Neil Cooper talks to writer Jaimini Jethwa about going back to her roots

JAIMINI Jethwa was one year old when she and her parents were forced to leave Uganda and move to Dundee. That was in August 1972, when Uganda’s larger than life president Idi Amin had ordered the expulsion of all 80,000 Asian Ugandans from the country within a ninety-day period or else face the consequences. Before they left, Jethwa’s father had his own business, but Amin took that and everything else. When Jethwa’s family arrived in Dundee, her father had £7 in his pocket, and they were housed on a council estate in Fintry.

With little memory of the country where she was born, Jethwa and her family were the only family of colour on the estate. Any discussion within the family of who they were and how they ended up there was taboo. Jethwa became a film-maker, has worked on short films for the BBC, and developed specialist skills working with vulnerable young people and adults. Even though she was now based at Abertay University, she still had questions she wanted to ask about where she was from, and why as a child she’d been scared to go outside for reasons she couldn’t understand.

Jethwa was coming up to her fortieth birthday, and was in Spain. Conscious of how her own anniversary tallied with the fortieth anniversary of the expulsion, she found herself writing a poem. It wasn’t a documentary poem like the films she worked on, but was something both more personal and dramatic. Jethwa wanted to expand on this, and, through Creative Scotland’s International fund, visited Uganda. Once here, she talked to people who knew Amin and others who had lived through his terrors.

The result of this is The Last Queen of Scotland, Jethwa’s new dramatisation of the Asian Ugandan experience in response to being forced into exile by Amin’s brutal regime. Produced by Stellar Quines Theatre Company with support from the National Theatre of Scotland and Dundee Rep, the play, like her prodigal’s return, has seen Jethwa to face up to some of her personal demons.

“In a way it was me trying to find Idi Amin,” she says, mid-way through talking about a journey to writing The Last Queen of Scotland that was as much a mental and emotional one as it was physical. “I was reading books and watching films, and just became immersed in everything about him. It was like I was with Idi Amin all the time. He saturated my brain, and I wanted to follow in his footsteps. To exorcise the trauma I had to get close to him, so close that it made me sick, because I was frightened.

“It was the same as when I was a toddler, and I was scared to go out because I was frightened of seeing soldiers on the street. I didn’t know where that came from, because, culturally, Indian people don’t like to talk about what happened at all. Indian people are very good at moving forward. It was just something that happened, and then you moved on. I began to become aware of it all when I was about sixteen, and I started to make correlations in my mind. I decided that I had to face up to my fears, and the only way of doing that was by going back to Uganda.”

By this time, Jethwa had met Giles Foden at a symposium in London. Foden’s novel, The Last King of Scotland, was a fictional account of Amin’s regime which went on to be adapted for a film directed by Kevin Macdonald and starring Forest Whittaker and James McAvoy. After Jethwa explained to Foden the story she wanted to tell, Foden gave his blessing to the as-yet-unwritten play and its title.

“A lot of people who came from Uganda were sent to Leicester,” says Jethwa, “but we ended up in Dundee. When I started researching Idi Amin and learnt about his obsession with Scotland, it made me think, because he took Uganda off me, and we came here, and then he wanted to take Scotland off me, and I thought, nah, you’re not having that.”

Rather than tell her own story, Jethwa has fleshed out her play with her own fiction of a young woman older than her, and who remains more aware of what was going on when she left Uganda.

“I decided I wanted to do something that was visceral,” says Jethwa, “and which was something that could touch people. This is my love letter to Dundee for giving me a life. It’s a local story in that way, a community story. Dundee was quite a tough city when I first came here, and the play looks at trying to fit in. The character in the play gets into some very dangerous situations, and I think what I want the play to shed a light on is how she comes through that. One of the reasons I wanted to get this story out there is for people who are going through something similar now, and who might be confused about it. It’s also about owning your own history, and to not be ashamed of it.”

As directed by Stellar Quines artistic director and former head of Dundee Rep, Jemima Levick, and performed by Rehanna MacDonald, The Last Queen of Scotland previews in Dundee before forming part of this year’s Made in Scotland showcase at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

“We’re living in a different cultural climate,” says Jethwa. “Dundee is a multi-cultural city now, but if you go to the outskirts, like any place there’s still some old school ideas around. Other than that, Dundee has been transformed.”

Jethwa illustrates this with a story that took place just before she visited Uganda. “I was really nervous about going, and I went to the pub and bumped into these black Ugandan people. I was just staring at them, and eventually went and talked to them. It turned out they were at the University and were staying in Dundee. Part of me thought that me going to Uganda was going to be the end of my life, but these people put me in touch with their pals over there, and were really helpful.”

As a film-maker, Jethwa is conscious about wanting her story to reach as wide an audience as possible. If her play was to be filmed, there is so much she could expand on, she says. As a play too, Jethwa wants The Last Queen of Scotland to leave its mark.

“I want to try and open up theatre in a new style,” she says. “So many stories about refugees are restricted to black and Asian theatre, and one of my challenges is to get this to a mass audience. I would like to see it put on in Uganda, as well as other places where there is a big issue of segregation. That story is relevant anywhere. It’s not just about refugees, but obviously where we are politically just now makes that really important as well. There were people coming over here from Uganda who didn’t have a choice where they lived, and who came here with nothing. But it’s not just about the expulsion of Asians from Uganda. It has to have a resonance about human beings anywhere.”

The Last Queen of Scotland previews at Dundee Rep, July 21-22 then plays at Underbelly in Edinburgh, August 3-26, 6.50pm

Neil Cooper – The Herald