Desi girls can be messy too’ | Author Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi on the protagonist of her novel, The Centre

Siddiqi discusses circumventing the tropes around South Asians in fiction and the complicated India-Pakistan relationship

February 02, 2024 09:45 am | Updated February 03, 2024 11:10 am IST

The idea for her novel began with the plot, says London-based writer, editor and playwright Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi.

The idea for her novel began with the plot, says London-based writer, editor and playwright Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi.

Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi’s novel, The Centre, draws you in from the very first line, thrusting you straight into a world that steadily gets more dystopian. “It all began with Adam. Doesn’t it always?” she says, beginning by introducing the reader to a character rather aptly named after the first man.

Laced with dark humour and filled with memorable people (and a cat called Billee, a version of the writer’s own furry companion), the book tells the story of Anisa Ellahi, a Pakistani woman living in London “by myself, making mediocre karela-cashew stir-fry, cranking the heating up to twenty-one and still freezing, and pretending to make a living by writing subtitles for Bollywood films”. Then, she meets the aforementioned Adam, and everything changes. 

Siddiqi’s debut novel, while an effortless read, raises big questions around appropriation, identity, the immigrant experience and language privilege. The idea for the novel began with the plot, says the London-based writer, editor and playwright. “A woman discovers a mysterious language school that promises complete fluency in any language in just 10 days, only to later discover the inner workings of such a transaction.” From there, Siddiqi springboards into the larger themes. The Centre is also about complex, mutable human relationships. “I think the novel’s central concern is to do with desire, be it for professional success or relational intimacy,” says the author. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Can you talk about the nuanced way you’ve approached race and South Asian identity, circumventing common tropes and focusing on how privilege also shapes the immigrant experience?

In the novel, the protagonist, Anisa, and the Centre’s manager, Shiba, are from privileged class backgrounds, which affects every aspect of how they negotiate the world around them. It felt important to me to interrogate their privilege as best as I could. 

Many South Asian writers choose to focus, in their novels, on somebody whose class background is completely different from their own — somebody who does not speak English, for instance, or lives, perhaps, in a village, or works as a rickshaw driver in India, and so on. Or they focus on another time or an older generation. There is also Kavita Bhanot’s wonderful research on the British Asian novel, where she speaks of some British Asian writers’ problematic depictions of backward and regressive elders and a culture that refuses to assimilate. And then there are the many stories of terrorists and forced marriages. And the truth is, you often see the writer’s own prejudices and presumptions leaking into their depictions of these characters. Maybe that’s where the tropes you mention come from — a disembodied filling out of details, or drawing upon stereotypes and presumptions. I have no doubt I’ve internalised that stuff too. But a commitment to working through it feels interesting and useful. 

And similarly, it felt interesting to shine a light on the protagonist’s prejudices, entitlements, and general messiness. That’s the other thing: it’s not just white characters that can be depicted as messy and contradictory, as complex, even unlikeable. We know desi girls can be messy, too. My god, so messy. Why not show that in our books? 

You’ve also lingered on this very complex relationship between India and Pakistan.

Thank you for noticing. I grew up in Pakistan and lived in India for a little while, and I felt it would be interesting to examine the complexities of the relationship between the two countries. Anisa describes it as a relationship of ‘both great longing and loathing’ in the novel.

It was a long time ago, however, that I was in India, and the truth is this wouldn’t be possible today. I recently had to face the fact, when trying to attend a friend’s wedding in Rajkot, that it is now virtually impossible for somebody of Pakistani descent to get a visa to India. What a shame to cut off lines of communication so violently, a move that can only result in further vilification and othering.

Anisa’s desire to be a “real” translator, to be recognised by an establishment, reminds me a little of June Hayward in Rebecca F. Kuang’s novel, ‘Yellowface’, from last year. The “establishment” has historically tended to favour white and cis men?

I read Yellowface shortly before my novel came out and loved it. I found it very clever and revealing. Yes, of course, the ‘establishment’, as you say, is very white and masculine and also very secular and privileged in terms of class. However, one of the things The Centre questions is our desire to be a part of the ‘establishment’ in the first place, and the ways in which one is protected, especially as a Muslim Pakistani woman, by not being connected to it; the extent to which one can be critical and aware of structures of oppression; the confidence one is able to maintain because of not having been subject to environments where they are made to feel strange or lacking. The establishment, the centre, if you like, can suck up your soul without your ever knowing it, with your thinking that this is, in fact, exactly what you want and need. That’s a part of its game.

What I’m saying is, it’s okay to think twice about what we’re fighting for when we ask for ‘inclusion’ — what do we want to be included in and why? And also, to think about the ways in which that ‘inclusion’, or even the quest for it, can end up distorting our thinking. Here’s the possible contradiction though. At the same time, I am very happy that my book was published. Truly over the moon. Alhamdulillah!

I want to create more work that is experimental and pushes my own limits, and I want to have the space, encouragement, and support to create that work. I want it to be read widely. And I want to support marginalised voices in whatever way I can. But I am pointing, I guess, to the importance of staying vigilant, aware of how easily and unconsciously one’s voice can be swallowed up — co-opted, tokenised, assimilated — by larger structures of power.

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