Eighties Britain was a go-go era of consumerism, and materialism, for many: London had become an international financial capital, Margaret Thatcher was preaching the capitalist gospel, and the Sloane Rangers were out in force, carousing with their privileged pals (and future prime ministers) in Chelsea or on the verdant campuses of Oxford and Cambridge.
At the time, the designer and artist Osman Yousefzada was a kid growing up in Birmingham — and he might as well have been living on another planet. His reality, living with illiterate, immigrant parents from an insular Pakistani/Afghan Pashtun community in the inner city, is the subject of his excellent new memoir, “The Go-Between: A Portrait of Growing Up Between Different Worlds.”
Published by Canongate and set for release next week, the book often makes for uncomfortable reading. Yousefzada doesn’t hold back, painting a picture of his ultra-conservative family, their strict Muslim faith, and tightly knit community that was bound by tradition and codes of honor and duty.
He writes about his father’s temper and physical abuse of his mother; extended family dramas in the old country, at the frontier between Pakistan and Afghanistan; his community’s oppression of women; his own sisters’ lack of education as children, and their “disappearance” from public life once they hit puberty.
Indeed, codes of “honor” were so entrenched that after his runaway sister, Ruksar, tries to return to the family fold (having put herself through university and earned a degree in political science) Yousefzada’s father, Tolyar, rebukes him for not taking any action.
“This is a stain that won’t be expunged, there is no salve for this. I can’t hold my head up high anymore, and if you had any honor, you should have killed her when you saw her,” his father says.
Yousefzada also writes about his own escape, to a new and liberated life in London (he would earn degrees in South Asian studies and anthropology at SOAS University of London; in fashion at Central Saint Martins, and a master’s at Cambridge University), and his eventual reconciliation with Tolyar before he died in 2019.
No one knew how old Tolyar was when he died. Yousefzada reckons it was “somewhere between 80 and 90 years. When he was born, all those years ago in British India, no one had thought it necessary to record a date,” he writes.
This is no misery memoir: Yousefzada writes with a light touch, occasional humor, pride in his heritage and the women in his life. He dedicates many pages to his seamstress mother, Palwashay, who encouraged him, inspired him, and fed him his favorite dishes: okra and spiced vegetables, eggs, and buttered parathas.
Presiding over the stovetop, and the sewing machine, she loved making clothes, chatting with her girlfriends in the back room of the family’s small home, and entertaining during special occasions and religious festivals.
Yousefzada describes the bevy of smartly dressed female friends and relatives with their henna-ed palms “offering you sweet sherbets and piles of food, a multitude of bangles jangling on their collective wrists. I billowed with pleasure, as most of the dresses were made by my Mum.”
Yousefzada would eventually use the bedroom where his mother worked (and drank tea with girlfriends) as inspiration for his solo show at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham in 2018. He called the bedroom installation “A Migrant’s Room of Her Own,” and later took his mother to see it.
It was her first visit to a contemporary art space, or any museum, and her reaction upon seeing the installation was to ask: “Who slept there?”
In an interview, Yousefzada said his main reason for writing the book was to tell the women’s stories.
“They were working-class, marginalized, and their stories would have been easily forgotten if I hadn’t told them. They’re not the kind of stories [women] would want to tell, and there are not that many [writers] who come from that background. Most of the writers come from a very middle-class background, or their parents were literate. I wanted to invite people into a world which actually was hidden, a world that not many people had seen, or were privy to,” he says.
“I wanted this to be anthropological, like a document — and not judgmental. It was me being a kid with a camcorder. Because as a kid, you think everything is normal — the fight that’s going on in the corner — or the food. And I also wanted to look at these extremes — living [in a religious family] in a really poor area of Birmingham, which also happens to be a red-light district, and the juxtapositions of different kinds of moralities and different worlds,” he says.
As the book’s title says, he was forever living in the in-between, serving as messenger, diplomat, interpreter and fixer. His life has been spent switching between different cultures, communities and languages, trying to realize his creative ambitions, make his family happy and live in an authentic way.
Yousefzada says that writing the book (it was supposed to be published two years ago, but was delayed due to the pandemic) was freeing.
“All my life I’ve been code-switching. I feel now that I’ve just kind of laid myself bare. The book is a validation, and allows me to stop pretending. I can now stand up and say ‘That’s me.'”
The book was published in the U.K. earlier this year to great acclaim, with the author and actor Stephen Fry calling it “one of the great childhood memoirs of our times,” while the British novelist, and playwright Hanif Kureishi described it as “poetic.”
The journalist Sathnam Sanghera, author of “EmpireLand: How Modern Britain Is Shaped by Its Imperial Past,” said that Yousefzada has revealed a “hidden world I didn’t realize existed down the road from me.”
Yousefzada isn’t done with writing. He has more books and articles in the works, and is forging ahead with his multidisciplinary career. In April, at the Venice Biennale, he’ll be taking part in the Glasstress group show organized by Studio Berengo. Yousefzada’s sculptures will be shown alongside those of Tracey Emin, Ai Weiwei, and Tony Cragg.
He has been commissioned by The British Council, in partnership with the V&A and the Pakistan High Commission, as the lead interdisciplinary artist and designer for the 75-year programming for Pakistani independence.
His installation, “What Is Seen and What Is Not,” will feature textiles, sculpture, and spatial design. According to the organizers, it will look to highlight “shared histories, new perspectives, and the representation and rupture of the colonial and migrational experience.”
Yousefzada has also been exhibiting art and installations internationally and has collaborated with Selfridges on a series of projects.
A new group of paintings based on talismanic objects is on display in the personal shopping area at Selfridges, while his pink, patterned facade is still wrapped around Selfridges’ Birmingham store.
The pattern is derived from “Her Dreams Are Bigger,” a film he made in 2019, in which Bangladeshi garment workers imagine the lives of the women wearing the clothes they make.
The facade’s design is meant to conjure “an endless connectivity, new possibilities, and countless new journeys,” he says.
Yousefzada continues to design seasonal fashion collections, and for fall he tapped a diverse group of models to show off his dramatic, pleated and shimmering creations.
He showcased traditional textiles, prints and handwork from India and Central Asia, and filled his look book with activists, artists, models and stylists with diverse backgrounds and body shapes.
The designer says he’s trying to change the narrative around his work, spark an “interdisciplinary conversation,” and make clothing with “depth, and a message.” He continues to work with upcycled materials, handloomed fabrics and embroidery made in India by local artisans.
His references for fall were drawn from a variety of sources including Roberto Capucci, traditional Afghan clothing, and the multicolored flock velour blankets that are a staple in South Asian homes. He whipped the latter into a long, regal cape and spun the gold embroidery from Afghan men’s vests into a belted coat with printed patchwork panels.
Yousefzada also riffed on the South Asian kurta style, creating a dramatic, embroidered patchwork coat with broad, sharp shoulders that gave a whole new meaning to power dressing. The special pieces are the most popular ones at retail, says Yousefzada, who sells his collections at Harvey Nichols, Selfridges and Farfetch.