Creative writing: Writing between two cultures

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14 June 2024
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Novelist Aliya Ali-Afzal talks about exploring a seamless blend of cultures in her new romcom and busting a few stereotypes along the way

Writing as a second generation British Asian, I don’t have culture clash, but a brilliant culture mash.

My life is a seamless mix of my Pakistani heritage from my parents and my English culture growing up in London. I have rarely experienced a sense of culture clash and from a young age, instinctively chose the best from both cultures.

I love rocking a lehenga as much as an LBD,  wearing desi clothes for weddings but western clothes otherwise. I love Sunday roast as passionately as lamb biryani. We decorate the house for Eid and for Christmas and I dance as badly to Bollywood tracks as to Prince. My good friends are both white and people of colour. I am bilingual and feel as at home in Asian grocery shops in Tooting, as I do at a delicatessen in Wimbledon Village. I do desi high drama as often as an English stiff upper lip and can navigate nosey desi aunties and the formally polite parents of white friends.

This is also how most of my British Asian family and friends also live their lives, in a rich ‘culture mash’. It sounds great, right?

However, not everyone accepts this merging of both cultures. There is an expectation, from both White and Asian circles, that we need to ‘pick a side’ and choose one culture over the other. This pressure was something I also experienced when writing my new book, The Big Day, which is about a bride-to-be clashing with her mum as the plan the daughter’s wedding.

The book explores universal themes such as the closeness and complexity of a mother-daughter relationship, and how the emotional legacy of our parents’ relationship might impact our own romantic lives. These reviews sum up what I hoped to achieve: 

‘The Big Day is a joyful, page-turning read tackling read tackling some big life questions’, and, ‘A really great story full of love and laughter but also the emotions that weddings can bring on.’

The bride-to-be Noor is a British Asian Londoner and although her culture and heritage are an important element, they are not the story itself. The clashes with her mum are more generational and due to a complex family history. They clash because they are very different people and it is not about choosing one culture over another.

And yet, I was constantly asked whether this story should be about Noor rejecting her Asian heritage and traditions and wanting a completely western wedding with a white dress instead. People found it hard to accept that perhaps Noor wanted some Asian traditions but not the full-on desi wedding, and that this was also down to who she was as a person, not because she was rejecting a culture.

Others asked me if readers would find Noor unsympathetic if she decided not to wear a traditional red Pakistani wedding dress and have the week-long wedding her mum wanted. I was puzzled. When a white British woman wants an alternative, personalised wedding, she is cheered on for choosing what feels right to her, but a brown woman wanting the same freedom, is seen as doing something wrong. This perspective is othering and outdated.

For us to have true representation in fiction, it is important to show all kinds of British Asian communities. Yes, there are some who are still more traditional and where traditional weddings are the norm. However, others, like Noor, may want an intimate, romantic, sustainable and budget-friendly wedding in a garden. There is nothing wrong with either stance.

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I did enjoy exploring what it is like to be part of two cultures and agree that for some people it is a difficult route to navigate, but the first-generation stereotypes that we are still encouraged to perpetuate in fiction, are no longer the reality.

Today, British Asian brides don’t have to choose either a traditional Asian dress or a western one. Many choose to wear both, at different ceremonies, a lovely culture mash!

Sometimes culture clash is forced upon us, when second and third generations are made to feel as if they are either not Asian enough, or English enough, depending on those around them. This leads to British- Asians code-switching. They hide their English side when they are with their Asian friends and family and hide any signs of their Asian culture when they are with English friends and colleagues.

It doesn’t have to be this way though and it’s time we stopped being so needlessly afraid of each other’s differences and instead, enjoyed them.

Life is so much better for me because it includes both scones and samosas!

The Big Day by Aliya Ali-Afzal is published by Aria (£9.99)

 

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