What story would you tell, if given the space to write anything? For Karim Khan, the playwright of Brown Boys Swim, the answer was in the depths of lived experience.
Born and raised in Oxford, England, Khan is a young playwright and screenwriter, known for his tightly written dialogue and cultural fidelity. Brown Boys Swim, his two-hander comedy centering on two friends as they learn to swim, explores the pressures young Muslim men face. The piece has already made quite the splash, winning a coveted Fringe First award, which celebrates exemplary new writing at the Fringe.
Playbill spoke with Khan about the play, how he embedded his own experiences throughout it, and the advice he keeps in mind before putting pen to paper.
What is it like to see the reception Brown Boys Swim has received at Fringe?
Karim Khan: It’s been incredibly lovely and slightly overwhelming. I was excited to see how the show would land with audiences after developing it for so long, but never anticipated this sort of response, or that we’d get a Fringe First! We’ve had some incredible reviews which have cut to the heart of my intentions of the show, and people have been sending in some super nice messages about how the show has resonated with them so deeply—that’s the most important thing for me and ultimately makes the experience of creating this piece all the more rewarding and special for me.
If you were to describe the Fringe in one phrase, how would you describe it?
A conglomeration of brilliant theatre and art – buzzing, bursting, bold.
What inspired Brown Boys Swim?
I was intrigued by how many of my South Asian friends and family members didn’t learn to swim or had learnt to swim later in their lives—just like I did. It seemed like there were innumerable barriers holding people against plunging themselves in the deep water, which I really wanted to quietly interrogate. Swimming and drowning also felt like a fascinating and apt metaphor to capture the young British Pakistani Muslim experience. I wanted to create a coming-of-age story told through that lens—one I hadn’t seen across TV or theatre before—one that captured the beautiful joy and the unspoken truths that come with that experience.
As someone who was born and raised in Oxford, what details from your own life are embedded in Brown Boys Swim and its familiar setting?
The spaces that are in the play are all places I’ve immersed in at various point, and still do—from the central mosque to the local leisure centre pool—which makes the piece feel all the more personal and visceral. I grew up in Oxford just like these lads, unsure of where I’d see my future, whether I’d remain friends with the people I grew up with. There’s one specific moment in the play which is an allusion to something that actually happened in Oxford, and it remains deep in the Oxford psyche—almost everyone who’s lived in Oxford, especially the Muslim community will understand the reference, and it will cut deep.
What excites and inspires you as a writer?
I think it’s often compelling and complex characters who get under my skin—people I’d love to hang out with. You grow to love your characters as a writer, even if they’re not considered “good,” so enjoying them as entertaining people. I’m also really drawn to images and metaphors—which encapsulate the larger ideas and themes that are at the front of my brain.
Do you see more of yourself in Kash or Mohsen?
I definitely see more of myself in Mohsen—he’s quiet and thoughtful and cautious, but he has sudden bursts of confidence where you see him shine. Kash is almost too effortlessly cool to have any resemblance to me. There are parts of Kash that I share though. There’s one specific memory that he has that was taken straight from my life.
You do quite a bit of writing for TV these days, in addition to your work as a playwright; any plans for Brown Boys Swim to transition to the screen?
A few TV people have already shown interest in the show, and I think there’s a really exciting TV adaptation in this, but I wouldn’t want to rush into it—it would have to be with the right people at the right time. The fact that audiences have already been really enjoying the show has spurred me to want to take it even further, and get it to even more audiences possibly on their sofas, behind their tellies.
Do you have anything you would like to say to someone going through similar experiences to Kash and Mohsen?
There’s one particular moment in the play between Mohsen and Kash where one of them tells the other to “love themselves,” and not worry too much about anyone else, or what they think. Perhaps this is a bit of advice I wish I told my younger self, or other young people. You’re so insecure as a teenager and that carries through into your 20s. I think the moment you realize you don’t need to worry about other people’s opinions of you is perhaps one of the most freeing feelings in the world—and I wish young people, especially those from my community, were encouraged to just love themselves.
If you could go back in time, and give yourself one piece of advice before sitting down to write Brown Boys Swim, what would it be?
I’m not sure if I would give myself any advice. I think everything happened for the right reason at the right time, and perhaps if something was attempted differently, it might push things a little off kilter. I remember worrying about what it was that I wanted to write next. I was mulling on ideas for weeks if not months, but it was freeing to really mine deeply into the story that was important to me, and to not try and second guess what the industry wanted, but to be truthful to what I wanted to explore and do. Going forward, I want to trust my own instincts and push my own thoughts—especially across my TV projects. This dramaturgical process was so rare because John, the director, really encouraged me to listen to my own instincts and thoughts and feelings, which I think has enabled a stronger piece of writing.
Do you have any other Fringe shows that you would recommend?
I would recommend Peacephobia by the incredible Common Wealth. It’s a rare piece of theatre that people should definitely go to. I also really enjoyed Bloody Harmony, Glasses Half-Empty, How to Build a Wax Figure, Blanket Ban, Boy, Caste-ing, and A Sudden Burst of Violent Rain. There’s so much brilliant stuff on.
Following the completion of Fringe, Brown Boys Swim will transfer to London’s Soho Theatre for a fall run following a return engagement in Oxford.