Booknotes: Too Asian, Not Asian Enough

too asian not asian enoughThis is a 2011 anthology of twenty-one literary short stories by “New” British Asian writers, edited by one of the writers, Kavita Bhanot. Mostly, “Asian” here refers to writers of Indian origin.

The tagline reads “Fiction from the new generation”. And, for the most part, that is the case. A majority of the writers included here had, at the time of publication, modest publishing successes. Several of them have respectable literary credentials (e.g. Oxford, Cambridge). A handful of them are well-known TV and radio personalities in the UK. And, of course, there’s the odd lawyer, doctor, and university professor moonlighter.

Let’s start with Bhanot’s introduction because it is a stellar broadside that sums up the problems with the literature of Western writers of Indian origin very well indeed.

First, Bhanot summarized the classic tropes that most of us are all too familiar with:

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.

She went on to echo Chimamanda Adichie’s 2009 talk on ‘The Danger of a Single Story‘ by having this to say about British Asianness (which, pretty much, applies to Asianness anywhere) in literature:

 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.

And, she foreshadowed Claire Vaye Watkins’ ‘On Pandering‘ with:

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.

So, the anthology emerged out of a desire to avoid the well-known, expected tropes by presenting real, un-simplified characters in freshly different contexts. This, it can be said unequivocally, has been achieved with all of these stories. From a mental asylum patient to a TV anchor to a hair collector, there is an interesting set of people here with engaging stories to tell. Geographically, their lives span across England (majority), USA, Africa, India, Pakistan, Jerusalem, and ancient Rome.

As an Indian who has lived in three of those countries mentioned above, I recognized many of the particularities and details included. However, I enjoyed, very much, how they were included. For example, in Dimmi Khan’s tragicomic ‘My Faithless Lover’, there are lines from Bollywood movie songs and classic Urdu poetry all mixed in with contemporary Bhangra/hip-hop club scenes. Another example: In Reshma Ruia’s ‘Another Life’, we see the main character, PK, still trying to adjust to his life in Manchester after some twenty-odd years but he’s more worried about how to fit in with deep-pocket bankers at a golfing weekend rather than the more typical dilemma of racist skinheads waiting round the corner (not to belittle stories about horrifying racism experiences of immigrants).

All that said, I found the quality of the writing all over the map. Some stories were very well-written like Bhanot’s own ‘Gust of Life’ (beautiful, simple details) and Nikesh Shukla’s ‘Iron Nose’ (excellently revealing prejudices and biases of Asians towards their own). Some were very promising in their themes and plot points but fell apart due to weak narrative, like Bidisha’s ‘Dust’ (too many mixed metaphors, points of view switching about for no real reasons, loaded guns that were never used) and Rohan Kar’s ‘Sepulchre’ (repetition, compression, and pacing problems all through).

Would I recommend this collection to other readers? I will answer this in two parts. First, if you’re of Indian origin, you should read these stories because they stand apart from the usual fare that traditional publishers give us as a reflection of our lives. Second, if you’re not of Indian origin, but looking to read more diverse books, this is a good bunch of stories to sink your teeth into because they stay away, mostly, from the stereotypical colonial hangover sagas or the immigrants-struggling-with-assimilation journeys.

Given that 2015 saw a lot of social and news media chatter about the need for diversity in literature, I hope that there will be more such anthologies, each getting better as Western writers of Indian origin grow confidence in their voices, stories, and craft.

[You can read more of Bhanot’s views on diversity in literature in this December 2015 article as well.]

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