In playwright Bilal Baig's newest work, Acha Bacha (forthcoming from Playwrights Canada), a queer Muslim man
must reconcile two parts of his identity over the course of one life-changing day.
Zaya is used to living in dual worlds, successfully keeping his faith and sexuality separate by managing the distance between his calculating mother and genderqueer partner. When one lands in the hospital on the same day the other is leaving for pilgrimage, however, his finely-crafted dance comes completely undone, and Zaya must confront the truth, trauma, and memories he's tried to hard to avoid.
Navigating queer identity, Islam, and complex family dynamics, Acha Bacha is a study of how love is felt and accepted across seemingly uncross-able cultural lines.
We're very excited to have Bilal at Open Book today as part of our Entitled interview series, where we discuss the origin of Acha Bacha's title, why choosing a title in Urdu became a way to speak directly to certain communities, and why the best book titles pack a powerful slap.
Tell us about the title of your newest work and how you came to it.
I may not be remembering correctly, because my play was seven years in the making, but I think I remember typing Acha Bacha out as part of one of the characters’ lines and it immediately hit me: this has to be the title of the play. That line no longer exists in the work, but the title still holds up for me because it’s an iconic term used excessively by Urdu/Hindi-speaking parents (mostly). In English it translates to ‘good child’ or ‘good boy’. It’s the gold standard you try to reach if you grew up in a household like mine. It’s a shaming weapon used against you when you do something bad. It’s what my assaulter called me (in English) when he wanted to own my silence. And really, it’s so fitting for the play because the piece is an investigation into what it takes to feel good in a queer South Asian body that is carrying trauma, memories, expectations, and desires that conflict.
What, in your opinion, is most important function of a title?
I think titles should provoke – or agitate – readers. Stir something in us. Shake us, slap us. Confuse or devastate us. Ultimately, the book wants to be held by its reader so the title’s gotta do whatever it takes to make that happen. I suppose it’s all subjective, based on the readers’ taste. Well, now you all know I want to be slapped by a book title.
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What is your favourite title as a reader, from someone else's work?
Okay. Come on. Hands down, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. It was a title that knocked me out the moment I heard it. It’s an epic statement that refuses to apologize as it stares at you. And it’s got a contraction in it. Can we be any bolder? I was also really touched by In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney and I Cannot Lie to the Stars That Made Me by Catherine Hernandez. Such deep, uncompromising truths woven together by a few deliciously selected words.
How do you feel about single-word titles?
Maybe my answer to the last question might give away this answer but…ugh. Not a big fan. I just find that single-word titles often lack imagination or take themselves too seriously. I know I’m generalizing here. I don’t hate all single-word titles - I’m just often unimpressed by them. They don’t rock my entire world the way longer titles do, or the way titles in other languages do (including titles in languages I don’t understand). I’m not afraid of single-word titles. They don’t make me nervous enough.
Did you consider any other titles for your current book and if so, what were they? Why did you decide to go with the title you eventually picked?
Yes! The play came out of me with the title ‘Little Dirty Sweet Boy’ when I wrote the first draft in 2013. It never totally felt right, and at the time I didn’t know why. But about a year ago, I made a discovery: plays that come out of me – or are meant to come out of me – with an Urdu title are created to center queer/trans Urdu-speaking people in the experience of reading/witnessing the work. This doesn’t mean it’s not for other people to engage with - it simply means that if you are queer/trans and Urdu-speaking you will most likely pick up on nuances, jokes, and hidden gems inside the work crafted intentionally for you. Plays that come out of me in English might center other communities I spend a lot of time thinking about (ie. trans women of colour or straight South Asian people, etc). Maybe one day I’ll write a play with an English title made for a white, middle-class, cis/straight, theatre-going audience…maybe not.
It’s a great discovery for me, because it clarifies exactly who I’m making the work for as the piece is coming out of me (so far, I’ve found my titles at the start or in the middle of my writing process). It’s also cool as I reflect on ‘Acha Bacha’ when my gut – all the way back in 2013 when I really didn’t have a lot of this language – was yelling at me to birth the title that would reach the communities I really wanted to speak to through this play.
Bilal Baig is a queer-genderqueer-Muslim playwright and workshop facilitator. Bilal’s plays include Kitne Saare Laloo Yahan Pey Hain, Kainchee Lagaa, Eraser, blue eyes killed him without blinking, and Acha Bacha. Bilal is a workshop facilitator for non-profits such as Story Planet and Rivers of Hope Collective, and is a founding member of acolourdeep.ca, a platform that strives to create online/offline spaces for queer/trans South Asians across the GTA. Bilal is based in Toronto.