – I suppose by doing a couple of short creative writing courses and experimenting with different approaches to begin with but acknowledging what I felt most comfortable with. I am expecting the next book to be a challenge as I need to continue to feel at ease with that voice while also making the next book very different.
Q. Plenty of writers have written about the immigration experience, but British stories set outside of London still seem few and far between. What were your hopes for the story you wanted to tell and what did you want to add to the discussion Britain is having today about immigration?
I didn’t set out to write a story about immigration, and the most recent topical discussions about immigration started well after my novel was in progress. However, what I did want to do was show that we all have a different story to tell, whatever our background. There aren’t one or two British-Asian stories, our stories are infinite and they sometimes overlap but are always nuanced in many, many ways. Even within one household, like the one in The Handsworth Times, each member of the family has a different experience and reaction to the tragedy that befalls them – they all have a different story even within the relative confines of their mutual experiences. At the end of the day, I wanted to tell a story about the kinds of people I knew and grew up with but practically never come across in fiction – not just those from immigrant backgrounds but also working-class communities often with strong women at the heart.
Like most people, I get frustrated by the stereotypes that continue to get churned out in books, sitcoms, films, etc. It seems that there is an acceptable face of multiculturalism that mainstream publishers and other cultural gatekeepers want to perpetuate for some reason – I suspect it is because it is what they perceive at marketable. The novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a great TED talk a few years ago where she warned against the danger of a single story as it leads to misunderstanding and stereotypes which are almost always untrue. I couldn’t agree with her more. Sadly, we have a long way to go to change the lack of diversity in literary output despite some really good recent interventions. The saddest thing is that this is at the expense of some very talented writers that don’t fit the mould, and at the expense of the reading public who, I am sure, are thirsty for different kinds of stories and voices.
Q. Finally what advice would you give to anyone thinking about writing about the past?
My advice to others would be to really find a way to bring the past alive as part of the research phase – personal accounts, diaries, social histories, film archives, oral testimony, etc. Luckily, with more recent history we have a lot more access to this kind of primary source material online including digital archives housed on library and community sites. I found old photographs, music videos and news footage particularly helpful to informing some of the more descriptive passages of the book as I find visual stimuli really useful in these circumstances.
Sharon Duggal was born to parents who immigrated to the UK from the Punjab, India, and she grew up in and around Handsworth, Birmingham. She lived in London for many years and now lives in Brighton and Hove. She is a writer, campaigner, community radio presenter (alongside one of her sons), a daughter, sister, mother and partner, among other things. She works in arts and literature development and has an MPhil in Creative Writing from the University of Sussex. The Handsworth Times is her first novel, published by Bluemoose Books, in paperback, priced £8.99.
Farhana Shaikh is editor of The Asian Writer. This interview first appeared in The Asian Writer.