New Alignments in Cultural Identity
Dr. Bikram Lamba
Black British Literature: Novels of Transformation, Mark Stein, Ohio University Press, 2004, p.243, price not stated.
THE two adjectives in the title of this book, "black" and "British" might have seemed incompatible to an earlier generation — it certainly did to Enoch Powell who declared in 1968 that while the black immigrants might receive citizenship, "they would never `truly' become British, let alone English." That seems a long time ago. Today, non-white writers have such high visibility in the literary landscape of Britain that one of them — Andrea Levy, born of Jamaican parents — can declare, "If Englishness does not define me, then redefine Englishness". (Levy's novel Small Island won the Orange Prize as well as the Commonwealth Writers Prize earlier this year.) Hanif Kureishi also made a similar statement a few years ago: "It is the British, the white British, who have to learn that being British isn't what it was. Now it is a more complex thing, involving new elements."
Mark Stein's timely as well as perceptive study of contemporary non-white writing in Britain argues that "these novels of transformation" not only trace the growth and formation of their protagonists in a post-imperialist Britain, they also transform the very culture they inhabit, changing the image of England in the process.
The author defines his field thus: "I use [the term `Black British'] as a collective term that covers an imagined experiential field of overlapping territories". At its narrowest, it refers only to writers with African or Caribbean background, at its widest it also covers Asians, including those who arrived in England not directly from the Indian sub-continent, but via West Indies or East Africa. V.S. Naipaul , Samuel Selvon and Salman Rushdie come within Stein's ambit, but the focus is on the younger writers born in and around the 1960s.
Stein begins by quoting a paragraph from Zadie Smith (of White Teeth fame) a writer of Jamaican-British descent (born in 1975), and perhaps the most successful young novelist writing in England today. In this passage she describes children with names like Isaac Leung, Danny Rahman and Quang O'Rourke playing in a London park — "children with first and last names on a direct collision course. Names that secrete within them mass exodus, cramped boats and planes, cold arrivals... " At one level, black, brown, yellow and white races have slipped into each others' lives with reasonable comfort — at another, such proximity has created new tensions. The novels that Stein analyses in this book deal with these new alignments of fusion and conflict, effects of migration and dislocation, the question of identity, which used to be a source of anxiety once but now the writers seem confident enough to play with it, the desire of the younger generations to know their histories and yet remain unfettered by them.
The writers who arrived in England in the 1950s came with memories of the home country and distinct cultural identities. How much do the new writers who were born in Britain, or grew up there — Caryl Phillips (b. 1958), Diran Adebayo (b.1968), Meera Syal (b. 1963), Monica Ali (b.1967), Hari Kunzru (b. 1969) — are expected to share the concerns and predicaments of their predecessors? Can there be a continuous or a homogenous tradition of Black British writing? This book engages with several such debates, challenging tidy categories based on generations or skin colour and unravelling complex, sometimes irreverent, negotiations in the works of these younger writers. Karim Amir — a character in a Hanif Kureishi novel is told, "Everyone looks at you... and thinks: an Indian boy, how exotic, how interesting, what stories of aunties and elephants we'll hear now from him. And you're from Orpington."
Although Stein's argumentsed and complex, the liveliness of his transparent and often evocative prose makes the book accessible to the non-specialist reader as well. He can juggle the abstract and the concrete in fruitful ways as illustrated by his analysis of a 1932 recipe card displayed in the National Maritime Museum in London. The ingredients for this "Empire Christmas Pudding" include raisins from Australia, cinnamon from India, rum from Jamaica, candied peels from South Africa and so on. After interpreting this recipe in four different ways, Stein turns it into a metaphor. His theoretical positions on postethnicity , intertextuality, and what he calls "logovorous" modes of reading, are made vivid through his detailed readings of recent novels like Andrea Levy's Fruit of the Lemon (1999) , Bernadine Evaristo's Lara (1997), Hanif Kureishi's Buddha of Suburbia (1990), David Dabydeen's Intended (1991).
The concluding chapter deals with the transformation that has happened in the way these books are marketed and consumed today. Salman Rushdie's praise is flashed across the cover of Zadie Smith's book and in turn, Monica Ali is projected as "The New Zadie Smith". In the process of moving from the margin to the centre, are these novels being commodified into a branded product with guaranteed saleability, "marking an increased cultural capital held by the black and Asian British producers of symbolic goods"? Mark Stein's fascinating book raises these questions but, thankfully, does not offer conclusive answers.