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An Interview with Guleraana Mir

10 April 2018 Suzanne Frost

With Coconut, playwright Guleraana Mir explores the contemporary British-Pakistani experience in interracial and intercultural relationships. Her main character Rumi is a non-practising Muslim in love with a white man who converts to Islam to make her family happy. How do you navigate romance and religion, heritage, family and expectations while staying true to your own cultural identity?

London Calling: Tell us what a coconut is!
Guleraana Mir: A coconut is someone who is brown on the outside and white on the inside. It’s a term that is used predominantly in black and Asian communities. It’s used derogatory but its intentions can span from quite light-hearted mockery to at times quite aggressive. The gist of the matter is when you call someone a coconut, you are saying that they’re not fully brown enough and that’s quite insulting. You are told that you are not enough of something that you identify with.
 
LC: There was a recent article in Teen Vogue about a middle eastern girl looking for someone like herself represented on TV or film and all she could see was stereotypes of either a terrorist or a bellydancer.
GM: Asians have it slightly better. We have people like Mindy Kaling or Aziz Ansari doing really well. What I like about Mindy Kaling is her character is clearly Indian but it’s never talked about, it’s not something that is relevant to her story. Yes, she’s a doctor, yes she’s Indian, but she likes white men and she’s very much a New Yorker. It’s never ‘my life as an Indian is so difficult’ or ‘these are the things I come up against every day’. We believe that diversity is talking about what it means to be brown or black or a woman but actually true diversity is when we have characters on stage or screen just getting on with their daily life and not really talking about what colour they are. Because I don’t walk around every day saying ‘well as a brown woman....’

Guleraana Mir

LC: How autobiographical is your play?
GM: There are sections that really come from the way I feel and some of the experiences I’ve had. But in terms of the actual story line, yes, I am married to a white man and he did convert to Islam but he is lovely and not emotionally abusive at all, unlike our character Simon. There’s elements of our story in there but nothing that I directly lifted from our life and replicated on stage.
 
LC: Within the so-called EasyJet generation, more and more relationships are maybe not always interracial but definitely intercultural. Many of us end up with a family in law that has a different background or a partner that was raised completely different.
GM: On of my best friends is Caucasian and she is currently dating a guy whose family is full practicing Greek orthodox. She came to a reading of the play and it really resonated with her. Although her partner isn’t a practising Greek orthodox, his family are very much surrounded in that culture and do things differently to the way her family does. She constantly has to have conversations with her partner like: we celebrate on this day, how do you do it? How am I going to manage seeing both families and what other traditions are there in Greek culture that we can adopt in our family unit? They are both white. But the cultures they grew up in are so different.
 
LC: Is it also a generational issue? A lot of things you maybe just do for your parents or grandparents, because it means a lot to them.
GM: That’s the crux of it really. Quite often people who grow up in big traditional family units, whatever that tradition is, have to respect the culture that they come from. That’s a really big part of the character journey of Simon in the play: He grew up in a family unit that was just him and his mother, she was a practicing catholic but he didn’t really believe in anything. And then he comes into a family unit which involves Rumi’s enormous Pakistani family and that’s what he likes, he likes being part of a community, he likes the feeling that comes with belonging and that is what he latches on to. At first he doesn’t understand why he has to convert to Islam because it is not important to Rumi. But then actually he comes to value it so much more than she does, because he’s never had that.

Kuran Dohil and Jimmy Carter. Courtesy of Greg Veit Photography

LC: It’s also just love: you love your family and want to make them happy
GM: Even if you don’t necessarily subscribe to it, you see how much it means to the people you love, so it becomes important to you because of that third connection. I knew how important it was for my grandparents to see me have a traditional Pakistani wedding so there was no dispute, it just had to be that way and it’s something that we accepted and we did because we would break their hearts if we didn’t.
 
LC: Tell us about the term ‘Third Culture Kid’.
GM: The term comes from an academic paper that was published back in 1950 and it describes children from families of global expats: missionary kids, army kids, anyone that’s spent a lot of time with high mobility. The term refers to somebody who’s grown up outside the culture of their parents and has created a new culture for themselves. These people adapt their personalities, their hobbies and interests to accommodate all of these cultures that have had an influence on their development. It’s a beautiful positive thing but it’s also really damaging and difficult because you grow up with so many identity issues that I think cross cultural people like me have as well. I’m British born, I fully identify with being British, but obviously I have this massive Pakistani heritage.
 
For me it’s really important that we separate religion and culture. That’s really difficult to do and I think that’s one of the main issues in Asian communities, that comes up in the play. Rumi really wants Simon to identify with being brown but not necessarily become a stoic Muslim, whereas that’s what he latches on to and that’s what causes the problem. There’s also the question of how can we be true to our culture but not necessarily religion? Is that possible? I don’t know. But I try to explore those questions in the play.
 
Coconut is playing at Ovalhouse 11 - 28 April
 
 
 
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