Interview with playwright Guleraana Mir
Rumi (Kuran Dohil) and Simon (Jimmy Carter)
Photo credit: Greg Goodale
Guleraana Mir is a writer and creative facilitator. Guleraana's first full-length play Shooting Star was long listed by the BBC as part of SCRIPTROOM 8. Her latest play Coconut (co-produced with The Thelmas) is currently playing at Ovalhouse until 28th April, followed by a regional tour. Coconut tells the story of Rumi, a young British Pakistani woman, and her relationship with Simon, a white Roman Catholic who agrees to convert to Islam in order to marry her.
What drew you to using the term 'Coconut'? What does it mean to you?
I’ve answered this question in so many different ways, but I think the nugget of it is that when I was asked to write about what it means to be a British Asian woman, I really struggled with that because I’d always been called a ‘coconut’. I didn’t know how to best represent my “asian-ness”. Then I thought why am I trying to represent something that doesn’t exist in the way I want it to exist? I might not like the word 'coconut', but it is one way of describing someone like myself. So I created this character, Rumi, who was sort of okay with that term.
I know that in black communities it is considered pretty offensive, but I don’t think it is quite as loaded a term within British Asian communities. However, it still isn’t a nice word - it’s used in order to almost strip you of your brown-ness; as if you don’t deserve to be fully Asian because you choose to live your life a certain way. So when things aren’t very nice, we often reclaim them. Hence, I wanted the play to be about Rumi being like okay, I hear you, I’m not exactly the person that you want me to be, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there is anything really wrong with me.
The play explores themes relating to interfaith and intercultural relationships. Do you think such relationships are still taboo within British Asian communities?
I think they still are to an extent. With every family that comes out and celebrates their children’s mixed marriages, the less taboo it becomes. But I think there is tolerance and then there is celebration. I know lots of families that tolerate interracial or intercultural marriages and then there are families that actually celebrate it. And the latter is a lot harder than the former.
There has been progress too. For example, a lot of young British Asians are more open to their families in the earlier stages of relationships and about the fact that they are dating - which I find really weird! I would never have told my parents I was dating! It’s fascinating for me to see the younger generation being more open about that.
However, at the same time honour-based violence is still an issue within British Asian communities. So its swings and roundabouts – for every two steps we move forwards there is always someone who is holding us back.
What do you think about current representations of the British Pakistani experience in the arts?
There is really not much out there at all. There was a British Pakistani family in Eastenders, but none of them looked like they were actually members of the same family! And I just can’t get on board with Citizen Khan. It never gets to the heart of what it means to be that character. It’s just gag after gag. I don’t know if it is necessarily harmful. If I watch it, I just think it’s bad telly. But, I wonder if some people who don’t know a lot of Asians watch it might think that is what all Asians are like. Obviously, that is not the television’s fault or the programme’s, it’s an issue with the viewer. But before people can accept that without putting judgement on a whole culture, we need to have some really good representations.
When you talk about representation in the arts, its twofold: you either have characters that do interrogate your position as a whatever-generation immigrant; or you have a piece of art that has actors and stories from all over the world and no one bats an eyelid. So you go to the RSC and you see a black man on stage and - unlike Quentin Letts - you just take that as it is without thinking he sticks out like a sore thumb or that he was only cast to tick some boxes. For me, that is true representation. But there’s not much on British television from people of colour and nothing from women of colour, particularly.
Is that something you have experienced?
No, that is just from watching creative venues champion the fact they have a diverse new season, but that diversity is in fact work by women of colour that’s been adapted by men. However, I feel people are genuinely trying to be diverse; I don’t think it’s simply a case of them paying lip service. Places like the Bush Theatre are doing really well in terms of looking at a wider pool of what is out there and who is out there.
Part of the issue is this longstanding view that women can’t write work that has universal appeal; that women only write about being a woman, or being defined in terms of a man. I’m acutely aware that I just wrote a play about a women and a man! But it’s my first play and I’ve got good ideas for the next ones. That view, however, feeds into this established perspective that women can’t accomplish what men can because men have the wider vision to do that. So when you’re adding in the need to be diverse as well, then women of colour get pushed to the back of the queue.
Do you think Coconut has that universal appeal?
I would hope so. I wrote it with that in mind. It is simply a story about two people who come from different backgrounds that can’t find their own place in the world, so how on earth are they going to find a place where they can belong together? I just wanted to see a boy and a girl who are really struggling to be together. If anyone who is in an intercultural relationship comes and sees it then they will take more from that. Some of the reviews have been reflecting that, which is quite nice. I’m so glad it’s resonating with people.
What advice do you have for women or people of colour trying to make it in UK theatre?
Make noise! There’s an Aboriginal Australian theatre group called Hot Brown Honey who have this great phrase: “Make Noise!” So my advice would be to make as much noise as physically possible. If you’re an actor and you’re not getting work then shout about it, call people out. If you’re a writer: write parts for those actors, get together, make work. It’s difficult, but that is what it takes.
It shouldn’t have to be so hard and I don’t want to seem negative; it comes from a source of passion! I want so desperately to be making more work and to be on bigger stages and for voices like mine and working class voices as well, of all ethnicities, to be on stage and for people to go and just see themselves. I think that’s been one of the nicest things about doing Coconut: getting tweets from people who don’t go to the theatre; or people who go to the theatre all the time and never see themselves reflected on stage.
Coconut is going on tour across the UK after its run at Ovalhouse. Are there any plans to get it adapted for television?
I think there is something in Rumi and Riz’s lovely imaginary relationship that would make for a super cool and fun web series. That’s my personal goal. I really want to sit down and look at giving Rumi her own platform before she met Simon.
What aspect of Coconut would you like to hone in on if you had the chance, which you didn’t have the opportunity to address in the play?
Rumi’s cultural identity perhaps. When she meets Simon in the play, she’s really set on how she feels about things. Although she has little wobbles along the way, she is essentially towards the end of the formation of her identity. So it’d be nice to explore pre that sort of confidence she has. And also, just dating in London is hilarious! A series focused on really disastrous relationships might be fun. East is East was massively pioneering in that respect, but it was very specific to Bradford and it was very specific to the era it was set in. Whereas dating in multicultural London as a British Asian woman is a whole new ball game! I would love to explore that!
What’s next for you?
I have a piece called Mano’s, which I wrote with a theatre company called Rightful Place who are made up of alumni from Mulberry girls school in Whitechapel where the student population is 99% Bangladeshi origin. It’s a fascinating play, which is set in the only all-women mechanics in Whitechapel. It’s a thriller and a murder mystery but also explores the concept of community judgement. It literally came from the participants so it’s their voices and their ideas. I just structured it into a way that hopefully works! It’s on from 28th-30th June at the Mulberry with a date in July at Rich Mix.