An Asian flavour of London with Amer Anwar
Today we visit Southall in London to meet with a new writer who has burst onto the crime fiction scene with aplomb. Amer Anwar knows the city like the back of his hand, Southall even better and this novel is firml set in the Asian community there. The Asian slant to the novel explores new ways of looking at a crime or crimes in a community. The perpetrators and the crimes themselves may have certain cultural differences which shines a very unique spotlight on inner city life.
Q: It’s a book firmly set in London’s Asian community. I’ve not read a crime fiction book quite like this. Very unique!
A: I’d say it’s different exactly because it’s so firmly set in the Asian community. There might be other crime novels that touch on that, or similar, communities to an extent but I chose to place the whole story right in that community, so all the characters, locations and references are very much Asian. But I wrote it first and foremost as a crime thriller. The setting and cultural references, although important, were always secondary to that. So, hopefully, it works as a crime thriller but it’s so different because the setting is a fresh one for the genre.
Q: The themes of Muslim and Sikh differences were fascinating … tell us more.
A: Religious differences can be found in communities all over the world. As far as Muslims and Sikhs are concerned though, there are some historical reasons for such animosity. I’m not a historian or sociologist so I can only give fairly general explanations of them.
Some go back to the time when the Muslim Mughals ruled in India, especially under the rule of Aurangzeb, who had much more fundamentalist beliefs than most of his predecessors and cracked down on all non-Muslims. This led to numerous rebellions against his rule, which were crushed and the rebels, including many Sikhs, were captured and executed.
In more recent history, the partition of India in 1947 led to terrible sectarian violence, particularly in the Punjab, which was basically divided in half, right down the middle. What had been a very mixed region of Sikhs and Muslims living together, overnight became part of two separate nation-states, one Muslim, one not. As people panicked and tried to get onto the right side of the new border, violence erupted and up to a million people died as a result. That doesn’t mean that the two groups still hate each other – especially not in places like Southall, where the mixed Asian community has grown side-by-side since the 1960s – but, while time may have healed the wounds of the past for some, there are those for whom the past cannot be so easily forgotten or forgiven.
Q: How did you research setting? It’s so colourful and flavoursome!
A: I spent much of my teens and 20s hanging out with friends in Southall, so got to know the area quite well. It was such a unique place with its own very distinct identity and full of great characters. I used to constantly hear so many great stories about all sorts of people and I just thought, ‘Wow, someone ought to set a book here.’ I’d love to have read something like that. But nothing like that came along and so I started to think about ideas for a story set there – and 20 years later I started writing. Now, after 10 years of working on the book, it’s finally been published.
Q: Did you visit the places and what did you find out?
A: Yes, I knew most of the locations in the book already, from having spent time there when I was growing up but I hadn’t been back for a while, so when I started writing I had to do a couple of research trips to get some of the details just right. Some of the more arduous bits to nail down were the various pubs – so I felt it was necessary to go and visit them and have a few drinks to get a proper feel for them. I know what you’re probably thinking – I bet that was really hard work. Well, what can I say? Someone had to do it.
I have happy memories of hanging out with friends who lived there, so got to know the area and it’s vibe. I was there every weekend and probably an evening or two during the week as well. We used to go to a lot of the local pubs, some of which are no longer there. What I didn’t know then was that all that time I was spending goofing around with my friends would actually turn out to be research for the book I would eventually go on to write years later. Turns out it wasn’t a complete waste of time after all.
Q: Any stories you can tell us about the writing of this book?
A: I wrote the first chapter as part of a writing course I was doing. I workshopped it a few times until I was happy with it and then thought, what the hell, I’ll enter it for the CWA Debut Dagger Award. I figured I’d get the first of many rejections on the road to (hopefully) eventually getting published. I only went and won the actual award though!
That led to me signing with an agent. At that point I only had about three chapters written and needed to finish the book. I said it’d take me six months. It took five years until I was happy enough with it to send to my agent. Then it took another two years to rewrite and edit it before it was finally ready to go out on submission – only for it to be turned down by around 30 publishers.
After brooding for a couple of months I decided to self-publish it. That took another year but then I started to get really good reader and book blogger reviews. I then happened to meet a publisher at an event. I told her about the book. She asked me to send it to her. I did. She read it and called me in for a meeting. A few days later I had a 2-book deal and pulled all my remaining self-published copies from sale.
The book now has a new cover and a new title and is published by Dialogue Books, an imprint of Little Brown Book Group.
Another thing that happened during the writing was I went to a real Indian butcher’s to get a feel for what the back of a butchers was like for a scene in the book (if you’ve read it, you’ll know exactly which scene!). They let me have a nosy around and take photographs for reference. It was all going well, though I’m not sure they really grasped exactly what it was all for. It was only when I started asking how easy it might be to dispose of a human body there that they asked me to leave in a bit of a hurry.
Q: Travel tips for visiting the setting in your work?
A: Visit Southall and Hounslow if you’d like to experience some proper, authentic Punjabi food. There are some fantastic restaurants there. Also, if you’re looking for classic and contemporary Bollywood, bhangra or desi music, Southall’s the place to find it, as well as beautiful fabrics, imported from India. There are also colourful parades during religious celebrations, such as Diwali and Vaisakhi.
Thank you Amer for a very colourful and flavoursome visit (minus the butchery scene) to your literary settings!