Wednesday 31 December 2014

On sex, race, migration and asylum

This long interview was initially granted to Asian Culture Vulture magazine and pegged to my book, Asylum and Exile: The Hidden Voices of London, which was the result of my outreach work with asylum seekers and refugees in the capital.

What was the moment that made you realise you wanted to write Asylum and Exile?

I realised within one or two meetings with my students, encountering their stories, their passion and their talent, 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 and are heard nowhere in debates surrounding these issues. They are silenced and demonised, or 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, regardless of whether those notes make it anywhere – 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 began doing outreach work in the top half of 2012 – promoting my previous book, Beyond the Wall, a reportage from Palestine, at the same time. I wrote Asylum and Exile at the very end of 2012, beginning of 2013, when it was still fresh in my memory. But I’ve continued doing outreach work since.

What were your expectations before you started teaching the asylum seekers from your book?

I knew the sessions would be thought-provoking and eye-opening but I didn’t except the effects to go beyond the classroom, or that together we would create something bigger than ourselves – not just the book but the good energy and fellow-feeling. I kept my expectations of myself low: the worst thing you can do is go in assuming that you are going to transform people’s lives, and indeed I didn’t transform my students’ lives. It was they who opened my eyes and made me realise that it’s often the people who are the most overlooked and ignored who have the most to teach others. I thought the sessions would be constructive in a literary sense, but they took on a significance which was far more humane and humanitarian as the weeks went on.

How did your perceptions change once you started teaching? What surprised you the most?

What surprised me was that people kept coming back to my sessions! It seemed to me that I was the one doing all the learning and developing, through listening to them, but that I myself was not contributing to my students’ knowledge in any way. They would share their stories and their writing with me – but these are people who already speak at least 2 languages fluently, and very few needed actual help with their English. The most interesting moments happened in between the writing exercises we did, not during them. I wasn’t surprised that my students had stories to tell about what they’d witnessed or survived both in England and in their home countries, but I was surprised by how politicised the whole group was: in the midst of their own personal experiences there was a very high awareness of the fact that the actions of powerful groups (whether governments, militia, rebels or whoever) led to millions of women, children and men being displaced, threatened, violated, tortured and generally having their lives torn apart, while the rich stayed rich and violent perpetrators acted with impunity, often with the collusion or non-involvement of the international community. All the students I had who were from African countries had a very high awareness and knowledge of the mess that Western European colonial exploiters callously left behind. All shared a cynicism about power-holders and governments and a scepticism about international bodies who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.

What is the main message you aim to share with Asylum and Exile? What was your intention? Do you hope this book will bring about measurable change?

Never judge anyone by appearances – you have no idea what people have lived through, survived, escaped, achieved, learnt 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 looking and listening out for what they can teach us, not paying attention to well-fed, cossetted, ambition-hungry politicians. My intention with Asylum and Exile was to uncover unheard voices, add nuance and individualisation to the debate on asylum, remind readers that this is not an issue to be discussion but a question of people’s lives and get them to see asylum seekers and refugees as people. I was certain that I didn’t want to write a polemic that tells people what to think. 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. I don’t know about ‘measurable change’ but frankly things are so stuck that even a tiny bit of change, or nuance, or complexity, would be valuable. 

Where do you think this negative perception of asylum seekers has come from? 

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 jingositic, xenophobic tabloid media deliberately playing on people’s ignorance, racism, cultural stereotypes, fear of difference and fear of change. It’s a deliberately 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 al 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.

At the book launch, Maurice Wren, CEO of the Refugee Council, talked of a system to distinguish genuine asylum seekers from those wanting to abuse to the system. How possible is it to create such a system? 

Maurice was talking about the myth that the asylum system likes to create around itself: the myth is that Britain has always been a welcoming and tolerant place, and the asylum system is simply there to weed out genuine claimants from abusers. That is what those within the system, the assessment boards, the Home Office and the border agencies tell themselves. The reality is that asylum seekers (and indeed all survivors of violence and persecution) tell the truth and the system, far from being a discerning one, is a cruel and disbelieving one in which the policy is to be openly sceptical of any claim as asylum seeker makes, to persecute them and treat them as though they are lying. 

As someone who works within the media industry; an industry that often creates the negative stereotypes surrounding asylum and immigration, do you feel a sense of conflict within yourself? If so, how do you try to resolve it? 

My ‘end’ of the industry isn’t the end which vilifies asylum seekers: we have the gutter press or the tabloid press to thank for that. Funnily enough, though, I am just as frustrated by seemingly sympathetic reports in broadsheets, which relay the numbers of asylum seekers who are trying to reach a safe port in a boat which sinks, or a lorry convoy which is raided by police… the victims in these cases are spoken about with great pathos, but are still not portrayed as individuals with names, lives and particular stories of their own. The solution to this is specific, accurate, long-form reporting and an emphasis on humanising and individualising the people involved, so that they seem less mythic and more real. The media doesn’t always do this very well, usually because of time constraints and issues of access; but charities do it incredibly well. For example the charity Women For Refugee Women has produced several testimony projects and performance works based on the reality of being an asylum seeker or refugee. In terms of traditional media I really appreciate everything The Guardian has done to investigate the abusive culture that exists within detention centres – in particular the sexual abuse of women detained at Yarl’s Wood. The newspaper’s investigation is an example of sustained, specific and compassionate reporting which is constructive and committed without being patronising.

What do you hope to see in terms of the issue of asylum in the General Elections this year [the interview was done in 2015]?

I’m extremely disturbed by the debate which has developed around these issues. First there has been a dangerous elision of asylum and refuge with all types of migration and immigration, with Islamophobia and fear of terrorism thrown into the mix, with a hefty does of head-scratching about ‘whether or not multiculturalism really works or is a good thing, at the end of the day.’ It bothers me to see England becoming more insular, more sceptical, more right-leaning and yet more culturally ignorant and happier to peddle ever more outrageous and bigoted clichés. UKIP have been incredibly good at harvesting all of that ignorance, bias and fear and instead of condemning UKIP, the Tories are trying to take advantage of some of that fear and use it to gain votes of their own, implying that immigration is ‘indeed’ something to be concerned about and attempting to quell their voters’ (groundless) fears. Meanwhile not one single mainstream politician on the left has stood up to counter any of the myths and tell the truth. Why? There’s no career traction in the issue, no money and no votes, and it’ll take a long time for the general populace to really take in and beginning believing the truth rather than the lie. 

We now have former migrants criticising and vilifying newer immigrants and asylum seekers – as someone who has come from a migrant family, what are your thoughts on this? 

I do know what you mean: as long as people have been migrating (that is, as long as there have been people on this planet) there has been a quite understandable tendency to want to assimilate in a new place, to ingratiate and to imitate. There is also a kind of pride – or should we say ego – that comes from having successfully survived a migration and settlement in a new place: a cruel tendency to say, ‘Well, it was hard for me when I first came here, I had to fight for everything, I had to fight for acceptance. So why should it be easy for you? You people have to prove yourselves, just as we did.’ There’s the well-known phenomenon of successful migrants tending to vote Tory – the party least amenable to true multiculturalism – for economic reasons and also because the conservative Darwinian dog-eat-dog, rise up on your own, fight for what you have mentality tallies with their own experience trying to make it. You could say it was also a trauma response, in a way: there’s a tendency for those who have suffered to replicate hostile contexts, beliefs, environments, values and also an unconscious desire to ringfence and aggressively ‘defend’ whatever you have achieved in the last one or two generations; there’s a sense of precarity and tenuous position that comes from being a migrant which leads people to (subconsciously) fear newer arrivals, as if what they’ve gained may be taken away at any moment. It also shows a lack of humanity, I’d say. Tribal behaviour of any kind bothers me and I am always disgusted when people are friends only with their own kind, without any interest in or compassion for anyone who seems or looks or is different. It bothers me when white people do it and it bothers me when non-white people do it.

Asylum and Exile tells the stories of the asylum seekers – what are your hopes for them to share to their own stories? How possible is it for them to do this at the moment? 

While my students certainly spoke freely with each other and with the caseworkers and charities that helped them, I feel that the conversation should be happening at a far wider level: it should be happening in public life. That means the media, public events, panels, the written and published work. Asylum seekers’ stories give us a true picture of what Britain is really like – but to get to that true picture, ironically and depressingly, you already need to be on the inside, to have a platform which attracts people who are willing to listen. As soon as I was into my classes and meeting all the wonderful people I realised that what they had to say didn’t stop with me, I could pass on the humour, humanity, wisdom and pain. A young woman at a university seminar I spoke at in London asked me (nicely) what right I had to write this book, and she was absolutely right. I have no moral right, beyond the desire and ability, the worldly power and the permission of my students – but nothing has given me the authority to do so and I don’t particularly want to be a bleeding-heart heroine or spokesperson for people who are well able to speak for themselves. Of course it’s unfair that I get to bring out this book and be certain of it getting at least some degree of coverage; that’s why I’ve tried to stick to talking about the issue rather than giving celebrity style ‘lifestyle’ interviews. In terms of talking themselves, while I had several very forthcoming students, not many would really want to sit in front of an audience of strangers and rehash their experiences for other people to coo and sigh over. Many of my students were consumed simply by the necessity of surviving and getting on with daily life. Attending book events – even writing books at home in comfort – is something that the privileged do. 

What drew you to a career in writing at such a young age?

Passion! I was always interested in everything, inquisitive, friendly, passionate, political, not shy: pretty much the typical personality type to be a journalist. I was enraged by the sexism and racism I saw in front of my face all day, every day, but at the same time excited by the galleries, the gigs, the design, the books, the artistic world around me. I always knew I wanted to be in journalism: I remember telling people when I was 13, and by 14 I was a journalist and having the time of my life. It’s a true cliché that you should do what you love and also do what comes naturally, what feels easy and right and joyful. I’m lucky too in that journalism is also a fun career: it’s sociable, it’s outward-looking. When I write non-fiction I feel confident that I am influencing the debate in some small way, whether I’m writing about gender or Palestine or asylum. With fiction, I’m much more circumspect. 

You had your first book published at 18; what do you think were the advantages of starting at such an early age? 

To this day, I am ambivalent about cutting my first book deal at 16 and having the novel, Seahorses, come out at 18, followed at 21 by the second novel, Too Fast To Live. Probably because I’m ambivalent about doing fiction in general: I’m not someone who loves novels above all else or advocates for novel-writing in the way I advocate for journalism. I sometimes see novels as part of the entertainment industry. But generally speaking I’m proud of what I’ve dones since I was 14, despite its ups and its many downs and long periods of freelance panic and nothingness – those weeks which bring zero opportunities and no emails. Nightmare. One thing that I’ll say in favour of early success is that it gives you a head start and enables you to ride out the dud years that happen in a freelance career without losing too much traction. I’m lucky in that Seahorses was reviewed very well and sold well, but I was so immature at the time and I regret no longer being with the best agent in the business, Jonny Geller at Curtis Brown, and with a big publisher like HarperCollins. I never quite got back up to that level again, nor did I fulfil my promise, although I have gone on to forge a very fulfilling broadcasting career, which is where my passions and capabilities lie. Still, I do feel some pride in having survived for 22 years in the media and publishing worlds, which have transformed so much and come under such pressure from various changes. I think just surviving is something in itself. However, there’s so much I still want to achieve – not just career wise but life wise – that I don’t think my previous accomplishments count for anything. It’s been a very hard few years, from 2009 onwards, for reasons both professional and personal, so I’m actually in a phase of self-questioning and reinvention and wanting to step back from the fray for a good few years.

There is the constant debate about migrants, no matter what generation, feeling a split sense of identity between the country they live in and the country they are originally from. What are your thoughts on this? How do you deal with this conflict if there is one? 

I actually think it’s a cliché that all second generation people feel some kind of split or conflict or rootlessness or whatever it is. I don’t feel that. First of all, there’s nothing wrong with not feeling 100% at home in a place; few people, of any kind, do. And those that do tend to be insular, parochial, solipsistic, ignorant bores. I can’t think of anything worse than a pathetic Little Englander who thinks England is the best place on earth – with no deep knowledge of any other place – and that famous saying, that anyone who’s tired of London must be tired of life, just struck me as the most insular, ignorant, arrogant claim in the world. I feel completely at home in all places. I feel like an international, which is what I am, not just for reason of racial heritage but also reasons of privilege, class and entitlement, which one should not be disingenuous about. I used to go to India nearly every summer as a kid, stopped when I was 14 because my career had begun and I was crazy in love with it, went back in 2013 and completely, utterly loved it. In terms of the energy, warmth, dynamism, contradiction, rate of change and female solidarity, it was a total buzz – far more so than England, which actually feels incredibly flat these days. I think the real forward drive is to be found in China, India, parts of Latin America, parts of Africa, not Western Europe. After being in India and China I now look at England with a far more critical eye than I did: I see it moving away from the rest of the world, suspicious of foreigners, socially stagnant, heavily mired in misogyny, porn culture and rape culture…. so like all migrants I plan to go onwards, somewhere. 

How was it entering the career at such a young age and also as an Asian girl? Do you think you had a different experience? 

It was, frankly, 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 that many of the places I work for are endemically casually sexist and virtually all-white (although the arts and style magazines I worked for were slightly better on this score than the more traditional newspapers and broadcasting outlets) but I was heavily protected, especially during the many years when my career was happening in tandem with school and university: a circle of friends, all style journalists, who were 10 years older than me and who showed me the ropes (and also showed me a really good time), the fact that I did my reviewing at writing work from outside the offices of the places I worked for; the fact that I cut my first book so early into my career, which gave me a lot of power or leverage within my career. I was always gender- and race-political: how could one not be? But these senses have sharpened even more as time went on: every few years there is a new, young, fresh name who is celebrated within journalism, but only a few are let through in every round. 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 more and more. 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 get only so far before hitting the ceiling, being replaced and then having to back off and find another way to survive. 

What are your thoughts on the number of British Asians authors in the industry currently? Do you feel they are represented fairly? And more specifically, British Asian women? 

For me this is not just about British Asians but about taking a really wide-scale view of diversity: all races, all ages, all backgrounds, all shapes and sizes and not just the very readily accepted type of the privileged, straight, entitled white male who doesn’t think about his own (or his friends’ and colleagues’ own) sexual and racial entitlement for one second. We live in a rich and diverse world and it’s shocking to enter into any influence professional institution, whether it be the media or politics or the arts, and see that right the way through, there is a severe lack of any racial diversity whatsoever, added to the fact that there is a gender pay gap, that there is casual sexism, that there are 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 (which the West harps on without acknowledging that male violence against women is endemic everywhere); the inability to recognise that not all brown people are Muslim. The list goes on and 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 the light of a perceived problem which we have been said to have caused (sexual exploitation, FGM, forced marriage, terrorism). Meanwhile, as I mentioned before there is a real lack of diversity when it comes to power-holding, influence and career achievement behind the scenes: as book editors, theatre directors, film producers, executives, commissioners and so on.

I read an interview with Kamila Shamsie, the novelist, in which she described being part of the brilliant Fifty Shades of Feminism essay collection (which I am also in) – and many of the white Western feminists made pretty racist, smug, arrogant, ignorant allusions to how relatively lucky they felt to be in England/America and not some foreign backward distant culture where (they thought) it was all much worse. The sheer complacency, racial arrogance and cultural ignorance of that stance really gets to me: negatively stereotyping and generalising about areas, cultures, continents spanning thousands of miles. These people usually know nothing of the world beyond their cosy little circle; and people who think of themselves as sexual progressives or liberals are the hardest to get to see the truth. 

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, about burning widows and child labour, about forbidden love in a mango grove during the monsoon season, about conflicted identity and about 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?

What were some of the difficulties you faced as you entered the world of writing as well other broadcast areas such as radio and television?

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. You are given just one chance to succeed – and if you fluff it, that’s it. I am noticing these barriers more and 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 plateau, 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, giving copious concrete examples, 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 – not just in front of the camera or mic or page but also behind the scenes as editors, producers, directors, executives and decision-makers. 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 in those working in the freelance, unstable, creative or media world. Certainly, I’m thinking that way. 

Finally, what’s next for you? Is there another book in the pipeline?

I would be very interested in doing a long stint in a women’s prison. I’ve already done some prison work (since 2012) 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. So I want to expand my humanitarian work, and not just as a reporter.

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.