The Independent Bath Literature Festival: Asian writers say it's getting harder to get their work adapted for screen

The panel said the label of British Asian brought positive as well as negative benefits

British Asian novelists are struggling to get their work adapted for television because the lack of representation in the creative industries has “paralysed” the process.

Three rising star novelists last night discussed how the tag “British Asian” affected them as writers and in the wider creative industries, with one saying it took “10 times as long” for a book to get adapted for television.

Sathnam Sanghera, whose books include Marriage Material, said the “infrastructure” to get British Asian work adapted for the screen “is not there”.

“What’s really depressing is that in the 1990s all that great stuff that was on like Goodness Gracious Me, [but] things haven’t moved on; in fact they’ve got worse,” he said, pointing out that the number of black and Asian authors had fallen in the creative industries in recent years.

“On top of that, there haven’t been breakthrough writers. It’s self-fulfilling,” Mr Sanghera said. “To get our books made [on TV], you need screenwriters, producers and directors who will take them on. If they don’t exist it takes 10 times longer.

 

“But I think things are changing. There’s panic in the media as they realise Britain is multicultural.”

Niven Govinden, the author of All the Days and Nights, added: “Where are the radicals and the new voices.” And fellow panellist Nikesh Shukla, author of the Costa-award shortlisted Coconut Unlimited, said it was harder to see British Asians on TV, given the dominance of historical drama.

Even Indian Summers, the current Channel 4 drama, was problematic, he said. “Someone somewhere has said we need more brown faces on TV, but we really like historical fiction ... Ah, colonial British Raj, that is one way brown people get on TV, but it’s through the veneer of enforced slavery.”

The panel said the label of British Asian brought positive as well as negative benefits. However, Mr Shukla said: “I wonder what dues you have to pay to work through the different labels that get attached to different writers. When did Zadie Smith stop being ‘black female writer Zadie Smith’, and when did she become ‘acclaimed novelist Zadie Smith’? Was it prizes? Do I have to pay those dues?”

Cast_of_TV_show_Indian_Summers.jpg
The cast of Indian Summers; given the dominance of historical drama it's becoming harder to see British Asians on TV (Channel 4)

The problem with the definition as a British Asian writer is that it “ghettoises what you think my work will be before you’ve even read it”, he said. “That’s potentially quite dangerous as the label comes with caveats that ‘acclaimed novelist Jonathan Franzen’ never has.”

Mr Sanghera said: “The term British Asian is really problematic as it includes British Muslims and British Hindus, yet the term covers everyone. Asia is quite big, it kind of means nothing.”

He added the label “works for and against us” as authors. “It’s a bit like selling Coca-Cola. People need a label to make sense of things.”

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