Brothers in Blood: Sunita Crowley Reviews

In his interview at the 2018 Asian Writers festival, the author Amer Anwar discussed how he devoured crime fiction but had yet to read one set within the Asian community.

Thus started his writing journey. Brothers in Blood his debut novel went on to receive the prestigious Crime Writers Association Debut Dagger Award under the title ‘Western Fringes,’ and recently featured on Radio 4’s Open Book as well as numerous Best Books lists for 2018 including The Guardian and The Times.


Set in contemporary Southall, we enter the world of Zaq recently released from prison and working in a dead end job in a builders yard. The quest that our protagonist is tasked with is to find Rita, the daughter of his employer Mr Brar who has run away. As the story unfolds Zaq learns that she’s being forced into an arranged marriage but the facts turn out to be more complicated than we or Zaq imagine. Accompanying him on his journey into the Asian criminal underworld is his childhood friend Jags.
Tension builds throughout the book as Zaq treads the line between the competing expectations laid upon him by Mr Brar, Rita’s thuggish brothers and his own desire for self-preservation and to protect those who he perceives as vulnerable. The threats of imprisonment through false accusations, fear for his own life, along with what is yet to be revealed about the characters keep us gripped right to the end. ‘Who can you trust?’ and ‘Who or what is around the corner?’ is the staple of any crime fiction and Brothers in Blood doesn’t disappoint.
Aside from the violence of the underworld that we’re drawn into, the relationship between Zaq and his friends, in particular Jags, is well observed portraying the unquestioning support between friends as if they were brothers. Cultural divides and the concept of honour are explored in the book in various forms. Rita who is Sikh is purported to have run away with a Muslim, a situation that has to be resolved with added urgency for fear of bringing shame to her family ‘of all the guys she could’ve picked to go out with, a Muslim would’ve been the very worst choice as far as her family were concerned. The reasons were historical…’ Zaq who is of Muslim heritage is of a sensibility for whom religion or politics is irrelevant. Jags his closest friend is Sikh. As with any book which portrays a specific culture in a particular light, there is the danger of stereotyping. Forced marriages in a patriarchal society is a trope that can be misused in storytelling, but Amer Anwar has shifted this narrative adding a nuance that reflects the complexity of individuals. Violent Asian gangs prowling the streets of London may also be a pleasing narrative for some but let’s remember, this is crime fiction and inevitably there has to be devious devilish criminal characters of Asian heritage for the story to proceed.

If anything Amer Anwar portrays Asian culture as complex as any other. There are those who break the rules and justify their dubious actions with equally dubious moral codes. There are those who are tender, kind and know when they see injustice and seek to do their utmost to defend what’s right. Of course there are individual characters with many if not all these traits reflecting that we’re all a bunch of contradictions.
Publishers in the past have been hesitant to embrace a book peppered with non-English phrases. I can understand that this may be a barrier to engaging with the book. However since the start of my school days in an East End Comprehensive we were encouraged to infer the meaning of unfamiliar words from context before rushing to a dictionary. Shakespeare for many of us felt like a different language. When Zaq is told by his yard manager that he’s been summoned to see the boss and Zaq asks why, we can surmise that the reply by the yard manager ‘Mehnu Kee putha?’ as he waves him away in a disinterested manner means ‘how do I know?’ But as is always the case, that view is coloured by the sensibilities of the reader. I as a British born Hindu-Punjabi who was never taught either Hindi or Punjabi but can understand the odd phrase, see it as a window into the world of a culture that is comfortable inhabiting two spheres, that of their own cultural heritage and the host country. As readers we don’t need to understand each and every word spoken by the characters. In fact books, just like films, can be written with different readers in mind. Children’s films invariably insert extras for accompanying adults to identify with. It’s not essential to the story but a nod to those with an added depth of knowledge.
Amer Anwar has set his novel in a place that he clearly knows well describing the streets of Southall and its surrounding areas with such detail that at times I wanted to reach for google maps and follow the characters on their journeys
Has this book changed my life? No. Do I identify with the misfortunes and violence that befalls the characters? No. I live a largely uneventful life free of crime. Do I understand the complexities of growing up in an Asian community in Britain? Yes. Does this book along with others such as ‘Sophia Khan is not Obliged’ signal a change in publishing and popular culture that acknowledges that there are universal stories that transcend culture? Yes. Just as the TV series ‘This Life’ in the 1990’s portrayed an Asian female who I could identify with, the current wave of British Asian fiction is set to do the same. Fiction in which Asian characters are portrayed in a non-stereotypical manner, in which being Asian isn’t the dominant theme and the plight of the immigrant isn’t the central theme but rather being a human with a life filled with everyday angst, grief, love and humour is ever more important. In an apparently increasingly polarised world, we need to focus on what we share. What better way to demonstrate our common humanity than through nuanced fiction.

Brothers in Blood maybe set to draw in a new readership that otherwise would bypass this genre. I for one am looking forward to the sequel.

Amer Anwar.
Could this be the beginning of a whole new genre of SouthAsian Crime fiction?

Published by Dialogue Books. 448 pages.

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The House of Hidden Mothers by Meera Syal – The Review – Amrit Matharu

meera

Meera Syal immerses us in the tale of a rarely spoken subject: surrogacy. We are introduced to a forty-something has been mother trying for her second child. Shyama’s character reminds the reader that life isn’t always kind; escaping a troublesome marriage when her first born was young and now living opposite her ageing parents. Syal paints a picture of Shyama’s desperation to give her new life partner, Toby a child together whilst compromising old friendships, and the relationship with her existing nineteen-year-old daughter.

Syal covers many themes in her latest book including cross-cultural relationships, motherhood, feminism, family dynamics and of course not forgetting international surrogacy. As a young woman in my twenties enjoying my life and career, family planning and the focus on surrogacy is far off my agenda. Although, reading House of Hidden Mothers has given me a refreshed outlook on the issues around pregnancy and motherhood. Whilst I would love to become a mother one day with my own children, the thoughts around parenting and the process is something I’ve always found quite daunting.

Syal’s style of writing captures a raw projection of the female voice. Interestingly her wit and obvious sarcasm demonstrates the female consciousness of becoming an ageing woman from the beginning chapter. Shyama’s voice describes the ageing process through rather direct commentary,

Then […] she just let go. Let the belly sag and the grey show through, and blow the gym membership on vodka and full-sleeve tops to cover up the incoming bingo wings.” pg.3

I think that Syal writes from the point of view as a mother and daughter, balancing outlooks from Shyama and her daughter’s character, Tara. We see a rounded experience of what makes a family unit, including the struggles of emotions from various characters, including the male members connected to the situation, liken dad-to-be, Toby. Entertainingly we are also introduced to not just immediate family involvement as House of Hidden Mothers captures relationships between friends and the most fascinatingly, between the surrogate and the wishful parents.

Author Meera Syal
Author Meera Syal

In conclusion House of Hidden Mothers challenges sensitive topics in one complete novel. At times incorporating theme upon theme struggles to weave in and out of the narrative of effectively. However, overall the novel provides a rich offering of emotional experiences and perspectives for a tangible reading experience. I would recommend this book to not only women exploring surrogacy, but to women similar to myself – those who haven’t given much thought to becoming a potential parent. Sathnam Sanghera commented this book is “Original, important, and true.” – A very accurate statement especially where the Asian reader is concerned. Surrogacy as a topic is kept hushed, even more so in the Asian community. I believe House of Hidden Mothers welcomes the encouragement of considering surrogacy and challenges the cultural and societal expectations around family life.

House of Hidden Mothers is published by Doubleday

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Amrit Matharu works for BBC Asian Network as an assistant radio producer. With a degree in English Literature, Amrit produced an academic thesis on the representation of the British-Asian female in South Asian Literature. GloBooks welcomes Amrit to the team. ! Connect with her http://www.amarettosworld.tumblr.com/    

Amrit Matharu
Amrit Matharu

The House of Hidden Mothers by Meera Syal – The Review – Amrit Matharu

More or Less Asians? A debate on Stereotypes in Literature. An Asia House Event: The Review

GloBooks reviews the best in translated fiction

Top Left to Right. Blogger and writer Anna Chen, Presenter Bidisha and Film maker Daniel York. Bottom Left to Right. Novelist Niven Govinden and Broadcaster Yasmeen Khan waxed lyrical on the night. Top Left to Right. Blogger and writer Anna Chen, Presenter Bidisha and Filmmaker Daniel York. Bottom Left to Right. Novelist Niven Govinden and Broadcaster Yasmeen Khan waxed lyrical on the night. Philip Chadha Philip Chadha Every once in while we have seminal moments in the arts and at times we return to seemingly well trodden roads and in particular the subject of stereotypes or in this case Asian stereotypes in literature, do they exist?

Are there more or less then before? It was the subject up for energetic debate at the recent event held at Asia House in London.

The debate provided a looking glass on the whole subject of Asian stereotypes in literature and gifted a moment of much needed reflection on the issue as the end of 2014 hurtles towards us. GloBooks supported the sell-out event , attracting large numbers. Its topic clearly resonated  with the audience. GloBooks supported the sell-out event , attracting large numbers. Its topic clearly resonated with the audience. There was the…

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More or Less Asians? A debate on Stereotypes in Literature. An Asia House Event: The Review

More or Less Asians? A debate on Stereotypes in Literature. An Asia House Event: The Review

Top Left to Right. Blogger and writer Anna Chen, Presenter Bidisha and Film maker Daniel York. Bottom Left to Right. Novelist Niven Govinden and Broadcaster Yasmeen Khan waxed lyrical on the night.
Top Left to Right. Blogger and writer Anna Chen, Presenter Bidisha and Filmmaker Daniel York. Bottom Left to Right. Novelist Niven Govinden and Broadcaster Yasmeen Khan waxed lyrical on the night.
Philip Chadha Founder of globooks.net which showcases the best in international fiction.
Philip Chadha Founder of globooks.net which showcases the best in international fiction.

Every once in while we have seminal moments in the arts and at times we return to seemingly well trodden roads and in particular the subject of stereotypes or in this case Asian stereotypes in literature, do they exist?

Are there more or less then before? It was the subject up for energetic debate at the recent event held at Asia House in London.

The debate provided a looking glass on the whole subject of Asian stereotypes in literature and gifted a moment of much needed reflection on the issue as the end of 2014 hurtles towards us.

GloBooks supported the sell-out event , attracting large numbers. Its topic clearly resonated  with the audience.
GloBooks supported the sell-out event , attracting large numbers. Its topic clearly resonated with the audience.
There was the ever clear and present danger of the event possibly rankling a few observers through heated debate and if you were of the persuasion that things were just fine and dandy then you were likely to have your quiet non-plussed persuasion punctured.This was not going to be BBC light entertainment fodder for Saturday night television by any standards. One was almost expecting effigy burning of every publisher who said no, every publisher who said maybe and every publisher who said could be. Forgive me though for a moment of jocularity. I thought it might make for a good diversionary tactic from being overly serious or being hangdog. However the inescapable fact is that even in a multicultural, multi-media liberal leaning 2014 Britain, we still need to debate and interrogate the whole idea of stereotypes in the arts and in particular in literature.Presenter Biddsha asked presenter Yasmin Khan just what stereotypes were expected of her during her professional life.
Presenter Bidisha presided over the proceedings.
Presenter Bidisha presided over the proceedings.
She recalls a production meeting and recounts what one programme commissioner apparently said to her during a meeting. The commissioner apparently told her “Its great that that you bring us stories but don’t feel that you cant bring other stuff, stories about your community..” and right there was the first seemingly outmoded word “community”. The idea of Asians being part of an all-embracing, homogenous community is undoubtedly an urban myth. The impression of Asians being representative of communities has always been around. How are Asians though by the very nature of the fact that we are Asian, somehow representative of all communities? Does that make us qualified to talk on ethnic matters ? possibly; to be somehow flag bearers for all things Asian or even standard- bearers possibly not, since the ethnic make-up of areas up and down the country are affected by a multitude of influences including political, social, cultural; socio-economic or otherwise.

So from a literature standpoint, its not difficult to be riled slightly, even for the more phlegmatic ones amongst us. Author on the panel niven Bidisha underscored the point of how there are certainly very familiar narratives in Asian fiction; the forced arranged marriage being the most popular one et al and possibly making the cosily more common stories more “publishable” then others. Govinden commented “If you are far more singular about your work then you don’t have to work in that way.” You might ask the genesis of stereotypes in literature normally is with the very publishers themselves, leading one to think that there are not enough ethnic minorities within the publishing industry. Niven revealed how the trade publication The Bookseller did a follow-up to a study done a decade ago, highlighting the problem of a lack of ethnic minorities in the publishing industry and guess what? Things have not changed a decade later. Just what are the concrete things that need to be done asked presenter Bidisha. According to Niven “It begins at university and encouraging more people who are about to graduate to join the industry.”

Frankly if that didn’t get your jowls jarring, then there is the slightly noxious combination of literary fiction and seemingly colonial or genre based Asian stereotypes. Whilst it could be vigorously argued that the South Asian fiction panorama is very much alive and kicking with Jhumpa Lahiri`s The Lowlands.lowlands and Neel Mukherjee`s The Lives of OthersNEEL shortlisted for 2013 and 2014 Booker Prize respectively. According to Niven however, there is an inherent risk of writers simply comforming to a set of literary rules or a genre, just to make their book publishable.”The danger is that you don`t nurture the development of writers who work outside the tradition. Its not challenging work. Its an easy sell. If you spend the kind of attention on writing different kinds of work, you have a far more interesting landscape.”

Asia House Literature Festival Organiser Jemimah Steinfield. “More or Less Asian was a lively and thoroughly enjoyable event. Led by Bidisha, the panellists presented a disparate and interesting range of views, raising important issues in terms of identity and creativity in the UK today."
Asia House Literature Festival Organiser Jemimah Steinfield. “More or Less Asian was a lively and thoroughly enjoyable event. Led by Bidisha, the panellists presented a disparate and interesting range of views, raising important issues in terms of identity and creativity in the UK today.”
My fear is that in satisfying the commercial whims of certain publishers who like theatre producers need to get bums on seats,like film makers need to shift cinema tickets; writers might be implicitly expected to produce stories that use cosily familiar stereotypical images that lets face it sell. Historical, political stories with high drama and tension- fuelled communal relations might be exquisitely written and deemed Booker prize worthy, but it might be argued are they really examples of fresh, challenging fiction?

Perhaps that`s a debate for another time. Yet its not all literary doom and gloom. Hope does spring eternal. There are books that are challenging that romanticised, chocolate box image of South Asian writing with redefining work that delivers a big fat Glasgow kiss so the charming expression goes, to all stereotyped or genre based fiction. Deepa Kapoor`s Bad Character was in my mind, a game-changer of a novel with its story turning the image of the young stay-at- home Asian woman on its head and presents an uncompromising image of the under-belly of Delhi.

Deepti  Kapoor`s first novel Bad Character
Deepti Kapoor`s first novel Bad Character
We now need a new generation of authors to rewrite the rules on South Asian literature with exciting and enduring stories that give stereotypes a wide berth.
Marvel-logo-oficial Like a band of literary iconoclasts, ridding the publishing world of trite stereotypes and protecting challenging literature, super heroes to rival even Marvel,s finest, we will hopefully have novels that are a rollicking good read, bring in the greenbacks and challenge hackneyed literary characters in the process. Now wouldn’t that be a marvel ?

All The Days and Nights Published by The Friday Project and Bad Character published Jonathon Cape Random House are both out now.

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More or Less Asians? A debate on Stereotypes in Literature. An Asia House Event: The Review