Coconut Zine delves into the complex reality of navigating life in the UK with a dual cultural identity
Despite 9.3 per cent of the UK population identifying as British Asian, British Asian representation in the media is lagging behind: we’re the most underrepresented ethnic group on UK television, and even when we are represented, these portrayals often fall flat and lean heavily on stereotypes and clichés. It’s frustrating, but makes it all the more heartening to see projects which are created by British South Asians, for British South Asians – like Coconut Zine, an upcoming zine created by 20-year-old Dazed Club member Anuhya Saxena, which shines a light on what it’s like to be a young person with South Asian heritage in the UK.
For Anuhya, coming to terms with her dual cultural identity was a struggle, and she wanted to explore that in the zine. “But I think the best way to deal with it is just to talk about it and to hear other people’s perspectives and how they’ve dealt with it,” she tells Dazed. She also wanted the zine celebrate South Asian culture and its vibrance. “When I was growing up, I would go to places like East Ham where they have all the curry houses and sari shops, and I remember thinking ‘I’d love to photograph [this] and share the colours and the life and vibrancy with people’,” she says. “Because a lot of people wouldn’t even know these areas exist.”
Anuhya adds that the process of creating Coconut Zine was enlightening on a personal level, and she hopes to share her newfound understanding of British South Asian history with readers. “I also wanted to learn more about British South Asian history, because I always knew that places like Brick Lane and Southall had a history of protest, but I didn’t really know the details of it,” she explains. “This project really gave me an opportunity to properly delve into the history [...] it was so interesting, and a part of history that you don’t normally hear about.”
We spoke to Anuhya about the meaning of the zine’s name, reconciling your cultural identity with your sexual identity, and the struggle to resist gentrification in South Asian communities.
I think a lot of South Asian people living in the West can relate to being called a ‘coconut’, which is quite a loaded word. What’s your personal relationship with the word like?
Anuhya Saxena: Initially, I got called a ‘coconut’ by my South Asian family as a joke, and even throughout secondary school, my South Asian friends and I would call each other ‘coconut’ – like if someone couldn’t handle a bit of spice or like if someone didn’t know a specific Bollywood song, that sort of stuff.
When you look back, in most cases the joke probably hid a feeling of discomfort and disconnection. As I got older and I visited India more often and visited my family and learnt more about my culture, I realised how disconnected I was, especially because I can’t speak Hindi. But I know that’s a struggle that a lot of people can relate to, which is why I wanted to call the zine Coconut Zine.
I wanted to reclaim the word and, as you said, I think it is a word that a lot of South Asian people living in the West can relate to. It’s kind of universal. Hopefully just by seeing the front cover people would know what the zine’s about. But it was also interesting because a lot of people didn’t understand why it was called Coconut Zine – I had to explain it to a lot of my British friends, because they just thought it was because coconuts grow in India. I was like, no, that’s not the reason!
Some art about immigrant life tends to be clichéd – like there’s this idea that any identity crisis you have can be resolved by ‘reconnecting with your roots’. Was it important to you to create something which captured more of the nuances of having a dual cultural identity?
Anuhya Saxena: I definitely agree that some immigrant art can be quite cliché and that I don’t think that’s not as simple as [reconnecting with your roots] either, especially when you have a dual identity. It is about learning about your heritage and your culture, but also what it means to you on a personal level. Because it’s all good learning about your culture – whether it be Bangladeshi or Indian – and the food and the clothing, but if you can’t relate to that in your every day, then what does it actually mean for your identity? And it’s not about picking one side or the other – dual identity is a marriage between the two.
I love how you’ve captured what it feels like to be a brown person in a majority white area, like a seaside town. I’ve often had that feeling where you’re acutely aware that you’re different to the majority of people around you – is that something you’ve experienced too?
Anuhya Saxena: The idea behind that shoot in the zine was inspired by a time when I was really young, when my family and I would often go to random little rural seaside towns for our holidays in the summer. I think when you’re in London it’s really easy to just get comfortable with how diverse it is; I never really feel out of place or uncomfortable walking around London – so then when you go on holidays to [rural] places, you really feel the microaggressions and the stares.
Just before COVID my family and I took a trip to Wales. My mum, she dresses quite eccentrically, but what I love about her is that she really doesn’t care. I think a lot of people, when they’re in certain areas, wouldn’t want to sort of draw attention to themselves. But my mum will wear a salwar kameez when we’re out in these rural places. I just remember getting so many looks [...] but you just have to ignore it and just live your life, right? But there is still that feeling of being out of place.
You’ve also interviewed some young South Asian people in the zine, like Nael and Hafsah, who struggled to reconcile their cultural identities with their sexual or gender identities. Could you tell me a bit more about what their experiences were like, and what you learnt by speaking to them?
Anuhya Saxena: Nael and Hafsah were kind of on opposite ends of the spectrum when it came to their families’ acceptance of their identity being queer and South Asian. Nael and his brother Zayn [who is also queer] come from a Bangladeshi family. Their parents were born and brought up in the UK and are very liberal and accepting of their identities. Zayn even said that he feels most comfortable with himself at home, because his family know every layer of his identity: his culture, his sexuality, his personality. They accept all of him. So that was really nice to hear.
With Hafsah, it was the extreme opposite. They’re non-binary and queer – they dress up every day and put on makeup every single day, but when they go home they have to take it all off. They haven’t come out to their parents – they’re basically leading a double life. They don’t live at home anymore [...] but then when they come home for celebrations like Eid, they have to kind of ‘water down’ their identity just to be accepted.
What I learnt from all the interviews was how important it is for people who don’t feel like they’re accepted at home to find their communities elsewhere, such as through collectives like Hungama and Bledi Party, who are queer rave organisers. Of course, you have places like Daytimers too, but I think events that are specifically for the LGBT community and South Asian community are really important to allow people to find others they can relate to.
Was it important to you to shine a light on somewhere like Brick Lane, where gentrification is threatening to drive the community out?
Anuhya Saxena: It is really sad to see [gentrification], especially in areas like Brick Lane that have so much history and heritage and are such significant places to the British Bangladeshi community. I don’t want to see London just be turned into this completely boring, one-dimensional place, because the London that I grew up in was so multicultural and I love it so much.
What do you hope people take away from reading the zine? And will there be future editions?
Anuhya Saxena: I really hope that people will take comfort from reading Coconut Zine. My friends that have seen it already have really enjoyed it, and I think found some sort of comfort in it, especially people who can relate. But it’s also for people who can’t relate, like British people – I really hope it’s an eye-opener, [and enables people to be] more aware of what it feels like to have a dual identity.
This edition of the zine focuses a lot on London’s history, but I know that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to British South Asian history. I know there’s so many more stories for me to explore across the UK. Hopefully, I could do a Manchester edition, as I go to uni here, and I’d be really interested in looking at areas like the Curry Mile. Hopefully it keeps growing and growing.
Coconut Zine is published on August 24. The launch event will be on August 24 at The Common Press Bookshop, E2 6DG, from 6pm to 9pm.