April 14 2015
Author’s personal contact with people who often risk life and limb to make it to Britain has had a profound effect…
By Tasha Mathur
SUCCESSFUL journalist and author, Bidisha, released her fifth book, “Asylum and Exile: The Hidden Voices of London“, last month and while it is non-fiction, it is quite personal.
It shares the stories of refugee and asylum seekers whom she met during several months of personal outreach work through teaching.
Something of a prodigy as a writer, she launched a fanzine at 14, got her first fiction book deal at 16 and was paid £15,000 for “Seahorses” in 1995 by Harper Collins.
Attending a top girls’ school, she very much became a non-conformist and went onto study literature at Oxford University and then moral and political philosophy at the LSE. Now a journalist and broadcaster she talks to www.asianculturevulture.com about what compelled her to write about refugees and asylum seekers.
www.asianculturevulture.com (ACV): Why did you want to write “Asylum and Exile“?
Bidisha Mamta (BM): I realised within one or two meetings with my students that their words couldn’t go unrecorded. They were the most outgoing, wise, experienced group of people I’d ever met – yet refugees and asylum seekers are vilified in the press. They are silenced and demonised, pitied and patronised – but every encounter, for me, was wholly life affirming. These are individual human beings who must be respected and whose words must be heard; I was determined to use my (very limited) power to make that happen. It’s a typical journalist’s habit to make notes on everything all the time – but this time I really paid attention, memorising everything, writing up my ‘case notes’ at the end of every outreach session I did, then doing a lot of reading around issues of asylum, forced migration and refuge. I wasn’t surprised that my students had stories to tell, but I was surprised by how politicised the whole group was: there was a very high awareness of the fact that the actions of powerful groups led to millions of women, children and men being displaced, threatened and tortured, while the rich stayed rich and violent perpetrators acted with impunity, often with the non-involvement of the international community. All the students I had who were from African countries had a very high awareness of the mess that Western European colonial exploiters callously left behind. All shared a cynicism about power-holders and governments and scepticism about international bodies who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.
ACV: What is the main message you aim to share with “Asylum and Exile”?
BM: Never judge anyone by appearances – you have no idea what people have lived through, survived, escaped, achieved or striven for. It’s those who are denied a voice who have the most to say about how the world really is and we should be listening out for what they can teach us, not paying attention to well-fed, ambition-hungry politicians.
My intention was to uncover unheard voices, add individualisation to the debate on asylum, remind readers that this is not an issue to be discussed but a question of people’s lives and get them to see asylum seekers and refugees as people.
I thought the best way to change the way we approach the negative stereotypes, which bedevil all discussions about asylum and refuge, was to bring out people’s stories and personalities, in their own words.
ACV: Where do you think this negative perception of refugee and asylum seekers has come from?
BM: These negative perceptions are not accidental at all but are the result of right-wing isolationist politicians, timid and placatory left wing politicians and a xenophobic tabloid media deliberately playing on people’s ignorance, racism, fear of difference and fear of change.
It’s a deliberate strategy and it works: it sells papers, it stokes the kind of fear that leads undecided voters to come out in support of whichever party appears to take a firm line. But it’s all illusory. The fact is that asylum/refuge numbers to the UK are relatively low, that England is not ‘full’, the majority of benefits claimants are not ‘foreign’, the majority of UK criminals are not foreign – and asylum seekers and refugees are telling the truth about what they have survived.
No rational person on the planet leaves everything they have, their home, their family and friends, their achievements, their roots, their life, to risk everything to attempt to take advantage of a completely foreign country where they know they will be tested, disbelieved and possibly even detained – if they don’t die en route.
ACV: What was your experience of a writing career as a very young, Asian girl?
BM: It was a thrill beginning a career at 14 and it was a lucky experience for me because I was a novelty and therefore not a threat. I knew then and still know now that many of the places I work for are endemically casually sexist and virtually all-white, but I was heavily protected, especially during the many years when my career was happening in tandem with school and university.
I was always gender and race-political: how could one not be? The general representation doesn’t change and as we get older, I see women (and in particular women and men of colour) being sidelined or plateauing further. Make no mistake, we live in a white male patriarchy. Every so often, a few people who don’t fit the mould are allowed in and tolerated but never in numbers which would change the scene. We only get so far before hitting the ceiling, being replaced and then having to find another way to survive.
ACV: What were some of the difficulties you faced as you continued your writing career and got into journalism…
BM: I was incredibly lucky because my career has developed organically and I never had any struggle getting in, but as with all people facing the double barriers of sexism and racism, I am aware of how tenuous my position is. I am noticing these barriers more as time goes on, as I see young men promoted over women with far more expertise, drive and experience and I see that the women and people of colour, including me, have hit some kind of shelf, or wall or glass ceiling. Despite our achievements and our track record, the big commissions and name-making assignments aren’t coming. I also witness casual sexism on a daily basis. In my experience, when I have tried to speak or write about this, I have simply been blacklisted from the organisations I was alluding to. It bothers me intensely that women and people of colour of both sexes are so heavily under-represented at all levels of the worlds I work in.
We know that black and Asian actors are leaving the UK because roles are not written for them; I wouldn’t be surprised to see the same thing happening with writers, producers, broadcasters, journalists and other talent, especially those working in the freelance, unstable, creative or media world.
ACV: What are your thoughts on the current diversity of authors within the (British) literary industry today?
BM: We live in a rich and diverse world and it’s shocking to enter into any professional institution and see that there is a severe lack of any racial diversity, added to the fact that there is a gender pay gap, casual sexism and so few women of any colour at the top. This is down to sexism and racism. Not the overt kind but a much more deadly, subtle and usually subconscious kind which prefers a white male club to anything else.
To this day I am staggered by people’s ignorance and sexual and racial clichés about race and gender: the banal obsession and romanticisation of the Raj era of British colonial exploitation in India; forced and arranged marriages; women’s oppression and victim-hood; the inability to recognise that not all brown people are Muslim.
The list goes on. We are rarely presented as experts on things which are not related to the clichés I’ve mentioned, and when we are, it is in light of a perceived problem which we have been said to have caused (sexual exploitation, FGM, forced marriage, terrorism).
Book reviews pages of newspapers are more than 90 per cent white both in terms of critics and the authors they cover.
Meanwhile, we know just how many truly diverse books and authors there are out there. The same goes for the programming at book festivals.
For a novelist there is a special category of novel you are supposed to write and it must conform to Western sexual, racial and class clichés.
You must write something about parental oppression, religion and terrorism and radicalisation, burning widows and child labour, forbidden love in a mango grove during the monsoon season, conflicted identity and women who suffer. Or something about wearing a Muslim veil – how much you love it or hate it – or something with veil in the title! Beyond the Veil? Under the Veil? Sex and the Veil?
ACV: What’s next for you? Are you now working on a new book?
BM: I would be very interested in doing a long stint in a women’s prison. I’ve already done some prison work but would love to commit myself to three years in one place. The same goes for doing more work in detention centres – easily the most frightening places I’ve ever been, and worth exploring (and exposing) for that reason.
My other job is in broadcasting so I’d like to do more documentaries with the BBC. They’re always enormous fun and you meet tons of wonderful people in the process.
Bookwise, I’d like to return to fiction, particularly short stories, which I love to write and read. These tend to ‘perform’ badly in the marketplace so editors at big publishing houses are very unwilling to take them on.
I have always wanted to write a big, epic, multi-book novel series for adults which mashes up my taste for lush fantasy, gritty science and sharp, political, speculative fiction, with a host of truly diverse characters and just a huge amount of brown heroines.
• ‘Asylum and Exile’ by Bidisha, Seagull Books London
• Buy http://www.hive.co.uk/book/asylum-and-exile-the-hidden-voices-of-london/19032660/
• Buy Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Asylum-Exile-Hidden-Manifestos-Century/dp/0857422103