Cultivasian Conference: The Death of Multiculturalism? (August 2006)
Panellists:Rajeev Balasubramanyam, a novelist, writer and workshop leader. Aki Nawaz, a British rapper and musician, part of the Islamic rap band Fun-Da-Mental. Yasmin Ali-Bhai Brown, a well known journalist who is a regular columnist with the Independent. Suhayl Saadi, a novelist, stage and radio dramatist based in Glasgow, Scotland. Chaired by: Anjan Saha, a London based writer, musician and arts consultant.
As communities are seen to protest against the work of writers for being inauthentic or not representing them in a positive light, the question arises, do artists represent any community?
This notion of artistic representation initially arises, according to Rajeev, when a community is not visible in the arts, when there is just the odd film or novel portraying them. This was the case earlier, for South Asians in Britain. Today, Rajeev argued, having seen “twenty five Bend it Like Beckhams and nothing else” visibility is not the problem, ideology is.
The frustration that people feel today is no longer because the only representation of them is negative, but because all the representations of them are the same, because just one narrative, one ideology is getting through. “People only get angry when they don’t see their particular ideological position manifested in parliamentary politics or in artistic representation.”
According to Rajeev, alternative narratives are out there, but are with the small publishers. The example he gave was of Manzu Islam’s Burrow, a novel about which Sukhdev Sandhu wrote “Monica Ali isn’t the first person to write about the Bangladeshi communities who live in Brick Lane.” Unlike Brick Lane however, Burrow, published with Peepal Tree Press, had no marketing, no publicity and sold no more than five hundred copies.
As far as Rajeev is concerned, the fault lies with large publishing houses who only publish one narrative. “Don’t blame the writer, blame the system for setting such a narrow range of co ordinates. Don’t blame Monica Ali, blame the system that prevents Burrow from being out there.”
Writers who write outside the ideological consensus must “form links with agents and publishers and get into the mainstream. I don’t think the small presses are going to have the clout required to bring about an ideological change in Britain. For there to be an ideological change…our ideologies need to enter the mainstream.”
In the end, Rajeev remained optimistic; “as long as we continue to demand intelligent cinema and literature, there won’t be a problem, the consensus will break down. There will be a problem if we treat cinema and literature as yet another commodity to fill up the hours of the day.” He finished with: “the writing’s there, but it’s up to us as consumers to force the publishing industry to change.”
Aki began by agreeing with Rajeev that there are a lot of people working on the fringes of art. “The mainstream may be presenting Bend it Like Beckham but we’ve been bending a lot of things unlike Beckham for a long time and will continue to bend them.”
However, while Rajeev spoke of the need for writers with alternative ideologies to come into the mainstream, Aki appeared to have made a conscious decision to reject the ‘mainstream;’ “I don’t even claim myself to be a musician. I don’t want to work within the parameters that the music industry sets, that the political arena sets. I’ve had enough of it.”
Expressing his frustration, after years of being seen as the ‘other,’ Aki spoke of the colonial mentality of those at the realms of power; a mentality which has been appropriated by Black and Asian communities who “have always been submissive and apologetic.”
Widening the debate, Aki spoke of current British politics; of a multicultural policy which has been imposed on minorities, of the thousands who have been killed by Britain in the Iraq war but are not seen to count, and of the need for people to speak out against a political system which “tells us we can only speak in these parameters, in these conditions.”
They’re so many artists who are scared to go over the line…We’ve got some very important issues before us and we’re talking about the slaughter of human beings. For any artist to even think about his own ego and not put himself forward is doing a disservice to the whole notion of what art is supposedly about.
Art, as far as Aki is concerned, is a political weapon and artists have a duty to make a political statement. His conception of art also places the artist in a particular role as spokesperson and defender of his community, which is how Aki perceives himself and his work;
I could have taken that road, to look at our community and be totally critical. But I’m going to stick up for our communities. Because there’s enough people out there who are encouraged to be against our community. So I take a position. I know how Sikh people felt about Bezhti because I felt the same about Salman Rushdie…Me personally, my art says I will attack the establishment, but where something means something to somebody, whether it’s a Hindu or Jew, if it’s something which is dear to their heart, I don’t need to go there.
This left Aki open to the criticism from the audience that his stance is contradictory; on one hand demanding the freedom to criticise the system, and on the other, critical of any censure of minority communities, which is dangerous for it leads to communities becoming static and sweeping their issues under the carpet.
While answering a question toward the end of the discussion, Yasmin decried a tendency on the panel, to “dismiss a lot of highly intelligent and engaged white people who come from all classes, who have been part of progressive politics…it’s wrong to blame everything that happens to us on white middle class power.”
Perhaps in response to the criticisms of the ‘system’ thus far, Yasmin began her speech by paying homage to London for the freedoms it has allowed her, declaring that she would not have had such freedom in any of the places she is historically and ethnically attached to.
“More freedom,” Yasmin declared, “is better than less, always, and all human societies should strive for greater freedom of expression.” Rather than being the political tool that it seems to be for Aki, art, for Yasmin, appears to occupy a sacred place; the individual’s creativity and freedom to express himself comes before the feelings of any community; “I don’t believe artists should be beholden to what communities feel about them.” Yasmin herself refuses to be a spokesperson for any community, not even for her own family. She cited the recent case of Hindu fundamentalists having the works of renowned Indian painter MF Hussain, removed from Asia House. She also gave the example of Gurpreet Bhatti and her play Bezhti:
What is deeply sad is that a bright young woman playwright has been driven underground and is no more able to do what she wants creatively. That is a scandal. I don’t care really how hurt Sikhs were.
However, Yasmin recognised the complexities within the notion of freedom, accepting that there can never be an absolute freedom of expression, only a debate about where a society draws the line. Yasmin also acknowledged, like previous panellists, that the reactions of communities are bound up with the power of an establishment which is selective in which story it allows through, for this choice “decides who may be provoked into over reaction and who may not.”
“I want to make a programme for Channel Four or BBC to look at the racism of Israelis who treat Arabs the way they do. I will be working on this and you know that in five years this programme will not be made. It will not welcome the embrace of broadcasters. If I went to them today and said I can make you yet another programme about mad Muslim men who hate you…I would be commissioned tomorrow.”
Therefore, although she did not agree with Rajeev that there is just one narrative that gets through, Yasmin acknowledged that there is often an implicit understanding of what will sell and what will not. Apart from the presentation of a certain world view, she suggested other possible criteria for bringing about the embrace of broadcasters and publishers; including that “dubious Oxbridge, white block of excellence,” and a focus on what is perceived to be ‘Asian’. For example, while Monica Ali’s book about Asians on Brick Lane was lauded, her second book, set in a Portugese Holiday village has been met with criticism, with the subtext being; “what does this woman know about a holiday village in Portugal?”
Citing various influences, from music to literature, from Scotland to South Asia, Suhayl Saadi consciously attempts, in his writing, to “junk the clichéd portrayals of so-called ‘Brit-Asian’ consciousness and existence, being mediated always through such simplistic tropes such as hip-hop, bhangra, mangoes, weddings and curries.” He has always tried, in his work, to “push the envelope, to delve into and puncture preconceptions, including my own.”
However, Suhayl “soon discovered that the doors of perception tend to swing shut in one’s face.” Apart from an erotic novel, which he penned under a French Pseudonym, he has had difficulty getting all his books published, and when they have been it has been with small-scale Edinburgh-based publishers rather than trans-national corporate entities.
Suhayl went on to dissect the industry, offering reasons for why the gatekeepers in publishing and book retailing do not have the “means or the will to comprehend, market or critique” alternative narratives such as his own.
One factor is the social make up of those within the industry; the fact that “they are drawn overwhelmingly from a single social class and single ethnic group.” This, according to Suhayl, is not something that is sufficiently recognised and analysed.
Suhayl suggested that an ‘imperial hang-over’ is also to blame. This is to be found amongst the large publishers, manifested as “an expectation of exoticism in anything produced by Asian writers,” and “the assumption that the writer will share the pre-conceptual world-view of the upper middle class English, who of course imagine that they are very liberal, broad-minded and tolerant and omniscient.” Suhayl also recognised the degree to which Black and Asian writers internalise the dominant norms of imperialism and suggested that they were ‘playing to the gallery.’ “It’s much more difficult,” he said, “to write about British society in ways which internally deconstruct these tropes of white dominance.”
Like Yasmin, Suhayl also mentioned the ‘Public School and Oxbridge or Ivy League’ background that sometimes seems imperative for writers, adding to this the fact that “all meaningful power in the arts is concentrated in London among what is really a very small circle of individuals and corporate entities.”
“All this suggests,” Suhayl concluded, “that it is very difficult to do something new in the face of multiple barriers and layers of structural exclusion.” However, he remained positive that exciting stuff is happening, and hoped that this was the beginning of the formation of a critical mass.
I think that in literature, important black voices will continue to seep into the public discourse, but this is likely to be in spite of, rather than because of, a very conservative and totally unaccountable and increasingly unimaginative publishing-retailing industry.
For Yasmin, art is sacred; the individual’s creativity and self expression are important. For Aki, art is a political tool, secondary to a cause, and it is wrong for an artist to put self-expression first, at the cost of a community.
These are very different conceptions of the role of art in a society. However what is evident from all the discussions is that even art as self expression cannot be seen as pure, disengaged from the political. Whilst everybody gathers to the chant of ‘freedom of expression’ whenever a community protests a play or burns a book, it is often forgotten that the artist’s ‘freedom’ is also limited by those who hold the reins of power, who decide what does and doesn’t get published or commissioned, who only let certain ideologies through.
There is also a third form of censorship however, suggested by Suhayl; the self-censorship of the writer who appropriates the ideologies of the ‘mainstream.’ Although Rajeev seems to be confident that alternative narratives are out there, suggesting that the problem lies only with the publishing industry, perhaps there are not yet enough and grass roots work needs to nurture new voices.