A response of sorts to review by Sarfraz Manzoor
of Too Asian Not Asian Enough, edited by Kavita Bhanot
Nothing has changed that feeling, despite Sarfraz Manzoor’s recent review in the Guardian of Too Asian Not Asian Enough, an anthology edited by Kavita Bhanot, of which I am a contributor. Indeed my story is the first one in the collection. He appears to find the anthology and its premise disappointing. I suspect as my story was the first, it was also the first focus of that disappointment. It is the way in which that disappointment was expressed that I write about here. I will also write about Sarfraz Manzoor’s hair and its connection with my own sense of British Asianness.
I am aware that Sarfraz Manzoor is sensitive about hair related comments. I completely understand. No one has the right to make disparaging or uncomplimentary comments about someone’s appearance. But nothing that I am about to say is uncomplimentary. Far from it.
I like many Muslim girls was brought up to believe that any form of pre-marriage relationship was out of the question. In my case, the rule was simply articulated as “No boyfriends, ever.” But unlike many Muslim girls it was also made clear to me that the choice of spouse would be mine, and mine alone (although some in my extended family did not agree with this.) The only proviso was that the fortunate object of my affections must be Muslim, and if possible Pakistani. I asked my father once whether I could marry a Nigerian Muslim. “Well, yes-but it may cause difficulties” came the measured response, “but really as long as the essential sprit of the man is good, ethnic origin is irrelevant.”
And so when I finally found my (now-ex) husband, a first-generation immigrant Ghanaian of Anglican upbringing, I was so enthused by the “essential spirit of the man” that I assumed my father would be unconcerned by his lack of Islamic credentials. I was, as it turns out, delusional in a very literal sense (more of that later.) When I told my father, his exact words were “Whilst I will not prevent your mother from attending your wedding, you and I will not speak again, ever.”
He was right to an extent. We did not speak or see each other for almost five years; until just before my elder son was born. (My mother never did come to my wedding.) I separated from my husband shortly afterwards, and my second son was actually born whilst I was living with my parents. My father had accepted myself and his mixed-race grandsons unequivocally. I say “mixed- race” rather than dual heritage or bi-racial because my sons are technically of triple heritage, being Ghanaian, Pakistani and Scottish in origin.
Not only had my father accepted them, but he became the primary carer of, in particular, my younger son when I returned to work as a criminal barrister. My father rose above the indignity of not only having a divorcee for a daughter, but also having black as opposed to Asian grand-children. The very sad reality is that there is much prejudice among many South Asians about inter-marriage with African and African-Caribbean’s.
He could not have been more proud of his grandsons. This was despite all the shame I had brought him, within his own Pakistani community here, and “at home”. But this acceptance brought with it an odd emotional negotiation. We both maintained a fiction that my sons were Pakistani. He did celebrate their diversity; but he knew from experience that the world tends to be unkind to those who actually physically embody diversity.
My sons’ African origins were not mentioned unless absolutely necessary. Whilst my sons were tiny and their hair was barely curled, this was not really an issue. And certainly my younger son looked more Asian than anything else. As a friend said to me when he was born, “Ah, this one looks like a proper desi baby.”
But when his thick black hair began to began to grow, at first, literally vertically, and then in that position began to curl… Well, the “Pakistani baby” fiction became untenable.
When I jokingly raised the hair issue with my father, he replied with such enthusiasm “No, no, you know our fellow countryman Sarfraz Manzoor, who writes for the Guardian. He has such luscious hair. My namasa (grandson from a daughter) will look like that. His hair is like Sarfraz Manzoor’s.”
My father had a thing for hair. He himself, had had a luscious head of it, until premature male pattern baldness did for him. He also had a thing for Sarfraz Manzoor. He spoke about him with real warmth; for his writing, for what he had achieved and yes, for his hair. If I thought of Sarfraz Manzoor, I had to smile. A smile that increased, when he himself married out of his faith, like my father, to a Scottish woman of “almost” Christian upbringing.
It was, therefore, with some discomfort that I read Sarfraz Manzoor’s review of Too Asian Not Asian Enough. Not only because it is critical of the anthology as a whole (which it is) and my story in particular. But because I felt almost that I had let my father down. That someone whom he so admired, and whose opinion he respected, found my work lacking in thought, observation and good style. I wonder though if there is more to this than fair literary criticism.
Sarfraz Manzoor questions Kavita Bhanot’s motivations in compiling her anthology, and the quality of the contributions that she has chosen. The way in which he engages with Kavita’s anthology premise, seems to betray an anger, almost a sense of being personally affronted. His sarcastic tone, his use of broad brush generalisation to dismiss the particularity of Kavita’s arguments, his reference to one of the more established contributors Suhayl Saadi not by his considerable work (including Psychoraag and Joseph’s Box)but by his age- all these things seem to indicate that something has riled Sarfraz Manzoor more than just bad writing.
And I wonder whether actually Sarfraz Manzoor knows himself really what that is. There is something about “race” writing, post diaspora writing, call it what you will, that seems to arouse such strong emotions. Emotions that go beyond the parameters of literary criticism.
For me, the central issue that Kavita’s anthology introduction raises is, who are South Asian or indeed “ethnic” writers writing for? Are they writing to make their culture more accessible to a white audience? Or are they writing so that other South Asians can feel some relief in familiarity, that someone out there understands them? Or are they attempting to write for everyone, to raise universal themes that make us realise that we are not so different from our fellow man, regardless of creed or colour?
Good writing should perhaps do all three. When I read Hanif Kureishi’ s Buddha of Suburbia many years ago, I felt as if I was reading so many aspects of my own life as a mixed -race Pakistani teenager, growing up with slightly eccentric parents in the ’70s and ’80s, with a backdrop of thinly veiled white liberal racism and completely unveiled racial threats and violence. I felt as if that book was written for me. And so did hundreds of thousands of other people. It spoke to people who had been through similar experiences, educated those (whilst engaging them) who had not, and made us all consider the issues of racism, race and identity.
The greatest difficulty is, that if one aims to do all three, or maybe just the first two i.e. write for South Asians whilst making your experiences more accessible to white readers- when your work is published, non-Asians will also read it. And it is the awareness of that fact that gives rise to an undignified stampede of other Asians clamouring with, “How dare you tell white people what Asians are like? The way I tell that story is much better. Yours is a stereotypical parody pandering to …etc. etc.” What ensues is an unholy scrapping of Asian upon Asian in front of the white gaze. Leaving the white reader, publisher, agent wondering “Oh so much to choose from. Which one will I go with? Who is telling the truth? Who is authentic? ”
It is exactly this phenomena that Gautam Malkani explores in his story Asian of the Month in Too Asian Not Asian Enough. This authenticity competition that is the arena of ethnic writing. Indeed, it is exactly what happened after he wrote Londonstani. By engaging in this kind of discourse, British South Asians are not redefining themselves for themselves, they are just entering into some kind of cock fight for the benefit of a crowd which hungers for authentic blood.
So why all the in-fighting? Why all the anger? Why the clamouring to get your story read first and in the best way? Because, in part, the reality is that growing up as an immigrant or a child of an immigrant is hard. The desire is to have your story heard. For it no longer to be part of your quiet secret history of oppression-but something that is out there, so that people know. And part of being heard is having the host community realise what has happened to you, as much as it is a life line for your fellow Asians.
So why then, again, do we not have compassion and empathy for each other’s stories? Humility when we read of an aspect of South Asian experience that may be different or unfamiliar to our own? Because, in part, when your life has been hard, when you have genuinely suffered and been marginalised, you don’t have the energy for empathy, unity, solidarity. There is only pain. But the pain is so hidden, even from ourselves that it comes out as this unseemly anger. In Sarfraz Manzoor’s review it comes out as a caustic sarcasm that is actually beneath him (comparing as he does Kavita Bhanot to a “bored teenager”).
He does give good advice. He enjoins the contributors of Too Asian Not Asian Enough, or at least the ones that he considers to have engaged in “literary throat clearing” (a beautiful phrase) to think deeper, look closer and write better. I do not take issue with this. I wonder, however, whether he really has looked at the stories with a fair eye. Could it be that when the stories do not accord with his understanding of the British Asian experience, that he has simply just dismissed them as bad writing?
I have not written fiction for public consumption before. Familiar Skin is my first published story. It was written shortly after a lengthy psychiatric hospital admission. It draws on very personal experiences and thoughts. It describes from the inside the experience of psychosis, not during it, but in the aftermath, when you are finally conscious enough to formulate thoughts you recognise. It relates things I have seen and heard as a psychiatric in-patient. The story, as a whole, explores themes that I have indeed thought very deeply about, throughout my life: the psychological internal mechanics of white middle and working class racism, the diversity of the British Asian experience, the impact of class on that experience.
Much more personally, it tells the story of an unlikely love affair in a psychiatric ward between a working class ex-squaddie and an upper middle class Asian academic. I have never had such a love affair, but because of the effects of bipolar disorder have found myself loving the most unlikely of people. My marriage which gave me my two beautiful mixed-race sons, one with hair like Sarfraz Manzoor’s, occurred after less than ten weeks of knowing my ex-husband. I was not having a full blown manic episode. Rather its precursor: the hypomanic episode, which may look simply from the outside like volubility and impaired judgement. The full blown episodes were yet to come.
Maybe my story Familiar Skin is poorly crafted, even though it is based on deep thoughts and close observations. No matter. There are worse things than not writing well.