In the first two chapters of The Handsworth Times, one boy is turned into a fire ball by petrol bombs thrown during a riot and another is killed, knocked off his bike by an ambulance. It’s one of the most arresting openings I’ve ever read.
The character who connects both of the boys is Mukesh Agarwal, father of the boy who is killed and saviour of the one who is not.
The churning alcohol in Mukesh’s stomach begins to rise up towards his mouth, scorching his throat along the way. He takes in a long, deep breath of the smoky air through his nostrils and it halts the acidic bile attempting to rise up through his body. Sobriety hits him suddenly and he too becomes transfixed by the burning boy just a few meters ahead. Without thinking he begins undoing the small, transparent buttons on his work shirt with clumsy fingers. Finally, the damp shirt is undone and he removes it fully before pushing his way through a small gap in the crowd. He strides towards the burning figure.
The Agarwal family are a family of seven living in Handsworth, Birmingham in 1981. Mukesh works at Hardiman’s Sheet Metals and spends his wages in the Black Eagle. His wife, Usha, gets up at six o’clock every weekday and five on Saturdays to scrub the house of imaginary mice piss. There are five children, two boys and three girls. Billy dies at the beginning of the novel and, while they attempt to come to terms with their brother’s death, the others have their own issues to deal with too. Kavi, the other boy, starts skipping school and withdrawing from his friends. When one of them suggests he should make the most of life, regardless, he responds:
‘Make the most of it – make the most of what? What have we got here in Lozells or even in Handsworth? What have I got to look forward to, or you? Bloody teachers who decide we are thick before we even open our gobs just because our dads have an accent? And then what, the dole? A dead-end job like my dad who is already miserable enough for the whole family? Fuck off, Marcus, there is nothing for me here.’
Kavi isn’t convinced by Marcus’ attempts to get him to join Handsworth Youth Movement but Kavi’s sister, Anila is when there’s a recruitment drive outside her school. The eldest sister, Nina, leaves for university in Leeds, corresponding with her siblings via letter and the odd telephone call, while the other sibling, Kamela, falls in love.
It’s Usha who’s at the heart of the family and the centre of the story though. As she deals with her grief over the death of Billy and tries to hold her family together, she recognises the importance of community. While Thatcher does her best to destroy it, Usha and her friends work together to build something that will bring their area together.
I spoke to Sharon Duggal by phone to ask her about the book.
The opening two chapters of the novel are dramatic and memorable. Where did the idea come from and were they always the opening of the book?
It was an idea that evolved. I had a strong sense of wanting to start with a riot but not make it the whole story. I also had a visual image of the burning boy. I saw a photograph, maybe years ago, of lanterns that float upwards. I think quite visually.
I wanted all of the family to be responding to something but in different ways and I wanted that something to be a consequence of the events at the beginning of the book. The opening chapter was always going to have the girls in the bedroom and the riot. Initially, they were that way around but I received a New Writing South bursary for a reading from The Literacy Consultancy and Rachel Trevize advised switching the bedroom scene and the riot. It made absolute sense; why didn’t I see that?
The book’s the story of a family with a number of issues told from multiple perspectives. How did you manage both the issues that arise and the different points of view?
I wanted to show that even within one family there are multiple stories going on. Minority stories are often linear. However, I didn’t start out thinking I wanted to include all of these issues, I wanted a cramped, claustrophobic household.
I’ve no idea how I managed it! I plotted each thread out separately. Having Nina leave was practical. Kamela was more difficult, she’s strong and feisty. There was a danger it could all seem a bit samey, especially the sisters, so I wanted their stories to be quiet different.
The book’s set in 1980’s Birmingham but there are clear resonances to current society. Was now the right time to write it or was it just coincidence?
It’s coincidence. It was finished pre-Brexit but as it came closer to publication these issues became more popular. Brexit gave people permission to be racist. Not that everyone who voted leave is racist but the way views were aired via mainstream politicians allowed them to become acceptable.
There are lots of references to 80’s culture in the novel. What sort of research did you do?
I was 13/14 in the early 80s and the references stick with you because you’re formulating who you are. Music, particularly ska, was a huge thing for me and ‘Ghost Town’ [by The Specials] was released in July 1981. I spent time checking references and dates. In an early draft, there was a reference to Neighbours but that didn’t start in the U.K. until 1986. I’ve had mixed reactions to it, one book group thought it was too much, others have called it rich in period detail.
You use some dialect in the book. Why did you decide to include it and did you come up against any resistance?
I didn’t come up against any resistance. I didn’t want to do the whole thing in dialect but it’s so much a part of who Brenda was. I wanted it to feel Brummie and I think dialect makes things richer but I didn’t want to replicate all the different dialects. The poet Liz Berry does it beautifully. I didn’t want to be heavy handed. The story takes place in a particular time and place but it is also universal. I still call Birmingham home and people there still call you ‘bab’.
The book is Brighton’s City Reads for 2017. How does it feel to have an entire city celebrating your work?
Absolutely amazing. I’m going to hold onto it for the whole year. You think you’ll never get published and then you realise the hardest thing is getting someone to read it. It meant that some were gifted to prisoners and socially isolated elders. I visited a lot of groups where I was asked unexpected questions and found love for the book. It’s really great to have anyone reading it, never mind a whole city. It encourages people from all walks of life to read it. There was a rough sleepers project. I had a shared meal with them and we discussed the setting and the challenges of family. Having a shared read connects people.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a second book which is very different. It’s just beginning to formulate. I’ve had a very busy year and I’m itching to get on with the next book. There’s going to be lots of writing this year.
My blog focuses on women writers; who are your favourite female writers?
Hannah Lowe. Her book Long Time No See is about Chick, her Chinese Jamaican gambler father. It’s about the different strands of who she is.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, particularly Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah.
Buchi Emechetta’s book Second Class Citizen was the first time I realised you don’t have to be posh, white, old and live in a big house to have books written about you.
Also, the Brontës, Margaret Drabble, Beryl Bainbridge.
Thanks to Sharon Duggal for the interview and to Bluemoose Books for the review copy.