Interview with Shelley Silas

conducted by Jeanette Malkin, Eckart Voigts, and Ido Telem

London, 27 March 2017; updated 14 May 2019

EV: If you look at the research that has been done, you find that there are many Jewish-inflected novels, but not so much in theatre. What we found is that while, for example, Black-British writing and theatre is seen as belonging to a group of people, British-Jewish theatre, in a way, blends into a mainstream.  

SH: I think Jewish writers have been more prominent and have been out there, a lot more than BAME writers. I think we’ve melted into the mainstream. I always say I’m the ‘wrong’ type of Jew because I’m not Eastern European. I was born in India to an Iraqi family, so I’m not Ashkenazi – none of my family is. So, for me it’s been really difficult finding my voice, finding my place. I observe some of the Jewish festivals because I enjoy it, but there is a lot I don’t like about my own religion. I often question my religion, why I do certain things and why I don’t. Most of it is habit. A lot of people used to ask me where I am from, and I would tell them the whole story. Culturally, a lot of the Indian-Jewish community was very much a part of my life. So, I felt at home, and I still do, with anything that is Indian, even though I’m not really Indian. I grew up with all the food – though Indian Jewish food is not the same as traditional Indian food – and the sweets which are calorific and delicious, so it feels very familiar to me. When I was a kid, growing up in north-west London, all the Jews I met at my secondary modern school were Eastern European. I had nothing in common with them. When they found out that I was born in India, I used to get racist comments. I very quickly detached myself from them. Subsequently most of my friends were non-Jewish, most of my friends are still non-Jewish. I wrote Calcutta Kosher (2006) because I was so fed up with people asking me where I’m from. 

JM: Where was it performed?

SH: It was staged at the original Southwark Playhouse, and did so well, it transferred to the Theatre Royal Stratford East almost immediately. It toured around and had various readings. I don’t want to be pigeon-holed, so most of what I write about has nothing to do with Jewry. These days you don’t see Jewish characters in British TV and if you do they’re always Ashkenazi, Americans know about Judaism; they have a lot of Jews living there and they’re featured on TV all the time.

The last thing I wrote for the theatre was for the National Youth Theatre, Eating Ice Cream on Gaza Beach. It did incredibly well. An excerpt from it is in an anthology of NYT plays celebrating its 50 years. During rehearsals the NYT brought in a variety of people to talk to the very young cast – they were all 15-19, a couple of them were Jewish, but most of them didn’t know anything about the history. I said, ‘You know what, you’re going to hear my version, go and read, talk to people, find out and make your own opinion. Don’t listen to me’. They also brought in a Palestinian woman to talk to everyone, and she was quite cold towards the Jewish and Israeli side – again she could not differentiate between being a Jew and being an Israeli. I said to the director, ‘If you’re bringing in a Palestinian, you have to bring in an Israeli’. So, they brought someone in, and by the end of it we all got on really well. It was on at the Soho Theatre, which used to be a synagogue, the old Dean St. Synagogue. During an after-show discussion, the Palestinian  woman said to me, ‘I never thought I’d be sitting in a building that used to be a synagogue, with a Jewish writer, talking about a play set in Israel and in Palestine, learning things I never knew about’. And for me that said it all. Dialogue is the only way. But there were some people who stood up. They were mostly white middle-aged men who stood up in the audience and said, ‘Why aren’t you making a decision? Why aren’t you taking a side?’ One of the young actors stood up and said, ‘It’s not her job to take sides’. I spoke out, quoting Chekhov who said something along the lines of ‘It’s not the writer’s job to give answers, but to ask questions’.  

JM: There is political theatre that goes out to accomplish something political, and there is a long history of this; and there’s historical theatre that shows historical situations. I don’t think you have a job. I think that whatever you think needs to be in your theatres should be there. 

SH: I’m not sure what you mean by, don’t have a job. As far as whatever we think needs to be in our theatres should be there – I completely agree with you. That play made people sit up and take notice. People who had no idea of little idea of the history of that part of the Middle East.

JM: I have a different question. What really interests me is, do you feel that anything from your cultural background is reflected in your plays? Anything about the way you write, the way you approach things?

SH: I think my rhythm and my speech patterns can be very different, and I think that’s to do with the culture. But it’s also to do with the fact that I had an Israeli father and a mother who lived in India until she was 20. They influenced me. And I think in some of my stage plays, those rhythms and speech patterns make it onto the page. Then again, we all have different rhythms and speech patterns and this is constantly shifting.

JM: You see that in Pinter; his whole writing is based on that. 

SH: But it’s not a conscious decision. I think if I’d try to force it, it wouldn’t work. I’ve tried to change it. When I think of it, Ice Cream is very typical of what I do, but I fight against it. 

JM: Why don’t you encourage it?

SH: I don’t know, I suppose because I worry that it is too ‘other.’ But it’s difficult, it’s kind of like I’m still finding my place. But I don’t want to be called a Jewish writer, or a gay writer.  I’m a writer. The establishment like to pigeon-hole us. I fight against it. I write the next thing that’s in my head which is often very different to the last thing I wrote.

EV: Could you tell us a little bit about Calcutta Kosher? How did it come about, was it commissioned? 

SH: No, what happened was that I wrote another version of it and I sent it to lots of theatres, probably in my late twenties early thirties. All the theatres said, ‘Oh, well, it’s not Jewish and it’s not Indian, it should be one or the other’. I said, ‘The whole point of it is that it’s both’. Janet Steel, who directed Calcutta Kosher for Kali Theatre, had always said from the first time she read it, ‘I want to do this play, I think it will do really well, but I have to be in a position in which I can do it’. So, when she became the artistic director of Kali [Theatre Company], she said, ‘Now, we’re going to do it!’. And it did well, but it took a very long time to find a home because everyone kept saying, ‘it’s got to be one or the other’. I think people find it hard – ‘Jewish and Indian… how does that work?’ Well, you know what? It’s just about family and belonging and home – that’s ultimately what it’s about.

EV: And this point of connection is kind of obvious, isn’t it? 

SH: The interesting thing for me was being in the audience and watching the Jewish community and the Indian community together. My mother used to sing a little lullaby to me and my sister. And you’d see the Indians and the Jews sitting there humming it, because they all knew it. Other theatres just didn’t get it, they just weren’t prepared to take a chance. 

There is definitely antisemitism here, some of it has to do with people being badly informed or not informed at all. People often think that all Jews are ultra-orthodox and that they have only one way of life, and that’s all there is. When I talk to people and I say, ‘most Jews…’ —

JM: …are not religious, in the world. 

SH: Exactly! And they don’t get it! I blame television for that; I really do. Because people watch television at home, on their computers or phones. TV is much more influential than theatre. 

JM: But are there a lot of orthodox Jews on television?

SH: Not many, if there are Jews portrayed on television here, they’re very stereotypical. They’re not necessarily orthodox, but always Ashkenazi. ALWAYS.

JM: I think that the anti-Israel feeling in Britain forces people to take very clear-cut sides. 

SH: Yes, but I don’t understand, because they don’t find out anything here; what they read in the press, as we know, half the time is not true. And the BBC are often told off for being too anti-Israel. My parents always said, ‘Don’t listen to the BBC’ – but I say, listen to it, listen to all the programs, listen to ‘Question Time’, everything, listen to an array of people and then form an opinion. You must be well informed, fully informed before you can make a decision. I mean I don’t like the Israeli government and what they are doing, many of my family in Israel feel the same way, but where are their voices? And actually, I’m sick of having to defend my position. Why should I? Just because others assume I think this or that.

IT: Have you written anything Jewish that takes place in the UK?

SH: No, I haven’t. Everything I write is different – and, again, it’s from not wanting to be pigeon-holed, but I think that’s a strength while others think it’s a weakness because people won’t commission you because they never know what I’ll write next.  I write the next idea that comes into my head. If it’s crime, great, if it’s comedy, terrific. It is what it is.

EV: That’s something that we’ve found. Actually, a lot of the plays are set in the past, about the Kindertransport or Holocaust, or set in Israel or the United States. 

JM: Why do you think at all in terms of ‘what can I write as a Jew?’

SH: I don’t. I think of subject and characters that interest me. And mostly they are not Jewish because really, that doesn’t sell here.

JM: Or situations. If there are these situations also with Jewish characters, then Jewish themes might enter.

SH: But in terms of Jewish characters, it would always be Ashkenazi Jews for me, because the majority of people here are that, so who’s going to come and see the play? Calcutta Kosher did well, but it was an exception. I’m so much more than a Jew. I have so much more to write about, although I would like to write a big Jewish thing for TV here, but whether they’d commission it or not is another matter. Diversity here is a big issue, even in 2019. We are changing, theatre productions are changing, there’s a new production of Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic with all the leads played by black actors, which should have been staged long ago. Maybe change has come, maybe now is the time.

IT: And why do you think Calcutta Kosher did so well?

SH: Because it was so different. Because people had no idea what to expect. They didn’t know there were Jews in India – ‘surely all Jews are Eastern European, no?’ 

IT: If we’re on the subject again, I would like to ask about the generational difference within the play. It seems to me that Mozelle, the mother, and her local daughter Maki, are very comfortable with their Judaism, and with their Indian background. Maki is the only one who knows how to say the ‘Shema Yisrael’ prayer; she wears the kippah… They do it nonchalantly; I think she says, ‘there are no men around’. That’s one question about the feminist aspect, because a woman wearing a kippah saying Shema is not taken for granted. Was that intentional? Did you feel like that was a political statement or did it just come naturally? 

SH: It just came naturally. If I had set out to make it that specific, it probably wouldn’t have worked. So, it’s organic, it just came in. Also, I think it was showing the disparity between the daughter, who was trying to maintain the religion, the custom and the culture, because she was the only one, the younger daughter Maki who cares, and who was with the mother. The other two daughters didn’t care.

IT: I find that very interesting because it seems they were comfortable in their identity – the older generation, Mozelle, and then Maki. But then Silvie and Esther, they are kind of embarrassed, there is something awkward about their standing.

SH: They’ve tried to assimilate into their new cultures, which is what people do. We want to belong to society or we don’t want to belong and if the latter we live in a ghetto. Which is what’s happening now. More and more people are living in ghettos, they’re feeling uncomfortable outside of their own. With the anti-Semitism and Islamophobia around it’s understandable, there’s safety in numbers, but I firmly believe we all need to live side by side, no faith schools, break down the barriers, talk to one another, it’s the only way, it’s the only hope.

IT: You think they’re comfortable? I always got the sense they are very unsettled by their Jewish roots.

SH: Esther and Silvie? I don’t think they’re comfortable at all. Deeply unsettled – I think Silvie more than Esther. I think Esther settled into this very traditional way of life that was expected of her, and she has given into it and detested it, and now she’s too scared to change.

IT: Do you think that is a characteristic of the second generation, or people who came to Britain or the US?

SH: I can’t speak for everyone. I think a lot of people are looking for peace and quiet, so they will settle for an ‘okaylife’, rather than trying to do what their heart tells them to do, because they feel people aren’t going to like it, people don’t like it when you rock the boat.

EV: What are you working on currently?

SH: I had a few quiet years, being a more mature woman in this world is hard, being a more mature woman writer is hard in theatre and TV. Radio isn’t bothered by age just a good story! I’m recording a new radio series, the 5thin an original series created by celebrated crime writer Val McDermid. I have written series 4 & 5. I’m finishing another radio play and am at the very early stages of a 3 part TV series. And then I have a new stage play to write, for a south Asian theatre company called Rifco.

EV: In Ireland, for example, there are hardly any women at all in theatre.

SH: I don’t think that is the case at all. I’m no expert of women in theatre in Ireland. There are great Irish TV writers, women, in TV and theatre. Television it’s just horrendously hard, which is why I write a lot of radio. There is an emphasis on youth – and I love youth, I encourage youth, I think new people have to come up, as I came up. But the more mature generation also has to be allowed their space. We learn from each other.

JM: What about style? You tend to write realistically. Have you thought about trying to write in a different style?

SH: I don’t think it would be organic, I think I’d have to really think about it, make an effort, and I don’t know if it would work.

IT: One thing that I did notice that maybe relates to the subject of rhythm as well: in Calcutta Kosher especially, but also in Falling (2002), there are very quick transitions between dramatic insults and these almost tragic moments, and comic relief. Very fast, one second you feel everything is falling apart, and the next they eat something and they carry on. They eat throughout the whole play.

SH: Audiences sometimes find it much easier to digest something very heavy and tragic when you give them the space to let it go and that’s what the comedy does. So I write drama that’s funny; I wouldn’t say that I write comedy, I write funny lines. I don’t write gags, I can’t.

EV: Is there any influence from the older generation? Jewish inflected writers? Mike Leigh for instance, or Tom Stoppard?

SH: Not really. I suppose the only Jewish writer that I enjoyed, though I wouldn’t say he influenced me, was Jack Rosenthal.

EV: Is there any particular tension between your coming-out as a gay woman and the Jewish background?

SH: It was difficult because I grew up expecting to meet a nice Jewish boy and get married. That was my expectation and my parents’ expectation. I had relationships with men, I don’t hate men at all, I just happened to meet Stella [Duffy]. Not only was she a woman, but she was brought up Catholic, though now she’s is a Buddhist. She knows more about Judaism than most of my Jewish friends. I remember when my mum asked her name. When I said Duffy, my mother’s jaw dropped. I think the bigger problem was that she wasn’t Jewish. After 9 years my parents met Stella, and everything was good. Better than good. You see, you have to meet people, talk to them, go out, have dinner, discuss everything. And then form an opinion.

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