British Asian identity, as we know it today, emerged in the nineties with the success of books, plays, albums, films and TV shows by and about British Asians. Hanif Kureishi’s 1990 novel The Buddha of Suburbia spoke to so many of us. We devoured this and then Bhaji on the Beach, Goodness Gracious Me, Anita and Me, East Is East, White Teeth, Brick Lane and Bend it Like Beckham – to name a few examples. For the first time, we South Asian immigrants or descendants of immigrants saw ourselves represented in the mainstream, and we were seduced by these images. They reflected and informed our identities. For aspiring writers and artists, they inspired confidence and allowed us to think that there could be a similar interest in our own creative work.
Today, twenty one years after The Buddha of Suburbia, each time another British Asian novel, film or memoir appears we can’t help feeling a sense of déjà vu. We see the same few narratives again and again, stories about generational and cultural conflict which, greatly simplified, go something like this: born or brought up in Britain, we suffer at the hands of oppressive parents. These comical or villainous figures (usually both) continue to hold onto the culture and customs of the place they’re from, a country that should be irrelevant to them since they live in England now. They hold us back from the pleasures and normality of western life: they don’t let us drink alcohol or eat meat; they don’t let us go to pubs and clubs; they force us to wear Indian suits or keep topknots; they’re overly religious; they make us study hard and push us into careers that we don’t want to follow; they don’t allow us to have relationships of our choice and want us to have arranged marriages. When we resist, they resort to emotional blackmail or physical force.
We’ve seen many versions of this story: the sporty one, the northern one, the gay one, the domestic abuse one, the academic one, the mental illness one. There is also a Muslim version, which seems to tell a different story, but at heart it is about a culture clash. This story sets out to reveal the truth behind the beard and headscarf: how a generation of young liberal Muslims overnight became religious fundamentalists.
These narratives have become synonymous with the British Asian brand. But for many British Asian writers the pressure to continue to write these stories – since they’ve become bankable, marketable formulas – means that the British Asian label has now become stifling. Some of us feel that these stories have nothing to do with our lives. Some of us identify with the themes but want to find other ways to write about them. Some of us don’t want to write about our lives at all. It’s these attitudes that you see in this anthology, in stories which might not usually be published, perhaps because their content or approach doesn’t fit the expectations of the label: these stories might be considered too Asian or not Asian enough.
Some authors don’t want to write about their lives, and this might be, if they manage to create such a space, the simplest, cleanest way to sidestep the suffocation of the British Asian label. We see such stories in this anthology: stories that are set in other countries and other times, and about characters who are not of South Asian origin. Bobby Nayyar’s ‘Phun’ is set in an American university campus. Niven Govinden tells the tale of a woman who arrives in a European village to buy hair. Suhayl Saadi transports us to ancient Rome, through the eyes of a soldier’s wife.
Writers should be able to write these stories about other people, other places, other times. To do so is an assertion of freedom and confidence. But it isn’t always easy to find publishers for such stories; and when we do, it might only be because our surnames or religion are a handy USP for publishers to use in their marketing pitches. For many British Asian writers, the only alternative to writing the British Asian story has been to write about an exotic India or political Pakistan, regardless of their knowledge and experience of those places.
Some of us do want to write about our lives or about Asian origin characters in Britain but feel that these narratives – so ubiquitous as to define the ‘British Asian’ label – are nothing to do with us or they simply don’t interest us.
Implicit in the expectation that we all have the same story to tell, there is an assumption that we’re all the same, ignoring cultural, regional and class differences between us. British Asian is assumed to be a catchall label for everyone of South Asian origin living in Britain, but the category doesn’t speak to us all. It carries certain regional and class associations; most ‘British Asians’ originate from Punjab, Gujarat, Mirpur and Sylhet, and have been part of the working classes here. Those who belong to other classes, who have come to Britain from other places or are more recent immigrants, who have one Asian parent or whose individual experiences simply don’t conform to the dominant narratives, can feel disconnected from this idea of British Asianness. Many writers I have spoken to have been adamant that they are expatriate Indians, Pakistanis or citizens of the world, rather than British Asians, despite spending all, most or a large part of their lives here. Others define themselves as black British.
Those writers who don’t conform to the accepted idea of British Asianness, whose stories don’t engage with certain themes in a certain way, can be perceived by publishers not to be gritty and authentic enough: not Asian enough. We see such stories in this anthology: for example, Rohan Kar’s ‘Sepulchre’, about the journey that Mikey, son of a Muslim father and a Catholic mother, makes to Jerusalem to scatter his mother’s ashes on the Tomb of Christ, or NSR Khan’s ‘Familiar Skin’, which centres on Sonia, a privileged, bipolar, Muslim girl in a hospital psychiatric unit.
And then there are those writers whose experiences do overlap with the dominant narratives, and who do want to write about these experiences. I would include myself in this category. For us, the struggle is not only against the limited vision of the publishing and media industries, but also within ourselves. Aloo gobi, gurus, Bollywood, bhangra, saris, arranged marriages and the hijab might be aspects of our lives, so it feels strange to avoid writing about them. But to write about them seems to perpetuate clichés. We might want to explore our lives in true and fresh ways, but the representations in cinema, television and literature hang over us, making us self conscious. The existing narratives are so pervasive that they form a barrier between us and the world; they bleed into our imaginations and influence how we write about our lives.
For some years I have been trying to write about a guru and the community around him, about a fictional spiritual group based in Britain. But the guru figure is a cliché. The precedents that hang over me – the film The Guru, The Guide by R. K. Narayan, The Mystic Masseur by V. S. Naipaul, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard by Kiran Desai, The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi – all share something in common. They all create an abstract, mystical, comical, ahistorical, sceptical picture of the guru figure – he’s always an accidental guru, a fake. These versions of the guru have interfered with my sense of the guru and followers that I have known. Such representations coloured my early writing, in which I inhabited a sympathetic second generation character who was sceptical of any form of faith, who looked at the community with the eyes of an outsider. This character was distant from my more traditional characters, who became caricatures because they had faith.
But then I spent five years in India, far away from British Asianness. I didn’t go there to find myself, to go back to my roots. In fact I was very aware, as I worked in the English language literary world of South Delhi, an elite cosmopolitan world of privilege, of being far away from my family roots in villages and towns in Punjab. Over time this awareness became discomfort. My appearance and my English education brought easy acceptance into this society, but I carried the knowledge of my working class family background in Britain and my lower middle class family in Punjab, who didn’t speak English, who would most likely be invisible to and even ridiculed by the same people who accepted me in Delhi.
I later moved to a village in Himachal Pradesh where I stayed for two years. During this time I also saw my family in Punjab frequently and both experiences began to give me a better understanding of the history and specificity of my characters: immigrants from the villages and towns of Punjab. Reading about that history and more specifically about spiritual groups or ‘deras’ like the one I was writing about helped me to place the fictional world that I was creating in a wider social, political framework, to develop a sense of its trajectory as well as the roots of its particularities. I learned, in particular, how deras, which often reject casteism or dowries and question individualism and materialism, can provide internal reform within North Indian communities: Critique and reform don’t have to come from the West as they tend to in so many British Asian narratives.
It became apparent to me, as I looked over what I had written up until then, that while I had been writing about a community that I knew well, that I had grown up in, I had written about it, not from the inside with compassion, particularity and knowledge but from a distant and superior perspective. On the creative writing MA I took, the students, teachers, publishers and agents who came to advise us were predominantly white and middle class. And those who weren’t, shared – along with the bourgeois South Asian or the British Asian writers of the literature I turned to – a similar world view to those teachers and publishers. It seemed that in my writing I had unconsciously adopted that gaze, white middle class or bourgeois Indian, upon a world that I knew intimately, that I had been a part of. It was a gaze that was not only unsympathetic, but that also allowed me to be lazy. Knowledge, depth, understanding, wisdom were not required; I only needed to present a slice of the ‘reality’ I had access to.
As the anthology shows, I’m not alone in objecting to the clichés of the British Asian narrative. It is an embodiment of a world view, which is not simply white or British, but more specifically secular, liberal and middle class. By focusing on a simple culture clash, it creates unthinking dichotomies of East and West, Islam and the West, Asian and British, with a narrow version of ‘British’ assumed as the norm. It promotes an ideal of multiculturalism as assimilation, personified through characters, often second generation, who aspire to fit into British society – to be ‘normal’.
When we write about our lives from this British perspective, ‘Asian’ or ‘Islam’ are simplified. We end up stripping specific traditions, rituals, religions and other forms of lived faith, ‘arranged marriages’ and parents’ anxieties of their context and detail – of their history, politics and class simply to make them more consumable. All these appear, as we look down at them, exotic, inexplicable, funny, but at the same time, as we stick to those expected tropes, strangely familiar.
Writing our stories from the inside can be one way to avoid clichés. In the stories by Harpreet Singh Soorae, Dimmi Khan and Azmeena Ladha, which all centre on Asian origin families and communities, the lives of their characters have not been reduced or simplified for the consumption of non Asians. In each story there is particularity and detail; the writer is a part of the world he or she is writing about, as if the imagined reader is not so different from the characters in the stories. This approach is one way we can write about our lives in fresh ways.
There are many writers who don’t want to continue recreating palatable versions of the British Asian formula. We want to carve another space for ourselves, one where we can simply be writers or, if we don’t buy into that idea of universality, where we can simultaneously be other things: women writers, gay writers, black writers, Punjabi writers, readers of French literature, dog lovers; or whatever we want to be, but without a label imposed from outside. And then when we come together, as we do in this anthology, under this umbrella for our particularities, we will challenge the label; broaden it, change it, make it new.