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Cultivasian Conference: The Death of Multiculturalism? (August 2006): Arts Panel

Cultivasian Conference: The Death of Multiculturalism? (August 2006)

Arts Panel

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.

Rajeev Balasubramanyam

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 Nawaz

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.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

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?”

Suhayl Saadi

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.

I am not your data by Abhay Xaxa

I am not your data

I am not your data, nor am I your vote bank,
I am not your project, or any exotic museum object,
I am not the soul waiting to be harvested,
Nor am I the lab where your theories are tested,

I am not your cannon fodder, or the invisible worker,
or your entertainment at India habitat center,
I am not your field, your crowd, your history,

your help, your guilt, medallions of your victory,

I refuse, reject, resist your labels,
your judgments, documents, definitions,
your models, leaders and patrons,
because they deny me my existence, my vision, my space,

your words, maps, figures, indicators,
they all create illusions and put you on pedestal,
from where you look down upon me,

So I draw my own picture, and invent my own grammar,
I make my own tools to fight my own battle,
For me, my people, my world, and my Adivasi self!

– Abhay Xaxa

Too Asian, Not Asian Enough

Asia Literary Review
Vol. 24, August 2012
Non-fiction | Asia
Kavita Bhanot

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.

Extracts from Steve Biko, ‘I write what I like’

Extracts from Steve Biko, ‘I write what I like’

The call for Black Consciousness is the most positive call to come from any group in the black world for a long time. It is more than just a reactionary rejection of whites by blacks. The quintessence of it is the realisation by the blacks that, in order to feature well in this game of power politics, they have to use the concept of group power and to build a strong foundation for this. Being an historically, politically, socially and economically disinherited and dispossessed group, they have the strongest foundation from which to operate. The philosophy of Black Consciousness, therefore, expresses group pride and the determination by the blacks to rise and attain the envisaged self. At the heart of this kind of thinking is the realisation by the blacks that the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed. Once the latter has been so effectively manipulated and controlled by the oppressor as to make the oppressed believe that he is a liability to the white man, then there will be nothing the oppressed can do that will really scare the powerful masters. Hence thinking along lines of Black Consciousness makes the black man see himself as a being, entire in himself, and not as an extension of a broom or additional leverage to some machine.

At the end of it all, he cannot tolerate attempts by anybody to dwarf the significance of his manhood. Once this happens, we shall know that the real man in the black person is beginning to shine through.

Our culture must be defined in concrete terms. We must relate the past to the present and demonstrate an historical evolution of the modern African. We must reject the attempts by the powers that be to project an arrested image of our culture. This is not the sum total of our culture. They have deliberately arrested our culture at the tribal stage to perpetuate the myth that African people were near cannibals, had no real ambitions in life, and were preoccupied with sex and drink. In fact the wide-spread vice often found in the African townships is a result of the interference of the White man in the natural evolution of the true native culture. Wherever colonisation is a fact, the indigenous culture begins to rot and among the ruins
something begins to be born which is condemned to exist on the margin allowed it by the European culture.’ It is through the evolution of our genuine culture that our identity can be fully rediscovered.

Hence we must resist the attempts by protagonists of the bantustan theory to fragment our approach. We are oppressed not as individuals, not as Zulus, Xhosas, Vendas or Indians. We are oppressed because we are black. We must use that very concept to unite ourselves and to respond as a cohesive group. We must cling to each other with a tenacity that will shock the perpetrators of evil.

“Silence for Gaza” by Mahmoud Darwish

Silence for Gaza by Mahmoud Darwish

Gaza is far from its relatives and close to its enemies, because whenever Gaza explodes, it becomes an island and it never stops exploding. It scratched the enemy’s face, broke his dreams and stopped his satisfaction with time.

Because in Gaza time is something different.

Because in Gaza time is not a neutral element.

It does not compel people to cool contemplation, but rather to explosion and a collision with reality.

Time there does not take children from childhood to old age, but rather makes them men in their first confrontation with the enemy.

Time in Gaza is not relaxation, but storming the burning noon. Because in Gaza values are different, different, different.

The only value for the occupied is the extent of his resistance to occupation. That is the only competition there. Gaza has been addicted to knowing this cruel, noble value. It did not learn it from books, hasty school seminars, loud propaganda megaphones, or songs. It learned it through experience alone and through work that is not done for advertisement and image.

Gaza has no throat. Its pores are the ones that speak in sweat, blood, and fires. Hence the enemy hates it to death and fears it to criminality, and tries to sink it into the sea, the desert, or blood. And hence its relatives and friends love it with a coyness that amounts to jealousy and fear at times, because Gaza is the brutal lesson and the shining example for enemies and friends alike.

Gaza is not the most beautiful city.

Its shore is not bluer than the shores of Arab cities.

Its oranges are not the most beautiful in the Mediterranean basin.

Gaza is not the richest city.

It is not the most elegant or the biggest, but it equals the history of an entire homeland, because it is more ugly, impoverished, miserable, and vicious in the eyes of enemies. Because it is the most capable, among us, of disturbing the enemy’s mood and his comfort. Because it is his nightmare. Because it is mined oranges, children without a childhood, old men without old age and women without desires. Because of all this it is the most beautiful, the purest and richest among us and the one most worthy of love.

We do injustice to Gaza when we look for its poems, so let us not disfigure Gaza’s beauty. What is most beautiful in it is that it is devoid of poetry at a time when we tried to triumph over the enemy with poems, so we believed ourselves and were overjoyed to see the enemy letting us sing. We let him triumph, then when we dried our lips of poems we saw that the enemy had finished building cities, forts and streets. We do injustice to Gaza when we turn it into a myth, because we will hate it when we discover that it is no more than a small poor city that resists.

We do injustice when we wonder: What made it into a myth? If we had dignity, we would break all our mirrors and cry or curse it if we refuse to revolt against ourselves. We do injustice to Gaza if we glorify it, because being enchanted by it will take us to the edge of waiting and Gaza doesn’t come to us. Gaza does not liberate us. Gaza has no horses, airplanes, magic wands, or offices in capital cities. Gaza liberates itself from our attributes and liberates our language from its Gazas at the same time. When we meet it – in a dream – perhaps it won’t recognize us, because Gaza was born out of fire, while we were born out of waiting and crying over abandoned homes.

It is true that Gaza has its special circumstances and its own revolutionary traditions. But its secret is not a mystery: Its resistance is popular and firmly joined together and knows what it wants (it wants to expel the enemy out of its clothes). The relationship of resistance to the people is that of skin to bones and not a teacher to students. Resistance in Gaza did not turn into a profession or an institution.

It did not accept anyone’s tutelage and did not leave its fate hinging on anyone’s signature or stamp.

It does not care that much if we know its name, picture, or eloquence. It did not believe that it was material for media. It did not prepare for cameras and did not put smiling paste on its face.

Neither does it want that, nor we.

Hence, Gaza is bad business for merchants and hence it is an incomparable moral treasure for Arabs.

What is beautiful about Gaza is that our voices do not reach it. Nothing distracts it; nothing takes its fist away from the enemy’s face. Not the forms of the Palestinian state we will establish whether on the eastern side of the moon, or the western side of Mars when it is explored. Gaza is devoted to rejection… hunger and rejection, thirst and rejection, displacement and rejection, torture and rejection, siege and rejection, death and rejection.

Enemies might triumph over Gaza (the storming sea might triumph over an island… they might chop down all its trees).

They might break its bones.

They might implant tanks on the insides of its children and women. They might throw it into the sea, sand, or blood.

But it will not repeat lies and say “Yes” to invaders.

It will continue to explode.

It is neither death, nor suicide. It is Gaza’s way of declaring that it deserves to live.

It will continue to explode.

It is neither death, nor suicide. It is Gaza’s way of declaring that it deserves to live.

[Translated by Sinan Antoon From Hayrat al-`A’id (The Returnee’s Perplexity), Riyad al-Rayyis, 2007]

Conference: British Diasporic Literature in English and Vernaculars


Conference and Book Launch
Friday 4TH July 2014 10am – 6pm
Racism, Writing and Resistance:
British Diasporic Literature in English and Vernaculars

VENUE: Manchester Central Library, Performance Space, St Peters Square Manchester, M2 5PD

We have seen a decade of re-energised racism and orientalist representation in Britain, particularly in the demonising of Muslims and Islam. English language literature meanwhile, often stereotypes, ridicules, simplifies and homogenises in its representation of non-westernised/modernised characters: it can often seem as if writers, assumed to be ‘writing back’, have taken over the mantle of orientalist representation by the west. Certain ideologies become invisible in ‘literature’; their normalised values are assumed to be ‘universal,’ and ‘humanist;’ whilst literature and literary criticism that questions such assumptions overtly, or presents alternative ideologies is branded as ideological, polemical, essentialist.
What role can literature and literary criticism play in perpetuating and resisting racism, imperialism? What is the relationship between literature and government policies of multiculturalism, integration, assimilation, the war on terror? What is the relationship between political struggle and literature? What is the politics of writing, representing and publishing in Britain? How does representation and ideology differ in English and vernacular literature?
Bringing together South Asian, Arab, African/Afro-Caribbean diasporic writers, along with academics and activists, this conference seeks to explore some of these questions. Through conversations across these ‘professions’ that are increasingly seen as distinct and become ever more unintelligible to each other, we seek to revive connections between writing, activism and ideas.

10 – 10.15 ` Introduction to day
Dr. Virinder Kalra, Kavita Bhanot
10.15 – 11 The Politics of Publication: Dr.Tariq Mehmood, Peter Kalu, Dr. Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
11 – 11.30 A conversation between Shamas Rehman and Daalat Ali
11.30 – 12 A conversation between Dr.Nicole Thiara and Dr. Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
12 – 12.45 Lunch
12.45 –1.30 Writing out of Political Struggles: Boundaries of Fiction and Non-Fiction
Dr. Tariq Mehmood, Selma Dabbagh, Chaired by Ashish Ghadiali
1.30 – 2.30 Not literature: Vernacular Poetics and Practice: Amarjit Chandan, Dr. Rajkumar Hans, Dr. Anita Mir
2.30 – 2.45 Tea
2.45 – 4.15 Literature in Islamophobic Times
Fadia Faqir “Geographies of the Soul”
Introduced/chaired by Dr Dalia Mostafa
Panel – Dr. Humaira Saeed, Ayesha Siddiqi, Naylah Ahmed

4.15 – 6 Performances by Peter Kalu and Yusra Warsama
Book-launch for Basir Kazmi’s ‘Passing Through’


Free to attend. Limited spaces. For more information or to confirm attendance email:


Naylah Ahmed has written for stage, radio, screen and publication. She has had a few plays produced for BBC Radio 4 and her short stories have been published by Tindal Street Press. Her most recent stage play was Mustafa, co-produced by The Birmingham Repertory Theatre and Kali Theatre Company. Her play, Butcher Boys, was one of four joint winners of the Bruntwood Playwriting Prize in 2008. Naylah worked as a script developer, script editor and producer of radio drama at the BBC from 2002-2012. She is currently exploring children’s writing both for screen and the page.
Adalat Ali is a politician, writer, analyst and university lecturer. Originally from Mirpur, ‘Azad’ Kashmir, Adalat Ali migrated to UK in the 1970s and began his life in the UK as a textile labourer. He found a way through community activities to public sector employment and higher education, and on the way he became actively involved in Kashmiri politics. One of the pioneers of Pahari-Pothwari writing in Britain, Ali Adalat is the coordinator of Kashmir National Identity Camoaign (KNIC) coeditor of ‘CHITKA’ Magazine and founder of Alami Pahari, Adabi Snagat (APAS) in Britain. He has been actively involved in setting up of earliest Kashmiri satellite TV channels in UK, Appan and KBC. Adalat has written scores of papers and articles on various aspects of Kashmiri politics and diaspora Kashmiris. He authored and produced the pioneering Pahari films ‘Mehndi Laan De’ a musical and ‘Lakeer’ (Line of Division) a feature film that is showing in Jammu and Poonch Theatres now. Currently he teaches politics and democracy at Manchester Metropolitan University Manchester.
Basir Kazmi, born in Pakistan (1953), studied and taught English at the Government College Lahore. He edited Ravi (1974) and was the office bearer of the college literary and dramatic societies. He did his M.Ed (1991) and M.Phil (2000) at Manchester University, and PGCE in English (1995). He was the news editor/reader for the BBC’s Asian Programme (1990-91) and a Literature Adviser to the North West Arts Board (1993-1996). He conducted poetry and drama workshops all over the UK and has read widely in Britain, Pakistan, India, Middle East, Europe and USA. Basir has taught at a few high schools, colleges and a university (Bradford) in the UK. Basir’s collections of Urdu poetry, Mauj-e-Khayaal (1997) and Chaman Koi Bhi Ho (2008), a long play Bisaat (1987) and Bisaat’s translation of The Chess Board (1997) have been published. English translations of Basir’s poems have appeared in several magazines and anthologies. Basir has also written extensively on the life and poetry of his father Nasir Kazmi (1925-1972), a famous Urdu poet.
Amarjit Chandan lives and works in London. He has published five collections of poetry, and two books of essays in Punjabi including Jarhan (Poetry), Phailsufian and Nishani (Essays). Two of his books are also published in Farsi script from Lahore, West Punjab. Amarjit has edited and translated over thirty anthologies of poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction by, among others, Brecht, Neruda, Ritsos, Hikmet, Vallejo, Cardenal and John Berger in Punjabi. Chandan was one of the ten British poets selected by Andrew Motion, the Poet Laureate, for the National Poetry Day in 2001, and participated in the International Alderburgh Poetry Festival. Amarjit received the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004 from the Language Department, Government of the Punjab, India; and the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006 from the Panjabis in Britain, All-Party Parliamentary Group, London.
Selma Dabbagh is a British-Palestinian writer of fiction. Her first novel, Out of It, set between Gaza, London and the Gulf, published by Bloomsbury in 2011 was a Guardian Book of the Year. She has published short stories with Granta and Telegram, and written a play set in East Jerusalem, The Brick, produced by BBC Radio 4 in January 2014.
Fadia Faqir is the author of three novels: Nisanit, Pillars of Salt, My Name is Salma (U.S.A. title The Cry of the Dove) and Willow Trees Don’t Weep. She was born in Amman, Jordan, and moved to Britain in 1984. Her work has been published in nineteen countries and translated into fifteen languages. In 1989, the University of East Anglia awarded her the first Ph.D. in Critical and Creative Writing. She currently holds a writing fellowship at St Aidan’s College, Durham University, where she teaches creative writing. She often writes on issues of gender, identity, and culture. She divides her time between Durham, London and Amman.
Ashish Ghadiali trained in Film Production at NYU, has worked as a screenwriter for producers including Shekhar Kapur, Mukesh Bhatt and Josef Aichholzer, was once the Director of the Freedom Theatre Film Unit in Jenin Refugee Camp, Palestine, and once the Guest Editor of Red Pepper Magazine. Over the years he has also won some awards. He is an active member of the Kramblers walking assocation.
Raj Kumar Hans was born in a Punjabi village and graduated from Guru Nanak Dev University in 1977. For doctoral studies he moved to the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda where he has been teaching history since 1983. He shifted his field of research from economic to social and cultural history. Taking a comparative view of the regional cultural formations of the Indic civilization, he has been studying Gujarat and Punjab. For the last few years he has focused his attention on the study of Sikhism and Punjabi Dalit literature. His articles and papers on Gujarat and Punjab history have been published in journals and edited books. He was awarded a Fellowship at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla (2009-11) to write his monograph on a history of Punjabi Dalit literature which is now being finalised for press. Currently he is working on history of Dalits in the Sikh religion.
Peter Kalu is a Manchester based novelist, playwright and poet. He started writing as a member of the Moss Side Write black writers workshop and has had five novels, two film scripts and three theatre plays produced to date His work has been widely published, performed and displayed within the UK. Prizes he has won include the BBC Young Playwrights Award, Liverpool Kodak Film Pitch Award, Leicester University Radio Play Commission, The Voice/Jamaica Information Service Marcus Garvey Scholarship Award and the Contact/BBC Dangerous Comedy Prize for his play, Pants. Peter Kalu is Commonword/Cultureword’s Artistic Director.
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is a Ugandan writer of fiction. She completed a PhD in Creative Writing at Lancaster University where she also teaches as an Associate Lecturer. Her novel Kintu won the Kwani Manuscript Project 2013 and was published in 2014. Her short story Let’s Tell This Story Properly was both the African Regional and overall winner of The Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2014.
Tariq Mehmood is an award winning writer and filmmaker. Hand On The Sun was published by Penguin, 1983. His second novel While There Is Light was published by Comma/Carcanet, 2003. He won the Francis Lincoln Diversity in Children’s Literature Award for Unpublished Novels for You’re Not Proper. He is co-director of the award-winning documentary film Injustice ( which dealt with deaths in British police custody and which the police tried to suppress. He is currently teaching at the American University of Beirut.
Anita Mir is an academic and writer. Her PhD was from Exeter, and she has taught at the universities of Essex, Exeter, Birkbeck, University of London and LUMS in Pakistan. In September she begins teaching at Fordham, an American university in the UK. Her work is on mystical poetry and on political Islam. She writes plays and has had two shorts on (The Space and Soho) and rehearsed readings of several plays: RADA, Rich Mix, King’s College and Southwark Playhouse. These are under consideration with theatre companies.
Dalia Mostafa is Lecturer in Arabic and Comparative Literature at the Department of Middle Eastern Studies, the University of Manchester. She has published in both English and Arabic on the contemporary Arabic novel, Arab cinema, and popular culture in Egypt. Her current research focuses on the cultural elements of the 25th January 2011 Egyptian Revolution such as literature, cinema, and song. She is currently editing a special issue entitled ‘Women, Culture, and the 2011 Egyptian Revolution’, which will appear in the Journal for Cultural Research in 2015.
Shams Rehman, born in Morra Loharaan, Akalgarh in Mirpur is a Kashmiri author, activist and presenter residing in Oldham, UK. Shams gained Honours and MA in Sociology from Karachi University. He migrated to Britain in 1988 and completed an MA (Econ) in Development Studies and MSc Sociological Research at University of Manchester. Shams is a founding member of Karvan-e-Adab, a British Asian Literary Forum, Chitka, Soochan/Kashmir Insight, Kashmir National Identity Campaign & Association of British Kashmiris, Appna Des Channel, KBC Channel. He has written many articles in Pahari (Mirpuri), Urdu and English on various aspects of Kashmir and Kashmiris.
Humaira Saeed is Lecturer in English at Nottingham Trent University. Her current research addresses how the gendered trauma of the Partition of India has lasting ramifications for the ways in which Pakistan and Pakistani identities are narrativised in cultural texts. She has published articles on the Partition of India and Pakistani fiction and film, and co-edited a special issue of Women: A Cultural Review on Transnational Feminisms. She maintains a scholarly and activist interest in the ways in which queer modes of belonging become asserted through racialised attachments to the nation state.
Ayesha Siddiqi is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at the University College of London. Her research examines the post-9/11 Pakistani novel in English through the lens of trauma theory. The three writers of her focus are Nadeem Aslam, Kamila Shamsie, and Mohsin Hamid. Ayesha did her MA in Critical Theory at Sussex University, where she focused on the writings of Thomas Hardy and E.M. Forster. She is also interested in psychoanalytic literary criticism and deconstruction. Outside of the PhD, she writes fiction and plays.
Nicole Thiara (PhD Manchester) has been Lecturer in English at Nottingham Trent University since 2013. She is author of the monograph Salman Rushdie and Indian Historiography: Writing the Nation Into Being (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) and has published articles on Rushdie in the Journal of Commonwealth Literature, the Journal of Commonwealth and Postcolonial Studies and contributed to Critical Insights: Salman Rushdie, edited by Bernard Rodgers (Salem Press, 2012). She is currently working on a project on the representation of Dalits in Indian Literature and film. She is also the principal investigator of the AHRC funded research network ‘Writing, Analysing, Translating Dalit Literature’ (2014-16). An international conference ‘Contemporary Approaches to the Analysis of Dalit Literature’ at Nottingham Trent and a symposium on Dalit Literature at Leicester University in June 2014, were the first events of the research network series.
Yusra Warsama is a performance poet, actor, writer and theatre practitioner, her passions lie in creating work through play and exploration of life experiences in world we live in. Past, present and future work takes many forms, from her developing a one woman show which uses spoken word, storytelling, live art and physical expression, to ‘Grace’ (05) and ‘Make – Believe’ (09) with Quarantine, which looks at exploring theatre without focus on characters but the one to one relationship between performer and audience. Yusra began her theatre career at The Contact Theatre, Manchester, whilst studying (BA HONS) Criminology & Sociology, from there she worked alongside national and international artists and companies such as Morganics, Sista Native, Lemn Sissay, Victoria- Belgium, Afro-Reggae -Brazil. Major collaborative work includes Don Lett’s ‘Speakers Corner’ this was a spoken word theatre piece alongside artists such as rapper Skinnyman and Mad Flow, to commemorate the abolition of slavery. Yusra is currently writing a play for the Birmingham Repertory Theatre with two other writers, and filming her first international feature.






Resisting Technologies of Surveillance and Suspicion

Following the 7/7 bombings in London, a distinct desire to target Muslims for scrutiny and surveillance pervaded the British security establishment in its national arms (MI5) as well as its local elements (Police). The charged atmosphere led to the creation of a large number of policy developments all of which aimed to create mechanisms for the assertion of biopolitical power over the Muslim population of Britain. The Preventing Violent extremism agenda (Prevent) was developed in this regard by the, then Labour, government to implement the general ideological notion that a certain population was in need of greater control. Perhaps the most fundamental shift which was implemented is the removal of British citizenship from those who have been accused of engaging in ‘terrorist’ activities. The suspect status of British Muslims becomes intimately connected in with a suspect citizenship.

One of the key ways in which this suspect community is policed is through scrutinisation and electronic surveillance. This does not only apply when the security apparatus is deployed via the Police, but also in the routine accessing of services, such as national health or education, where employees in these institutions become public spies rather than public servants. It is also clear that the state has gone from a responsive mode to an aggressive targeting of Muslim communities and anyone seen as their supporters. An example of the way in which the intelligence services were directly involved in local level surveillance that might have previously been under the remit of the police was in the creation of a network of mosque infiltrators. These were funded outside of the normal mechanisms of Prevent, with direct linkages to the Home Office, MI5 and the organisations concerned. The process of funding itself was not subject to any of the public scrutiny that is usually associated with public grants and as such reflects the murky nature of the agenda. It is precisely this juncture, of local accountability of police action, of the blurring of lines between intelligence agencies and local policing and of the relentless demand of the state to target Muslims, that was exposed through the Birmingham spy cameras case.

In 2007, West Midlands Police Authority applied to the Home Office for funding from the Counter Terrorism Unit to install CCTV cameras in two areas of Birmingham, specifically, Alum Rock and Sparkhill. Both of these areas had been previously identified as having populations with larger numbers of those charged with terrorist related activities. Even though the funding for the cameras was coming directly from the Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU), the West Midlands Police Authority ran a public campaign that focused on community safety, rather than spying, even though half of the cameras were only passing information to the CTU. A campaign was launched to put pressure on the police to reveal what the purpose of the cameras was. The main aims of which were to argue that the cameras should be removed, that those responsible for putting them there should be questioned about the rationale for their placement and finally what the justification was for their presence in the first place. After a series of public protests, the Police Authority succumbed to pressure and the cameras were removed.

Even though analysis demonstrates the extent to which the state has become increasingly sophisticated in bypassing protections for citizen rights, this should not lead to paralysis. Indeed, one of the local campaigners in Birmingham expresses this point well:
What we saw was a grass-roots campaign. I never thought the campaign would be as successful as it was. But we kept a consistent pressure on, to all the avenues possible, The Councillors put the pressure on, MPs put the pressure on and we used the media effectively to put the pressure on. And we constantly had the people, approaching the council, approaching the police. We did it. And I think if you do believe in something and keep on going, then sometimes you can win. (Jarrar Mughal)
The campaign to remove the cameras in Birmingham is of course a small dent in the overall repressive activities of the state. Yet it does provide a salutary reminder that it is only through organising and engaging that progressive change is possible.

Virinder S Kalra and Tariq Mehmood,  summary from The State of Race (Palgrave MacMillan)