How to NOT write a play during a pandemic

By Iman Qureshi

I am a writer. I am trying to write a play. And the only thing I’ve learnt during lockdown is that the noun ‘writer’ is a misnomer.

‘A writer’ conjures up the image of someone who slides out of bed at first light, makes coffee – stove-top, naturally – before sitting at a rustic desk in a bay window overlooking rolling fields, or the sea or some such, and typing away till dinner - breaking only for a light lunch of ham and pickles, perhaps brought in by Fanny, the housekeeper.

But alas! the fantasy is far from reality.

If pushed to give a percentage breakdown of my working day, I’d say only about ten percent is spent actually writing.

The remainder is spent organising my calendar, organising my desk, deciding what new stationery I urgently need to order off a mega-evil next day delivery service that shall remain nameless, to best equip me to write said play.

It’s spent watching videos of what Tom Daley eats during lockdown.

It’s spent getting lost down Twitter rabbit holes, even though I’ve deleted my entire Twitter account for this very reason. If only it were possible to delete Twitter from the internet entirely.

It’s spent reading article after article around the Black Lives Matter movement and realising with horror and shame that though I’m brown, I’m not black, and I have been too oblivious to particularly insidious forms of anti-Blackness, and therefore culpable in reinforcing them too.

It’s spent going to Tesco’s to check if they’re finally stocked up again on Krispy Kremes, and lurking two metres behind a bickering couple at the checkout, eavesdropping on how one feels about the other flouting lockdown rules. It’s tense. As tense as if he’s just said he voted Leave. This isn’t about rules or lockdown or Brexit. It’s about identity. You’re either with Dominic Cummings or against.

It’s spent taking the dog for a walk, going for a run, taking the odd nap, cooking dinner, planning dinner, sourcing ingredients for dinner. It’s spent avoiding Zoom calls. It’s spent watching back-to-back episodes of Hell’s Kitchen.

It’s spent planning, and outlining, and journaling, and scrawling notes to myself, reading plays and crying tears, literal tears, over how I’ll never write anything as good as David Greig’s The Events. It’s spent googling play after play and realising that everything there is to say has already been said, at least twice, so what’s the point of trying. It’s spent reading those plays and realising that actually, what I have to say and how I say it does have value if I only keep going.

It’s spent agonising about the burden of representation, about hurting people, about my own prejudices. It’s spent trying to work through those prejudices. It’s spent arguing with Lionel Shriver in my head about how she “hope[s] the concept of cultural appropriation is a passing fad”, and who gets to tell what story, and when does it become not okay. I have many thoughts, and no clear answers.

It’s spent falling into slump after slump and picking myself up again and again.

I would love to tell you that this is different from my normal pandemic-free life. It is not. The detail might vary slightly, but the 90/10 percentages are largely the same.

I am slowly accepting that it’s okay to work the way I work. Writing isn’t all about writing. Often, it’s about watching, listening, learning. Imagining.

But sometimes, it can be about procrastinating. And learning to tell the difference has been the hardest but most crucial challenge.

Procrastination, I’ve heard excellently described, is the fear or avoidance of negative emotions. And my God, does writing throw up all the negative emotions.

When does falling down a Twitter hole turn from research into a fear of being publicly shamed? When does thinking about the burden of representing minority stories turn into a debilitating pressure to be better than brilliant? And what happens when, even if I manage to persuade myself that the stories I want to tell have worth and value, the industry tells me they don’t?

Take the National Theatre for example – a theatre that should be representative of national dialectics and landscapes. What was the last South Asian play to grace any one of its three stages?

Well, there was Behind the Beautiful Forevers (2014) adapted by the white David Hare. There was Dara (2015), a Pakistani play adapted by Tanya Ronder, a white writer. Black Album (2009), an adaptation by Hanif Kureishi of his own novel, about Muslim fundamentalism. Rafta, Rafta… (2007), Ayub Khan Din’s adaptation of a play by a white writer. Another World: Losing Our Children to Islamic State (2016) by Gillian Slovo and Nicholas Kent. White. White. Prasanna Puwanarajah’s Nightwatchman (2011), one half of a double bill and performed on alternating nights with another double bill, on a temporary stage, the Paintframe.

For the only original plays written by brown writers on the National Theatre’s permanent stages that my morning of Google searching threw up (and thanks Vinay Patel for filling in some gaps), I had to go all the way back to The Waiting Room (2000) and Sanctuary (2002), both by Tanika Gupta.

There might be oversights or mistakes in my limited research, but the point is, I shouldn’t have to Google so hard at all to find evidence of representation of this country’s largest ethnic minority on its national stage. Lionel Shriver, one of the things to consider is whether the people whose stories you are telling have the same power and platform as you do, to tell their own stories.

So yes, when I sit down to write, the gaping erasure and invisibility brings up negative emotions that are all but paralytic. It’s telling me I’m not and will never be good enough. It’s telling me that no one wants to hear what people like me have to say.

Moreover, they don’t even want to see people who look like me on their stages. And when they do, for example, see a wonderful, award-winning Asian actor play Romeo, the national press laments that the production is “garishly diverse”. Would the journalist have the same complaint, I wonder, if he was hooked up to a ventilator relying on a team of ‘garishly diverse’ health care professionals to save his life? We can wipe your bed pans and administer your anaesthetics, deliver your food and shine the windows of your London Bridge offices, but feature on your stages? Nope. Immigrants must know their place: Not Britain.

So how is it possible to write when I’m effectively being told that brown stories are only valid when we’re sucking on sticky sweet mangos in dirty foreign slums, or dancing in glittering saris under the Taj Mahal, or running off to join terrorist organisations in ‘other worlds’? But romantic leads: garishly diverse.

I don’t know.

All I know is that, a lot of the time, it’s just easier to avoid the negative emotions and find comfort in a Krispy Kreme while watching Tom Daley do sit-ups.

Yup. Sorry. This blog doesn’t have a happy ending.

I grew up relating to stories about white people. About heterosexual people. About people in countries I’d never been to (I grew up in the Middle East and came to the UK when I was 16). I listened to your stories. I related to your stories. I loved your stories. The gulf isn’t that hard to bridge – it just requires empathy.

No one wants to work hard only to throw the fruits of that labour into an abyss. Why bother? And I think if anything is going to get me to the end of this play, it’s a promise. Not that you’ll love my story, or relate, or even like it. But it would mean a lot to me – to us - if you just promise to listen.

Alright. Enough procrastination. Back to it.