A Girl With A Book 29 May 2014

Nick Wood, playwright and author, tours with a new production asking the question—can a Guardian reader really be racist? 

Nick Wood “Where are you from?” It is a very innocent question, but as any person of brown skin or likewise will tell you, it is one loaded with assumptions. “Britain”, I might reply. Few are then forward enough to question further, but clearly it isn’t the answer they were searching for, and I’ll allow a moment or two of silence to drop before I volunteer any more information. That question is one of so many small and everyday ways that people are, dare I use the word, racist. I don’t mean to say racist in a way which is malicious, or that simply inquiring about a person’s ethnic heritage is racist. But often underlying the question are other statements, which if expressed frankly, would say ‘you don’t belong here really’, ‘you’re not truly British’, ‘your ‘difference’ is the first thing I notice about you’ and many more. It is one of the many, subtle ways that a well-meaning, otherwise polite person, can take part in the exercise of privilege and power that perpetuates the structures of racism.

So you might already imagine the answer to the question, ‘can a Guardian reader really be racist?’ The question playfully subtitles A Girl With A Book, which is currently touring across Britain and parts of Europe. It is written by Nick Wood, a former actor, journalist, teacher and currently playwright, and it is also performed by him.

A Girl With A Book has no grand plot. It is about one man, and his struggle to understand why a girl in Pakistan was shot for going to school. As he explores the questions of why, he finds himself struggling also with the prejudices and biases he brings along with him.

The play begins with a middle-class, middle-aged man, also a playwright, sat at a laptop. The setting is implicitly serene. It is a domestic environment; it is comfortable. Our author then catches the news about the shooting of Malala, somewhere thousands of miles away, in a very different world, in a very different context. The bridge between these two worlds is the honest and thoughtful reflection of the playwright.

What author Nick Wood has refused to do is accept the narrative of difference. The media is often accused of ‘othering’, making a community (whether here or abroad) so distinct and different that any possibility of a relationship or understanding goes out the window. The easy option when hearing the news of Malala Yousafzai’s shooting is to think that Pakistan is somewhere so distant, inhabited by people so different, that you could never understand why it happened. Wood rather invites us to better understand Malala, her father, and her kinsmen.

The play is not unaware also of international politics – of how US polticial interventionism, drone attacks, and media propaganda all play a role in shaping conflict. It isn’t the centrepiece however; this isn’t a journalistic exploration of the causes behind the shooting, but rather a human endeavour to understand who was involved, the emotional sacrifices they made, and the common experiences that can bring together the world of a middle-aged, middle-class, white man and a young Pathan girl from the Swat Valley in Pakistan.

A Girl With A Book is currently on tour across the UK. For more information or to find the next screening, visit their blog.

This review of A Girl With A Book is from Issue 7 of On Religion. You can subscribe to magazine for more reviews and content for £19 a year and two clicks below: –

About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.

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