Why I’m Unashamedly In Love with Janelle Monáe

An article I wrote for the wonderful feminist blog, the Vagenda!tumblr_miic6peBpe1qasl11o1_500

With the tea kettle boiling, and about 12 men lounging on battered bits of cushion and blankets in one such slum, in Tangier, they quiz me: “Why are Europeans so determined to keep us out?” I give them the brutal truth: because a lot of poor white people think you are coming to steal their jobs, reduce their wages and destroy their culture.

The men look puzzled. Ibrahim says: “But they came to my country. And they support the president, the asshole who is destroying it and making it impossible for us to live there.” The men acknowledge the racism they will face if they get to Europe, but say it’s worse here.

Source: Paul Mason ‘The EU is ignoring the human rights abuses behind Morocco’s razor wire’ in today’s Guardian. See more: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/02/eu-ignoring-rights-abuses-morocco

When it comes to politicised literature, a strong, didactic voice that resists passivity and plays with stereotypes is great. What is better is the ability to represent two of these opposing voices equally with dignity. This is exactly what Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist does so well. This balance, or contradiction, is contained in the very title – reluctance and fundamentalism bringing to mind opposing ideals. The dialectical nature of the novel could become wearisome in its insistence on not offending anyone. However, the subtlety with which stereotypes or popular opinions of Americans or Pakistanis is treated is such that the reader does not feel they are being lectured. For example, the protagonist recounts how Jim, his boss at the American firm, talks to him about his childhood living in poverty. The hint is that Jim assumes the protagonist is/used to be poor and so this is a male bonding session. However, the protagonist never picks up on this and makes a point about it, only mentioning in passing ‘I did not grow up in poverty’ (he is firmly middle-class), before discussing how they both feel like ‘outsiders’. Yet the reader cannot help but note Jim’s implied assumption that the protagonist must have been disadvantaged and had to overcome adversity to be in the US because he comes from Pakistan. In this sense, the novel strikes me as being realist in both the literary sense and a wider politic sense.

Issues stemming from 9/11 and the effects on Muslims (or at least Muslim-looking) in the US, immigration and even the capitalist lifestyle of successful New Yorker businessmen is never given as black and white but as the complex issues that in reality they are. The subtlety almost makes the book more political, in allowing us to see the impossibility of having a stable, innocent, concrete opinion. Whereas ‘9/11 literature’, as it is called, and the associated issues are well versed and discussed in our culture and so the novel is not necessarily telling us anything ‘new’, the more notable innovation is the structure. A monologue, with the reader/listener as the other character to whom the monologue is directed at and to which the protagonist responds. As the monologue addresses the reader personally, they are implicated in the action and so cannot voyeuristically watch as per normal.

It is fundamental that the monologue is coming from a Pakistani in Pakistan speaking to an American – this keeps the balance harmonised as the majority of the monologue recounts his experience in America. This is vital in providing an alternative narrative of Pakistani experience outside of its immediate relation to Islamic fundamentalism and its associated images (that which is popularised in American media)  – to see the Pakistani man going through challenges and experiences that are not directly associated with where he comes from is important for the balance to be kept. This is where the film comes into trouble, as an added plot twist (only hinted at in the novel) concerning the American government pursuing the protagonist heavily politicises the story and pulls away from the sole perspective of the Pakistani protagonist. The film ending is made overly violent, whereas the novel anti-climaxes somewhat disappointedly to leave a sombre mood.

Literature news for the week: a win for feminism and ‘diversity’- hurray!

After an uproar from the public over the lack of women on English bank notes, it seems campaigners have finally been listened to as it was announced Jane Austen would be appearing on £10 notes in a few years time. More importantly, she is not only a woman, but a literary woman! Not only is this a feminist victory (which should be brought up every time someone spouts the ‘feminism ain’t needed no more’ line), but also it nicely places more recognition on women’s role in British literary history. Sometimes it still feels as if there is a collective public amnesia that women also wrote books and influenced literary canons and styles.

My years as an undergraduate have equipped me with an analytical feminist brain that can see sexism from a mile off as well as right-under-my-nose, which has led me to compile an ongoing list of problems with sexism in the literary canon and teaching of literature. Amongst this list is the Edinburgh Writers’ Museum – which honours Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. All men. My romantic literature course at university had a total sum of two female authors – Jane Austen (Hurray bank notes!) and Ann Radcliffe, despite the fact that, as I later learnt, female popular fiction and poetry totalled half the literature sold and read at the time. ‘Women’s issues’ was often a topic for a week’s discussion or an essay topic from a range. So indoctrinated into the myth of male experience as the default as we are, many students did not seem to find this as strange as me, considering women are not a minority but half of the population. This is not a problem with a particular university or person, but the whole attitude to literary history.

In other news, the longlist for the 2013 Man Booker prize has been described as the ‘most diverse’ in its history. There’s nothing more satisfactory than a bit of diversity- and this is diversity both of author (gender, background) and of form (length, subject). As the chair of judges, Robert MacFarlane, puts it:

“This is surely the most diverse longlist in Man Booker history: wonderfully various in terms of geography, form, length and subject. These 13 outstanding novels range from the traditional to the experimental, from the first century AD to the present day, from 100 pages to 1,000, and from Shanghai to Hendon.”

Only two have been nominated before and a lot of the other nominees are not well known names. More than anything, fresh faces having an opportunity to get recognised shows a celebration of diversity.

Does this signal a change- that the days of hierarchy in literature are over? Maybe, maybe not. It seems almost inevitable for more ‘literary’ novels, poems and plays (is there such thing as a non-literary play or is that what we call a film?) to always be esteemed higher than the mainstream and popular. A distinction should be made here between ‘popular’ in the sense of popular with people who are familiar with a wide range of literature and so have the ability to understand different motives and styles, and any person in society who is literate. If it is the former, then literature (as distinct from ‘books’),  becomes a secret club- but is this a bad thing? The aim of literature has never been to be readable by absolutely everyone. Nonetheless, it is more than coincidence that thoroughly unreadable books (I’m looking at you Mr Joyce) are revered as masterpieces. And this is aside from matters of taste- different readers, different writers. Some readers prefer the comfort of familiar plots and storylines. My Dad reads the same type of crime novel over and over and never enters unknown literary genre territory.

However, differentiating the quality of novels based on their ‘literariness’ is not always simple. Take for example Zadie Smith’s NW: her reputation, the experiential structure, the subject matter of London’s lower classes and even the book cover itself signals a certain quality that will win praise with reviewers and panels of judges. However, the reviews have been mixed and I myself was disappointed. I hope that this celebration of ‘diversity’ will spell a new open-mindedness and open up questions about what exactly is this mysterious thing we call ‘literature’.

What struck me most about this memoir is not Rushdie’s experience (life under police protection is predictably quite dull), but how the process is shown of Rushdie becoming a symbolic figure for a turning point in recent modern politics. Now often looked back on as ‘The Rushdie Affair’, it signals the clash between secularism and Islamic fundamentalism, highlighting the debate of ‘freedom of speech’ that centres this clash. The memoir brings together the culmination of opinion, through newspapers, phone calls, tv, etc., on the whole affair. Obviously this will have been carefully selected by Rushdie, but it does provide an enlightening record of what it was like at the time and how public opinion has shifted from the point of view of the person who heard and saw it all. It seems evident that the charges brought against Rushdie by Iran were unfair and took the form of censorship and terrorism, which makes the questions raised by the detailed events in Joseph Anton all the more disturbing. For example, why does the (conservative) British government not defend Rushdie and criticise the fatwa straight away? Why does it take until the labour government comes into power for this to happen? Why does The Daily Insult, as Rushdie calls the British tabloids, continually imply that Rushdie somehow ‘brought it on himself’?

The key premise that the fatwa, as well as The Daily Insult and other journalists, gets wrong is the complete misinterpretation of the distance in literature between narrator and author. An author does not endorse every opinion expressed by characters of a novel just because they are included. Maybe attendance to Literary Theory 1A should be mandatory for all journalists. This distance seems to be acknowledged in most literature, most of the time, which makes me wonder whether the specific attack on Rushdie may have been down to his status as an in-between figure. Born in India, he cannot write negatively about India or its major religions without seeming to betray his roots and people. As an Indian migrant living in Britain, he could never be fully exempt from suspicion (notably certain newspapers that lean to the right). The clichéd peril of the migrant writer.

Whilst reading, I was torn between sympathy and irritation. Sympathy because Rushdie’s experience was undoubtedly horrific and he seems to be continually misunderstood by people around him. Irritation due to the somewhat endless listing of famous writers and journalists which make up his friends who helped him during the ordeal. The middle part of the book seems to be made up of the same situations – my good friends *famous author and wife* asked me to stay at their house for the week, I have to move house again, the police treat me badly/thanks to the police for helping me. Of course, what this serves to do is undermine any tendency to glamorise the fatwa (Rushdie comments that his friends often are excited more by the police operation surrounding his visits than Rushdie as a guest) and show that in actual fact it is mostly boring and tedious. This is an anti-climax to the interesting narrative of his youth and the beginning of the threat of the fatwa, as it almost turns into a week-by-week diary.

I wonder why Rushdie paints himself as an unlikeable character. The third-person narrative of the memoir gives a distance that could be exploited to invoke more sympathy, but Rushdie instead uses it to make snide remarks about people. For example, commenting on his wife Elizabeth’s birth of their son with detail of her bad temper as well as increasingly painting her as crazy whilst he remains aloof and guilt-free for his infidelity. The effect is that overall one can be sympathetic but not too sympathetic, which helps us to keep a critical eye and stay focused on the consequences of the issues surrounding the fatwa. Overall then, we have a memoir both about personal experience and about enduring modern issues of free speech, censorship and terrorism.

Malorie Blackman is the new children’s laureate – and as the newspapers keep stressing, the first black children’s laureate. In articles and interviews with Blackman, it is clear the goal behind her writing is to increase the amount of fiction involving black and minority characters after not encountering such characters in her childhood. In fact, she expresses in The Guardian that the first book she read that featured a black character was when she was 23 years old. The goal of many a writer has been to write the novel which they wish they could read – an idea especially poignant for any group of people that go against the grain of current literature (whether a minority or ‘other’ group). On a wider scale, this recent news seems to pinpoint the importance of literature in children’s lives, as well as the issue of alienating children from certain backgrounds by a lack of their representation in popular children’s fiction.

In this same interview, Blackman brought up an issue that has bothered me for some time. She discusses her annoyance with the history in taught in schools, where the focus is on higher class people – the royals, Winston Churchill- in place of working class or minority figures. The same can be said for the history of British colonialism and empire, which is largely ignored. The heavy focus is on the world wars, whereas the ambiguous place of the British Empire in our national consciousness is shown by its striking absence. For example, looking at GCSE specifications – neither AQA nor Edexcel include any teaching on empire in their specifications. OCR includes an ‘end of empire’ optional in-depth study out of seven options.

This is truly shameful, because if we are to understand our society it is vitally important to have knowledge of colonialism and how it has affected the makeup of contemporary British society. Many minorities that take up such a fundamental part of our ‘multicultural’ society are a direct legacy of British imperialism. Once this is understood, many popular (racist) assumptions about minority communities are deflated. Furthermore, British people can be humbled by such knowledge of, for example, the torture of Mau Mau victims in Kenya by British rulers in 1950s which shows how recent this history really is to today.

When colonialism ended in places such as Kenya, Nigeria and India, the history of colonialism did not simply stop and Britain, on a cultural level, could not simply deny any responsibility of the consequences of its empire. Take Salman Rushdie, who in his memoir Joseph Anton, cites an Indian childhood of reading British novels as a motivation for his move to England to go to boarding school. This happened after decolonisation, showing that there is still influence of the ‘mother country’ in the culture of the decolonised states. Does this not seem obvious? Another example is the language use in former colonies- for example, Australia still speaks English. Why then does there remain in racist discourse the ironic line of thought that ‘they should go back to their own country’? It may be slightly naive to claim that an increase in education and discussion about our colonial history could actively reduce racism. However, this discussion has reflected on how British culture sometimes has a collective amnesia when it comes to our colonial history, which surely will only cause problems in understanding the unique brand of British multiculturalism and the history of why Britain is multicultural.


Kureishi in 1970. Photo from the Telegraph (click on photo for link)

Kureishi says the form of the book is going to be haphazard – and that’s exactly what happens. A hybrid between a memoir of his father’s life (mediated through an interpretation of his father’s unpublished novels – and his uncle’s published memoirs in Pakistan) and an examination into writing as an entity with copious insight into some of Kureishi’s inspirations –  including Chehkov and Freud. Sometimes it’s not always apparent how they link and it can lapse into episodic musings that seem irrelevant to each other. But this does not detract from how interesting the book is, which is down to how the three central stories are woven: Kureishi’s father’s life, Kureishi’s childhood, and the present day Kureishi with his children. What this does is show us the roots of Kureishi’s life, which are not always what you would expect, linking the second generation to the first generation immigrant. Kureishi’s fiction is often so much about the ‘now’, the contemporary, which makes this delving into the past so significant for whose who are familiar with his writing. In this respect, I feel the content may overshadow the form- emphasis is so often placed on Kureishi’s ethnicity and so the story threatens to overshadow what is a cleverly written form – not quite a memoir, somewhat a journal, yet not entirely an autobiography.

Reading the memoir of a writer you know well inevitably makes you link their work to their life. It becomes apparent (both in ways he admits to and not) how autobiographical Kureishi’s work really is – not just The Buddha of Surburbia but more recently (published in 2008 – 4 years after his memoir) Something to Tell You in which the main character is a psychoanalyst (Kureishi has experience with psychoanalysing and is influenced heavily by Freud).  Rather than change the way I thought about his novels, this served to highlight how inevitable it is for an author to draw on what they know.

Overall, the book made me reflect on the general label ‘postcolonial’. Whereas Kureishi’s father’s unpublished stories and experience of moving to Britain as well as Kureishi’s childhood experiences of racism can be easily deemed ‘postcolonial’, the Kureishi of today is surely not so easily placed under this title. Where do we draw the line? Kureishi is certainly a product of British colonialism – the links of Britain and India from the colonial era contributed to the immigration of Indians to Britain after independence. And the troubles caused by partition led to many immigrants favouring Britain over returning home. Does this mean Kureishi’s sons also have a ‘postcolonial’ identity? Are all South-Asian people living in Britain today a product of colonialism? No- this is surely an insult to people who have firm identities outside of an event that happened over 60 years ago. So where do we draw the line?

How ‘in touch’ with the homeland second generation immigrants are becomes clear as Kureishi describes how only ‘bits of India, or rather bits that existed in his family, stuck to dad. They were mostly cultural: cricket, books, music, politics’. Not all of this is handed down to Kureishi – his father does not speak to him in Urdu, but he does try to involve him in cricket. When reading his Uncle Omar’s autobiography, Kureishi is shocked by his passing comment of Islamic belief, saying ‘I ‘d never imagined a liberal and literary man finding a combination of social hope and justice in a religion which, for me, can only seem a betrayal of our family’s values.’ This brings to light how religious belief often is what defines (first/second generation) immigrants into a set of binaries: religious as fundamental or non-religious as westernised, liberal (=literary), when obviously there are many gradients within the spectrum of religious belief.

In 2011, V.S. Naipaul controversially stated that no female writer matched his own literary ability, whilst describing female writing as concerned with ‘sentimentality’ which showed ‘a narrow view of the world’. I read about this topic for the first time recently and must admit that it caused me to arrive at V. S. Naipaul’s Half a Life with a biased opinion of the author and his work, ready to jump on any implication of sexism. I found the novel interesting but gave up 2/3 of the way through as I felt the story lapsed into a repetitive (at least for me, in 2013) immigrant story of identity crisis. I can’t say I was too impressed. Despite this, V.S. Naipaul’s comments lingered with me as I considered my (very limited) reading of female immigrant experience – mainly Leila Aboulela and Monica Ali.

A common theme of Naipaul’s writing is immigration, and so I feel it is pertinent to apply his comments to the female alternatives of these narratives of immigration. The ideas of immigration traditionally written about have been overly masculine– the overarching grand dream of the immigrant going to another country to make his fortune (often the ‘mother country’ of a former colony). Fraught with disillusionment and guilt, the ultimate crisis of the immigrant is his inability to consolidate his identity with this idealised picture. Note my purposeful use of ‘his’ – whilst in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane this masculine narrative is present, it is only a subplot in the form of Chanu, the protagonist’s husband. The masculine narrative is a side story in relation to the main female body of text which appears for the majority of the novel to never be seriously considered as Chanu’s characterisation is ridiculous but endearing (much like Changez in Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia). This is a reversal of the usual masculine immigration narrative. Although, the female narrative is still dependent on the male narrative – as we can see in the ending.

Yet unlike V.S. Naipaul’s decidedly masculine narratives of immigration, the narrative geography of Brick Lane is much smaller. Nazneen is not trawling the famous sights of London, but remains in the small sphere of the Tower Hamlets estate with her fellow Bangladeshis, as well as the area of her home. Apart from one incident of the family going on ‘holiday’ to see Buckingham Palace and another incident near the beginning when she rebelliously explores the local area, Nazneen does not appear to know or care about the rest of London outside of her home. This strikes me as similar to V.S. Naipaul’s claims of narrowness. Yet is the female narrative ‘narrow’ and ‘sentimental’ because it is truly narrow – or because when automatically compared to the grander, nobler default position of masculine narrative it suddenly becomes trivial and inferior with its preoccupation with cooking curries and gossiping neighbours? The answer seems to be not that V.S. Naipaul is correct in his sexist claim, but that if some female immigrant narratives – like Brick Lane– are narrower, then this is not necessarily a negative aspect (must all literature be epic and Ulysses-esque?) but indeed serves to colour and add texture to human experience. The question is not ‘is narrowness a female quality in writing?’ but ‘does it matter?’

The circumstances that surround the immigration experience for women are inevitably quite different to the same experience for men. In the same way we may look Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and see Nora’s experience of 19th century society as oppressive and destructive as a direct result of her gender, and look at this problems of ‘the woman question’ from a (somewhat ironic) modern perspective safe in the knowledge that things are different now, we may look at female immigrant experience in the 21st century as a product of their gender. How is Nazneen, the female protagonist in Brick Lane, going to attempt to encapsulate and describe V.S. Naipaul supposed ‘wide’ view of the world when she has been moved to a society where she does not at first, and is not allowed to, speak the native tongue, and is completely reliant on her husband for money and agency? Chanu advises, although never forcibly, Nazneen not to walk around the estate because it makes people (other immigrant families) talk and gossip. If this is the case for a character, how can they begin to show a ‘bigger’ picture? Crucially, this does not detract from the quality of narrative. Brick Lane has had huge success. Indeed, such intimacy adds to the quality.

V. S. Naipaul’s crucial misunderstanding is the assumption that female and male writers come to their writing on an equal footing. This is less of an issue nowadays in contemporary British literature (although not defunct) but considering his example is Jane Austen it seems somewhat absurd that he does not have even a remote notion that women’s experience may be limited because of their sexist society.  How can Austen not be concerned with the subtleties of marriage if that is all her social reality allows her to be concerned with – can she go fight a war, can she open a slave plantation like her male counterparts? The experience of Nazneen in the culture of her diaspora community and the culture which she left (shown through her sister’s letters – a woman abused and exploited, with no rights) oppresses women moreso than British culture. And so Nazneen’s narrative cannot begin from an equal viewpoint as a middle-class white British woman who has greater agency and freedom.

What is so significant about Brick Lane is what Nazneen does with this supposed ‘narrowness’. The central contradiction which runs through much British-Asian literature (generally concerning first generation immigrants) is between culture and religion. Where the societal structure from where Nazneen and Chanu originate in Dhaka is based on Muslim ideas of gender roles, when this is transported to London, despite the attempts of the characters, it never really ‘fits’ and the non-religious Chanu cannot consolidate his beliefs (Nazneen cannot work otherwise the other families will laugh at me and overall it wil emasculate me) with the reality (we need to money, Nazneen is capable). Rather than screaming ‘FEMINIST!’, this undermines any type of society where the structure is based on gender roles (women  in the home, men outside the home).

Nazneen’s growing agency is fuelled by her affair with Karim. But the novel’s ending breaks the typical romantic structure which anticipates and lays the groundwork for Nazneen and Karim to walk off into the sunset of Tower Hamlets. Nazneen remains at home, sewing and selling this produce through her female friend’s contacts, with her two thoroughly anglicised children and no prospect of another husband, whilst Chanu goes back to Dhaka. Whilst this leaves the romantic reader unsatisfied, it shows a conscious rewriting of the traditional love story – we have all the basis and development for an elopement and happy marriage without the expected conclusion. Mostly importantly, Nazneen is not ‘saved’ by a man (Karim), but ‘saves’ (whatever this may mean – gains independence?) herself.

I do not want to give Naipaul’s comments any validity because aside from being unfair they are just plain wrong. However, they serve as useful in showing how narrations of immigration from male and female perspective are typically strikingly different. Too often the focus is on the male experience, with the female experience as an afterthought. Yet female writers should not have to compete with male writers by writing in the same way whatever that may be – no consensus as yet been drawn for what ‘male’ or ‘female’ style is. According to V.S. Naipaul this would be masculine as wider and feminine as narrower, but it is not clear at all how wide could necessarily be superior to narrow. What Brick Lane does so cleverly is to take this ‘narrow’ experience and makes it comfortable, intimate, interesting, and of great literary value. Simultaneously, Monica Ali takes the romantic novel – written for and by women – and subverts our expectations. Through this, she is giving us a new type of immigrant experience and narrative to explore.