Book Review: “The Go-Between” by Osman Yousefzada

13 June, 2022

 

Instal­la­tion by Osman Youse­fza­da, Total Anas­tro­phe, Vol­cano Extrav­a­gan­za 2018 (cour­tesy Osman Youse­fza­da).

 

The Go-Between: A Por­trait of Grow­ing Up Between Dif­fer­ent Worlds, a mem­oir by Osman Yousefzada
Canon­gate 2022
ISBN  1786893525

 

Hannah Fox

 

The ter­raced house where Osman Youse­fza­da grew up in Birm­ing­ham had net cur­tains that were per­ma­nent­ly drawn, block­ing light and pre­vent­ing any­one from see­ing in through the win­dows. And yet, in The Go-Between, Youse­fza­da allows his read­ers to look behind the cur­tains and wit­ness the moments of plea­sure, as well as the acts of vio­lence, that take place in his child­hood home.

The house is in a red-light dis­trict in the Bal­sall Heath area of Birm­ing­ham, where pros­ti­tutes live side by side with mem­bers of var­i­ous immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties. Osman’s fam­i­ly belongs to the high­ly reli­gious Pash­tun com­mu­ni­ty, mem­bers of whom migrat­ed to Eng­land from a remote region near Pakistan’s bor­der with Afghanistan, peo­ple he describes as “the least inte­grat­ed in south Birmingham.”

The Go-Between is pub­lished by Canon­gate.

Osman must learn to nav­i­gate his way not only between the two worlds of Eng­lish cul­ture and Pash­tun tra­di­tions, but also between the ortho­dox world of his own com­mu­ni­ty and the more “mod­ern” world inhab­it­ed by many of their Pun­jabi or Kash­miri neighbors.

Youse­fza­da empha­sizes the unique­ness of the social envi­ron­ment he grew up in, explain­ing that “our Pash­tun com­mu­ni­ty, all from one region back home and guid­ed by the imam, was a very dis­tinct sub­cul­ture.” The Go-Between por­trays Osman’s expe­ri­ence of grow­ing up between these dif­fer­ent worlds with humor and pathos.

With­in the home, strict gen­der roles mean that there are two fur­ther worlds that the young Osman learns to move between: “the front room, the world of men, and the sanc­ti­ty of the back rooms, the women’s cham­bers.” It is in the women’s space that Osman feels the most free. As a child, he views the back­room sewing salon where his moth­er works as a tai­lor, and where a con­stant stream of women vis­it her each day, as a place of peace and beau­ty. Behind the divid­ing cur­tain that sep­a­rates this space from the front room where the men sit, is a world where women from var­i­ous back­grounds and cul­tures come togeth­er. Osman calls it a “mec­ca for all kinds of women who wouldn’t nor­mal­ly have met any­where else: the Indi­an-Africans, the Ismailis and the Shias, the Sikhs, the Hin­dus, the occa­sion­al white folk, the Mus­lims.” This is a women’s space that Osman’s father isn’t allowed to enter when vis­i­tors are there, and so it is also a place of tem­po­rary sanc­tu­ary from the domes­tic vio­lence that is expe­ri­enced by his moth­er and the chil­dren at oth­er times. As a young boy, Osman is able to spend time in both the men’s and the women’s worlds, although his moth­er and sis­ters are not per­mit­ted to go out to the shops or even to attend the local mosque. His sis­ters are removed from school by their par­ents around the age of eleven and from then on expect­ed to remain in pur­dah at home. Look­ing back, Youse­fza­da express­es a sense of sad­ness that he failed to notice his sis­ters’ mis­ery at the time, explain­ing that “few of us ques­tioned the girls’ sud­den retreat from dai­ly life. Not many in our com­mu­ni­ty sent their girls to sec­ondary school back then.”

Despite these restric­tions placed on the women in Osman’s fam­i­ly and the wider com­mu­ni­ty, his moth­er thrives in her job as a tai­lor, cre­at­ing beau­ti­ful clothes for count­less local women. She is a “sculp­tor” and a “magi­cian” in Osman’s eyes and his pride in her work is appar­ent through­out his beau­ti­ful descrip­tions of the col­or­ful cre­ations that she makes. It is worth not­ing that Osman often refers to his moth­er by her name, Pal­washay, in his mem­oir. This seem­ing­ly sim­ple act of nam­ing can be read as a pow­er­ful state­ment with­in a patri­ar­chal con­text where women are often not named. Osman men­tions else­where that, “Women’s names were hid­den, not to be writ­ten down for the world to see; even when Mum’s par­ents wrote to her, it came in her husband’s name.” By nam­ing Pal­washay, Youse­fza­da is acknowl­edg­ing her indi­vid­ual iden­ti­ty apart from her role as a wife a moth­er. In many ways, The Go-Between is a trib­ute to his moth­er, and it is clear that she has influ­enced Youse­fza­da in his own love of fashion.

Osman Youse­fza­da turned Birm­ing­ham UK’s Sel­f­ridges store into a pub­lic art site (pho­to cour­tesy Jason Alden). Youse­fza­da was born in Birm­ing­ham to migrant par­ents who are illit­er­ate in Eng­lish and their moth­er tongue. He is an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary artist and design­er who stud­ied at SOAS and Cen­tral Saint Mar­tins, and went on to obtain an MPhil at Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty. He has exhib­it­ed at inter­na­tion­al insti­tu­tions includ­ing the Whitechapel Gallery, Dha­ka Art Sum­mit, V&A and more. He has been award­ed the pres­ti­gious BFC New Gen­er­a­tion award for three sea­sons. The Osman Youse­fza­da cloth­ing line is worn by celebri­ties includ­ing Bey­on­cé, Lady Gaga, Lupi­ta Nyong’o, Thandi­we New­ton, Gwen Ste­fani, Emma Wat­son, Frei­da Pin­to and many more. He edits The Col­lec­tive and has writ­ten for Vogue, the Guardian and the Observ­er.

Osman Yousefzada’s epony­mous fash­ion label, found­ed in 2008, is a lux­u­ry wom­enswear brand sought out by celebri­ties world­wide, and his mem­oir is burst­ing with exam­ples of how he was drawn to appre­ci­ate the beau­ty of women’s cloth­ing from a young age. In a humor­ous scene ear­ly in the book, a young Osman cre­ates a shrine for his sister’s Bar­bie, dress­ing the doll in a home­made green dress which he then cov­ers with a minia­ture pink bur­ka he makes from off­cuts of his mother’s fab­ric. From the pros­ti­tutes on the street to the rel­a­tives and neigh­bors who vis­it his mother’s salon, Osman notices every detail of the women’s cloth­ing and jew­ellery. Even when the Prime Min­is­ter, Mar­garet Thatch­er, is men­tioned, Osman seems as inter­est­ed in her immac­u­late hair­style and in the silky pussy bows and pearls she wears, as he is in her politics.

The Go-Between pul­sates with detailed descrip­tions of col­or, pat­terns, and tex­tures. Fab­rics glow and shim­mer, bring­ing a sense of move­ment and life that is lack­ing in the dull same­ness of the cloth­ing worn by the men, who all have “the same brand of mot­tled acrylic cardi­gans in var­ied shades of brown and khaki.”

Although there are numer­ous scenes from Osman’s ear­ly life high­light­ing his inter­est in fash­ion, it would have been inter­est­ing to read more about his lat­er years after he leaves Birm­ing­ham for Lon­don, and to under­stand how he makes the tran­si­tion into work­ing as an artist and fash­ion design­er. While his time at SOAS, Uni­ver­si­ty of Lon­don, is touched upon, the final sec­tion of the book could have been more devel­oped. How­ev­er, it is also clear that in writ­ing the book, Osman is chart­ing the jour­ney of his fam­i­ly as much as his indi­vid­ual sto­ry, and recall­ing his mem­o­ries per­haps for his own sake as much as for that of the read­er. In his Author’s Note, he refers to the book as “a series of vignettes formed around my mem­o­ries.” In each chap­ter he paints pic­tures of scenes from his ear­ly life that aren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly intend­ed to progress in a lin­ear man­ner. They can be read rather as images in a gallery, or pho­tos in an album that each tell their own story.

Sto­ry­telling is a recur­ring theme in The Go-Between, and var­i­ous char­ac­ters are known for their sto­ry-telling abil­i­ties. Osman’s father, although he can­not read, tells enter­tain­ing sto­ries that have been passed down from his grand­moth­er. Anoth­er char­ac­ter, Mak­mal­bakt, is a wid­ow who tells sto­ries and rid­dles that “seem to make her grow big­ger and big­ger, like a genie, as the sto­ries come alive.” This pow­er of sto­ries to bring life is some­thing that Osman also finds in books. He goes to com­i­cal lengths to get hold of as many books as pos­si­ble for the library he cre­ates in his bed­room — even steal­ing them when he has the chance.

With his love of sto­ries, Osman has a ten­den­cy to exag­ger­ate at times, telling “fan­tas­ti­cal sto­ries” about his trip to Pak­istan to his class­mates when he returns to school, as well as invent­ing sto­ries about his fam­i­ly back­ground to impress new uni­ver­si­ty friends. He says of these tall sto­ries that, “Some­times I for­got who I was and where I came from.” The Go-Between is his attempt to remem­ber. There is a dis­claimer in the Author’s Note, that “as with all mem­o­ries rec­ol­lec­tion some­times meets fic­tion.” Whether or not The Go-Between is an accu­rate record of Osman’s child­hood, it is nev­er­the­less an inter­est­ing and poignant sto­ry of grow­ing up in mul­ti­cul­tur­al Birm­ing­ham in the eight­ies and nineties, as well as a cel­e­bra­tion of the plea­sures of fash­ion and the pow­er of storytelling.

 

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Hannah Fox is based in Manchester, UK. She received an MA in English Literature from Queen Mary University of London in 2021 and is about to begin her PhD research at the University of Leeds, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. She is particularly interested in theories of world literature and her research will focus on contemporary migrant fiction.

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