Diaspora chic is big in the Academy but not on the streets

('Index on Censorship')
2003

I have in front of me an invitation to speak at a forthcoming Windsor conference whose theme is: 'The Imaginary Homeland: Has Commonwealth Literature Had its Day?' My session is entitled, 'Britain as the last colony of the British Empire'. Various notables of the 'post-colonial'/ commonwealth diaspora literary scene, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Aamer Hussein, Ben Okri, are due to attend, as well as older gods like Wilson Harris and Peter Porter. I know that, amidst the academics and writers and what have you, my early thirties self will probably be the youngest one there, and this will contribute to a certain sense of distance,  a lack of full commonality that  I tend to feel at gigs like these. But I expect I'll go. Amongst other reasons, I'd be foolish not to. This is the market, you see, but increasingly I'm not sure that it's me.

The 'post-colonial' school has been the main lens through which non-white Writers of any international antecedents have been discussed these past twenty years. As someone whose parents had emigrated from Nigeria, and had grown up with Heinemann's African Writers Series as well as British classics on the family shelves,  I readily accepted  induction into the diaspora circle when my first novel was published. Like most other writers i wanted critical and commercial comforts and I wascertainly mindful of how the post-colonial school was big in the academy. Given the unlikelihood of serious novelists making big commercial breakthroughs, especially ones with 'strange'names - I'm always mindful of GK Chesterton's mot that the  British public will never greatly buy a book by an author whose name they can't pronounce - it's as well to keep the academy onside.  You have half an eye on a tenured academic post, like Gurnah's at the University of Kent or, better still, like Caryl Phillips, overlooking New York's Hudson River. Just the kind of thing  a writer might want in his mid years, when the demands of a family, say, have sapped his novelistic energies.

But, of course, I am as much a Briton as a diasporan.  I came into the writing game partly to record this British/black British world around me only to quickly see that such an obvious ambition did not sit easily with the dominant diaspora chic.

I should have known. Looking forliterary 'role models'as an apprentice writer, what was most striking about various eminent diasporans your Okris, your Caryl Phillips - was that, despite them living in Britain, hardly any of them engaged on the page, with the British, black British world around them. Of course any writer can only answer to their own concerns, nevertheless it strikes me, now as much as then, that to be hailed as an important  non-white writer, one's work has to fall into what you might call a 'once removed' category: either removed in place -set your work in places that are exotic to the key western market,with exotic mythologies or world views operating (Okri, Roy) -or in time - if I had a dollar for every book that has re-played the slavery experience to general acclaim (Morrison's'Beloved', Phillips''Cambridge', Fred D'Aguiar's 'Feeding the Ghosts' etc etc.) I'd be a rich man. No doubt this tendency has much to do with the long tradition of well-known writing in these areas, a tradition that most of the diaspora critics would have grown up in, and gained  their professorships on. They tend to champion those who easily lend themselves to  the kind of discourse that is their own bread and butter. (One should never underestimate the influence that art patrons have on the type of art that is produced. A friend of mine, a UK Chinese artist, found that, amongst all the different applications she used to send into the Arts Council to fund diverse video projects,the only ones tomeet with success were those whose themes were riffs on Chinese restaurants and 'Takeaway'culture. So now 'Take Away'stuff is all she does).

The tendency is also enhanced by people's- the readers', the diaspora mafia's - general reluctance to deal with any sensitive matter that is right in front of them. And race- encounters between whites and non-whites -is sensitive. It's far easier for a reader to feel pity for a slave than to be moved by the story of a 21st century young black British male when it's these same males she fears when she  walks  out onto the street. Kureishi was different. Seeing his film'My Beautiful Launderette' was one of the great moments of my apprentice years. Here, at last, was a diasoporan, an Anglo-Pakistani, who was setting his stuff in modern Britain, inall its multicoloured edgy splendour. Now Kureishi is more about sex than he was more about race although, as I then saw, to my disappointment in his debut novel 'The Buddha of Suburbia',about a certain type of racial encounter that I was less interested in chronicling. In that novel, his two main characters, the Asian father and son, spend most of their time in white circles - the Dad is a guru figure to white suburbanites while the son, when he's not listening to David Bowie, expends his energies trying to make it as an actor in the liberal circles of the 'Royal Court'. The book, like 'Launderette' before,  was a hit and it occurred to me, that, to have a black-British hit, you had to provide white lines of entry into the work. (The runaway successof  Zadie Smith's 'WhiteTeeth'and the Asian comedy series 'goodness Gracious Me' is further evidence of that). Being a progressive and rather contrary-minded, I set about, in my second novel, to writea book set in Britain that had no white points of entry, partly because it reflects a truth - lots of black people here, like the characters in my novel, see few, if any whites in their everyday lives, and partly because the reception to such a book would tell me whether or not black people had arrived as full members of the human club. White contemporary tales ,of course,with no black points of entry,are frequently seen as being 'universal'or of wide social significance.

The novel, 'My Once upon A Time', deployed the noir private eye tradition  to tell a state of the nation-London story. The novel had strong Yoruba religious flavours to it too - the Yoruba religion being the one that, quiet as its kept,  in its modern guises of voodoo,santeria and candomble, informs black lives in the diaspora  as much as any any other carry over from the old country. It was an old world-new world tale and one I was very proud of, not least because I'd put down every part of me.

The novel was very well received where it was reviewed. Unfortunately, the only newspapers that didn't review it on publication were the ones that my potential readers tend to read - the liberal left ones,the ones,interestingly, where diaspora chic is strongest. I suspect that my novel, to mix some metaphors,dropped into the cracks, between various stools. The rather sniffy diaspora-critical gatekeepers out there would not have seen enough orthodox diaspora stuff in this novel that had slang and shootings in London clubs,whilst its literateness and my own education would have precluded a certain, 'all hail the primitive/ black guy straight off the streets'approach -that other long-standing exotica tradition. And as for Yoruba mythology -well few would take voodoo's ancestor seriously. There is nothing like the respect for African culture, African religions,that there is for their Asian counterparts (the diaspora is not a level-playing field). And so a certain typeof black work is still released  into what feels like a critical vacuum.

I suspect too, from various times I've crossed paths with the diaspora mafia, that they havea certain unease when faced with the new, emerging black-British school;  that their old certainties may no longer apply in the new, upcoming world. And they're right to feel so for one of the most striking things about my generation of black britons is how little solidarity it feels with newer Britiash-based diasporans, such as the north Africans,  the Sudanese or Somalians who came here in the nineties or the Eastern european asylum seekers. Eritrean cabbies  have told me of brutal robberies wheretheir black-British fareturned assailant has screamed at them'YouF-ing refugee!' whilst burglaries are routinely blamed on the new Kosovans in the neighbourhood. Complaints about the refugees taking the councilhouses and slowing down their kids'progrees at schools or theri treatment ina doctor's surgery has become a regular refrain.. Diaspora chic may be big in the acacdemy,  but not on the streets. Perhaps a sense of commonwealth, post-colonial solidarity was quite prevalent in the sixties and seventies, certainly not  now, in this increasingly British black Britain..The only black diaspora that most of my peers feel part of is their own native country,and, always, America - the place where black people are glamorous and millionaires.   

So new diasporas are emerging, old ones with their old assumptions  fading,  friends and enemies, all less obvious than before. Professional  diasporadom will no doubt adapt to survive, but it will have to some serious re-orienting if it is to keep any meaningful place at literature's High Table.
 


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