A world of words
Throughout the autumn, The Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival is providing a stage on which Asian voices can be heard in all their glorious diversity, on a bewildering array of topics. Three writers—Nikesh Shukla, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan and Karl Sharro—talk to us about their work and their expectations of the festival
Interviews: Ellie Costigan
Portraits: Jon Aitken, Mahtab Hussain, James Veall, James Berry
Right now, writers and speakers who either live in Asia or have roots there are gathering at Asia House for a two-month-long festival of events centred on the spoken and written word. It’s a celebration of culture and identity, in all its forms, spanning from Turkey to Tokyo and including the huge Asian diaspora found in every other corner of the globe. “We’re a unique space: you won’t find many other venues which cover Asia in so much breadth and depth,” says curator Anna Temby. “We cover a very large region—it’s important to highlight the differences of experience within it.”
The festival brings together authors both established (think Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans, and Claudia Roden, who’s credited with introducing Britain to Middle Eastern food culture) and up-and-coming. The intention, says Anna, is to make the programme accessible to as wide an audience as possible. “The word ‘literature’ can sometimes put people off—some festivals can be seen as being quite academic and maybe a little bit elitist, but you don’t have to be a lifelong fan of a particular author or read 50 books a year to engage with these events,” she continues. “You just need to be interested in what we’re exploring.”
Now in its 13th year, The Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival provides a platform for creative people of colour, who are often shockingly underrepresented at similar events: a report by writers’ development agency Spread the Word in 2015 showed that black and minority ethnic speakers made up just four per cent of the cast at the UK’s mainstream arts festivals in 2014. “It’s important to me personally that we’re doing more to give a platform to those speakers,” says Anna. “For us, diversity and ethnic representation is not a case of box-ticking, it’s an integral part of the programme.”
Many of the events give voice to sections of society that are often spoken about but seldom listened to—it’s rare, for example, to hear the perspectives of female Isis recruits, as will be the case at investigative journalist Azadeh Moaveni’s event. “We aim to represent those opinions that aren’t necessarily widespread in the media, to find people who have direct experience.” It’s not all socio-political issues and race relations, though: “While Azadeh’s event is obviously very serious, we’re also hosting the likes of comedian Dom Joly, who’ll be discussing his book about a trip across Lebanon, which is very funny.
“It’s essential that what we are discussing is topical, but Asia House is a neutral platform. We want to bring together diverse voices, have a debate and allow people to share different viewpoints. In essence, it’s a festival of ideas, thoughts and means of expression.”
“We have lived lives that are fundamentally political from the day we were born”
Born and brought up in Harrow, north London, Nikesh Shukla is the author of three novels and editor of 2016’s bestselling essay collection, The Good Immigrant, in which 21 British writers of colour discuss race and immigration in the UK. On 15th October, he will be joined at Asia House by Tanika Gupta, Nish Kumar and Vinay Patel to discuss the pursuit of creative freedom, literary acts of defiance and the stories that British-Asian writers are encouraged or allowed to tell.
Right now, a crop of writers of colour are coming through who are not writing about race and immigration—or at least not in an overt way. Instead, they’re getting to tell the stories we’ve been missing out on for years. I find that very exciting.
It’s that lack of pigeonholing that makes this festival: it provides a platform for us to talk about our work and what inspires us, rather than only talking about diversity, inclusion and representation. I never set out for those to be the only topics I was ever invited to discuss. As a writer, I want to talk about literature, I want to talk about the themes in my work. I don’t want to endlessly talk about why we need more diverse stories or why we need more diverse writers. That, to me, just feels like a self-perpetuating loop. I want to talk about things that I wouldn’t ordinarily be invited to speak about, to an audience that looks much more like me.
Of course, race will always be there in the subtext. Politics is less of an ‘interest’ to people like me and more of a necessity. We live in political times, no doubt, but while for a lot of people those times started in 2016 with the referendum, or in 2011 with Occupy Wall Street, or in 2010 when the Conservatives came in, there are others of us who, because of our identities and our bodies, have lived lives that are fundamentally political from the day we were born, and what we write will always reflect that.
The feeling of not being like the people around me, of not fitting in, is something that has manifested itself in my work a lot. Often, it’s as though I’m speaking to a younger me, in the hope that there are others out there who might benefit in the same way that I benefited from reading Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia when I was a teenager.
Good literature, like good films, like good computer games, like good art, holds up a mirror. But the thing that fiction is able to do that a lot of other cultural forms can’t is give you the interior. On a basic level, stories can make you feel seen and make you feel like your experiences are valid, but they can also give you an insight into another world, another life that you might have never considered before. Fiction forces us to think outside of just ourselves. That’s its power.
“What you discard, what you take with you—that is what immigrants weigh, all the time”
Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan is a New York-based Singaporean journalist. She has written two books: A Tiger in the Kitchen and Sarong Party Girls, a satirical novel about the underbelly of Singapore and the conflicts surrounding class and gender within it. Cheryl will be joined at Asia House on Thursday 7th November by fellow Singaporean authors Sharlene Teo and Jing-Jing Lee to discuss the country’s culture and contemporary literature scene.
I like to think of Sarong Party Girls as a trojan horse: the premise sounds frothy—it’s about a young Singaporean girl, Jazzy, trying to find love—but it’s very layered. It’s about society, it’s about gender relations, it’s about intra-Asian relations. It’s about wealth. It’s about materialism. It’s about class.
So much about Singapore is paradoxical. Everyone thinks it’s this strict, pristine, squeaky clean country, which it is—but there is another side to it. In such a small country, worlds are constantly colliding: different races, different classes, the wildly wealthy, the really poor and the in-betweens, all living in the same tiny space. Those crossroads, and the little cracks in society that happen as a result, I find endlessly interesting. That’s what I tried to explore in this book.
The term ‘sarong party girl’ is a very derogatory one. To be an SPG is to be a woman who seeks to hitch her life to an expat man. It’s not a desirable thing. When I returned home to write my first book, A Tiger in the Kitchen, I reconnected with some childhood friends who’d done the good Singaporean girl thing: got married in their twenties, had children. By the time they got to their thirties, some of them had got divorced and were declaring themselves ‘modern sarong party girls’. For them it was about being a modern feminist, able to date whoever they wanted. I thought that was an interesting notion. Jazzy herself is a modern kind of SPG: she’s a raging feminist underneath it all. The book is about her as a Singaporean woman, inviting in, exploring and ultimately rejecting that western influence.
Singaporean identity is something I think about a lot, even though I left 20 years ago. When you’re there, you don’t really think about what it is to be Singaporean but when you’re the only Singaporean in your own setting, you realise much more acutely what it means. As an immigrant, you think about the aspects of the culture that you left behind, that you miss, that you wish you had taken with you. What you discard, what you take—that is what immigrants weigh, all the time.
Asia is a multi-layered, complex, varied continent, country to country, city to city. There are so many stories to be told. Having a platform such as Asia House is important for helping us tell those stories; for bringing together varied voices; for casting a light on pockets of Asia that haven’t been examined before. How else are you going to understand the world?
“Complex situations are simplified by the media—reality is far messier than those depictions”
Karl Sharro is a Lebanese writer, author and architect. Best known for his Twitter presence and online blog Karl reMarks, a political and cultural commentary on the Middle East, he has written for numerous international publications and authored two books: And Then God Created the Middle East and Said ‘Let There Be Breaking News’, and Style: In defence of Islamic Architecture. On 9th October, he and writer Nasri Atallah will be looking back at the media’s depiction of some of the key moments in the Middle East this year.
There are some tropes and clichés that are used constantly in British media coverage of the Middle East—ancient rivalries, for example, are used to explain current events in terms of long historic trends, often at the cost of understanding contemporary political dynamics. But perhaps more damaging than that is the notion of the journalist slipping into the role of an activist and becoming part of the events they are covering, often ending in lending support to unwise interventions. Journalistic objectivity is key, and reviving it, despite all the difficulties, is important. One of the by-products of this attitude today is the oversimplification of complex situations in order to get a simple message across, but reality is far messier than those depictions.
Without a doubt the key events that have taken place in the Middle East this year are the demonstrations in Algeria and Sudan, which culminated in the removal of two long-sitting presidents, as well as the escalating situation with Iran. With respect to Algeria and Sudan, there was noticeably more subtlety in covering these events compared to the uprisings of 2011, in particular in terms of paying more attention to local factors as opposed to the all-sweeping nature of the previous episode. Ultimately,
I think this is a positive change and in no small measure due to the ability of the Algerian and Sudanese protesters to dictate their own narrative. Nevertheless, given how historic those events were, I don’t think they received enough attention in the media, perhaps because they didn’t fit into a bigger narrative—as was the case in 2011.
Fortunately, today it’s possible to get your news and opinions from a multiplicity of sources and, despite the elitist anguish about this, this is a good thing. Gone are the days when the major newspapers can dictate particular narratives—although curiously, there are many in the UK who choose to pretend this is still the case.
At the Asia House Literature Festival, the audience have in the past seemed particularly thirsty for a different type of approach to storytelling. The festival plays an important role in providing that; in projecting the true multi-faceted nature of British society, which rarely gets celebrated today amid the general mood of pessimism.