Atiha Sen Gupta & Rahila Gupta (British South Asian Theatre Memories)


OK, this is Atiha, Sen Gupta, my daughter,
er, who is a writer. Yah, and I wrote my first play when I was
seventeen at Hampstead Theatre and em, tsk, that is I got involved with the youth group
which is called Heat and Light and sadly, recently, it has been collapsed because of,
em, government cuts, to the council. But it was a place where young people could come
together and kind of put on semi-professional plays, acting, directing, writing, and they
did a lot of work with BME groups, which is really good, so it was about race and class
and bringing people who are not normally in the mainstream into theatre. So I I wrote
a play called What Fatima Did, and it went on when I was twenty-one, so, that was in
2009. …and yup. And it was, er, I suppose, em, when we were
talking about the kinds of things we are allowed to write about, em, in a sense this was, you
know, about a young woman who adopts the hijab, er, in school, and how her group of friends,
how the dynamics of the friendship, change. Em, and I think, that, you know, people, most
theatres probably, would have run scared of, looking at the issue of the hijab, but if
a young Asian woman, was, you know, ie Atiha was writing it, there’s a certain kind of
safety, from their point of view. But I think it’s superficial safety in the
sense that, look, the whole, if you, go inside the identity politics, I’m not really a Muslim,
I’m not a Muslim at all, em, you know, my mum is of Hindu origin, but, our grand, my
grandfather was a Communist, so we we… We are not religious.
We are not religious, my father was Christian but, I don’t follow that. So I’m not a Muslim.
I have no connection to Islam yet, I was allowed to write that play.
Be, well, because from, because I think… Well well, I think it’s…
…there wasn’t that degree of sophistication for them…
There should be, shouldn’t there, if, but not…
There should be, if they want to. If they wasn’t to buy into that identity politics.
I think you should write any play you like. If you’re Chinese, you should write a play
about a Nigerian. If you are Nigerian, you should write a play about a Jewish person.
It it, I I think, but I’ve learnt from, just, being in the theatre initially, there, there
are a lot of issues with, er representation, and it does go back, even though people don’t
say it or articulate it, it does go back to who are you, and do you have the right, to
write this piece. That whole, that I was a bit naïve and I thought, oh, you could write
whatever you like, but sadly, you can’t. You have to…
‘Cause I remember after the success of, Fatima was very successful, and and I think it was
very successful, or it’s not just because there were sold out houses, but for the first
time, I saw a woman, in a full… Niqab.
Niqab and burka in the theatre. Never ever seen that before, or since, ah…
And lots of, er, young women in hijabs. …young women with hijabs.
Coming in, discussing it, getting angry, or were enjoying it, or but talking about it.
Yah. That was, interesting.
And then, after that, em, you wrote a play about Cuba.
Yup. And I said to you, er oh it was a very good
play, and really it was about you know, father son, dynamics. And I said to her she’s not
going to be able to put it on easily, because, people are going to say, well, what’s your
connection to Cuba.? What do you know about it? And she’d, she’d, she’d lived in Cuba
for three months or so, by then, but, but, even that I don’t think, would have given
you, I said, so I said to you at that point, if, em, Castro dies tomorrow…
Mm. …they might put it on.
Still still waiting to hehehe (RG laughs) …But politically I don’t want him to die.
But dramatically, it would be great. (RG laughs) If he could just arrange that. (RG laughs)
No, I I’m but, on a serious note, it’s it’s sad that you can’t em, tsk, I I that’s a lesson
I keep, coming back to that you can’t, you know, you you’re constrained, and and people,
and I think the Royal Court do this as well, they, em, ask people to write what they know.
And you went on a really interesting talk where you spoke about, identity, and Asian,
em, tsk, South Asian theatre, didn’t you. Which is recently.
Yah. And there’s a man called Fin Kennedy who’s
a playwright. And he’s al, he tsk, he doesn’t define himself as a White middle-class men,
man, but a lot of people on the panel who were, who kind of, not White middle-class
men defined him as such. And he, and he, and he often writes about young Asian, girls,
and he’s, you know, and he, was defending himself saying, I have the right to write
whatever play I like, as long as it’s well researched, as long as it’s, and I think he’s,
and and he also I think he is correct, but he also runs workshops saying, em, turning
that phrase, write what you know on it’s head? And he says, calls it write what you don’t
know. So I I think he’s school of thought is really, good. Admirable.
No, it’s it’s interesting, and and yes, and we should be able to do it. But then, if you’re,
if you’re not able to place it, you know. So you do something because it is a driving
passion, so, for you, writing about, a, father son relationship in Cuba was a driving passion
at that point, but, em, if you want to live as a writer, em, you know, and tomorrow somebody
comes along and says, I’d like you to write about, I don’t know…racism in north west
2… Mm mm.
…ah, you will say, yes, I’ll do it, even if…
You write for the market, ever, sadly, you end…
You you you do end up, to some extent, I mean, whatever you write though, will probably,
er, still have the hallmark of your, views. Mm.
So you won’t sell out in that way. But, but you may, end up writing things you hadn’t
thought of writing, or wanted to particularly write, but somebody’s commissioned you, and
said do something along these lines, and you do.
Mm mm mm. That’s true. What about the first and second generation
of identity you talked about earlier? Yes.
In terms of how you represent yourself, how you, the racism of it?
Well, what I was saying earlier was that, I I found this particularly, I don’t know
if it’s still an issue, but I certainly found it in the 80s and the 90s that, second generation
Asians here, were, through their writing, trying to makes sense of who they were or
where, who where did they belong. Were they, were they Indian or Pakistani or were they
British. Er, they didn’t feel that they belonged in either place, and, they needed to resolve
that or, or address that issue through their writing.
Mm. So I don’t know if you feel there’s any of
that for you. Em, sorry, I’m just conscious about the mic,
my hair fell. Em, that, well, I think that the the writer anyway, taking away racist,
em, the profession is about, probing us and questions, finding out who you are, where
do you belong, and that’s in a very general broadway, but so definitely, em a black writer
today, or an Asian writer today in Britain, would be asking those same questions. I think.
And that that so, there is still a racism… Because do you feel a kind of confusion of
around belonging and a sense of who… Of course. I I definitely feel it, but I’m
neurotic, so that, I mean that, you know, I I definitely feel a sense of what, where
do I belong, I I speak English with an English accent, my grandmother is OK, you know, I
can write English well, I I’m very much English, I’m very British, but when I go out on the
street, and I’m, this is me judging someone who I, might think is White racist, and that
again that’s an issue with my prejudice, and I think, oh shit, you know, that person is,
going to hate the fact, they’re going to hate me because I’ve got brown skin. I I have,
I sort of see myself through the eyes of, em, White racist society sometimes, in Britain,
I I don’t feel, in London it’s OK, bu when you go to certain parts of London, where there
aren’t that many, immigrants or there are racial conflicts, racial tensions, I’m constantly
aware of it. I kind of hold myself as an Asian person. I I don’t really settle into just
being British and…and also, you know, we often talk about this, if we, you know, we’re,
in Heathrow and there’s a immigration officer, or or anyone in in authority, or any any,
er person who may, maybe White… You immediately feel…
…who who treats you brusquely or is rude, you, yah, we think he’s racist, or she’s racist.
He he could just be having a bad day. He could be grumpy. He could be like that to White
people. But, we carry this, kind of, it’s schizophrenic almost, it’s kind of, I don’t
know, ererer I don’t feel we kind of, we haven’t reconciled it. I haven’t reconciled it…you
know. I think that’s fair to say. And there and there is racism in the society. Ultimately
I might be more sensitive to it and maybe more paranoid about it, but it comes from,
it it it’s a reaction to a very real racism that I face, and continue to face, and even
in the theatre world, I remember, sitting, I had written a short play with Roy Williams,
who is a brilliant Black, playwright, British playwright, and he wrote the first ten minutes
for, Hampstead Theatre for this youth group, and we had won a competition, four of us,
to, finish, give, to write ten minutes more of his ten minute piece, and, we did it, it
was successful, everyone was very happy, and I remember sitting next to a woman who was
a White middle-class woman, who was the Headteacher of a very prominent, comprehensive school
in North London. She saw my play and, came away and said oh, that was wonderful. I didn’t
know Asian girls could write like that? And she said it to me, and I don’t know if she
knew I wrote it, er, but even if sh, I was just another Asian girl, she could have made
the, the leap that, she shouldn’t be saying that. And she’s f, a a teacher who should
see the best and potential… Potential.
…of all children. And if they’ve done well, you should just be happy that, a young person
has done a, a good thing, and a positive thing. Did you did you find, much racism in, in the
80s. Do do you feel like the nature of racism is changed.
Oh I mean, well, I think that certainly more doors are open for for us in the sense that
when I came to, I mean, my, coming to England, em, I felt I experienced as a shift in my
class position, because I came as a middle-class person, and there was a sense that, em, as
a middle-class person in India, I would have had, some access, to the corridors of power.
Mm hm. So if I want to be a writer, there’s no doubt
I would have been a writer. You would have just, you would have done it.
You would yah. I would have, my father would have, you know,
rung up somebody and said, of course, you would have to go forward on merit, but, initially
the door would open because of that. Whereas when I came to England, I was, when I was
studying, when I was doing my MPhil in drama, I was actually working in a shoe shop. And
in the process, in the middle of my MPhil, they, you you get a letter saying would you
like to extend it to a PhD. And you know, my first thought was, oh my god, I’ll be Dr.
Gupta, and I will be working in a shoe shop. And that will be so embarrassing, you know.
Hm. Not possible. It didn’t occur to me that I didn’t have to
use the word doctor, that one day I might be working in a shoe shop, that, none of that
occurred to me. So I said no no I’m not doing a PhD. I’m not extending it to a PhD. Because
you know, it’ll it’ll be completely sort of… Mm, yes.
So, that, and so that sense of, er…of of er shift in class position, that I…
Because of your race. Because of my race, em…
Yah. Is how I, it was my experience of it at that
point. And I really didn’t ever think that I would make it as a writer in this country,
so the first thing that was ever published, I was walking on air. For six weeks, you know.
I thought wow, I’ve had something published. So, and then that gives you a bit more confidence
and you think OK, I’ve had one thing published. Maybe I’ll have something more published.
And so then it kind of builds up. And I do think, that today, em…there is, em…it
it’s it it’s not just a wild dream, if you want to be a writer.
Mm. Yah. It is more possible. It is, it is possible, it is more, there are
still obstacles… But this is, I always say this about theatre.
I I feel this. I don’t know how you feel but, even now, even today in 2013, where you have
Black Playwrights, Asian playwrights, you know, em people who are not mainstream, writing
work, they they might be applauded and, celebrated, but they are celebrated for, reflecting the
Black condition, or the Asian tradition, or the Chinese, em tsk, condition. It’s it, you
are not allowed, as a writer from a a minority, you can’t write about the human condition.
I mean, you can as a writer, and you might think, this is about, I’m stripping back,
you know, I’m looking at a family and, to that family dynamics and, you might think
you are looking at something very fundamental, but, you’re you’re still seen through a prism
of race. By critics, by, the theatre establishment. You’re still sold as, oh, the n, I think there
is now a fetish for Chinese, British writing, I’ve noticed like three of four, you know.
And so it’s like a fad. It’s like flavour of the month. But, so I find I find that quite
patronizing. I’d like to be able to write a play that, if it’s good and if it does what
it says on the tin, then it should be celebrated for being a play about humans rather then,
Black people, or or do you know what I mean? Of course, I’m not trying to say, we don’t
need the label Black. I think Black is important. It grounds us. It’s it’s our experience, but…
It also gives us certain amount of visibility, or, it…
What, to claim Black. Well, I mean, strangely, you’re more likely
to get work… Mm.
…sometimes, because it fulfills somebody’s… Right.
…quota. Of of writing about minority work…and doing,
yah. Of of of, yah. So, so, you know, they’ve ticked
a box. Em, and I mean, you want to get past the box ticking, but you also need to recognize
that the box ticking actually gets your foot… You need the box, hehe.
…gets, yeah you need the box, and then you can break the boundaries, you know. So, em,
it’s yah. It’s a fine balance. Er er people always say
that, surely we, you know, there’s there’s that big debate, should you use the term Black,
or are we just writers you know, but I don’t know it’s an interest fascinating debate.
I don’t have an answer. I think, it’s both. You should both see yourself as a Black writer,
and see yourself as a writer, and try and reconcile those two.
I mean, when somebody says, what do you do, you don’t tell them I’m a Black writer.
No. You say, you say…
I’m a writer. Yah, I’m a writer.
Right. That’s that’s very interesting. So, so, in a sense, it’s other people who
see you as a Black writer. So, so if you talk, say if you, so like you just said, about Roy
Williams. Or or or…yah.
You said Roy Williams, the Black writer. I say it as a kind of celebration, because
he is seen as the best, Black… And he is, yah.
Brit blest, best British Black playwright. It’s hard to say those, hehe, words. Em he
he, so I say it because, yah, because he’s known as that. But why should I, I shouldn’t,
I should, but I’m saying it in the context I need to reference his race, but yah, why
did I say that, it’s interesting. Be I suppose because so few of us have made
it, and he has made it, and he is very good. Against more obstacles…
Yah, yah. …perhaps, than a white counterpart.
Yah, oh absolutely. Yah.
I think so. Absolutely. Yah.

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