“When I write, I’m not a woman, I’m not a Moroccan, I’m not a Muslim, I am whatever I want. … Love has no nationality,” says author Leïla Slimani. This raises the question, and a paradox for our age: Should authors from a minority background be restricted to writing novels based on their own experience?
In an interview with Mariella Frostrup, Kavita Bhanot argues that publishers push for British South Asians to write about their own experience, identity and culture, as a way to conform to publication needs. At the same time, writers such as Monica Ali, a British South Asian, have been criticised for appropriating Eastern cultures for Western readers. Contemporary novels with British Asian characters, such as Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, have also failed to acknowledge the different cultures and regions within South Asia. By doing so, they risk creating stereotypes that become more like caricatures than a realistic depiction of a group from a specific culture background.
Fatima Bhutto’s The Runaways, Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, Hanif Kureishi My beautiful Laundrette, and many other novels, all explore the complexities of identity and belonging in a world where cultural confusion is rife. The UK is one of the most multicultural countries in the world, with up to 19.5% of people from ethnic minority groups according to the 2011 Census. An estimated 5% of that is made up by British South Asians, or roughly 3 million in the forever growing 64 million. Finding a sense of belonging while living as part of two cultures is an experience felt by many British South Asians. Monica Ali, both British and Bangladeshi, is a writer who explores this cultural confusion in her ground-breaking novel Brick Lane.
Ali’s novel is about a young woman called Nazneen who, after marrying her husband Chanu, leaves Bangladesh behind to start a new life in Britain. This novel was adapted into a film in 2006, leaving several in the Bengali community angry and offended, with some arguing that the novel portrays Bangladeshis as ‘uneducated and unsophisticated’.
Ali’s most recent novel, Untold Story (published in 2011), is centred around the hypothetical idea that Princess Diana survives the Paris car crash and fakes her own disappearance. The novel was criticised for its dialogue having too many ‘Americanisms’ and not enough ‘Britishness’. The New York Times review of the book stated that “Ali is capable of writing a novel about anything, including Diana. But somehow Untold Story has come out all wrong.” Ali has been criticised by both Bangladeshis and Brits for focusing on stereotypes and not fully portraying a culture accurately due to her bi-cultural background.
Writers in the same predicament as Monica Ali have the talent and ability to write across cultures. But writing beyond one’s own identity risks criticism for appearing, in Ali’s case, too British for Bengalis and too Bengali for the British.