In this guest edition of The Interview, Changiz M. Varzi talks to Tariq Mehmood, an award-winning writer and filmmaker.
In his latest novel, award-winning writer and filmmaker Tariq Mehmood focuses on problems faced by young, second-generation immigrants in Britain. You’re Not Proper, Mehmood’s first book for young adults, was published in March 2015 and won the Frances Lincoln Diverse Voices Children’s Book Award. It tells the story of Karen and Shemshad, two teenage girls of Pakistani origin in the United Kingdom.
Karen’s Pakistani-born father is always glued to the television with a can of beer at his side. Her mother is a white Christian who devotedly goes to church every week. Hijab-wearing Shemshad—Karen’s rival at school—is, in contrast, from a traditional and religious Pakistani family. Both girls are searching for an identity in a society where values are different from those of their families and communities.
This is not the first time that Mehmood has written about the lives of immigrants. His previous novels, Hand On The Sun and While There Is Light, also talk about racism and immigrant issues in the UK. His works are enriched by years of personal experience as an active participant in the anti-racism movement in Britain. As a child, Mehmood immigrated to Bradford, West Yorkshire, in the 1960s, where his uncles and grandfather worked in the textile mills. In the 1980s, he became an active member of the anti-racism movement in the community of black and Asian immigrants in the UK.
In 1981, he was arrested along with 11 others while defending the black community of Manningham in northern England from attacks by the extreme-right National Front. The court later acquitted all defendants and the incident turned to be one of the inspirations for Mehmood’s literary works.
While currently teaching a course on creative writing at the American University of Beirut (AUB), Mehmood is also working on new books. In 2015, after years of writing for adults, he turned to a younger audience, having noticed that segregation and discrimination are not just limited to the real world: Mehmood believes that the current children’s and young adults’ book market has led to a colonization of young minds and imaginations.
To learn more about the concept of colonization of the mind and Tariq Mehmood’s own experiences as a young immigrant in Britain, Changiz M. Varzi met him on a recent afternoon in Beirut, Lebanon.
Changiz M. Varzi: Adults were the target audience of your previous books. Why did you decide to write a book for young adults?
Tariq Mehmood: Many of my previous books were about recording the history that people like me have witnessed. I mean the working-class people who were engaged in activism. I don’t know why we were labeled as activists. Because to say we should be equal or to say something is wrong does not mean we were activists. But I suppose we were activists in the sense that we wanted a different reality from what we were faced with in Britain. And the reality that we were faced with was intense racism, dirty jobs, bad housing conditions, appalling schooling and we were in the world that we did not fit into.
Varzi: When was that?
Mehmood: It was back in 1960s and 1970s, and we rebelled against that. We said it is wrong, what you do to us is wrong. When we started our movement against that situation, there was nobody writing about our resistance, writing about why we were doing those acts. That’s why I started to write.
As I grew older, I began to realize that it was not just our physical land that had been occupied by Europe, but they also occupied our minds in many ways. At that time, I was very affected by a book called Decolonizing the Mind, but when I got into the world of fiction I realized that our fictional world was occupied as well.
Varzi: What do you mean by saying the fictional world was occupied? Occupied by whom?
Mehmood: In my opinion, the land of imagination is occupied. White men and women run the landscape of fiction. The literary world is occupied by people whose narrative is narrated—and not with bullets and guns. So even if an Indian author writes about the Indian poor people, his work will be “poorography.” These kinds of books are more about making money out of the misery of someone else.
And if you look at children’s literature, as I did when my children grew up, you notice that not only are we fictionally invisible, but the imagination scene is also usurped. All our characters are white. For instance, my children had no books with which they could identify themselves. I don’t mean picture books and folk tales. Of course, we have fantastic traditions of folk tales from all around the world. But what I mean is when our young teens begin to understand the depth of stories, they cannot imagine themselves as the characters.
Varzi: Is this just an issue of you as a Pakistani man and other brown people in the West, or do you mean that all minority groups face this issue? Because there are books in English about and with leading characters as black young adults.
Mehmood: Let me first clarify the issue of “brown.” I became black when I went to England. I was literally called a black bastard. Until I went to England I didn’t know I was from a different color. I didn’t know I was even Pakistani; though I am Kashmiri and Pakistani. It happened to all of us in the UK. There are no black people in Africa; they are all Africans living in Africa. They became black like me when they went to England. So this brown issue is a modern-day issue. Because before that, there were just two existing colors: black and white. And even now I often describe myself as black, because black only does exist in relationship with white and white only exists in relationship with white supremacy.
But to answer your question, for example in 2013, less than 3% of books that were published in America for young adults had lead non-white characters or were written by non-white writers. It is a shocking statistic.
Mehmood: No, on the contrary. There are fantastic storytellers from our part of the world. The problem is that the economy takes over. The young adult book market is huge. The problem is not about our storytellers, but that the large-scale publishing industry is a monopoly. It is an interconnected group of elites at the top, and they believe the current kind of young adult literature is the only thing that sells.
Publishers have told me there is no problem with my book, but they don’t know how to sell it. They believe white people will not want to buy books with lead black characters. There is a belief that the white hero or character is what we should emulate. But no, I don’t want to do that. So the reason why they don’t publish our books is because they think they cannot make money with that.
Varzi: Can they?
Mehmood: Well, I think so. By that definition no one would make anything else but McDonald’s. We would have no kofta, no kebab, not anything. If it sells, it does not mean we should all make that thing. What we face in young adults’ literature in the West is a discriminatory process, which is a reflection of Islamophobia.
Varzi: Let’s go back to your first argument about mental colonization. Do you evaluate all the facts that you explained as signs of mental colonization?
Mehmood: I think it is much worse than mental colonization. Our imagination has been colonized. The world of fiction is a landscape of imagination. What happens when the children’s world of imagination is dominated by stories of someone else?
Children have to dream, and if they dream someone else’s dreams—someone who is not like them and does not share the same history and culture with them—in the morning those children will wake up in the dreams of another person. In that sense, the literary world is usurped and it is still the legacy of colonization.
Varzi: Christopher Myers, an American writer and illustrator of children’s books, called the current situation of children’s books the “apartheid of children’s literature.” Do you agree with him?
Mehmood: I think it really [diminishes] apartheid. I think apartheid is in Israel. That quote sounds very nice, but I feel it degrades the Palestinians’ and South Africans’ experience. I would share the sentiment with what he says, and because of that I talk about usurpation and occupation of the land of imagination.
Varzi: You’re Not Proper talks a lot about questions of identity. Both lead characters try to find answers to who they are. Have you experienced this yourself when you were a teenager in Britain?
Mehmood: I did. In the 1960s, after my parents went to England, one of my first shocking experiences was when a white boy came and rubbed my face to see if the dirt would come off, and this stayed with me over the years. Yes, we have that identity crisis and it constantly imposes itself on people. Minorities often have that position.
The two girls in my novel are intensely locked in search of identity, but identity for me is a metaphor. We don’t know who we are, and my point is that it is not really important because if we look in the mirror, the person we see changes every minute and every second.
Time passes on and we change, we age and we learn. So there is no static identity. I am Kashmiri, I am Pakistani and I am also Punjabi—I am British and I am Muslim. In this sense, identity is like water and it has to flow constantly. So, if you stick with one identity it is equivalent to death.
Varzi: In your book you explain Islamophobic behavior of British society toward young Muslim girls. Are these descriptions in your book another reflection of your personal experiences, or are they just fictional lines?
Mehmood: I obviously did have these experiences. We all have it if we live in Britain—and, don’t forget, experience is not always direct. When you watch television and there is a headline saying “Islamic terror,” what would be its result? These are general indirect experiences that come from decades ago.
Anti-Islamic sentiment in Britain is not something new. It is an historical process going back hundreds of years. It surfaces now and again in different forms. The Islamophobia of today is a very clear ideology. And then there is the direct experience that hijab-wearing women face. There is an intense hatred toward hijab-wearing women.
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