Asia Literary Review
Vol. 24, August 2012
Non-fiction | Asia
OVER THE LAST TWO DECADES, in part due to the success of a small number of novels, plays, films, music albums and television shows, the term ‘British Asian’ has emerged as an identity marker associated with the cultural practices of second-generation South Asian immigrants, born and/or brought up in Britain. There is one overwhelming narrative associated with this label: the tale of the second generation’s efforts to assimilate into mainstream British society, and the clash with their ‘traditional’ or ‘backward’ parents, who hinder this process. According to this reading, these parents make life difficult for their children, who simply want to be ‘normal’ – to go out with friends, to have boyfriends or girlfriends, to drink, to wear Western clothes, to cut their hair in a Western style. The parents are seen to continue to hold on to traditions and customs that should be irrelevant to them now that they are living in a land of freedom, pleasure and plenty.
But are these the only stories we British Asians have to tell? Is this the only subject we want to write about? Is this the only way that we want to write about this subject? To challenge the dominance of this narrative, and to initiate a discussion on the pressures upon British Asian writers to perpetuate this narrative, I was recently involved in putting together Too Asian, Not Asian Enough, a collection of short stories by British Asian writers who were free to focus on anything they liked.
Each time the media highlights a protest – when a caste or a religious minority speaks out against a play, or demands for a book to be banned, or objects to a cartoon or prevents a writer from coming to a festival – liberals roll their eyes in exasperation. They use terms such as ‘freedom of expression’, ‘savage’, ‘uncivilised’ and ‘ignorant’. And in sometimes condescending tones they respond by saying, ‘Don’t these people understand that it’s fiction?’, ‘Why don’t they write books of their own instead of creating a spectacle?’, ‘Have they even read (the book/play)?’ By doing so these people reaffirm their preconceptions of religion, particular religious, caste communities.
These protestors are seen to threaten the freedom of expression of British Asian writers. However, there are also other more subtle ways in which writers are silenced, which are rarely discussed so widely. For example there are the pressures of writing for a predominantly white, middle-class audience. It is primarily white, middle-class publishers, agents and readers, who select, shape and absorb literature from outside the canon, and this dictates or influences what an author writes. British Asian writers generally refrain from speaking out against these constraints for fear of being ostracized. Feeling powerless, they accept this as just the way things are.
The contributors to Too Asian, Not Asian Enough leaped at the opportunity to showcase their talent and to write about a diverse range of topics and settings, from ancient Rome to a US university campus; from absurd, subversive, experimental tales to ones that were funny, quirky, fresh.
If these are the stories we British Asians are writing, why do our published works tend to rehash the same handful of themes and, in particular, the theme of inter-generational conflict set against the backdrop of culture clash? The answer is, in part, connected to the commodification of literature, whereby the writing of an ethnic group becomes a genre (like chick-lit, detective fiction, thriller), and its writers find themselves constrained within the bounds of a brand – a formulaic and ultimately oppressive expectation.
British Asian writers deserve the latitude to write about other subjects, places and people, and to experiment with other forms. However, because a writer’s name, ethnicity and religion are weighted with a familiar and specific marketing spin, publishers are not always receptive to something beyond this narrow remit – often, the only alternative to writing the British Asian story is to write about an exotic India or political Pakistan. This in turn breeds the idea that we British Asians need to ‘use’ our identity label while it is in demand, and that we should exhibit loyalty to the brand. To give one example, a story from the anthology was recently selected for a radio dramatization. A week before the recording, the producers asked that the setting be changed from Europe to India. When he refused they called him ‘difficult’ and his story was dropped.
In any event, the label ‘British Asian’ is misleading. The narrative commonly ascribed to it is a generalisation and a distortion of the experiences of those immigrants who originate from villages and towns in just a few areas of the subcontinent – Punjab, Gujarat, Mirpur and Sylhet. This group moved to Britain mainly for economic reasons and often had neither the ability nor the desire to assimilate into what, for them, was an alien culture. It is almost inevitable that there would be a clash or misunderstanding between this first generation and the subsequent one, born and brought up in strikingly different circumstances. These immigrants have been part of Britain’s working class, a factor that became integral to the label ‘British Asian’.
But what about the ‘British Asian’ writers who are from other regions and classes, whose families are from more cosmopolitan and urban environments? These writers struggle to relate to a ‘culture clash’ narrative that doesn’t correspond to their own experience. Unfortunately, the British Asian label, shaped by economic circumstances and an Orientalist gaze, doesn’t consider the layers of complexity within an ethnic group. These other writers are perceived to be inauthentic, not gritty enough, and from families who are not sufficiently alien. They don’t necessarily identify with bhangra, arranged marriages, Bollywood, saris, bindis or the hijab. The mainstream, unable to engage with the specificity and diversity of the ‘other’, seeks to manage diversity by homogenising it.
The expectation that they will adhere to the given narrative also inhibits writers whose family and community life do happen to reflect aspects of the perceived immigrant experience; who do have arranged or forced marriages, who do watch Bollywood films, wear bindis and saris, or hijabs, and who do identify to some extent with this cultural context and want to write about it. There seems to be little space for anything beyond a tokenistic, superficial and unthreatening version of ‘British Asianness’.
Since the anthology was published I have been asked repeatedly if the stories are ‘universal’. Or, as if it were a compliment, I have been told that they are universal.
The mainstream is obsessed with the universal as a key marker of good literature. However, like ‘globalisation’ and ‘cosmopolitan’, ‘universal’ has become a front for something specific – a dominant way of seeing the world. Literature is seen as ‘universal’ when it doesn’t disrupt ‘our’ sense of ourselves on a deeper ideological level, when it affirms that the Other is really ‘just like us’ and when it elicits sympathy on these grounds. In this way, ‘universal’ literature can silence other voices.
British Asian stories that we see again and again, and that are absorbed into the mainstream, do not disturb established ideologies and world views. Instead they affirm the dominant values of modernity, capitalism, secularism, liberalism and individualism – values at the heart of British mainstream culture. They tend to centre on the obstacles faced by a character on the path to assimilation, and are almost always told from the perspective of the second generation. They are antagonistic towards the first generation’s attachment to religion, culture, place of origin and language; and this attachment is generally presented as stereotypically ridiculous, comical and obstructive. We are often guilty of perpetuating this narrative, and some of us have become mouthpieces for a certain kind of racism – making fun of first-generation migrants who speak English with an accent, who are not Westernised or completely assimilated.
Recently, I was at an event where a prominent ‘British Asian’ poet was performing a poem about a Sikh shopkeeper. He used an exaggerated, comical Indian accent. As the compère pointed out, the poem would have had a very different reception if a non-Asian member of the audience had delivered the same piece, with a similar accent.
A majority of second-generation British Asians have a strong attachment to the cultures, languages and religious practices of their families and communities. It is not easy to reject all such connections out of hand: the truth is, most of us don’t wish to. They are part of who we are – not the cause of a simple, binary ‘culture clash’ from which we suffer, but more like threads woven into the broader pattern that makes up our identity. Why are these aspects of our identity so rarely explored in literature?
No matter how much we claim to be writing for ourselves, the truth is that we also write for an audience, and it is through the eyes of this audience that we observe the world we write about. Since we are writing for predominantly white middle-class publishers, agents and readers, it is difficult to avoid looking through their eyes at our own families and communities. From this perspective, first-generation immigrants may appear strange, ridiculous, comical, even sinister. This perspective also allows us to be lazy: we are not required to have a deep understanding of the history, religion, politics, art, written and oral literature and culture of this first generation, and therefore of ourselves. It is of course healthy and important to be critical, but we must consider whether we are being constructive and compassionate or if we are saying what others want to hear.
Today we must grapple with a new form of Orientalism where, by virtue of our brown skin and foreign-sounding names, we are given licence to write about people and communities we know or care little about. We should not write with the same ignorance, generalisation and exoticism that Westerners have employed, we must catch ourselves before we fall into the trap of simplifying our identities or performing them. Instead, we must strive to understand and express our own complexity.