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.
Recently 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 his past behind him.
But when he has to search for his boss’s runaway daughter it quickly becomes apparent he’s not simply dealing 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?
I was immediately drawn to this novel, due to its diverse characters and recognition via winning a top book award. The simple sentences of: A Sikh girl on the run, a Muslim ex-con and the location of Southall, West London. Had me knowing this was going to be one hell of a read!
The novel opens with Zaq working on the builing yard for Mr Brar, we meet his thuggish sons Parminder (Parm) and Rajinder (Raj). When Mr Brar blackmails Zaq into finding his daughter or going back to prison, by means of a ‘stitch up’. Zaq becomes and instant private investigator. The Brar brothers have a violent and nasty reputation in Southall, so the biggest struggle Zaq faces is if he can keep them off his back and out of his business, as he desperately attempts to locate the missing girl.
Surinder known as Rita, appears to have vanished due to threats of an arranged marriage. Zaq is unsure if this is by means of force and this adds depth to the surrounding drama and mystery. Is Rita a victim, fleeing her abusers? Rita is one of many young women and men, that are a new generation, within the Asian community, who may hold differing the values and beliefs to their elders such as parents and grandparents. They like Rita may reject the tradition of arranged marriage or similarly like Zaq may reject the notions of religion. I think this is interesting, on so many levels. It makes the novel perfect for book groups, where debate and discussion is encouraged. As this novel, underneath its tough crime fiction shell, has layer upon layer of culture and depth.
Zaq begins his investigation and we meet people from Rita’s life and also those within Zaq’s friendship circle. The characterisation is brilliant and there is such a variety of characters within the cast. You love some and hate others! Zaq really has his back against the wall, with continuing and growing threats and intimidation from every angle. He has to find Rita and he has to find her FAST………….
The novel is scattered with Punjabi phrases and I think that really added to its uniqueness. It sets it poles apart from the mainstream offerings, on the crime fiction shelves, at your local Waterstones. There are themes of honour/shame within the Asian community and the divisions within the different religions such as Sikh, Muslim and Hindu. We learn of Zaq’s past and how he hopes to turn his life around and the evolving change within the Asian community, the break from tradition. Action, crime and culture blended together to create, this unique and unforgettable novel.
This is urban, this is diverse and this is brilliantly British! 5*
Q) For the readers, can you give a summary of yourself and your debut novel Western Fringes?
A) My name’s Amer Anwar and I grew up in West London. I’ve loved reading and writing stories when I was little but in high school creative writing wasn’t seen as important and so fell by the wayside. I knew I wanted to write a novel from my teens but didn’t actually start writing again until I was 36. The basic idea for Western Fringes had been kicking around in my head for years. I knew it was going to be a crime thriller and I knew where it was going to be set. Beyond that I pretty much made it all up as I went along.
Western Fringes is my debut novel – also the first novel I’ve ever attempted to write. It’s set firmly in West London’s Asian community and is about Zaq Khan, an ex-con who’s forced into searching for his boss’s runaway daughter. Things aren’t as simple as they seem and pretty soon Zaq, and his best friend Jags, find themselves caught up in a whole lot of trouble neither of them bargained for. There’s a fair bit of violence and bad language, along with a few twist and turns that hopefully make it a good read.
Q) One thing, I absolutely loved about this novel. Was not only, was it urban and diverse but it was based in Britain. Depicting a new generation and the mixture of cultures etc. What was the inspiration behind the Southall setting and the characters?
A) As I said, I had a firm idea of where the book was going to be set, right from the very beginning. I spent a lot of my teens and twenties in Southall and it was an amazing place, full of colourful characters, with loads going on. At that time – we’re talking mid-1980s – there was also a bit of a gang problem, which resulted in quite a lot of violence. I heard about a lot of this but also other stories about all sorts of things that people were getting up to – and I wondered why no one had written about the any of it. By this time I was reading a lot of crime and thrillers but there was nothing that really reflected my experience as a British Asian. I would have lapped up anything like that and I felt others would have too. That’s where the idea came from – to write a crime thriller set in Southall – and it stayed with me almost 20 years, before I actually started to write it.
Q) Within the novel you deal with the theme of arranged marriage but also the sensitive issue of forced marriage. What was your research process for this? Did it involve speaking to women, within various communities?
A) I wish I had been able to do more research into it and talk to people, as it is something that interests me. As it is though, being Asian, it’s something I’ve been aware of my whole life. You hear stories and pick things up. Also, I read a lot of news articles on the subject and over the years there have been several documentaries on the subject on TV. There have also been high profile cases in the news regarding so called ‘honour killings’, which in some instances were as a result of girls not wanting to go through with arranged marriages. Forced marriage is now recognised as a crime by the police and there is a dedicated Forced Marriage Unit, with a phone number girls can call if they think they’re in danger of being forced into anything like that. If someone is already abroad, they can contact the nearest British Embassy who will do whatever they can to get them back to the UK. Even teachers in some schools are aware of what to look out for, as it’s not uncommon for girls to disappear over the summer and never come back, sometimes having been taken away and married off.
Q) The novel has many scattered Punjabi phrases, I felt this added to the uniqueness of the novel. In fact, it is the first novel I have ever read, to quote the Punjabi language. Did you spot something you had not seen, also?
A) It wasn’t really a case of spotting something I hadn’t seen before but more a matter of accurately capturing the way some people speak. There’s a big Indian community in Southall, with a large number originally hailing from the Punjab, so Punjabi is widely spoken in the area. Most of the people I know there can speak it fluently and so inevitably there’s some linguistic cross over – especially when it comes to swearing, which is pretty much the first thing anyone seems to learn in a foreign language after hello, please, thank you and one beer! Some older members of the community also don’t speak English so well and will converse solely in Punjabi – and you often have a situation where older people speak in Punjabi and youngsters answer in English. It was a conscious decision to have the Punjabi in there, to give an authenticity to the dialogue. I tried not to go overboard though, and where I have used it in a conversation, hopefully Zaq’s answers in English allow the reader to work out what’s probably been said. The swearing in Punjabi will be pretty self-evident, though if anyone really wants to know what it means, they can always ask a Punjabi friend.
Q) The novel also deals with the division between religions, within mixed communities. This is something, I was aware of, due to non-fiction reading about various religions. But have never seen so honesty talked about within a novel. Did you feel as though; this was a good platform to show the inner workings of mixed communities?
A) Yes, I did, and there were two reasons for it. One was because for a lot of people outside such a community, they’re probably unaware of any such divisions. To them Asians are Asians, as though they’re all from the same place, speak the same language and share the same religion – but that’s not true at all. There are a variety of countries, and even within the countries there are various regions, an array of different languages and dialects and then there are the religious differences. Don’t even mention the whole caste thing. All of these things matter within the communities, more to some people than to others but everyone is aware of them. You grow up knowing about it. The other reason it had to be in there was because I wanted the book to reflect reality. British Asian readers will probably recognise the attitudes portrayed and understand where they come from but will also appreciate the fact that they’re mentioned. From a technical standpoint to do with writing, it also adds an extra layer of tension to the story.
Q) As a writer, you have received success and praise in the form of winning the CWA debut dagger. How did it feel to have such recognition for your writing?
A) Oh my gosh! It was a complete surprise! To be honest, I’d only just started writing the novel and only entered the competition with a view to getting my first rejection slip. I’d worked on the opening in a writing class I was doing and felt pretty happy with it – but I was going up against writers from all over the world, so I didn’t expect anything. A couple of months after the deadline, I received a letter saying I’d made the shortlist! I couldn’t believe it. And then, in October, I went along to the CWA Awards ceremony in central London, just excited to be there with all these great authors. Just being shortlisted was fantastic enough and I didn’t think there was any chance of anything more, so it was a massive shock when my name was read out as the winner! Getting that recognition was huge. It gave me confidence that what I was writing was worthwhile and also the conviction to stick with it through all the ups and downs of the writing process and never give up.
Q) On my blog, I am continually rooting out novels with diversity or something which I feel represents, the Britain that I live in. I have a huge list of favourites. What are your favourite authors and novels?
A) I have a huge list of favourites as well, far too many to mention all of them. I started out reading horror, then war, then fantasy and science fiction too. After that I got into crime and thrillers, then historical fiction which spurred an interest in non-fiction history, biographies and some sports books – so a pretty wide range of stuff. Unfortunately, when I was growing up and reading all of these, there wasn’t that much diversity to be had. There were some writers of colour, but they weren’t writing the kinds of things I wanted to read. I wanted action, adventures, heroes, characters to inspire and aspire to be like – and there didn’t seem to be many writers of colour doing that. The only one who stands out in that respect is Walter Mosley. But there are authors who spring to mind because I love their work and read and re-read their stuff. They’ve directly and indirectly influenced my own writing – the good bits anyway; the bad bits are all me. They are;
• Elmore Leonard
• Richard Stark
• Joe R. Lansdale
• Raymond E. Feist
• George R.R. Martin
• Patrick O’Brian
• Michael Crichton Some individual novels that really stand out are;
• ‘Lonesome Dove’ by Larry McMurtry
• ‘Perfume’ by Patrick Süskind
• ‘The Anubis Gates’ by Tim Powers
• ‘The Dumas Club’ by Arturo Perez-Reverte
• ‘The Stars My Destination’ by Alfred Bester
• ‘Green River Rising’ by Tim Willocks
• ‘Red Dragon’ and ‘Silence of the Lambs’ by Thomas Harris
Q) What is next, are you currently working on a next book and if so, can we have any sneak peaks into the plot?
A) I’ve started work on another book but unfortunately I can’t really say what it’s about at the moment. I can tell you it’s not a sequel to ‘Western Fringes’. It features a new character but is another crime thriller. After that though, there could be another story with Zaq and Jags. I have a couple of ideas percolating with regard to what kind of trouble they’re going to get into next.
*Huge thanks to Amer Anwar for taking part in this Q&A on my blog and I wish you all the best with your future writing career.
AA: Thanks Abby!