South Asian Heritage Month (SAHM) ran in the UK for the first time this Summer. Organised by Manchester Museum and founded by the amazing Binita Kane and Jasvir Singh, it aims the spotlight on these underrepresented identities, bringing their stories to the forefront of discussion. I sat down with Natasha Junejo, founder of South Asian Writers and now SAHM’s Literary Lead, to talk more about the project.
What’s the main goal of SAHM?
“We want to showcase our stories. When our parents and grandparents came to the UK, they assimilated into British culture. They faced a lot of abuse for being the ‘Other’ and took it with a quiet grace. But we now have the luxury of being loud and proud about who we are and where we’re from. By telling our stories, we’ve been able to create an unprecedented sense of cohesion within the South Asian community.”
“Celebrating our South Asian heritage in a month chock-full of panels and events during a global pandemic was certainly a logistical challenge for the team, but they’ve managed to deliver discussions on a huge variety of topics. The literature arm has been busy hosting panel talks with journalists and creative writers and editors alike, looking at broader topics like the LGBTQ community and motherhood, to more South Asian-specific things like independence and the partition of 1947. It has created a community of South Asians ready to support and uplift one another.”
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Why is SAHM important to you?
“I’m done with losing. Brown creatives have been locked out of the literary and media spheres for too long. The system we live in still hasn’t normalised black and brown stories – the default race in a story is always white, unless race comes into play in the actual story. South Asians have been present in the UK for absolutely ages – I mean just look back at the Empire! But still, our stories are underrepresented. I’m fed up of having to educate the mainstream on my brownness. Sometimes we brown creatives just want to create art! This month was a way to showcase our talent and also collaborate and connect with other brown creatives.”
“Creative industries have historically woefully underrepresented brown stories, especially if the story doesn’t revolve around culture or race. A recent example is the adaptation of Vikram Seth’s “A Suitable Boy” on the BBC. While this is a beautiful story showcasing life in post-Partition India, many of the values and stereotypes simply don’t hold true today. South Asian culture is still exoticised in the media, to the point where our stories only seem to be relevant if they’re about our brownness (or if we’re a side character). Mindy Kaling’s “Never Have I Ever” was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stale media landscape and we still have a long way to go.”
“A lot of the problems with media representation come from a lack of diversity at board-level or amongst commissioning editors or publishers, so SAHM was one way to bring our voices together. That said, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, many corporations are looking inwards to make sure they reflect the diverse society we actually live in.”
What has the reception been like?
“It’s been incredible. We’ve had such positive responses across the board, from people sharing their stories, to institutions highlighting their South Asian staff members. We’ve had councils up and down the country highlighting their South Asian colleagues and giving them a platform to tell their stories. The British Legion has been tweeting about the contributions of South Asians. The media in general has been great, especially the BBC Asian Network. Anita Rani is our patron, too – it’s been amazing to have so many inspiring people working with us to deliver the events.”
“And the metrics throughout the month were great, with over 30 million people engaging with the hashtag #SouthAsianHeritageMonth – that’s nearly half of the entire UK population! The organisers have been really excited at the strong engagement coming through for #OurStoriesMatter too, which is a memory curation project that started up during SAHM. The idea was to get as many people as possible to share their stories on family, identity, heritage and life, so that our personal histories as South Asians can be told by us.”
“Our aim is simple. We want to be the agents and curators of our own stories as a testament to who we were, who we are now, and lovingly carry them forward to form a part of who we can become in the future.”
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What’s been the highlight for you?
“I’ve been writing for about 10 years now, so the highlight for me was to be able to sit in meetings with different publishers and essentially rage about the inequality and under-representation we face. It’s so exhausting to be expected to continually educate the masses when all you want to do is write creative stories. Being able to vent and be heard in those meetings has meant that I’ve been able to keep working towards systemic changes. We need to restructure our institutions and that can only come from these sorts of discussions. I’m so proud to have worked on this team.”
[Read related: ‘Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee’: British Asian Writer Meera Syal’s Iconic Novel Celebrated 20 Years on by South Asian Sisters Speak]
What’s next for the movement?
“Well, it’s time to start planning and preparing for next year and, hopefully, organising some in-person events. As part of South Asian Writers, though, I’ll be looking at developing and expanding my network so that I can be there to connect brown creatives and writers with publishers and mentors wherever possible. And celebrating our heritage shouldn’t just be limited to one month – I definitely want to get involved with more events over the year. For a start, there’s the Brown Girls’ Book Club, coordinated by South Asian Sisters Speak (@weare_sass), which has created a wonderful community of literature-lovers!”
Check out www.southasianwriters.com for the latest submissions and find out how to submit your own story.