Get To Know: Guleraana Mir
Next month, Coconut, a new play which explores playwright Guleraana Mir's first-hand knowledge of interracial and intercultural relationships will open at Ovalhouse before touring the UK. It's a funny and confronting play which interrogates the contemporary British-Pakistani experience and the implications of religion and faith in modern romance. We sat down with Guleraana to talk about her own feelings about cultural identity both in personal and professional life, the term 'coconut', and the vital importance of diversity in the arts.
Hi Guleraana! So, tell us a bit about Coconut.
The play revolves around the relationship between Rumi, a British-Pakistani woman who's a non-practising Muslim, and Simon, a white British man. At the beginning of the play she’s very gun-ho about meeting a nice brown boy through halal speed dating but that ends very badly. She meets Simon and essentially the rest of the play charts the rest of the relationship from first meeting through to marriage through to… something else. No spoilers!
It’s a pretty dark comedy - why was it important to you to make the story funny?
I wasn’t acutely aware when I wrote the first 15-minute version of it that it was going to be particularly funny but lots of the humour came from the situations — there is something intrinsically funny about halal speed dating. The comedy also really comes from the character —Rumi is the type of woman who approaches everything with a joke. Everything is potential comic material and if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry. I’ve often been the butt of the joke myself so I'm trying to be more honest about that in my writing - self-deprecation and lack of shame are key.
Let’s talk about the term ‘coconut’…
So ’coconut’ is basically a term that’s used a lot by Asian and Black communities. I can’t speak for Black communities, but in Asian circles, though it is a derogatory term, it's mainly used to mock light-heartedly. The idea is that you’re brown on the outside and white on the inside, therefore you’re culturally inadequate. To give an example, if a group of brown people are talking about a Bollywood movie and you turn round and say ‘I don’t really like Bollywood’ that might be met with ‘oh you’re such a coconut.’ It’s as if to say you’re not doing what’s expected of you as a brown person. I’ve experienced that myself — apparently Asian people aren’t expected to become creatives!
So is it fair to say that you drew a lot from your own experience when writing the play?
Well, I am married to a white man who did convert to Islam to be with me, but he’s lovely, unlike Simon, so there’s that! In terms of the use of the word 'coconut', I grew up with a very strong Pakistani community. It was pretty middle class so, in a way, I guess everyone back then was trying to be a coconut which meant that my parents’ generation doesn’t really use the term that much. It was used more by my great uncles and aunties.
Recently though, What I have noticed is a massive shift in the way young people in Britain view culture and religion. When I was younger I didn’t see many young people wearing the Hijab for example, whereas young women of all heritages are really embracing that now. The term ‘coconut’ has become more fashionable. My young cousins will mock people they see in the media for example or their friends.
Why do you think that might be the case?
We like to think that we’re racially more aware now. Young people are really owning what means to be brown to themselves, and anyone who doesn’t match that is getting called out. I find it really interesting that many of the young people I see using it now don’t have as much of a link back to the motherland as I do. When I was younger we spent every summer in Pakistan until I was about sixteen, I speak Urdu, I understand Punjabi, as much as people call me a coconut I actually do relate really well to my heritage. It’s interesting to me that some of my younger family members will use that term, though they’ve never themselves set foot in Pakistan. I don’t understand it.
How do you find navigating cultural identity in the theatre world?
Hmm, that’s such a hard question — I’ve been really lucky I guess. I’ve been encouraged to write from my heritage, first by Madelaine [Moore] commissioning me to write Coconut and then being taken on as a Tamasha playwright and being surrounded by a great team of really diverse writers. I’ve personally felt that I’ve been well supported in my career and that people are trying to make space for my voice.
What I don’t see is that translating into the West End or the National, or even actually fringe theatre, because it’s not financially viable to produce your own work. I don’t know who these people are who are putting on fringe shows and paying for them out of pocket. The knock-on effect is that London fringe theatre is saturated by white women, and the West End is saturated by white men.
Right! What did you make of Nicholas Hytner’s recent comments about his dismissal of quotas at the Bridge Theatre?
Basically, you should be able to see the same range of diversity in the theatre as you would in a London pub. We’re all there, and we’re all working. All you have to do is look on Twitter to see how many active artists there are out there. It’s about taking a chance on new work, seeing the work is good, and then putting the writer's name in the pot the next time a new work is being chosen. People need to buy tickets to see the show, and then the directors will see that it does actually sell.
It’s such a double-edged sword. There are people out there who are seizing opportunities to be a part of BAME writing schemes, who later complain that people aren’t taking them seriously because of the existence of diversity quotas. I just think, 'don't mess it up for the rest of us!'
Did you have a particular audience in mind when you wrote Coconut?
Honestly, I want white people to come and see the show. Yes, it’s a show intrinsically about being brown, but it’s very much about the Britishness of being Asian and the fact that Rumi is not a stereotype. I want people to see that it’s possible to write a story about cultural heritage without it being like ‘oh no look at how oppressed she is.’ It’s a play very much told from Rumi’s point of view. I want to show that we’re not all alike. Just because you see one Asian woman wearing a miniskirt and another wearing a headscarf that doesn’t make either of them wrong or even extremes — they’re both normal.
Having said all that, I do want a really diverse audience. I’d also really like Asian people who don’t usually come to the theatre to come along, although it’s maybe slightly less Asian that perhaps some of the aunties would like…
What else have you seen in the theatre recently that really inspired you?
Oh my god, Brother’s Size! My heart melted, it was so beautiful. As someone who loves directing, aesthetically speaking it really spoke to how minimal you can be on stage both in terms of literal stuff, and in terms of story - so much was said with such little content. It wasn’t this massive epic, but at the same time it talked about brotherhood and family and race in the US and politics and all in a 90 minute space.
Finally, why should the Tung readers go and see Coconut?
If your writers and readers are anything to go by this is probably the perfect show for them - it’s modern and sassy and very much about being youthful, living in London, navigating relationships. It’s everything that’s relevant to our lives as people, as Londoners, as young theatre makers. It's just slightly different to 'normal' because they're not white! So come and support!
See Coconut at Ovalhouse from 11th - 28th April. Grab your tickets here.