“Some may be too quick to blame racism for cultural misunderstandings”
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Novelist Kia Abdullah would like us all to be kinder to each other. When people make assumptions about her based on her cultural background (she’s a second-generation Bangladeshi), Abdullah prefers to “make a gentle correction: You don’t need to hit someone over the head.”
While others may get nervous, she handles cultural misunderstandings with grace and believes more people should do the same.
“In everyday interactions, we need to approach each other from a place of kindness and forgiveness,” insists Abdullah, 40, whose latest courtroom drama, That People Next Door, is out now. “You can’t live your whole life angry. I don’t want to live like this, ”he continues.
But many do, as evidenced by the reaction to questions the late Queen’s lady-in-waiting, Lady Susan Hussey, posed to the head of the Ngozi Fulani charity in November. At a reception at Buckingham Palace, Lady Susan repeatedly asked the Fulani, who was wearing African clothing, where he was “really” from. For Fulani, it was an example of “institutional racism.”
Others felt that Lady Susan, who apologized and resigned, was hung out to dry out of genuine curiosity.
“If you ask where someone is originally from, once, that’s fine, I’m often curious where people are from, but then you accept their answer,” says Kia, who grew up Muslim in east London. In fact, she believes that everyone is capable of cultural “foolishness.”
“It’s a minefield and I worry about being wrong,” he says. “I never mean to be hurtful, but sometimes I am clumsy.
“A black lawyer friend told me that people often assume that because she is black she is working class. I realized that sometimes I have made that assumption about others. Some would say it was an example of racism. I would call it ignorance.
Novelist Kia Abdullah wants more of us to be nice to each other
All this from a woman who has often been the victim of other people’s presumptions. Known for her gripping courtroom drama novels, Abdullah was on a cruise a few years ago when an older American couple asked where the steakhouse was.
“When I said I didn’t know, they asked me what other restaurants were on this floor. They assumed he was a staff member, probably because he was Asian like most of the ship’s crew.”
After explaining that she was a fellow traveler, the couple seemed “mortified.” Fortunately, they parted ways on good terms.
“I hope someone from the younger generation has taken a hard-line, zero-tolerance approach to such a mistake,” he adds. “There are merits to both options, but I tend to err on the side of forgiveness. As the person learns from the misstep, let’s all be kinder and a little more understanding. Sometimes, by not forgiving, we make life more difficult for ourselves.
On another occasion, at a literary festival where he was giving a talk, Abdullah asked for the location of the authors’ green room: the backstage area. “They asked me: ‘Are you a volunteer?’ Was it because of the color of his skin, or was it a perfectly reasonable inquiry?
The truth is that we don’t always know. “It’s not always black and white,” Abdullah explains.
It was those nuances that he wanted to address in his new novel, the story of the Khatun family and their desire for a better life.
They face challenges after their next-door neighbor tears down a Black Lives Matter banner on their front lawn. This “snowball turns into a catastrophe”, leaving everyone questioning their prejudices.
“Salma’s instinct, my character, is to take [the sign] inside and maintain a good relationship. But sometimes, you have to stand up for yourself and the people you love.”
The incident was partly inspired by a former next-door neighbor who would place her garbage cans in front of her yard instead of theirs. “I didn’t even have the audacity to push the container back,” she says. “It is a situation conducive to conflict and drama. How can you be sure that the tension between neighbors is racial?
Abdullah finds the whodunit a powerful vehicle for social commentary. “It can engage in weighty issues like these, but in the guise of a very accessible thriller.”
The author believes that she inherited her tolerance from her parents, who were immigrants from Bangladesh. “My parents were so grateful to be here, so I hope some of that attitude rubbed off on me,” she says. She grew up on free school meals, one of eight children in a working-class household in Tower Hamlets, east London. Her first marriage, when she was 20, was arranged. She is now married to her second husband, who is white.
“My niece has also married a white man. She recently had a big Asian wedding. It was very touching because we all decided to wear Western clothes, and her husband’s family planned to wear Asian clothes. It was a beautiful moment of cultural exchange.”
As a child, Abdullah was considered by his parents to be something of an anomaly. “I basically refused to eat unless my mother told me a story,” he recalls. However, her parents did not read or write English, so there were no books at home, apart from the ones she brought from the library.
“They saw me as a wayward child, driven by the fact that I was a voracious reader,” she explains.
Heavily influenced by the 1908 novel Anne of Green Gables by Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery, she “watched the character subvert the expectations placed on her, and I realized that I didn’t have to be quiet and nice: I could establish my own course in life.
“I saw education as the way out of poverty and said, ‘I’m going to college.’” Abdullah graduated with a first-class degree in computer science and has since helped “graze” his nieces and nephews into good careers. “One is a nurse, the other a programmer,” she says. “The best thing about Britain is that progression is inevitable.”
Abdullah has sold more than 70,000 copies of his first three novels, which have dealt with topics including homophobia, tribalism and racial tension. She refers to the delivery of it as the “Trojan horse”, the idea around which the story wraps. “It’s not lecturing or moralizing,” she insists. “Your job as a novelist, first and foremost, is to entertain.”
To encourage other working-class children, he mentors students in Tower Hamlets, one of London’s poorest boroughs. “I see so much promise and potential there,” she says. And her social consciousness permeates her electrifying writing as well.
“I’m trying to get people involved. But I know that I only have true freedom when I can write positive and negative stories about my Muslim community.”
- Kia Abdullah’s That People Next Door (HarperCollins, £14.99) is available now. To order for £13.49 visit expressbookshop.com or call 020 3176 3832. Free UK postage and packing on orders over £20.
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