As one of the few Asian children in a white, working-class mining town near Wolverhampton, Meera Syal grew up feeling like she didn’t fit in. Her parents, Hindus who were forced to flee to safety in England after partition, had emigrated from Punjab and, in the 1960s and 70s, Syal admits that her childhood was often “tough”, with racism commonplace. A trip to a pantomime with her school made her see, however, that “theatre felt like one place everyone belonged” and, since then, she’s devoted her life to the arts, appearing in and writing shows like Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars At No. 42, and writing the acclaimed novel Anita & Me, which depicts the experience of growing up a child of immigrants. Now 55, Syal is a mother of two and lives in London with her second husband, Sanjeev Bhaskar. She is currently playing the nurse in Romeo And Juliet at the Garrick Theatre in London’s West End.
Lynn Enright: You have spoken about encountering racism, growing up, And I wondered what impact that had on you.
Meera Syal: Well, I think my childhood was like many of the childhoods of first-generation immigrants; [racism] is sort of like a rite of passage, but it does toughen you up. It makes you fight your corner and I came to realise that I couldn’t fight my corner unless I had read up on it, and knew my roots and the history of colonialism – all of those things give you fuel because, when somebody says go back to where you come from, you need to know the answers. You need to know the journey that has brought you here, and the sacrifices that have been made to bring you here. So I wouldn’t have wished for a different childhood, tough as it was – it made me who I am. It gave me ambition; it gave me empathy. And it gave me a burning desire to communicate, because I was so often misunderstood.
And have you felt in the past few weeks, with the increase of reported hate crimes, that we are going backwards?
It’s very weird. I was talking with some friends about this the other day and it feels like we’re back in our childhoods; it feels like the 1970s, with the racists given free reign to say whatever they like. It’s an ugly time; Brexit has unleashed some very ugly anti-immigrant and racist sentiments. However, sometimes, being under the cosh brings out the warriors and I think there are enough people who I hope will stand up together, like we did in the 1970s, and say, "We’re not going there again – this is not going to happen." We’ve been complacent, we let things slide, we had Cameron saying a few years ago that multiculturalism hadn’t worked! So it’s time now for honest, open debate and we need to get active and involved, and make our voices properly heard. Because we kind of sleepwalked into this a little bit.
Chimene Suleyman, one of our writers on The Pool, wrote that the media must be held accountable for hate rhetoric and misinformation, too. Because we need to allow the space to represent people of colour, not only on topics of race, but on universal topics – Because as long as those people are spoken for, not spoken to, those attitudes will prevail. So it strikes me that diversity on screen and on stage is more important than ever.
More than ever, yes, I absolutely agree. The arts shouldn’t just be reflective – they should also be aspirational. They should show the society that we want, even if we don’t have it. And that was a great reason for me to play the nurse in Romeo And Juliet. And I was delighted to be offered it. You know, I’ve played a lot of Asian Indian roles too and I won’t turn those down if they’re good, but, like many actors of colour, there is a constant battle to be seen as just an actor.
I was just being offered Indian lady in newsagents and victim of arranged marriage, and if I wanted to change it, I would have to create the work – I’d have to write it
Who inspired you when you began playing the nurse?
She reminded me of a lot of my Indian family and relatives. They’re very similar: very affectionate, would die for their children and have spines of steel – you couldn't mess with them. So, when I read the nurse, I thought, "I know this woman." These are the women I grew up, who defend their territories like tigresses. But these women have a harder time because they are lower down the social order and they have to fight for space and for their position. And, at times, they have to put up and shut up. There are lots of point of connection culturally for me and I was very clear that I didn’t want to play her as an old woman in a wimple. I saw her as a young passionate dynamic woman who misses love – her speeches are peppered with references to love and sex. She’s a very vital earthy woman and loves Juliet like her own daughter and so does everything she can to facilitate love for her.
Yes, watching this production of Romeo and Juliet, I was struck how there’s Juliet just about to embark on a life of love, and the nurse who has been through it, and perhaps there’s that sense of women getting more invisible or more irrelevant as they age.
Indeed. You know, she’s so often played as an old achy groany irrelevant in the corner, and I couldn’t do that – I wanted to take her right away from that.
You’re passionate about introducing teenagers to drama and keeping it on the curriculum in schools. Why is that so important?
Because I am one of those kids who never would have got the inspiration to go into the arts if it hadn’t been for a trip to the theatre organised through school when I was younger. I walked in and it felt like home. For many children, drama through school is the only access they may have to that whole amazing world of self-expression and self-exploration. It’s through drama that you understand how people feel. The lack of empathy in our society has lead us to where we are now.
And British actors are getting posher, aren’t they? Are you worried that teenagers from less privileged backgrounds are being put off from going into the arts because of fees and lack of grants?
Absolutely, absolutely – and it goes for education generally, not just drama school, but even more for drama because it’s seen as a frivolous subject and a risky profession, so poorer families are not going to be as encouraging. I’m from a generation where the grant system was in place and I went to Manchester University and I can point to several people in the industry who have done amazing work, all of whom I have studied with, and most of whom would not have been there without a grant. So the fact that the grant system does not exist any more is a real tragedy.
And it’s going to have repercussions for our culture, isn’t it?
Totally. It already has. Look what happened with Brexit! I mean, Jesus, who saw that coming, and there you go.
So what can we do? Keeping drama on the curriculum in schools is one way to do it, But what else can we do?
There has to be some way of encouraging and supporting working-class children to be able to afford education, and alongside that we have to remove the snobbery in this country abut vocational trades.
You’re an actor/playwright/musician/novelist/campaigner.
I don’t know about musician!
Well, that was news to me, but I did read, while I was researching you, that you had a brief foray into a music career. So how are you so high-achieving? What’s behind your drive?
Oh, that’s very kind of you to say, I’m not sure that I am – I’ve just tried lots of things because I like being creative. But also being sensible – if you want to survive in the creative arts, then I think you do need to have more than one string to your bow and you do need to be proactive and I sort of realised quite early on, when I wasn’t getting the decent roles and I was just being offered Indian lady in newsagents and victim of arranged marriage, I realised that as an actor I didn’t have any power and if I wanted to change it, I would have to create the work – I’d have to write it. And that’s why I started writing, because I wanted to change the stories being given to us.
And what about your first novel, Anita and Me? Why did you write that?
That was semi-accidental, I suppose. I had just had my daughter and I’d been doing a lot of theatre, but I really didn’t want to be away from her, touring. And I’d been thinking a lot about how extraordinary my childhood was, and how much I’d learnt from it. I was part of a white working-class community that was decent and supportive and tricky at times – you know, racially and all of that – but actually overwhelmingly a really fantastic example of how we did integrate as a first generation. I wanted to record my childhood – that whole generation of us, the kids who didn’t fit in, and what it was like, and how we found ourselves. And I didn’t really think anyone would read it, so the fact that it’s on the school curriculum is just amazing.
What has changed for young women since you were in your twenties? Do you think things are better or worse or just different?
Well, different certainly. I’m very heartened by the generation of young women, spearheaded by Laura Bates and Caitlin Moran and others, that has rediscovered feminism and doesn't think it’s a dirty word. And all of that is very pleasing, because certainly, for a time in the 1990s, we had a whole ladette culture going on, which I found very dispiriting. Young women going, “Well, feminism has done nothing for me – it’s just lesbians in boilersuits.” And I thought, "Oh God, is this what we marched for?" So it’s good that now we have this whole generation of women who have a much greater sense of who they are, what they want and what they’re entitled to. However, I think the pressures on teenage girls are horrendous and nothing like what we went through, and social media has a lot to do with that. It’s endless – you can’t get away from it – and it can leave young people feeling bullied or isolated or made to feel inadequate. And the pressures on appearance and becoming sexualised too early – all of that was not the stuff we had to deal with, and so along with all the gains women have made, I think we have to protect our young women.
Who is the woman you most look up to?
My mum is pretty extraordinary. She’s 80 and she lives with us; she’s been through partition and emigration and two major cancer ops, and she’s five foot nothing. And I feel like she’s carried the world with her. I feel very lucky that she’s still around and I get to access her wisdom. I mean, don’t get me wrong, we drive each other crazy, but that’s the way of mothers and daughters.
The Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s Romeo And Juliet plays at the Garrick Theatre until August 13 and will be broadcast to cinemas worldwide on Thursday, July 7 www.branaghtheatrelive.com