Interview: Shappi Khorsandi

UK-Iranian comedienne and writer Shappi Khorsandi had no problem getting into the mind of a 17-year-old for her new book Nina Is Not OK. It was thinking like the grown-ups that gave the 43-year-old trouble. 'I was really touched that one blogger knocked a star off her five-star review because she said the voice of a teenager was too true,' she says. 'I feel very connected to my own youth and childhood and hang out a lot with young people. I worried more about writing the adults, because being an adult is the thing I've struggled with most. I've been locked in a state of arrested development for most of my life. And I'm still working on it now.'

Shappi Khorsandi PIC: Debra Hurford Brown for The Scotsman

The story of Nina who is battling with alcohol addiction in Nina Is Not OK is emotional, raw, deeply moving and in the middle of all the trauma, funny too. It’s a book that anyone who has a 17-year-old, or indeed ever been a 17-year-old, should read.

Khorsandi already has one book under her belt, the best-selling autobiographical A Beginner’s Guide to Acting English, released in 2009, but she is best known for TV appearances that include BBC’s Live At The Apollo, Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow, The Graham Norton Show, Have I Got News For You and her own special for Comedy Central.

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A nomination for Best Female Comic at the prestigious British Comedy Awards saw her up against Jo Brand and Sarah Millican and she’s also been a panelist on ITV’s Loose Women and BBC1’s Question Time. She’s a regular at festivals, having just done sets at Glastonbury, and is already out and about with book launch appearances and her new stand-up show Oh My Country! From Morris Dancing to Morrissey which she brings to Edinburgh next month.

In summary, she’s never short for words, but why has she decided to write them down in book form this time?

“I always wanted to write a book but wasn’t ready for the solitude,” she says. “I like to be out pounding the streets and out in the community. But I’ve got to the stage in my life where I’m really comfortable with not being in the hub of things. I was ready to lock myself away and write.”

So, since landing a book deal last year, Khorsandi has spent the past 12 months writing her debut novel, tucked away at home in Ealing, London, where she lives with her two children Cassius, eight, and two-year-old Vivie.

“It’s taken me a year to write, but I’m not sure how much of that was spent on Twitter. Although the idea has been percolating for many years.”

The book’s confessional first-person narrative style immediately raises the question of where Nina ends and Khorsandi begins.

“I can’t deny that Nina and I have had very similar experiences,” she says. “Doesn’t everyone write autobiographically? It’s thoughts and feelings I have had, and scenarios I have imagined and been in.”

I’m not going to spoil the plot here, but when Khorsandi says this, the idea that Nina’s experiences might mirror Khorsandi’s own are alarming. So do they? At this point Khorsandi chooses her words very carefully.

“I would be lying if I said I don’t relate to a lot of what various characters go through. Part of me is Nina, and part of me is Beth, her swotty best mate, so yes. Hmmm.

“It’s a work of fiction. I feel very comfortable in not specifying anything. I don’t want to put myself out there, that bit of me. I don’t need to put that out there,” she says.

“I have always, since I was young, found the Tori Amos song, Me and a Gun, [Amos wrote the song about being raped at knifepoint in Los Angeles when she was 21] a very powerful song for me. As far as I know that’s the only thing she has ever said about her rape, but she always sings that at her gigs. And I remembered that song a lot as I wrote this book,” she says.

“It’s that idea that no-one can hurt you in your soul and self. If you cocoon yourself with love no-one can ever hurt you really and truly, that part you make safe after a trauma. And that’s a long process that’s not unfamiliar to me.”

Make of that what you will. It seems that Khorsandi hasn’t anticipated this line of questioning and is caught off guard by it.

“Yes, I’m going to get better at answering that question,” she says.

What has also surprised her is that much of the comment the book has so far received has been around the issue of consent. For Khorsandi, the main theme was addiction, and this was what was uppermost in her mind when she was writing.

“I didn’t set out to write a book about an addict but I am one, so it’s hard to write something with a protagonist that’s not an addict. In the end my theme was addiction, I think, but I didn’t sit down and say I’m going to write a book about it. For me it was going to be about forgiveness and going on a journey where you’re not condoning the actions of your aggressor but allowing yourself to continue with your life, with happiness and peace instead of regret and bitterness. People think forgiveness is easy, but it’s the hardest path to take.

“Anyway, it didn’t come out that way. I was much angrier than I thought I was,” she says and laughs.

“I have an addictive personality and had it when I was growing up. I had treatment for addiction since I was 30, so I relate to Nina’s trauma, to being in a fog and not getting out of it. And repeatedly doing something you know is harmful.”

Alcohol and food were Khorsandi’s triggers, and she describes herself as coming from what she calls the binge drinking generation.

“I found it hard to believe that people could eat a plate of food and just get on with life, that there were people that didn’t have obsessive compulsive behaviour. I didn’t know when one drink finished and the other started. I remember my dad saying to me one day when I was in my twenties, “When was the last day you went without a drink?’

“My real epiphany came when I was in recovery and someone talked about the fact that it takes incredible willpower to keep doing something that destroys your mind time and time again. And you can use that willpower to stop. But you have to come to that realisation yourself and that’s really hard to see when you’re in the sludge of addiction. No-one can help an addict unless they want to help themselves.”

Khorsandi entered recovery at the age of 31 and it was seeing 18-year-olds going through the same process, that made her realise she had been ill at their age and lost her twenties in addiction.

“This book is my way of getting these things out. I would be lying if I said it doesn’t affect me, and my moods, every day.”

Born in Iran in June 1973, the daughter of satirist Hadi Khorsandi, three-year-old Shappi fled with her family to London after her father had received death threats for criticising Ayatollah Khomeini. They settled and Khorsandi and her brother were raised in the UK.

Returning to Iran to visit is not an option for Khorsandi unless the regime changes. The comic is keen to raise the issue of Nazanin Ratcliff, who lives in the West but when visiting family in Iran was refused exit on a recent trip. “She has no CV of opposition, no activism and she’s separated from her daughter and partner. That’s the kind of thing that happens and it breaks my heart,” says Khorsandi.

After school, with a father who cared more about whether his kids were funny than their exams, and rewarded wit with attention, Khorsandi went on to study drama, theatre and television in Winchester. “It wasn’t jazz hands, it was all political theatre, run by Marxists so I was an insufferable leftie for a long time.”

Then came “living like a rat on the comedy circuit with my friend Jenny Colgan, every night trying to be comics,” until Colgan got a book deal and Khorsandi became a comedy circuit and TV regular, and a fixture at the Edinburgh Fringe. This year’s Fringe offering is a celebration of her 40 years in Britain, with a show that is “a love letter to her adopted land.”

A bid to reclaim patriotism in a country where identity has become a hot topic with the EU referendum, it’s a subject very close to Khorsandi’s heart. It’s something she’s serious about but where she scores is by managing to stimulate both debate and laughs with her razor-sharp wit and irreverent take. In the show’s publicity she politely asks people not to come if they’re skinheads, but welcomes the naturally bald.

“This year’s stand-up is about patriotism,” she says. “It’s my 40th anniversary here and with the referendum I felt excluded when people were talking about keeping Britain English. I don’t think they’re talking about me. They want to exclude those who aren’t native. They are saying we are the gatekeeper and we decide who has the right to love this geographical space.

“So this show is about how I love Britain, the country that I was raised in. I have probably travelled every nook and cranny of this country and I know it better than any hashtag proud to be English numptie on Twitter. This show is me saying that in a longer, slightly less combative way.”

For Khorsandi, genetics and culture are two very different things and of the two, when it comes to shaping identity, culture outweighs genetics every time.

“All my life I’ve had people being superior because they can trace their family history back, but if you look at your genes, they don’t define your culture. Genetics are as valid as saying I’m Gemini with Taurus rising. It’s the culture you identify with. I did a DNA test to get my racial mix and it’s African, Italian, Middle Eastern, South East Asian, Indian. I’m a descendant of Genghis Khan and there’s quite a lot of Neanderthal in there too.” She laughs.

“I can identify with any culture I want, and it’s down to me to say whether I’m British or not, not the Home Office. But that doesn’t mean I’m in any way turning my back on the beautiful, glorious culture that is my Iranian side [she sends her children to a Saturday Farsi class]. But it’s my Britishness that’s being questioned.”

The title of the show, Oh My Country! From Morris Dancing to Morrissey is from a Billy Bragg song, England, Half English, the lyrics of which point out the paradoxes of patriotism with lines like “Britannia, she’s half English, she speaks Latin at Home”, “St George was born in the Lebanon…”, and “those three lions on your shirt, they never sprang from England’s dirt”. His book The Progressive Patriot: A Search for Belonging and its exploration of patriotism is one of the inspirations for the show as well as a personal account of what makes up identity.

Khorsandi has always been personal, confessional, in her work. She didn’t hold back from talking on stage about her 2011 divorce from Cassius’s father, Christian Reilly, after five years of marriage, describing it as “like having your heart drop-kicked into a lake of fire.”

“I went through my divorce kicking and squealing and wailing in the rain. I’m saying this with a smile on my face!” she says. Khorsandi often adds in a “I’m saying this with a smile on my face” prompt, because she hates seeing her jokey comments rendered po-faced by the medium of print.

“I had an uncle with a hotel in Bali and at the time I was an absolute state so he said just pack up and come. I thought what planet are you living on? I have a kid and have to put food on the table. I thought I had to stay here and work hard and drag my devastated being on the stage. I did Live at the Apollo when I was really bad. But we all do what we need to do and I needed to be there.”

Nowadays, however, she’s more circumspect about her personal life. She doesn’t talk about the relationship that produced Vivie or her affair with a rock star, although that’s because she doesn’t want to “give him the satisfaction of talking about him”. And she doesn’t talk about Andrew, her partner, and to whom her book is dedicated.

Today she’s on good terms with Reilly and says she feels a lot of affection for him. “That feels good: to wish someone happiness and be proud of them. To be so bloody grateful you had them in your life because of the stuff they taught you and the beautiful kid they gave you.”

And with her personal life all sorted, it’s full steam ahead with her career too and a return to Edinburgh, a city she regards as a second home.

“I’m at The Stand this year. My favourite comedy club in the country and I’m very excited. I love the layout, how it’s intimate and grungy, and not at all sparkly. Scottish audiences are the most uninhibited, they are comedy literate and make you up your game. They know their comedy.”

With flattery like that, Khorsandi will be sure of a warm welcome this side of the Border. n


Shappi Khorsandi will be reading passages from and discussing her novel, Nina is Not OK, Ebury, £12.99, out on Wednesday, at events throughout the Festival. Join her at Assembly George Square on 5-6, 11-13 and 19-20 August at 1pm,

She will also be at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, on 18 August, 3:45pm in the Studio,

Oh My Country! From Morris Dancing to Morrissey, The Stand Comedy Club (Stand 1) from 3-28 August at 8:30pm, £12 (£10 conc.)