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Interview with Meera Syal

29 August 2015 | Imogen Greenberg

Meera Syal became a household name with comedies like Goodness Gracious Me. She is also a screenwriter, actress and novelist. Her third novel, The House of Hidden Mothers, is about international surrogacy amongst other themes. London Calling spoke to her about the new novel, and her enduring love for the stage.

London Calling: What inspired your new novel The House of Hidden Mothers?

Meera Syal: It was a chance channel flick, weirdly. I was really aware that I was very, very late, about 16 years late, with my third novel! I hadn’t really found the idea that made me want to sit down and write. I was channel flicking one evening and I came across an image of this row of pregnant woman, Indian woman, obviously quite poor, in a row in a dormitory. It was a documentary about the surrogacy industry in India and I had, at that point, no idea that it was the biggest in the world. I think it’s worth $4.5 billion, mainly because it’s cheap, and certainly at that time was unregulated. Then I realised I’d found the thing I wanted to write about. It seemed to me the perfect metaphor for exploring the politics of fertility, women’s relationships, mothers and daughters, aging and all the things that were going around in my head. And at the heart of it this central relationship between two women who, but for their circumstances growing up, could have been each other.

LC: International surrogacy crops up in news reports quite a bit. Do you think the media picture we see is well rounded?

MS: It absolutely depends on which article you’re reading. I’ve seen several critical articles of surrogacy with people voicing, quite rightly, concerns for the protection of the surrogate, the fact that the women are paid so much less than their western counterparts, concerns about exploitation as they’re virtually pimped out by their husbands and partners. On the other hand, you’ll find some people genuinely think this is a win, win solution for wealthier infertile people who are desperate for a child, and poor fertile women for whom this amount of money is absolutely life changing.

I had a very black and white knee jerk reaction to it, but it was tempered when I talked to some professionals who really believed in it. I met a couple who had two children by surrogates in India. One of their experiences was terrible and one was brilliant, and that just about sums it up really. I think it’s a really complex issue. I’ve tried to be very fair in the book because what interested me to be honest, more than the statistics, was this very human story of these two women who hold the answer to each other’s dreams. Shyama, the British Indian woman who looks for a surrogate, because she’s British Asian and she’s hiring an Indian woman, her decision is shot through with guilt and doubt, about whether she’s colonially exploiting or really helping this woman. Mala, who’s the surrogate, is just as strong, just as intelligent as Shyama. I was determined Mala wasn’t going to be a faceless victim. So you do, I hope, see it from both points of view.

Surrogacy isn’t going to go away, because it’s a business. Whilst there are rich infertile women and poor fertile women it’s going to happen. The problem is there’s no international law. This is about ownership of women’s bodies really. Surrogacy is one of the themes in the book but it’s about lots of stuff, fertility and aging, mothers and daughters, what is home, all of that stuff. And all in 400 pages!

LC: All your novels deal with complex subjects, but also use wit and humour. How important is comedy to your writing?

MS: I think for most of us, that’s what life is, it is a seamless blend of comedy and tragedy all the time, and it turns on a sixpence. It’s also reflective of a lot of women I grew up with, some of whom had really hard lives, but I never saw them lose that sense of the absurd or that spine of steel that’s just able to laugh at themselves and dust themselves down and get on with it. I like that dark humour and that pragmatism, it’s what I grew up with.

I think the reason you go along with Shyama and Mala on this journey, and a really emotionally complex one at times, is that both have a delicious sense of irony. It’s what makes them similar to each other. I’d like the reader to feel that if Mala had the opportunities that Shyama had, she could be running a multi-national. A lot of the book is about the wasted potential of women and girls, and Mala is sort of this unpolished jewel. Surrogacy is the only choice she has to change her life, but what a shame she didn’t have more.

LC: You were on the stage at the National earlier this year in Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Do you still enjoy being on stage?

MS: More than anything, actually! I don’t really feel like a proper actress unless I’ve done at least a play a year. I love screen work, but the stage is where I feel most at home, where I feel I learn more, and I love the communality of the creative experience. I love the connection with the audience. I still have the bug unfortunately. My life would be a lot easier if it left me.

LC: You’re performing in The Voice and the Echo at the Globe, with a series of responses to William Blake. Are you looking forward to it?

MS: Yes, I love Blake, so I was very happy to do that and I think it will be extraordinary by candlelight. And the responses are beautiful. I don’t think I should give away the responses! But they’re great.

LC: You received an CBE for services to drama and literature earlier this year! What was that like?

MS: It was an extraordinary day, actually. The best part of the day was just meeting this bunch of really incredible people! The person that founded the Open University, people that had rushed in to burning buildings and saved peoples lives and charity workers who have been transforming their community for thirty years for no recognition. You get an idea of all the good that goes on in the world and it’s really easy to forget that. I took my family as well. I really accepted it for them. The irony isn’t lost on me that I come from a family of Indian freedom fighters who fought to get rid of the Empire, and here I was getting a medal from them.

LC: We’ve seen adaptations of your previous two novels. Would you be open to an adaptation of this one?

MS: It’s already been bought for a television adaptation! For a brief few weeks I was like Alan Sugar, fending off several offers. I’m very pleased with the company we’ve gone with and we’ll hopefully start the writing process next year.

LC: Will you be involved in the writing process?

MS: I’m sure I’ll have some involvement. But I’m also keen for another writer to get their take on it. When you’ve written something so recently, you don’t always see the creative ways you can adapt it. Adaptation is a real skill, I think. I’m not precious about working with another writer. Tanika Gupta has just adapted Anita and Me for a new musical. It opens at the Birmingham Rep in October and then at Stratford East in November and I had very little to do with that. I know Tanika, she’s a wonderful writer and I just said I absolutely trust you, please do a wonderful job and she has!

Meera Syal discusses her new novel The House of Hidden Mothers (Doubleday, £14.99) at the National Theatre on September 10. For tickets, see the website.

She is also reading in The Voice and the Echo at the Sam Wannamaker playhouse on the 5th September. For tickets, see the website.

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