Learning to listen: an interview with Shappi Khorsandi
The new president of the British Humanist Association talks about life as a comedian and growing up atheist.
This article is a preview from the Spring 2016 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.
Shappi Khorsandi is hard at work finishing her debut novel, so she has invited me to the West London house she shares with her two children. Even before I ring the doorbell, it’s evident that a comedy writer lives here, as the owner has Tippexed the dustbin with “Cursed bin – steal at your peril!”
Khorsandi opens the door, accompanied by her two year-old daughter. Like me, she is a single mother, and apologises unnecessarily for the state of her house. Her well-spoken English accent belies the fact that she was born in Iran, moving to London aged three when her father, a prominent satirical journalist, became the subject of a death order from the Iranian government. He had written a poem which criticised the revolutionary regime in the magazine he edited, Asghar Agha (“Joe Bloggs”); other satirical targets included “the relationship between Iran and the West, particularly Carter’s regime”. Not knowing a word of English, and with the shadow of her father’s assassination plot hanging over her, Khorsandi nevertheless grew up to become one of the UK’s most illustrious comedians. (She attributes her “very chatty persona” to her father, but says, “I do not continue his style in any way.”)
“I didn’t do anything much career-wise until I was 32,” Khorsandi says. Now 42, she started out on the stand-up circuit nearly two decades ago, after a degree in Drama, Theatre and Television at the University of Winchester (then King Alfred’s College). Confident, striking and with perfect comic timing, her witty observations on race, religion and gender saw her rise steadily up the ranks until she was enjoying sell-out shows at the Edinburgh Festival and recording a series for BBC Radio 4, Shappi Talk. Regular appearances on Live at the Apollo and Question Time followed, along with an honorary doctorate from her alma mater Winchester, and critical and commercial success for her memoir A Beginner’s Guide to Acting English.
In person, Khorsandi is warm, loquacious and funny. She makes tea, offers pieces of apple to her daughter and downplays her achievements, saying that although her favourite comics are Richard Pryor and Billy Connolly, “they are able to display an honesty I can only dream of.” She’s so self-effacing, it’s possible to forget that she is now more successful than ever. Her first novel Nina is Not OK is being published by Ebury in July, her stand-up is going from strength to strength, and she’s just been made president of the British Humanist Association. How does she feel about her latest role?
“It is a great honour. It’s the most grown-up thing in my life, even more so than being a parent. Big shoes to fill,” she says. Her main priority “is to make the organisation as inviting as possible for those who don’t believe, and want to engage in discussions around morality and philosophy.”
Khorsandi would also like to give these discussions more prominence in British cultural life. “When there are social issues discussed in the media and the great faiths are represented, I’d like to see the humanist voice represented, unapologetically,” she says. “I found that growing up without religion sometimes made you feel like you had to shut up. People were baffled as to why you didn’t have one, and there was always that question of ‘What are you? What religion are you?’ And if you say you don’t have a religion, particularly as a person of colour, then you’re met with questions and suddenly you find yourself explaining your family’s belief system to a stranger.”
She pauses. “I remember being a kid and being told to respect other people’s religions – which I do, because it’s the way I was raised – but I always felt, ‘Why aren’t my non-religious views and feelings being respected?’ That’s what drew me to the BHA.”
Has she found, as I have, that being a woman of colour makes people less willing to accept that she’s atheist? “I find that when you are Asian and you say you don’t have a religion, people assume that you have had a battle with your parents. ‘Do you talk to your parents? How do they feel about you doing stand-up? How do they feel about you eating pork?’ It’s an assumption made on a people based on the colour of their skin, not giving credit for their education or values or own personal evaluation of life. You’re assuming my parents don’t have any sort of critical thought process by assuming that I’ve had to work against them. It’s not the case with my family at all.”
Does she have any specific aims for her presidency? “I would like very much to see humanist marriage ceremonies legalised,” she says. It’s an important fight. Although humanist marriage ceremonies are legal in Scotland, in England and Wales the Conservatives seem to be moving in the opposite direction with their focus on “Christian values”. “Whether you have a religion or not, we are ritualistic animals, and it would be a wonderful thing to have a humanist wedding and not have to scurry off to a register office to ‘do it properly’.”
Khorsandi appeared on Question Time in July and frequently comments on politics to her 134,000 followers on Twitter. There’s a serious point beneath the humour, too. “I fear that debate in this country has become: ‘Who can shout the loudest? Who can accuse who of being a racist the loudest?’ I fear that there is something going on in our country where you can’t express a fear without being called a racist, and that’s a killer of any dialogue. And I fear that the people who want to harm us are fuelled by our own infighting. And while we are bickering over semantics, they are getting away with pretty dark things that they want to visit on us.”
Khorsandi looks thoughtful. “What I have come to understand is the vitally important notion of thinking about your own moral values and applying them to your own life today. Rather than being worried about what right-wing columnists are saying, thinking, ‘What am I doing to increase my own personal tolerance in the society I’m living in?’ Because if you really examine yourself, we all have intolerance, we all have prejudice, and I think that is a really important thing to take on board personally.”
She’s changed, she says. “I used to be one of these people who, if someone had a different opinion to me, I could not shut up about it – I had to win the argument. And I’ve become a much better listener. Learning to put your feet in other people’s shoes is a life skill that I spend every day trying to achieve.”
Khorsandi and I are friends on Facebook, and I remember that she has posted passionately about the refugee crisis. Did her own experiences of coming to England shape her views? “I can’t claim to have experienced refugee status the way the refugees from Calais have. I was a refugee who came over and lived in a nice flat in Ealing. I got asylum in Britain and I think it would be a disservice to the mightily compassionate native British people – who are so brilliantly standing up for refugees – to say that I have more of a connection with that experience because I am a refugee.”
We talk about her 2009 memoir, which is sweet and funny but also touches on the fear she felt as a child when her family were told by police that they had to leave their home because her father was the subject of a terrorist plot. Khorsandi spent her childhood checking under cars for bombs. “We grew up with the threat of terrorism, knowing that the Islamic Republic of Iran had ordered an attack on my dad in London,” Khorsandi explains. “It was a very real danger to us. I grew up in this bizarre world that I imagine my friends from Northern Ireland would relate to, because they also grew up in an environment where at any moment Daddy might not come home from the pub. And it was something you couldn’t share. But I think now, everyone has that fear – with the attacks in Paris, that terror has become closer to home. The thing about terrorists is that killing you is the tip of the iceberg. To make us fearful, and to make us mistrust our neighbours, that’s their job. That’s why it’s really disheartening to see certain Sun and Mail columnists feeding off people’s fear. It’s a real shame that we don’t recognise their language as extraordinarily incendiary and harmful.”
How does she feel when she sees Iran in the news now? “I can’t go back to Iran, and it really galls me. I spent my Christmas travelling around Burma, and the whole time I was thinking, ‘I want to be in the country I was born in.’ It makes me so unhappy that my father is unlikely to ever step on Iranian soil again. I try not to be patriotic as a human being, but you can’t help it – when you know a language, a people, their facial expressions, you know how absolutely stunning the scenery is, and what incredible literature it has… the place where your grandmother grew up, you want to go and see these places and the people in power say you can’t. I take it very personally. I’ve been tweeting the Supreme Leader, but he’s not got back to me!”
She’ll be going to the Edinburgh Festival this year, after finishing her novel. The book features a teenage female alcoholic who wakes up on a Sunday morning with a profound sense of shame, and the feeling that something terrible has happened. Writing the book was a long-held dream. “I feel so relieved that I’ve kept my promise to ten-year-old me that I’d write a novel. Ten-year-old me is very unforgiving.” She hopes to write a sitcom too, and would like to collaborate with other people “which is another reason why I’m so excited about the BHA presidency: working with people, because I’m not part of a gang in my work”.
As I leave the house, I mention the warning on the cursed dustbin. “I was pregnant when I wrote that.” She smiles. “I thought, ‘If anyone steals my bin, I’ll kill them’.” As she laughs and goes to put her daughter to bed, I feel glad that someone so full of life, humour and light will be a feature of public life in the years to come.