The classic immigrant story – Anita Rani talks about her memoir The Right Sort of Girl
Aga Malik, MA Journalism graduate, University of Roehampton
“I could have had a therapy, but I wrote a book instead” laughed Anita Rani, as she discussed her new memoir The Right Sort of Girl with Sunday Times journalist Jennifer Cox, describing the work as a product of lockdown-induced self-reflection and self-discovery.
Anita Rani is a well-loved British radio and television presenter. You might have seen her presenting BBC1’s Countryfile, just missing out winning on Strictly Come Dancing (‘I was robbed!’) and of course now one of the presenters on BBCR4’s Woman’s Hour. Born and raised in Bradford, West Yorkshire – a place she speaks of fondly - Rani grew up divided between two cultures. Honouring her Punjabi heritage, while embracing her Britishness has been a confusing often painful struggle she has dealt with her whole life, and discussed openly both in her book, and with the Sunset Festival’s audience.
At the heart of Rani’s memoir is the experience of not fitting in: too British for her Indian family, too Indian for the outside world. Although conflicted by that, throughout Rani shares rich descriptions of her life in Bradford, as well as trips to India. One interesting observation made from comparing those two worlds was how the Indian diaspora in the UK clings to the traditions, while India itself is constantly changing and evolving. Rani brings up an interesting anecdote from one of her visits to India, when she asked her cousins about their secret boyfriends. Rani confesses that when she was growing up wouldn’t have dreamt of telling her own family about dating – too taboo, too many questions. But her modern Indian cousins feel no such need for secrecy.
A subject present in every chapter of Rani’s life is food. Stories of family picnics in British parks, with great spreads of Indian food on the blankets, and not-so-conventional lunches at school, which weren’t just a ham and cheese sandwich on white bread. As an apology for making the readers hungry after going through pages of food-oriented nostalgia, Rani ends her book with one of her family’s recipes.
Asked why she decided to share her experiences with the world, Rani replied: “I needed to write my story for that sixteen-year-old girl who doesn’t see herself anywhere.” Rani recounts that this was her experience growing up: not seeing herself represented anywhere in culture.
Although the experiences described in The Right Sort of Girl is Rani’s personal journey, it resonates with every child of immigrants. It is a classic immigrant story about how to honour and preserve one’s heritage, while trying to fit into the culture of a new environment. As Rani said, it’s not just Punjabi immigrants who feel this way: “It doesn’t matter who your parents are: everyone wants to fit in.”