Playwright Tajinder Singh Hayer on the inspiration behind his new play North Country, labels, identity, new genres, and why there’s room for more British Asian science fiction in theatre.
I attended my first science fiction (SF) convention in 2013. Eastercon is one the UK’s most significant SF gatherings, and that year, it took place in Bradford – the city I grew up in, and the city that I am now destroying in my post-apocalyptic play, North Country.
Back then the script was in its early drafts, but the key elements were coming into place. I was struck by some odd conjunctions. Here I was, a fledgling SF playwright at a convention that focused more often on prose fiction and film/TV. A convention that saw me sitting on a panel discussing diversity in SF (in a hotel where I had attended numerous Sikh wedding parties). I felt at the confluence of some supposedly disparate realms: British Asian, science fiction and theatre. The years since have shown me that this was, and is, an interesting location to find oneself.
I’ll start with British Asian. I recognise the awkwardness of this term (the ‘Asian’ actually refers to the Indian sub-continent rather than the whole of Asia; it ignores linguistic, religious and cultural specificities; and there are implied cultural hierarchies behind it). As a genre label for writing, it also holds some assumptions; there will be generational conflicts, confused identities, migrant narratives, arranged marriages etc. These tropes are usually explored through the lens of conventional realism, ethnic comedy or Bollywood influences. It’s a model that has produced some fine work, and I associate it with a need to make a cultural statement of arrival. But, done badly, it is a home for easy clichés; if we view it as the only mode for expressing British Asian narratives, we risk ghettoising those stories.
The economic argument that ‘British Asians don’t buy science fiction’ simply doesn’t wash; contemporary TV and film is overflowing with successful works in the SF, fantasy and horror genres, and it’s absurd to suggest they have no brown audiences. It’s worrying to have British Asian narratives absent in a genre such as SF (which often deals explicitly with imagined futures). By being excluded from such genres, British Asian stories are also missing out on interesting, novel ways of engaging with familiar concerns. For instance, North Country is a post-apocalyptic play; it’s in a genre that naturally addresses issues of cultural erasure, revival and evolution in the shift from pre-apocalypse to post-apocalypse. This makes the genre a handy defamiliarising tool for addressing contemporary (and future) concerns regarding cultural identity.
However, this also opens up that often-forgotten British element of the term British Asian; in the post-apocalyptic world (or in the present day) what makes one British? Unnervingly, some of the elements that I thought might be overdramatic in the play in 2013, when I was first drafting it – the scapegoating of ethnic groups in the wake of catastrophe, the recreation of mythologised pasts – seem more plausible in the fraught atmosphere of post-Brexit Britain.
The case for post-apocalyptic, British Asian writing seems pretty clear to me; but then why write North Country as a play and not prose fiction or a film script? The answer lies a little in stubbornness – the same instinct that made me think ‘why not?’ when choosing Bradford as the location for the piece. It also seems appropriate that a work that is so concerned with communities should tap into the communal well that is live performance. There were still some of those anxieties about stepping over perceived boundaries (after all, I’ve already mentioned how successfully film and television appear to have secured the SF terrain).
However, it’s always useful to consider the implications of labeling; I’d argue that SF theatre is more common than we think – it’s just not always labeled that way. For instance, Samuel Beckett’s ruined landscapes sit pretty well alongside Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic novel, Riddley Walker; Shakespeare might not be seen as a fantasy writer, but his work is filled with magic and battles; there is visceral horror in Sarah Kane’s Blasted. With the arrival of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, I believe we will also see an increase in theatre works that openly embrace genre labels and the attendant fandoms. There is a commercial imperative behind this (witness Hollywood’s dependence on pre-existing franchises in order to deliver guaranteed success). However, there is also the possibility of new, flexible and interesting writing.
From my perspective, I’m keen to carry on writing work that exists somewhere at the centre of that British Asian, SF and theatre Venn diagram.
North Country is at the Wild Woods, Bradford, until November 5.