I have a confession to make. I am, very possibly, the only person in the country who doesn’t watch Great British Bake Off. Not, as you might imagine, because I don’t like baking – the opposite is true and it’s one of my favourite pastimes; I just have no interest in watching other people bake.
That said, I don’t live under a rock, so I’m familiar with Nadiya Hussain and the incredible journey she’s been on since winning GBB in 2015. She’s become one of the most famous people in the country, her blend of charm and humour winning her countless fans – and I was delighted to secure tickets to her interview at the Southbank Centre by Emma Freud.
For those of you unfamiliar with Nadiya’s story, she was born in Luton to Bangladeshi parents, and entered into an arranged marriage aged 19. Three children followed, in quick succession, accompanied by horrendous periods of anxiety and depression. Approaching her 30th birthday, Hussain found herself “having completely lost the desire for life. I was sleeping a lot and had no physical contact with anyone. My kids lived their lives in my bedroom, playing and eating.” This went on for months, until her husband told her that she needed to do something “for herself”. It was Abdal who wrote her GBB application for her; Nadiya completed it “just to humour him”. The rest, as they say…
Before we get on to GBB, however, let’s travel back in time 36 years. Hussain’s new memoir, ‘Finding My Voice’, begins with her birth – and her father’s unfortunate reaction. “Bastard!” was his response to being told that he had a third daughter. Unsurprisingly, it took Hussain a long time to see the funny side of this story: “But the older I’ve got, I’ve found it therapeutic to understand my father’s perspective. In the village community into which it was born, it was really important to have a son. That was instilled into him – and he couldn’t change.”
Nadiya grew up in Luton “…with Bangladeshi values. We lived in a weird little bubble.” She learned to speak Bangladeshi and Arabic and went to a school where all her fellow pupils were Bangladeshi or Pakistani: “The only English thing about it was the chips at lunchtime.”
Primary school was a nightmare. “I was the darkest kid in school and mocked – horrifically – for it. I still struggle to talk about it”. Two of Nadiya’s Pakistani classmates use to smash her fingers between doors and, among other hideous acts, flush her head down the toilet. Because two of her siblings were very ill, Hussain didn’t tell her parents, but did tell a cousin, who beat one of the perpetrators up “and made things worse”. Nor did her teachers help: “They used to tell me to ignore it and it would go away.”
Aged nine years old, Hussain decided to kill herself after overhearing her older cousins discussing suicide: “Even though I loved learning, and school itself, I needed a way out.” Scouring the house, she discovered her father’s paracetamol: the answer, she thought. However, “I hadn’t anticipated how difficult it would be to get them out of the packet – or how hard it would be to swallow them. I laugh about it now – but cry when I think of my own children doing it.”
Just as Hussain had washed down her sixth pill her father called Nadiya and her four siblings downstairs to tell them that their mother was having another baby: “I decided that I had to stay around, to see this kid.” Only during the past year has Nadiya talked to her parents about the bullying.
Thankfully, Hussain’s all-girl high school proved a far happier experience and she enjoyed her time there, doing well academically and securing a university place. However, two weeks before she was due to take up said place: “My parents said no. So I took on a passive-aggressive role, slamming doors around the house – but the fight had gone. I knew I wouldn’t win.” Instead, Nadiya accepted three different jobs and “…worked really hard. My parents never saw me.” Her mother, she says, felt guilty and used to turn up at Nadiya’s office with plates of food – but still her parents continued to say no to all of her career ideas, which included midwifery – and being a chef.
Having grown up in a culture where most of their peers had arranged marriages, Hussain’s parents expected her to do the same. For her part, Nadiya “couldn’t be bothered” with dating. Instead, her father and now father-in-law, who had known each other since their teens, discussed a potential match between their children. For one month, Nadiya and Abdal spoke to each other on the phone, eventually swapping photos: “I liked what I saw, but was worried he would think I was too brown.”
At their engagement party (at which Hussain’s father-in-law commented “She’s got good teeth”), the couple saw each other for four minutes. “He hadn’t got me an engagement ring because he didn’t know my ring size – so instead, he gave me a hideous bracelet.” One month later, the couple had an Islamic wedding in Bangalore (“My father said it would be cheaper!”), attended by 3,000 people.
The couple moved to Leeds, where Abdal is from and had their two sons and their daughter very quickly. She did not, Hussain says, fall in love with her husband until after their second son was born and spent much of her 20s unhappy and on anti-depressants.
When Nadiya was selected as a contestant for GBB, she “…didn’t react in the way the producers wanted – but my husband was ecstatic. I still didn’t want to do it – but he cajoled me into giving it a try.” Life was, she says, “horrific” for the ten-week duration of GBB, during which she suffered frequent panic attacks. Nadiya was also sleep-deprived and having to film the show in secrecy, having not told a single family member about it.
When she won GBB, Nadiya gave a touching speech saying that she had “finally found her voice: “It was unrehearsed; I never believed I would win.” Yet, she cannot bring herself to watch it back, even now, despite what the show means to her: “I had to jump so many hurdles to win – and it was much more than a baking show to me.”
Race, and religion, are never far from Nadiya Hussain’s mind. After GBB, the first thing she read about herself in the newspapers was that she was a “30 year-old Muslim housewife on benefits.” Determined to disprove that, today she responds to critics, including Twitter trolls, “with love”. She finds it difficult, she says, to “prove” how British / Muslim / Bangladeshi she is: “I’ve never claimed to be the perfect representative of any of them: I do my best; that’s all I can do.” Social media, she commented, is a wonderful tool in many ways, as she’s able to communicate with so many different people “…especially about mental health. But it’s a double-edged sword and I do come off it every now and again.”
As for being a celebrity: “It embarrasses my children. I’ll always stop and say hello to people, but I won’t have my photo taken if my kids are with me.” Fame, Hussain continued “…can be fun, but again is double-edged.”
In writing her memoir, Hussain addressed, for the first time, the fact that she was sexually abused by a relative at the age of five – a fact she hadn’t acknowledged until a biology lesson at school, following which “I vomited into a sink”. Uncertain whether to include such a traumatic experience in the book, she says that she feels “very exposed” for having done so. Touchingly, her sons, who are 13 and 12, have both read her account of what happened and her older son told her he wished he could travel back in time and hug the young Nadiya.
This is a long post, but I found Nadiya Hussain to be such an eloquent – and frank – speaker that I wanted to do justice to Emma Freud’s interview with her. I hope that you have got as much out of this conversation as I did.