‘I’m interested in exploring how the personal becomes political’
Saturday 15th October 2016
SHARON DUGGAL tells Farhana Shaikh what impelled her to write her first novel, set during the 1981 Handsworth riots
The Handsworth Times is your first novel. How did you go about writing it?
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.
You’ve set your novel in Handsworth in Birmingham but your story has at its heart a Punjabi family. What personal experiences did you draw on?
I grew up in the 1970s and ’80s in a British-Asian family in Handsworth, surrounded by the joint values of traditional Indian culture, 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 that, Handsworth was also an extremely lively and exciting place to grow up with the street, doubling as a playground, central to community life.
I come from a big family with lots of siblings and cousins so there was a rich pool of material to draw on for ideas and characters. Like most 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.
The novel’s set in 1981 and, while it’s 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?
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.
What made you want to write about the riots of 1981?
Birmingham in general is under-represented in mainstream literary output. Not enough stories about the city get published and I don’t know why.
But it 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 1980s, 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.
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 the father Mukesh, 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.
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?
Like most people, I get frustrated by the stereotypes that continue to get churned out in books, sitcoms, film 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 as marketable.
The novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a great 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.
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.
What advice would you give to anyone thinking about writing about the past?
Bring the past alive as part of the research by exploring personal accounts, diaries, social histories, film archives and oral testimony.
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. Visual stimuli really are useful.
The Handsworth Times by Sharon Duggal is published by Bluemoose Books, price £8.99. A longer version of this interview was first published in The Asian Writer, theasianwriter.co.uk.