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'An Imperial Typewriter' - a writer's journey

Posted: Wed, 19 Nov 2014 10:52 by Amy Barnes

'An Imperial Typewriter' - a writer's journey

By Divya Ghelani

[You can read Divya's response to the Affective Digital Histories' Creative Commissions call - on the Centre for New Writing's website here.]

My father's side of the family are Ugandan Asians. They arrived into the city of Leicester along with thousands of other refugees during the exodus of 1972. I myself was born in Jamnagar, Gujarat, in 1981. (Papa had been sent, aged fifteen, from Kampala to the town of Bhanwad, Gujarat, in order to take care of the family business and a sick relative.) Years later, he wished to reunite with his family and that is how I ended up in Loughborough, Leicestershire, aged four. It was April 10th 1985.

It had never been my intention to write a Ugandan Asian character. I have always viewed it as the experience of a former generation, another culture. Why tell their stories when I have enough trouble telling my own?

What emboldened me to apply for The University of Leicester's Affective Digital Histories Commission was the possibility of local history research. The Centre for New Writing had promised to supply commissioned writers with images, press cuttings, audio and video clips in order to help them to better understand how Leicester's local communities had changed in response to urban decline. For chosen writers, the University would offer up it's archivists, oral historians and academics.

In attempting to write about a displaced Ugandan Asian character, I considered I might learn more about my wider family history. It would be an opportunity to research and understand the circumstances of their resettlement in Leicestershire within a political, sociological and historical context. There would be ethical issues to navigate through (what stories to tell and how) but, as a consequence, I might end up knowing myself more. What better reason is there for a writer to embark on a project?

The arrival and resettlement of Ugandan Asians into Great Britain has been well documented in oral histories, memoirs, museum exhibitions and regional TV and radio documentaries. The 40th anniversary of their arrival passed two years ago and much has been made of this 'twice migrant' community's prosperity and success in Britain. This narrative risks occluding equally important stories of failure, racism and poverty, of learning to fight for one's rights and facing the consequences. It is these alternative threads that I sought to examine when writing 'An Imperial Typewriter'

Alongside personal family histories and living room conversations, I listened to around twenty oral histories and watched numerous programmes and documentaries on the subject. I read the work of Pippa Virdee and Valerie Marrett (whose authoritative works on migration and modern Leicester I will return to again and again). I read newspaper clippings from the University's newly acquired Leicester Mercury archive helped along by archivist Simon Dixon. I walked the exact route my character Vinesh takes from Imperial Typewriter Company to Faire Brothers in the Cultural Quarter with oral historian, Colin Hyde. Colin's formidable knowledge of Leicester's history illuminated the city's streets for me. (The Hidden Stories App that is now available for free download on iTunes follows this exact route.)

I knew something of the Imperial Typewriter Company long before I wrote about it. My uncle (himself a Leicester Ugandan Asian refugee) had worked there as an assembly worker back in the 70s. He has since passed away but my father would sometimes recount a story about him. The story goes that when my uncle went for an interview at the Imperial Typewriter Company, his white interviewer asked him to assemble a typewriter under timed conditions. He tried on three attempts and failed but instead of accepting defeat, he asked his interviewer to take the test himself. Not wanting to lose face, the interviewer took up the challenge and failed. He gave my uncle a job on the spot. This story of 'sticking it to the boss' stayed in my mind when I began researching the strike at the Imperial Typewriter Company.

Like so many people, I am nostalgic for the world of typewriters. I am too young to have ever owned one but my grandfather, Mohonlal Ghelani, used one near enough every day. Bapuji had been a criminal lawyer back in Kampala. He spent the last years of his life at his vast desk in Loughborough translating the Bhagavada Gita from Sanskrit and Gujarati into English. He worked on a beautiful old typewriter with a Roget's Thesaurus beside him and as a young girl, I remember watching in awe as he wrote. Even before I could read, I wanted to inspect the typewriter's keys; run my fingers along its inky ribbon and shake its handle to make it 'ping'.

I wonder what he and my grandmother would make of my story, how each one of them might tell it differently. 'An Imperial Typewriter' is a modern fable about an immigrant worker's journey through Leicester. It also a writer's attempt at reading and understanding her own story a little better.

Divya Ghelani holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia and an M.Phil in Literary Studies from The University of Hong Kong. She is the recipient of a Writing East Midlands Mentorship, a Literary Consultancy Mentorship and an Arts Council Grant of £6,250. Her novel-in-progress, RUNAWAY, recently came second in the 2014 Harry Bowling Prize for New Writing.

'An Imperial Typewriter' is now being converted into a short film and cross-media project with the help of the 2014 edition of B3 Media's TalentLab, Nottingham University's Mixed Reality Lab and BAFTA.

Photograph: 'The Good Companion', by NMK Photography, used under a Creative Commons license.

Tags: Leicester, Faire Brothers, Alexandra House, migration, Imperial Typewriters, Cultural Quarter, stories, creative commissions, creative writing

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