‘My mother would scowl at me when I sat in the sun for too long. She feared how dark my skin could get, much like she feared her own.’

ELLA WILSON talks to ISSAM AZZAM writer and director of Ed Fringe show Papaya. Ayesha Baloch, Sarah Al-Sarraj, and Rosemary Moss star as three women grappling with family, loss, racism, colonialism, colourism and womanhood.

How did the show come to be?

Well, I came up with the idea of having a person from two places – I wanted to have something where a person was forced to integrate into a new society, to come over to work here and be in an environment which was completely alien to them. So in the play, it’s a maid who works for a couple. The first one I wrote was about comparing West and East a lot more. When she was home she kind of idolised all these things, all these magazines, being white. And then by the end of it she realises that it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be. I think when she was back home, she wanted the removal of her culture, and now that she’s here, she thinks she could assimilate this entirely new thing that she’s always dreamt of, but actually what happens is that she has to come to a midpoint with both. So in the final scene she has this long piece where she talks about how she’s going to take the spices from home and when she cooks food for her children she’s going to eat biryani and then afterwards she’s going to make Eton Mess. Because her children are going be British, but also Pakistani. It’s kind of the story of the start of how first generation immigrant will continue their lives. That’s how the play ends. I wanted the themes to be about race, colourism, those sorts of things, around this basic plot of someone having an affair.

So plot isn’t the main point?

Yeah, it was more about the themes. When I rewrote it actually I wrote a part for Rosemary Moss who’s meant to be a representation of [white] society. She’s the best friend of the wife, who’s falling apart, and she’s telling her through the whole thing “you need to stay with him, this is your role to play, in traditional society men cheat, it’s fine.” Basically, the wife and the maid are meant to mirror each other. In the way that the maid idolises everything the wife is: she’s white, she’s wealthy and she looks like the girls on those magazines. On the flipside, through learning about where the maid is from, the wife realises that things like tradition and family and a good husband and actually marrying out of love are much more important. So reversely the wife idolises the life of the maid. It’s interesting, it’s changed a lot since we first wrote it.

What kind of stuff did you change and why?

Originally it was two men, two women. It was much more about the women’s relationships with their husbands. And the couples were meant to directly mirror each other. Whereas now, we got to the point where it wasn’t even about the men. The men in the first version didn’t have any lines at all, it wasn’t about them, it was about the journey of these women together. So we kind of just realised we could scrap them. *laughs*

Because lot of the actresses are very good friends of mine as well, it was weird, we all actually cowrote it in the end. It was nice. Because you know her so well you’re writing how things will sound for her. And then Rosemary’s part she wrote a lot of on her own as well, and the parts that she wrote are so well delivered because they sit so right in her voice. And then Ayesha, the reason we decided she would be from Pakistan is because Ayesha is from Pakistan as well, and we used Ayesha’s own experiences from when she was there, because she lived there and then moved to England.

I also didn’t want to make it a thing of ‘East is good, West is bad’ because that’s too basic. We made it very clear that there’s a reason why immigrants move here, because things at home are falling apart. But we also had problems; we can’t make it seem like traditions in the East are perfect, because there are lots of problems. Like, Ayesha’s main scene is a scene where she’s applying skin-lightening cream. And she’s talking about erasing your culture, and she questions tradition. All these traditions exist, but if all these women are also lightening their skin, is that a tradition, because everyone’s doing it? What makes a tradition? And how could this be a tradition, if it’s like removing tradition? This is making ourselves something else. We talked about that for ages, that was something we really wanted to include because I think it’s something that’s really not spoken about and is really really important. In the scene she’s not really talking about it, she’s just applying it, but that metaphor is so important to the plot and the whole idea of the play. It really is the main idea – trying to remove your identity as a brown person, or like a non-white person trying to assimilate. But obviously it doesn’t work, because those creams don’t actually work. They hurt, it’s bad for you. It’s what the play’s about really.

It gets to this point where Ayesha has to make this decision of [whether or not to] go back home, and it’s all fucked. Or alternatively “this is a healthy way for me to start my life here,” realising “I don’t have to remove all my traditions. I don’t have to idolise anyone. I can’t ever remove who I am at home but I also can’t go back home. I have to bring that here, and use it, and make something for myself.” Which I think a lot of people do.

I think the older you get the more you realise that a lot of non-white people who are British, myself included, when you’re born here, growing up you spend a lot of your time trying to – you feel like you’re two halves of a whole. And you try and only fix yourself to one, at all times. So when you’re at school all your friends are white, but your family at home are brown. And you’re always gonna be both. And the older you get, you realise that – I think now especially, in the mainstream – so many people are now talking about this experience of being a second generation immigrant where you can bring these things together. And that’s just become a new identity. Which I think is really beautiful. And so much art spawns from that. […] And there’s this weird thing where you don’t know enough about your traditions back home, because you’re not there, but you have this kind of idea.

The story is about three women, and you’re not a woman, and I was also going ask about how you felt and went about approaching that. But clearly you made it quite collaborative, by the sound of it?

Yeah, we did. It was weird because it works because there are so many parts that I don’t really know. Sarah was really like “no, at this point, as a woman, I’d be feeling THIS more.” And we’d write around that. Like there’s a part where she talks about being on the pill for ages and how traumatic being on the pill can sometimes be and what it does to your body. And I can obviously never know. We wrote a long part about that. It ended up becoming something really cool because we all cowrote it.

Because it’s my first thing I’ve learnt so much. And it’s not perfect, but I’m really excited now for what else there is. Like having another idea! A new idea, that’s gonna be so weird.

Papaya runs at Edinburgh Fringe August 3rd to 11th at Zoo Charteris, 20:35. Find tickets and more information here.

Featured image design by Maria Duster.