Bidisha calls for greater understanding of the lives of asylum seekers

Bidisha calls for greater understanding of the lives of asylum seekers

26 January 2015

By Mehvish Arshad

Bidisha’s fifth book Asylum and Exile: The Hidden Voices of London will be launched at Asia House on Tuesday, 27 January.

Mehvish Arshad caught up with the British Indian writer, broadcaster and author in the Sir Peter Wakefield Library at Asia House.

It’s been three years since a Bidisha book appeared, and some people may have found themselves wondering what happened to the edgy, fierce, and intelligent author who penned her first book 17 years ago.

The 36-year-old entered the limelight as a teenager at just 15 years of age when her professional writing career kicked off with contributions to art magazines such as i-D, Volume, Dazed and Confused, and NME.

At just 14 she launched a style fanzine as part of the Riot Grrrl underground feminist hardcore punk movement.

Aged 16, she signed a book deal with HarperCollins for her debut novel Seahorses, which was published in 1998. During this time she also had regular opinion columns in The Big Issue and the Daily Telegraph, with her specialism being international affairs, social justice issues, arts and culture and international human rights.

So what have you been doing in recent years?

I’ve written four books. My fifth is about to come out and I’m celebrating that with a launch event at Asia House on Tuesday 27 January, which I’m very much looking forward to because it’s been a few years since I published my last book which was a reportage from Palestine. So this new book needs a new party, new event, and new discussion.

Tell me more about that, what’s the new book Asylum and Exile: The Hidden Voices of London about?

I did several months of outreach work with asylum seekers and refugees and I’m still doing that. They were the most wonderful, funny, exciting, people I’ve ever met, who’ve been through so much and I thought I’ve got to share their stories because it seems to me that asylum seekers and refugees are society’s invisible individuals – they are spoken about but no one hears from them directly.

Someone once said to me at a reading, ‘What gives you the right to write this book?’ and she was absolutely right. I don’t have any particular right to do it – except I’ve got a platform, so I can publish a book about it.

It’s a very relevant topic at the moment. Was it a conscious decision to come out with this book now?

I didn’t exactly time it, but I have to say I’m quite lucky that we’re in the run up to a general election and so immigration, migration, asylum, exile and refuge, all of which tend to get bundled together, are all very much in the public debate. But even three years ago at the time that I began doing this kind of work, you would open the tabloids and there would be these horrendous news articles basically scapegoating asylum seekers for just about any crime in the world.

A few years ago if you were a migrant or refugee from Eastern Europe you may well be fleeing a post-soviet downfall of your economy, you might be fleeing the Bosnian war, you’d be fleeing violence, but nobody seems to ask. It’s as though the story of asylum begins when people arrive here.

What more do you think could be done for refugees in the UK?

I think funding is a major issue. I know from my research that this Government have severely cut funding to services for those who are already the poorest – so funding to legal aid, charities, public services, social services – and that has put everyone, particularly those at the very bottom of the scale, at genuine risk of destitution. So the people I worked with were surviving on about five or six pounds a day maximum and they were existing only due to the kindness of charities and strangers. That leaves you open to exploitation.

Women For Refugee Women, which is a fantastic charity in London, did some research on this and it showed that women in particular would find themselves in horrendous situations, such as being offered a room and then after about a week being expected to provide sexual services, or look after someone’s kids, or do the cooking and cleaning. So the kindness became exploitation.

You’ll be speaking more about this at Asia House on 27 January?

Yes! I’m really looking forward to this because I think what tends to happen is when you talk about asylum it becomes a debate and there are people in the audience who say, ‘Just send them all back home!’ but this is not about that. We’re going to have Maurice Wren who is the Chief Executive of the Refugee Council so he really knows what he’s talking about, and it will be chaired by Rachel Holmes who is a historian, writer and an activist.

So I think that we’re going to move away from vilification and start talking about what the reality of being an asylum seeker in this country is.

The jacket of Ayslum and Exile

The jacket of Ayslum and Exile: The Hidden Voices of London

Were your parents supportive of your career choice?

I am from an incredibly supportive background and only now in my thirties do I realise how important that is, because I meet people from all walks of life who didn’t have that level of support.

There was just constant support. My mum is the real driver of my family and she thought that what I was doing was basically really cool. She’s a computer scientist and an absolute role model for me. I remember when I got my first assignment, I was about 14 and I got a letter back from a music magazine saying ‘Your work is nice’, and I remember sitting on the stairs waiting for her to come back from work and she came in the door and I said ‘Mum! I’ve got a career!’ and she was like ‘Err, what?’ and I told her this magazine had written back to me and she had no idea I’d sent off my stuff to magazines, but I was very confident and that confidence comes from having a supportive background.

I’m interested in how you were viewed as such a young girl working in the media?

I look back at my career and it seems so epic from the outside, and when you’re in your career it doesn’t feel like anything, it feels like just your daily life, but I was definitely the first Asian women, girl actually, working on all these music magazines. I would go into these offices and there would be no women and no non-white people whatsoever, and I succeeded precisely because I’m a woman’s woman. I wanted to write about all these cool girl musicians, artists and designers who were out at the time.

At the time everything was a novelty. I’d walk into these offices and everything would be. ‘Oh this is fabulous! I’m going to a gig! It’s all marvellous! I’m going to a gallery opening! It’s all fantastic!’

Having said that, I am sure I hit lots of glass ceilings. I’m not sure I broke that many. Even on the first music magazine I worked on, I rose very quickly and women who were also on staff came up to and said, ‘Look, you know the guy who does the features discriminates against women. He’ll commission something and then he’ll analyse it until it disappears and then he’s going to put it on the back-burner’ and that’s exactly what happened to me. So I hit my first glass ceiling when I was 15 and it was astonishing.

I don’t know if this guy realised that he was doing it, but he had done it to all of the very few women in that office regardless of colour. They had all warned me and their warning was true.

A lot of people became collateral damage. I think journalism is a hard career. There are all these shifts like the digital revolution, and if you don’t get it together you become collateral damage. A lot of my colleagues from the last 20 years, I don’t hear their names.

What was it like entering the limelight at such a young age?

I have very mixed feelings about fame. Having met lots of people who are famous and semi famous in all sorts of fields, I’ve just come to the conclusion that people who want to be famous have some sort of childhood validation issue, because for me being famous isn’t nice. I found it incredibly exposing and very objectifying and oddly violating.

I didn’t go mad but I wasted a lot of money, I wasted all of the money I made before I was 21. I became very inward looking, very hyper-aware of being in the entertainment industry.

The first novel came out and it did really well, but I thought that it hadn’t done well because to me a bestseller means Danielle Steel or J.K. Rowling or Stephen King. You’re very visible. I became very embarrassed because I thought the publishing company was disappointed in me, and then I self-sabotaged quite badly and I lost this fantastic agent and I lost these great publishers. I never quite got back that element of my career. Fiction-wise I’m still thinking ‘God how am I going to get back? Should I write brown Game of Thrones?’

Are you still viewed as this rebellious figure? How do you think you’ve changed?

I think what happens is that whatever you get known for at the beginning, sticks with you forever. So I’m 36, I’m really happy being 36 but I’m still treated as though I’m this very punky newcomer. Actually I’m a 70s-style militant radical feminist, but I’m small ‘c’ conservative. So I’m not a rebel in any other sense other than my gender and race politics. But I think I’ve managed to survive and I think I’m respected.

I’m learning how power works. I’m quite appalled by how power works, because I’ve come to the conclusion we live in the Tudor period. We might have iPhones now and wear different clothes to what they did then, but power is still concentrated in the hands of a few and it’s secretive. If you want to make a change then being an outward rebel doesn’t work, you have to somehow subvert and advocate for change at a very civilised, covert level. I guess I’m enjoying growing up.

To listen to the audio of this interview click below:-

Bidisha’s latest book Asylum and Exile: The Hidden Voices of London will be launched at Asia House on Tuesday, 27 January at 18.30 when Bidisha will be in conversation with writer and activist Rachel Holmes and Maurice Wren, CEO of the Refugee Council. For more information click here.

Mehvish Arshad is currently doing an internship at Asia House.