Writers of south-Asian origin are all the rage these days. My plans to to write something that ties together a few strings have been thwarted by Sarfraz Manzoor in today’s Observer. “Why do Asian writers have to be ‘authentic’ to succeed?” – he asks.
But before we get to that, it may be worth looking at events over the pond.
Our American-Indian friends at Sepia Mutiny were a bit too gleeful at her downfall for my liking, but the story does not end yet. Questions are being asked whether it was the ghost writer or the management company that had something to do with it.
All three have played on their ethnicity in different ways.
Kaavya’s character Opal Mehta is an aspiring Indian girl gone wild and is based on her own experiences. Gautam goes deep into the heart of Hounslow and studies the birth of the Asian counter-culture in Britain as they struggle to have some semblance of identity. Nirpal, meanwhile, has become a self-appointed commentator on race relations with a claim to fame that journalist Liz Jones has openly slagged him off for years for being a rubbish husband.
His book is apparently a “filthy, unflinching and politically incorrect take on modern Britain”. Each has been sold to different audiences as an “authentic” voice of modern Britain.
Now we come back to Sarfraz’s article:
If you are white and middle-class, it seems, you are allowed to be an artist; if you are Asian, you must be authentic.
The media demands diversity and authenticity but writers are rarely capable of fulfilling this expectation. When a writer emerges who appears to be giving us the real deal they are immediately lionised, and when it is revealed that they are not they are criticised. The publishing world wants Asian writers it can promote as authentic. Can they not be allowed to have imaginations? Can they not be allowed to simply tell stories?
He mentions Monica Ali in this context too, and I agree with him. The problem also extends to Asians themselves, who demand that every Asian writer has to be authentic to their experiences.
It is astonishing how many of the writers credited with telling typically Asian stories are in fact atypical – either Oxbridge-educated, mixed race, in mixed-race relationships or all of the above.
This is where we part company. While I agree that most ‘authentic voices’ in the mainstream have been that of middle-class and well educated Asians, the same applies to mainstream literature too.
Book publishing has always largely been the preserve of middle-class people. They know how to work and system and are able to get by on an unstable income. So in some ways Asians are simply fitting into how the publishing (and media) industry has always worked.
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