07/06/2016 12:52 BST | Updated 08/06/2017 06:12 BST


Secrets are everywhere, in every society, and in every heart. Most are private, some are held in common, the so-called 'open secret', and some become traps for others. Secrets and deceit often go together, as in the Mike Leigh film 'Secrets and Lies,' and as Sir Walter Scott wrote "Oh! What a tangled web we weave, ... When first we practice to deceive."

Perhaps it's because I'm a writer- and a British Asian writer- that one 'tangled web' in particular still fascinates me. In the tragic case of Anni Dewani, the young bride killed on her honeymoon in South Africa, secrets run deep. Her British Asian husband Shrien Dewani was arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to murder, which he has always denied. He was eventually cleared, after the case collapsed due to lack of reliable evidence. But not before he revealed to the court that he was bisexual. The prosecution argued that this 'double life' was a motive in the murder but the judge rejected this view. Anni Dewani's family have since told the press, that if she had known about his bisexuality, she would never have married him- and they would not have allowed it.

For me, the case illuminates British-Asian society's obsession with presenting a respectable and conventional appearance- because homosexuality is largely a taboo. As a British-Asian woman, I've witnessed the impact of the secrecy required to maintain that respectable façade. And I've written about it, in novels such as The Coral Strand. Though the theme of secrecy also exists in books such as Brick Lane, The Year of the Runaways and the play Calcutta Kosher, I believe only the surface has been scratched in British Asian literature, with writers concentrating on themes of migration and racism.

The British-Asian community has existed for three or four generations now, but many of its traditions and customs have frozen in time; they're still the same as when the first generation came. Despite this, the ambitions and dreams of younger generations have moved on. Whilst still wanting to be part of their communities, being loyal and respectful to their families, they often find themselves torn and conflicted. As a young man said to me, 'now we have more secrets than ever.' There are people who lead double lives, have secret boyfriends, girlfriends, marriages; secrets about their sexuality and beliefs. Secret children even, as a woman wrote in to the secrets project I began, 'With my partner for seven years. Knew family would never accept him. When had my baby, heart broken in 2. I visit my family, pretend everything normal. Rush back to feed my child.'

When I talked to friends about secrets and British-Asians, this is what they said: 'We're taught to please others, which is why we have white lies and secrets.' 'We're taught to fit in with family and society. Not to question it.' 'It's a blame culture, there always has to be a scapegoat, so people protect themselves.' 'It's a macho culture, and men keep each other's secrets.' 'Women are taught not to speak their minds and feelings are never discussed.' Could it be that honour killings happen when women have secretly followed their feelings and fallen in love? 'Murdered by MyFather,' a drama written by Vinay Patel, aired on the BBC in March 2016, telling the story of just such an honour killing.

Secrets are a potent subject for writers and artists. Secrets make the impossible, possible, by subverting the rules, breaking taboos - as the women in my novel, The Coral Strand do - in the end the secrets have to come out, bringing resolution and redemption.

I was inspired to start the British-Asian Secrets project, by the PostSecret community art project created in the United States by Frank Warren, in which he invited people to decorate a card and write a secret. A decade on, the PostSecret project has produced books and exhibitions. The art and the secrets touch the heart: tender, painful and light-hearted they add to the sum of human experience; make a plea for acceptance of our darker and nobler sides, reveal conscience and guilt, sin and goodness. The priest, who draws a collar and writes across it that some days it feels more like a noose, is expressing far more than mere words, capturing our hearts and minds with his anguish and insight.

Secrets, shared anonymously, can connect us, show us our common humanity, and lead to discussion, awareness, evolution. The very processes which art aims to provoke, and which could create new understanding in British-Asian society.


This post was broadcast on the BBC World Service: The Cultural Frontline