‘Birmingham contains a multitude of realities, worlds’

The editor of The Book of Birmingham, a city in short fiction, on its complex identity

 Handsworth,  Birmingham, in  September 1985, when shops were set on fire in a period of social unrest. Photograph: Dick Williams /Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Handsworth, Birmingham, in September 1985, when shops were set on fire in a period of social unrest. Photograph: Dick Williams /Mirrorpix/Getty Images

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I recently watched the documentary Handsworth Songs again, 14 years after I had watched it for the first time. The film, directed by John Akomfrah, produced by the Black Audio Film Collective, is an experimental cine-essay exploring the “riots”, or uprisings that took place in 1985 across the country, focussing especially on Handsworth/Lozells in Birmingham.

As I watched the film, I felt, somewhere in the middle, the same pinch of recognition and excitement that I had felt all those years before, when I spotted, in the middle of the film, a community that I recognised, that I had grown up in, but which I had rarely, before that point, seen represented in any mainstream space. As the men in beards and turbans sang a religious hymn, that continued for some time afterwards in the background of the film, I almost had goosepimples; the rendition was so familiar to me, engrained since childhood.

Apart from the fact that this community was based in Handsworth, I didn’t really understand how or why it had become a part of this film – the predominantly Punjabi community had no direct connection with the subject of the film, and the truth is that there are many different Punjabi communities, religious and non-religious, based in Handsworth, so why this one?

The purpose that its presence served, as far as I could see, apart from bringing a certain flavour to the film – a sense of the different immigrant communities who inhabit Handsworth – was to denounce mainstream narratives of tension between racial communities as the contributing factor for the “riots” (a word which erases the power relationship between communities within, but also between those who are “rioting” and those they are “rioting” against. Protests or uprisings is perhaps a more suitable word.)

There was a lot of emphasis in the media coverage at the time on the Asian-owned business that were damaged or in a few cases destroyed by predominantly black protesters. The film was perhaps setting out to centre police brutality, government policies and neglect as the trigger and cause of the uprisings, a fact that the media headlines at the time, such as the Star’s: “Torch of Hate: Crisis Cities on Alert as Rioters on Rampage Again”, showing a black man with the heading “Face of a Bomber”, had attempted to divert attention away from.

The voices that were included in the film were united in emphasising this aspect, embodying the idea of political blackness at the heart of the anti-racist struggles of the time. Punjabi men from “my” community spoke of the lack of opportunities and resources provided to local young people. These voices, although true, and not unique in this community, seemed selective, they didn’t represent the opinions of many in the community and indeed South Asian communities generally, who do often carry prejudice towards black communities. The documentary did not face up to, explore, or represent this normalised anti-blackness.

I understand why perhaps this did not have a place in Handsworth Songs – keeping in mind who the audience for the film was perhaps, the fact that it was playing a certain political role. The intention behind representing this community was not exactly to invoke a sense of recognition in someone like me – the film didn’t face “my” community. The community was almost an abstract metaphor in this artistic film. For this reason, also, there was no engagement, in the film, with the specificities of this particular community, which appeared Sikh (it did to my fellow viewers), although it is not. It could have been any South Asian community.

This is a community that I have been researching, trying to understand for the last 17 years – in order to represent, more truthfully, a fictionalised version of it in my novel. I have been trying to unpack the community from within, exploring inter-relationships and dynamics, of caste, religion, gender, between the diaspora and India-based followers, to see divisions, separations, a variety of lived experiences. Trying to explore what lies outside of the community’s tentative boundaries, I have tried to understand it through the history of Punjabi migration to Britain, through music, including poetry, qawali, kirtan, through the traumatic events and massacres of 1984 and the oppression of the Indian state, resistance to this, including through the Khalistan movement, I have gone back in time, to the 15th, 16th centuries, to the medieval saints, to the history of Sikhism, the colonial period. Still, I feel that I hardly understand it.

This community is just one drop in Handsworth, and an even tinier droplet in Birmingham. Trying to understand the depth, complexity, history, contained within this small context has only led me to recognise the similar depth and complexity that is inherent in every group of people. Each place is made up of such specificities, of many worlds that can’t be generalised about, can’t be easily understood. Each place is made up of these countless worlds, which are often invisible to those outside them, contained to some extent, although never entirely. Can their reality be communicated through art? Should it be?

Lack of representation can contribute to groups of people being dehumanised. But the imperative to represent your own humanity to the world outside can also be dehumanising. It continues to centre a so-called “mainstream” – white, straight, middle-class. It forces communities to engage with the mainstream’s idea of what is “normal” – what makes someone “human”, what is apparently “universal” – to try to prove that they fit into this, that ultimately, “we are just like you”. This includes, for example, a constant need to display, prove, how British you are. This applies to Muslim communities, to black communities, to other immigrant communities, and to countless smaller communities within. There is a pressure to show positive aspects, to hide ugliness. The pressure to represent themselves to the world outside also means that individual stories are supposed to stand in for entire groups and places.

For all these reasons, I would not suggest that the collection of 10 powerful short stories that I recently edited, in the Book of Birmingham, part of Comma Press’s city series, are representative of Birmingham or even of parts of the city. Neither do the stories reveal the “truth” behind the media headlines. The city of Birmingham, with its waves of immigration and industrial growth and decline, contains a multitude of realities, worlds. The stories, which touch on the 1985 uprisings from the perspective of a Punjabi boy, on the unrest in Handsworth in 2005, from the perspective of a black female character, Malcolm X’s visit to Smethwick in 1965 or the impact, on a working-class white man who has just lost his job due to the closing down of a Birmingham-based factory, are droplets, rooted in distinct experiences and imaginations of the city and its recent history. It is in the specificity of each story, taking its context for granted, that the strength of the collection lies.

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