The concept explored in this exciting, new short story collection, The Book of Birmingham, featuring up and coming writer Duggal, and skillfully edited by Bhanot, is starkly modern. It is also strikingly framed by the political setting of one of Britain’s largest Northern cities. Seamless interaction of spaces – physical, social and emotional – create the best compendiums, and is why these particular titillating segments – illuminating “snapshots of people’s lives” as described by Duggal– make such powerful comment. The geographically marginalised yet emotionally eventful metropolis of Birmingham poignantly emphasises the intersecting narratives of class, race and gender that could form today’s British multiculturalism, but tragically have been, as evidenced through the current divisive development, obscured. Often described as a disaffected city via sensationalist news headlines, and being one of the few major urban places to have voted Leave ‘By A Whisker’ in the referendum, Bhanot’s creative exploration of the bemoaned Birmingham then aims to helpfully map the raw state of interpersonal relations to draw conscious connections between communities who might be avoidably at odds.
Whether it is an inside look at millennial nationalist meetings in an especially poverty-stricken part of town, or writer Duggal’s own vignette, Seep, a story of the daughter of a Punjabi family in 1960s working class Britain where cultural in-fighting results from the need to survive, the editor brings together pointed detailed perspectives that bring forth a distinct commonality in the desire to be truly valued, but are struggling at once against human pitfalls. Duggal commented on the subject of shared grander obstacles: “class, for example, is an important issue and is often omitted from ethnic narratives. When there is talk about the working class, it’s very much about white people, and often men. Twitter is aflame with working class voices, but they often seem not to be culturally inclusive. Indeed, class as a whole is underrepresented – not all our stories revolve around lawyers who live in London!”
In short, identifying overlapping experiences matter as much as the overlooked communities themselves. Having grown up in inner city Birmingham, Duggal elaborated on her kindred contribution to the purposeful anthology: “we are all complex in our own way. Personally, I enjoy writing about people who are invisible in real life, and breaking the mould of stereotypes e.g. contesting the Muslim individual as a bomber, or the South Asian woman being compliant and a victim and simply being more inclusive of other races, as our daily lives are, and the inequality and dissent happening around them.” The author’s piece in The Book of Birmingham specifically illustrates the emotional awakening of a female character in the face of traditional constraints where “the character, who would have been the age of my mother’s generation, would not have had the same public freedom.’ Her grandparents’ house informs her experience of her world too – shared quarters due to financial limitations, a widespread local issue, as well as the need for solidarity.” Duggal’s first novel, The Handsworth Times, which was also set in the same area, and chosen as The Morning Star’s Fiction book of the year in 2016, “has women who aren’t perceived as strong on the outside but demonstrate a real resilience and strength on the inside. That story is set in the early Eighties and deals with the different journeys each person in one family goes on, reacting to the inescapable social events around them very differently. That novel also delves into relationships with the black community in the area and the challenges of inequality.”
Thus, the locus of a grittier melting pot can be paradoxically celebrated as a conduit for redefining a multi-layered society: one which transcends mere skin colour to a universal lived experience. As the socially conscious author, Duggal stated: “interestingly, writers such as Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou said that when they wrote, they weren’t reading narratives which were similar to theirs. I love that. I don’t simply want to write about Asian communities but also about others who are surrounded and shaped by hardship; brilliant results can come of that – new types of music, food, and ways of interacting.” The Book of Birmingham’s rebellion also clearly juxtaposes with its counterpart of London: a place which might be highly functional and a well-known cosmopolitan hub, but cannot recognise the wider gaps that are endemic because of that very sheen. Duggal emphasised the detrimental effect of pretension in social representation and disconnect in her profession: “the publishing industry can be quite elitist too, promoting narratives that are removed from everyday life and sometimes impenetrable . I want to write about untold experiences and use the inner life of characters to drive me. For example, in Seep, I explore the younger female character’s inner desires. Good detail in character can be better than overblown theorising and plot. A connection to inner wants means you can transport people to places which make them really care about the people.” Thus, by exploring an area that specialises in psychological depth and meaningful subjectivities, Duggal and the examination of a microcosmic yet authentic account of national consciousness bestow some comforting unity through sensitive acknowledgement. While there may still be big unanswered questions, the building of novel ideological bridges through a congruous mental landscape is a promising, immediate start.
What else do you enjoy writing about?
People who are socially overlooked, which is particularly true of immigrant families and especially women. I enjoyed writing Seep as a story on the coming of age of a young Inidan woman in the sixties.
In your story, Seep, I felt an awakening in Bina which perhaps the instigating character, Suresh, begins. Is that right?
Yes, I wanted to say more about Bina, the main character and show the richness of her inner world. She is teetering on the edge of two worlds: looking out from windows, limited by space. She experiences that push and pull that a lot of us as Asian women feel even now.
Do you let Bina’s character tell you where to go?
Yes, I always follow characters. You avoid stereotypes and incomplete narratives by delving deeper.
Do you see an intergenerational clash in your work?
It’s less a clash between parents and kids, and more about conflicts within ourselves and wider society. In The Handsworth Times, for example, there are conflicts with a mother being an Asian woman and expected to respond a certain way but then takes on a role of wanting to change her community in a radical way.
Who are some modern writerly influences?
A couple are Jhumpa Lahiri and Hanif Kuresishi
Short story is an underappreciated artform. What do you feel it brings that longer fiction cannot?
It’s an easily digestible glimpse into someone’s world Loose ends don’t need to be tied up, rather you they should leave you with a discomfort, a slight shift in yourself.
Finally, what’s some advice to other young writers starting out?
Keep going and finish. It’s competitive but actually if you’re a true writer, you are going to do it anyway. Most people start but don’t finish and it’s hard to get anyone interested in half-completed work so don’t pontificate, don’t spend half your day comparing yourself to others on Twitter. ‘Don’t compare and despair’ as they say. Read too. To not read as a writer is to not taste food as a chef. Don’t listen to the doubters and believe in yourself.