Mohsin Zaidi, A Dutiful Boy: A Memoir of Secrets, Lies and Family Love (2021)

The first (2020) edition of Zaidi’s memoir is subtitled A Memoir of a Gay Muslim’s Journey to Acceptance. ‘Acceptance’ here means, and continues to do so in the second edition, the acceptance of one’s own sexual orientation as an unchangeable given, rather than the acceptance of the narrator’s Pakistani immigrant ancestry, dark skin, and Shia Muslim faith by a dominant English culture, native ancestry, and Christian allegiance. This is important, because Zaidi’s narrator emerges as equally steadfast and magnanimous, criticising homophobia amid his familial nucleus (at one point even his own remarks as a momentary outward projection of self-loathing) just as much as casual racism within the LGBT community. Despite such existential struggles, he remains determined not to let go of either circle, and in the absence of all acrimony, he does not need to surrender either his sexual orientation or any key elements of ancestral or cultural identity in order to succeed.

The frame narrative of Zaidi’s memoir creates a cliff-hanger at the outset: the protagonist is on the London Tube’s Central Line, eastbound, heading towards suburban Essex. He is about to introduce his boyfriend to his parents, and the inner acceptance that is the subject of the following chapters may or may not be met with parental acceptance in return. (Spoiler alert: the final lines of the next paragraph contain the answer.)

With that outcome in the balance, the narrator (if at all, then presumably a thinly fictionalised version of Zaidi himself) takes his readers back to the beginnings of his journey. Amid the general unruliness, disorder, and bullying of his Walthamstow comprehensive school, he compensates, for the first but not the last time, for an obscure sense of something being supposedly ‘wrong’ with him by attempting to get everything else right – which is to say, by throwing himself into school work. He accepts his low standing in the boys’ pecking order and the recurrent abuse that this entails, but not the outlook of his own sense of otherness, instead resolving to abide by societal expectation, get married, and suppress his inclinations. His academic success is spectacular – he completes his GCSEs with top marks, wins a place at a local grammar school’s sixth firm college, and from there makes it into Oxford, to study law. This raises expectations yet further, and by the same token exacerbates the underlying personal struggles to the point of suicidal thoughts. At Oxford, he feels equally out of place among privately educated fellow students, the wealthy foreigners of the Pakistani Society, and the intransigencies of certain members of the Islamic Society. His identity appears to fit no category. Eventually, however, at Oxford, he enters a circle of likeminded friends from a variety of ethnic, religious, and social backgrounds, and these friendships provide the emotional bedrock for the narrator’s self-acceptance and gradual coming-out. Back in East London, much-dread family reactions turn out to be loving and supportive: when and where it matters, he is neither disowned, ostracised, nor stigmatised. Zaidi thus dismantles his own prejudice in order to effectively pre-empt and undo that of his audience.

Mark Haddon writes that ‘everyone should read’ Zaidi’s book. He is right: the book is a potential lifesaver for young men (and women) going through such and similar struggles with society’s heteronormative expectations, while at the same time it is also a persuasive, poignant elucidation of the severity of these struggles for those unfamiliar with them. The book teaches not to hate, neither oneself nor another. On top of this, Zaidi’s book allows a glimpse of contemporary East London life and its undercurrents of ethnicity, class, and religion, as well as related and intertwined cultural expectations. Many of these continue the concerns of earlier East End writers: Zaidi’s accounts of rote learning in Quran schools, for instance, echo Willy Goldman’s experiences in Whitechapel kheders during the first decades of the twentieth century. The father of Zaidi’s narrator stating that Pakistanis are only accepted as English when behaving well – otherwise they remain Pakistani – echoes Goldman’s observation that the entire community of East End Jews will be judged on the basis of the worst among them. Zaidi’s account of homosexuality is certainly more unambiguous than, say, Wilfred Owen’s in ‘Shadwell Stair’ (composed when homosexuality was still illegal) and detached from East End space, yet it nonetheless ties in with this enduring strand of East End writing. And much like the Jewish communist Alec, the protagonist of Simon Blumenfeld’s 1935 novel Jew Boy, Zaidi, too, marches for his emancipation in central London.

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