Bidisha is the author of 5 books and has prolific journalistic credits both national and international. As a broadcaster, she’s worked across BBC Radio and her television documentaries include The Secret Life of Books which explored Jane Eyre in a contemporary context. Her brilliant fifth book Asylum and Exile: The Hidden Voices of London was published by Seagull Books and Chicago University Press in March 2015, and was a result of her outreach work with asylum seekers and refugees living in the UK capital.
It’s an impressive list of credentials, especially bearing in mind she was only born in 1978.
“I wanted to be a journalist at 13 and was one by 14,” she says. “But there was no ‘career plan’ behind it – and indeed, I’m suspicious of the idea of people having one set career arc, as life usually doesn’t work like that.”
She talks of her enthusiasm at this age as an unstoppable force; she loved culture, diversity, wanted to meet new people. Journalism was an obvious fit, but it wasn’t the only literary form she found in which to express herself. Her first novel Seahorses was published in 1995.
“I cut the deal for Seahorses when I was 16 and completed it in the middle of doing University entrance exams and A-levels. The book came out when I was 18 and did very well, and another novel Too Fast To Live followed in early 2000 when I was 21. But I didn’t feel comfortable as a novelist,” she explains. “It was like wearing a slightly ill-fitting jacket that everyone else says looks fabulous from the outside and only you can feel it pinching.”
After a period of drifting – “a heavily privileged and non-onerous kind of drifting” – and then studying for an MSc at the London School of Economics, Bidisha earned some money lecturing and used it to travel to Venice in 2004. This led to her third book Venetian Masters, a fascinating exploration of the darker side of Venice which lurks underneath its beauty and sophistication.
Shortly after this, her broadcasting career with the BBC “picked up like absolute gangbusters” and she describes a particular love of her time working for the World Service. “I loved working for the World Service in all its brilliant diversity,” she says, “hearing different voices and viewpoints, being a part of journalism that is truly global. I have always strained against insularity and parochial thinking so the World Service felt like coming home. Home being the entire world.”
Since 2011, Bidisha has been focused on human rights influenced work. She started writing quite candidly about sexism in UK culture for The Guardian, later going to the West Bank; a visit which produced her fourth book Beyond the Wall: Writing A Path Through Palestine which came out in 2012.
That same year she began doing outreach work with asylum seekers and refugees, and also working in women’s prisons. She notes that the work she completed in 2013 for the International Reporting Project Fellowship, an initiative devised to fund journalists exploring global health and development, further opened her eyes to humanitarian issues.
It was here that she realised the extent of gender inequality across the globe. “I had to ask myself: are women not accessing healthcare because they have so many child-related and domestic responsibilities, that they can’t make the time or raise the money to make the journey? Is it that women’s health is just not considered important because women themselves are not considered important?”
0.1% of the world’s rich could use their money to cure every single one of the world’s basic health problems in about 6 months if only they gave a damn.
Bidisha’s latest book is an informative, statistically rigorous, honest and emotional read which aims to give space to a broad and diverse demographic whose lives are poorly documented across culture as a whole. Working as creative writing teacher in an East London resource centre for asylum seekers, refugees and displaced people, the book is on one level a recount of her experiences, and on another, a reclamation of the hidden voices which form an important part of London’s cultural tapestry.
“I wanted to give the right impression of the group as having been comprised of real, distinct human beings, not case studies of suffering. As I hope the book makes clear, our sessions were full of laughter, teasing, jokes, dark humour and joy, not suffering. I wanted that to come through very strongly.”
She dedicated the book to one of the students, Beatrice Tibahurira, a Ugandan woman, an aspiring writer, who has been in the UK for over ten years, and who lived as an asylum seeker in various places across the country.
“Her intelligence, wisdom and charisma immediately stuck out in the course of our classes, and her clear and vivid, nostalgic and evocative writing were the perfect distillation of her personality and experience,” she says. “I dedicated the book to her because her voice was so important to it – it expressed everything I had been trying to say, about how my students were ignored or vilified by the mainstream narrative around refuge and asylum, but were so full of hidden depth, worldly knowledge, talent and ambition.”
I couldn’t let her words go unpublished and felt that they didn’t just have humanitarian merit, they had great literary merit. I wanted to point out that people aren’t just defined by their status as asylum seekers, they are also artists, writers, thinkers.
With the current UK government’s frightening stance on immigration and asylum, Bidisha’s fears for asylum seekers, refugees and displaced people is growing.
“I am extremely alarmed by the Tories’ negative and scare-mongering rhetoric,” she says, confessing her deep concern that the government don’t make the facts clear. “Instead of standing up for the truth and arguing against the vilifying headlines, politicians on the left are kowtowing to the right and implying that there is indeed some basis for ‘curbing’ immigration which they say is ‘rampant’, when it isn’t.”
She believes this behaviour indicates a growing insularity, a growing suspicion towards anyone who is from overseas, or different, or who speaks a different language. She asserts that we are dealing with people who are appealing for help, people who are coming here to study, or work and contribute.
“It’s frightening and it bothers me that given the (rightful and just) decline in England’s status as a great colonial exploiter, instead of recognising that the only solution for survival is to be part of the world community, the government wants to shut its doors on everyone metaphorically, and almost literally. To raise money, they have punished the weak instead of holding the strong to account: instead of making corporations and rich individuals pay the correct legal amount of tax they have drastically cut legal aid, housing, education and all other welfare services, as well as funding to charities.” She asserts that asylum seekers, if they’re not in detention or prison, now have a very high chance of destitution.
For her political bravery, Bidisha has suffered black-listing in a number of organisations and she believes women, particularly women of colour, are in precarious positions when pointing out endemic casual sexism and sexist marginalisation in their professional fields.
“You stick your head above the parapet and just get shot with a million arrows,” she says. “Even if you have morality and virtue and rightness or your side, you will be punished for telling the truth. Even if you’re sacked and you take your employers to tribunal and win (which is highly unlikely as the burden of proof is so high and legal costs are so expensive), you will never be employed in that industry again.”
She believes the only way to challenge endemic gender marginalisation and under-representation is for the challenge to be collective, through wide and high-profile campaigns with many participants, so that there is a cultural shift and no one person is punished for pointing out the issues.
Bidisha is clear about what she feels are the most pressing issues for women across the globe. “Endemic male violence,” she says. “Endemic male sexual violence. Endemic male sexual exploitation. Endemic male abuse in relationships, which begins in the teen years. Endemic male sexual harassment, which begins at school. Men’s and boys’ sexual objectification of women, which enables all the previous things to be possible. The first step in destroying another human being is to see them not as a human being but as an object to be used, abused, bullied, mocked, controlled and violated. We need to name the problem. If we could take the machismo out of the world – not the men, just the machismo and the arrogance, violence, entitlement and exploitation that go along with it – it would be a better place for everyone to live in.”
The advocation of positive political and social change is at the root of her next set of plans. “I want to make my work even more global and possibly go into some kind of diplomatic or ambassadorial work. I feel very confined in the UK these days and am alarmed by its increasing insularity and wariness of migration, diversity and multiculturalism.”
In a discussion about how she’d like her work to be remembered, she addresses one of the fundamental issues with gender prejudice. “Frankly, women’s achievements are written out of history and erased from the canon so decisively that I would be surprised to be remembered in any way at all,” she says, but in the same breath, she holds out hopes that in an increasingly digitised world, women’s work will have more opportunity take a foothold and create legacy.
If you would like to learn more about the issues of asylum seekers, refugees and undocumented peoples, The Heroine Collective hugely recommend Bidisha’s book Asylum and Exile: The Hidden Voices of London which is available from all good bookstores for £14.50.
Additionally, Bidisha recommends the following resources for clear essays, current reports, easy to understand statistics and very moving testimonies of refugees and asylum seekers; a great way of getting beyond headlines, clichés and generalisations:
The Refugee Council, Asylum Aid, Praxis, Women for Refugee Women and the refugee service run by the Red Cross.
This interview was conducted in June 2015.
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