REVIEW

Mongrel

Life growing up as a British Muslim is artfully documented in Sayra Begum’s autobiographical debut graphic novel.

In the first few pages of this book, Sayra Begum defines herself as the mongrel of the title. Of mixed race, she’s a British Muslim, on the cusp of a marriage to a British non-Muslim, against the wishes of her parents. Her mother is a devout Muslim from Bangladesh; her father a British man who converted to Islam as a teenager, long before he met her mother.

The entry to Sayra Begum's home in Mongrel

In this graphic memoir, Begum looks back over her life in an attempt to ground her own identity. Outside the home she’s a regular British girl, with obvious Muslim influences from her family but suppressed in terms of her everyday life. When she enters her family home, however, she declares it’s like “walking through a gateway to Bangladesh,” where she becomes a regular, devout Muslim girl for the benefit of her mother and father.

There’s one overarching question raised by the book, and it’s worth pointing out that it’s an unanswerable one, and one that Begum explores in some depth but doesn’t resolve in any grand proclamation. The question is whether she should be following her heritage and her upbringing into one way of life; adapting and changing to her environment and integrating into British society; or hovering somewhere in between?

Clearly this isn’t a decision to be taken lightly and Begum is psychologically torn apart by the question. On becoming British and minimising her Muslim side, she risks ostracising her family, particularly her mother, who has already severed her relationship with Sayra’s older brother because of his relationship with a non-Muslim. On the other hand, she has no interest in the idea of an arranged marriage, or of demanding her future husband should convert to Islam if he doesn’t want to. Seeing both sides of the coin, why can’t she pick and choose the elements of both lives that she wants, without having to justify herself to other people?

Sayra Begum's mother tries to arrange her a marriage in Mongrel

As such, the nature of religion itself is also questioned. Begum still believes in Islam but can’t accept that her God could be as cruel as her faith depicts him. But does that mean she should reject a faith she’s been raised with or use her personal beliefs to help define and shape her future?

This is Begum’s first book but she has emerged as a fully-formed comic talent. The illustration is stylised, but solid and dependable. Where the art really shines is in the layouts, which are bold and inventive, without hampering the story from maintaining a rhythm. If the first couple of chapters are choppy and disjointed, the book soon smooths out into a powerful, deeply-personal outlook on a life, made complicated through the carnage of clashing cultures.

As a whole it makes a fascinating read and a valuable insight into the dual-life that some communities in Britain are living. Mongrel certainly doesn’t have a simple answer to any of the vast questions it raises, but it’s a fascinating exploration of them through the eyes of a young woman who’s living through it.

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