Osman Yousefzada’s Go-Between review – magic behind closed doors | Autobiography and memory

OOne day, Osman Yousefzada’s parents took him out of school for six months and brought him back to where they were born, on the banks of the Indus. His father had often returned, but not his mother, and while Osman contemplates the women laden with jewels, the villages which are a “puzzle of lanes in permanent shadow”, the Kalashnikov bullets fired in the air at weddings in these border territories between Pakistan and Afghanistan, she caught up with her dead. Brought to England when she was young, with only a few hours’ warning, she hadn’t been able to say goodbye. Osman, who in England often wondered how his lively mother was intermittently flooded with sadness, watches her at his family’s graves. “My heart was in his: finally, I understood the crying.”

One of the many striking things about these gripping memoirs is the way Yousefzada handles information: Like Leo in LP Hartley’s novel that gives his book its title, Yousefzada is, for the most part, a child. He sees what an insightful child sees, which is not the same as understanding him (but of course the reader understands, and that generates tension). And what he sees is Balsall Heath, Birmingham, in the 1970s and 1980s, when housing was quite cheap for recent immigrants – West Indians, Rastafarians, Ugandans, Bangladeshis, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Pakistanis, Irish. Ali Campbell of UB40 lives down the street; sex workers extol customs in front of mosques. Yousefzada’s own Pathan Orthodox community is “the most covered and least integrated in South Birmingham”, with men and women within this separation again strictly separated. But childhood gives him (and us) a free pass in all areas. He’s a skilled guide, building a rich world of hiding places, smells, praying feet – and clothes.

Yousefzada’s mother was a skilled seamstress; it was, writes his son, “like watching a magician.” He’s now a designer who’s dressed stars from Beyoncé to Lady Gaga, and an artist who’s exhibited at the Whitechapel Gallery and the V&A, but that’s where it all started – watching his mother cut freehand designs , embroider cuffs and necklines, weigh fabrics and colors. Generations of children have dressed Barbies for role play; only a handful will have used scraps of devoured green.

As he grew older, he began to see what this gift meant to his mother: self-expression, pride in personal accomplishments, and community. She couldn’t go out, but all kinds of women came to her. Often they stayed and talked. The men were dull, aloof, frightening, but for Osman, increasingly his mother’s confidant, the world of women was an “epic in its own right, of tragedy, pathos, colors, jewels and clothes”. . He began to be sent on errands. He chose fabrics, chose shoes, earned a reputation for discerning taste. And brought news from the outside world which, aside from the corner store, F Allen’s, was to him largely non-white. Even in school, that didn’t change: Brown and black children were sorted into lower sets regardless of ability (and Yousefzada’s was high).

But when the otherworld burst in, it did so with a vengeance: Thatcher’s complaints of being “overwhelmed” by immigration, marauding skinheads, graffiti saying “Pakis go home”. This begins to complicate Yousefzada’s understanding of the masculinity he fears – the violence and inaccessibility of his father, the religiosity of bearded believers, or “Bushmen” as he called them. These were men brought in to work, many of whom worked decades without vacation. Now the factories were closing, serving them “dismissal papers they couldn’t read”, and they were retreating to worship and “the consolation of our culture, of our dignity”. There’s a touching moment when an England-born son asks why they have to fly a recently deceased man to Pakistan when his whole family is in Britain. “He needs to be buried…in the land of his birth,” comes the reply. “In the country where he was respected, not where he was spat on.”

Yousefzada, who mourns his expulsion, at 12, from the women’s quarter, “where joy and color came from”, is honest about the time it took him, as a man, to notice the effect this religiosity had on her sisters, who were taken out of school at age 10 or 11 and confined to their homes. He remembers a woman unable to comfort a dying son on the street because she was not allowed to cross her own threshold; the terrible fates of those who are accused of being sterile or “cowards”. He recounts these dramas with accuracy, letting them speak for themselves in this story full of beautiful lines, often enhanced with a slight irony – a man “visibly puffed up with sagacity”, for example, or another, religious purist fond of of saffron essence. , musk and jasmine, which “always seemed to be there even when it wasn’t”. When the Bushmen drive pimps and prostitutes out of their neighborhood, Yousefzada records that one girl in particular is missing, who always said hello. “However, God’s work was done and house prices began to rise.”

“I cleaned up some of my feelings in this ritualistic writing,” Yousefzada notes in his acknowledgments, and the effect in writing about himself, his escape to Soas University London, then to Central Saint Martins and to Cambridge, can be elusive, a curiously distant affect, reported rather than felt. What really remains are the liveliness of the world of his childhood, the struggles and sorrows of his parents, and especially his mother, to whom he testifies with love.

The Go-Between by Osman Yousefzada is published (Canongate Books Ltd, £14.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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