The Right Sort of Girl by Anita Rani

Review by Liz Dexter

How on earth did I get to where I am today? This is no overnight success story, this is not a fairy tale, not in the traditional sense, but there is plenty of magic. No one is going to save me, spoiler alert! This is s story about grit, determination and tenacity. I may have carved a niche in a landscape that wasn’t designed for me but, in the process, I may also have forgotten the most important thing. Me. I’ve spent so long trying to fit in, learning what’s required of me and adapting to any given situation, I may just have lost the point of who I am.

Anita Rani, broadcaster and presenter of, among other things, Country File, decided to write this book when she got into her 40s and realised she’d been tamping down the person she actually was, losing herself and her way. A lot of this book is aimed at her younger self, encouraging her to be herself, that things would work out, that she would escape her constrained community and her mum’s enjoinders to make her happy by getting married … 

The book is a proper memoir, too, taking us through from Rani’s early years to her work as a presenter through chapter titles that also give succinct advice: “Families are Never Simple,” “Be Your Own Superhero When You Can,” “Yorkshire Will Always Take Your Breath Away”. I’ve always known her as professional and polished, so it’s fascinating to read about her unconventional teenagerhood, ploughing her own furrow, going to films and the theatre on her own, finding her own friends and defying her family in small ways while also going along with things for the sake of not upsetting them. She’s also put up with sexism and racism as she’s gone through life, although she has now started to speak out and found strength from speaking truth to power. 

This is no shiny, sparkly story: as she says in the quote at the top, Rani has not been rescued by anyone but has got where she is with grit and determination. She understands the trauma her parents went through and forgives but doesn’t forget the trauma this visited onto her as she grew up (in this, she reminds me of Pete Paphides in his recent memoir, reviewed here on Shiny, Broken Greek). There is some self-harm mentioned, the neglect of her private school to wonder why her grades were slipping, and also the difficult pathways her relatives and also other people in her Punjabi British community endured. But equally, she’s proud and respectful of those hard lives and survival:

I’m connected to these women. I feel them. It’s their courage and strength I admire the most. This generation of women, the first who landed in Britain, had to straddle so many worlds and leave their own behind. Nothing in their lives was easy and they worked so hard to ensure a better life for their children. They are the hardest workers I know. Looking after everyone, but I’m not sure anyone ever looked after them. Maybe they didn’t need looking after. But they were certainly never understood.

Then again, no one looks after her, either, and she neglects herself. She’s quick to jump in if she notices racism being directed to someone else like an “anti-racist superhero” but doesn’t stand up for herself – or didn’t until recently. She has intelligent things to say about colonialism – not least that it brought in Victorian attitudes to sex and homosexuality to India: “We took that colonial legacy and ran with it”. Important parts of her life came when she saw other people like her reflected in the Tara Arts theatre company and the seminal film, Meera Syal’s Bhaji on the Beach, and that’s why she’s determined to be seen and to have other people from different ethnic groups and other minorities in the UK represented. And there’s a great moment a fairly long way in where she interrogates her reasons for not speaking out about racism in her industry and claiming her space, and decides to do both in the future, which is very empowering and inspirational. I love that she lists others who are speaking out and doing good work here, making it as usual not just about her, even in her own memoir. 

There will come a time when people of colour in the UK can just produce art rather than having to spend all our creative energy on explaining who we are and why we have a right to exist. I can’t wait.

In case you’re worried it’s all protest and journeys, this book is also warm, funny (she makes much of the “Illuminaunty” network of bossy, nosy women who know everything) and endearing (she’s excited when she makes friends with John Craven, who she used to watch on Newsround). She’s very proud of her Yorkshire roots and extols the virtues of her home county – and when she learns to drive, the first place she goes is up on the moors, away from everyone, on her own and free in nature.  

So a brave book, a wise and witty book, a book that confronts the shame Rani feels telling some of it and tells it anyway, that follows an actual journey she seems to have made in writing it. It’s not a frothy celebrity autobiography, but a solid, useful, decent book that will actively help people, much like its author.

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Liz is probably not the right sort of girl, either. She blogs about reading, running and working from home at http://www.librofulltime.wordpress.com

Anita Rani, The Right Sort of Girl (Blink, 2021). 978-178874236, 341pp., col. ill. hardback.

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