When it came to a setting for my debut novel, there was only ever going to be one choice for me – Southall.
In fact, I had the idea for setting a novel there even before I thought of writing one myself.
I'd spent a lot of time hanging out there with friends in my teens and twenties and the area got under my skin. It was a place, like the Bronx or Harlem in New York, or East and South Central L.A. – part of a bigger city but with its own, distinct identity. And it was that identity, that difference and uniqueness that struck me as a perfect place to set a crime thriller.
Most people who’ve heard of Southall know it has a large Asian community – it didn’t get the nickname "Little India" for nothing – and the culture of the sub-continent is proudly acknowledged and celebrated there. Part of that pride stems from being a community that came together in the face of racial harassment and violence in the 1970s and early ’80s, to defend each other, putting aside any religious and class differences they might have had. It’s remained a very tight-knit community ever since.
At the height of the trouble, local men and youths formed vigilante groups to defend local homes and businesses from attack. Over the years, as the threat of violence against the community lessened, these groups were no longer needed, but smaller factions formed into what became criminal gangs.
At the time I was hanging out there with my friends, trouble between the gangs was rife. There were constant stories of gang fights and vendettas, with people regularly getting beaten, stabbed and shot – at times it was a pretty wild place.
The kids who were born and brought up there were very much a product of two cultures, equal parts Asian and British – Asian at home with their parents and elders but completely British at school and with friends. They were influenced by exactly the same movies, TV shows, fashion, music and books as their white counterparts – but with the addition of Bollywood and Bhangra too.
It was around this time I’d started reading Elmore Leonard and what struck me about his books were the characters – cool, funny, sometimes violent, operating on both sides of the law. Thing was, there were characters just like that right there in Southall. I thought somebody should be writing about them. I waited… and waited, thinking someone would do it – only no one did. I never imagined I’d be the one to do it.
From about the age of 16, I knew I wanted to write a novel. I wasn't sure what sort of novel or when I was going to write it, I just knew it was something I wanted to do. Then, hanging out in Southall, reading Elmore Leonard, hoping for a decent British Asian crime thriller and not getting one, I finally thought, What the hell? Maybe that's what I should write about. And think about it I did, on and off for the next 20 years, before I actually started writing.
Setting the book there wasn't a problem – I knew the place, I knew the people, I had a feel for it. The setting only really seemed to be a problem once the book was finished.
Set firmly in the Asian community, it was always going to feature an Asian cast of characters. I wanted to write something that really represented the Southall that I knew. Unfortunately, this seemed to be an issue when it came to finding a publisher. A London crime novel, with an all-Asian cast of characters was surely only going to appeal to Asian readers, wasn't it? One editor commented that they could, "never visualise it breaking out to a broad audience". I wonder what “broad” actually means in that context? Male? Female? Young? Old? For all the talk of diversity, the result seems to be more like tokenism. A few black and Asian characters are fine but more than that and the book suddenly becomes too ethnic. Too niche. Personally, I have more faith that readers will be able to see beyond that.
I wrote Western Fringes to be a crime thriller first and foremost. The characters and setting are important but should never get in the way of that. Fortunately, early signs are that the book is being very well received – and, even more pleasingly, by a very broad audience too.
Today’s guest blog is by Amer Anwar who won the CWA Debut Dagger in 2008. His debut novel is Western Fringes and is set in West London. You can find more information about him on his website. You can also follow Amer Anwar on Twitter @ameranwar and find him on Facebook.
Western Fringes by Amer Anwar
A Sikh girl on the run. A Muslim ex-con who has to find her. A whole heap of trouble. Southall, West London. After being released from prison, Zaq Khan is lucky to land a dead-end job at a builders' yard. All he wants to do is keep his head down and put the past behind him. But when he's forced to search for his boss's runaway daughter it quickly becomes apparent things aren't all to do with family arguments and arranged marriages as he finds himself caught up in a deadly web of deception, murder and revenge. With time running out and pressure mounting, can he find the missing girl before it's too late? And if he does, can he keep her - and himself - alive long enough to deal with the people who want them both dead?