Saturday, August 12, 2006

Throwing Bricks in Brick Lane

I enjoyed Monica Ali's Booker shortlisted Brick Lane very much, and so did the members of my reading group who found themselves sympathetic to this story about Nazneen, a young Bangladeshi woman who comes to London's East End as a result of an arranged marriage.

Now a film is being made of the book, but protests by the Bangladeshi community mean that Brick Lane, cannot be used for the actual filming. The street has been the home of successive waves of immigrant communities, and now is famous for its Bangladeshi restaurants. It was the backdrop for some of the scenes in the novel, but Ruby Films production company, concerned for safety of cast and crew, has taken the advice of the police and decided to shoot exterior scenes elsewhere in the city.

Local business leader, Abdus Salique, is leading the protest, and has threatened to publicly burn copies of the book, declaring that it degrades his community. Not all quarters of the Brick Lane Bangladeshi community stand with him though and Independent columnist Johann Hari declared the campaign was part of:
a cascade of protest by ultra-conservatives within Europe’s immigrant communities trying to silence women from their own neighborhoods calling for change.
The fun and games and name-calling really began in earnest, though, when so-called feminist writer, Germain Greer, waded into the fray, to support the protests against the book and screamed hysterically in the Guardian:
Writers are treacherous; they will sneak up on you and write about you in terms that you don't recognise. They will take your reality, pull strands from it and weave them with their own impressions into a tissue that is more real than your reality because it is text. ... Every individual, every community ever to be written about suffers the same shock of non-recognition, and feels the same sense of invasion and betrayal.
Salman Rushdie in turn declared Greer 'a sanctimonious philistine' and pointed out that she is the most treacherous writer of all, raking up the embers of an earlier bitter feud. (In an article on recent celebrity spats, Emile Saner said Rushdie's attack on Greer made 'surviving a fatwa look like having a long bath with a good book'!)

Other writers, including Hari Kunzru, weighed in, with English PEN issuing a statement:
It would be best if we could show that this is not the Free Speech absolutists vs an embattled minority (which is the way the story now looks, though that doesn't reflect the reality on the ground); but rather a small group of authoritarians who don't understand the nature of fiction vs a much larger us that includes many progressive Bangladeshis and others in the Brick Lane area.

PEN goes on to warn:

Without strong political leadership, Britain will become an increasingly hostile climate for writers, with far-reaching and damaging impact on our creative industries, and receding hopes of building a genuinely pluralist society.

And of course wider questions are being asked, as Alan Cowell writes in the New York Times:
In some ways, the debate has revived a much wider discussion in Europe about whether free speech may be limited by the sensitivities of people who feel affronted by it. Should old Western societies, in other words, rewrite their definitions of liberty to accommodate the sensitivities of others?
Most definitely not.

Or let's just bury fiction alive, why don't we?

I am very interested to hear the opinions of the Bangladeshi community, but there are ways and there are ways of getting your point across and burning books just makes you look like an yobbish ignoramus.

Salique calls Brick Lane, 'an icon of Britain as it is now'. I remember it in the '70's as a place where you could get the best curry in town. Now you can't even walk down the road without being constantly harrassed by Bangladeshi restaurant workers waving menus under your nose promising gastronomic wonders the cooking sadly fails to fulfil.


Dean said...

Actually, I think that what Greer said... "They will take your reality, pull strands from it and weave them with their own impressions into a tissue that is more real than your reality because it is text." true.

But it is curious that the shopkeepers of Brick Lane are only now taking out their wrath on the MOVIE (and not the original publication of 2003) which obviously stands to make a heap of money for the writer. No doubt there's an element of envy involved. I mean, making a movie is clearly a bigger deal than just some stupid BOOK.

Obviously, the English culturati should be infuriated by the small-spirited and grubby machinations of a bunch of second-rate cooks.

bibliobibuli said...

the film is a low budget one for Film Four so maybe it isn't going to be so lucrative, dean

yes, i actually like this paragraph from Greer's article ... i think in a sense writers are treacherous and steal like magpies! ... but then that's the nature of fiction

i don't think greer is at all fair to monica ali in the rest of her piece, talking as if she has no right to write about the bangladeshi community because she's lived in britain most of her life ... this question of "authenticity" is one that keeps coming round in books written by asian writers in britain ... Sarfraz Mansoor, writing in the Observer recently, said “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.”

Greenbottle said...

i don't care much about this latest manifestation of the 'clash of culture' ...but if based on the little that i know-that the bricklane bangladeshi community merely did not want the film to be made at brick lane (but don't care if it is made elsewhere)- I certainly don't understand what the fuss is all about and why you want to tar certain sections of that community who have this opinion...i certainly can understand if for example some film makers are prevented by jewish extremist groups from making films at the wailing wall if say, some scenes involve pissing on that wall...

like wise we ought to understand the bangladeshi community sensitivity here...why the hell can't they film elsewhere anyway...

i'm beginning to hate that bastard and wog salman rushdie more and more these days... this guy (despite creating some marvellous books) are totally obnoxious when it comes to belittling other people when he thinks that they are not 'liberal' as he is... he's just making the same mistake as the very people that he denigrates because he's equally myopic and refuse to understand the other side of the debate...

Chet said...

“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.”

Here's a thought about the above comment.

Maybe these writers have parents and families who told them stories that they then went on to write stories about. Which makes them transcribers as well as writers / storytellers.

bibliobibuli said...

chet, i'd say that having a foot outside the culture probably helps them gain a perspective of it ... and if you surveyed any population of writers i think they would be "a-typical" of their culture and more highly educated

Dean said...

greenbottle said: "the bricklane bangladeshi community merely did not want the film to be made at brick lane (but don't care if it is made elsewhere)"

That's not true. They object to the making of the movie, full stop. They want it not to go ahead at all, regardless of where it is filmed.

Glenda Larke said...

I think there is a lot of truth in what Greer says - people do find it hard to recognise themselves - but this doesn't mean that what is said is necessarily inaccurate.

It's just that many, many people think their community (whatever that community is) is as close to perfection as you can get. Someone who comes in with a writer's perspective (often - as was stated above - from the slightly different angle of a semi-outsider, eg mixed race) has a more jaundiced view, and the locals simply don't recognise it. "How can they say that about my paradise? My surroundings might be crap, but my social mores are perfect, my religion is without fault, my way of treating my wife/bringing up my kids/looking after my mother/cooking my curry (or clam chowder or pizza or whatever) is authentic and faultless.

I think this is one of the problems faced by many Malaysian writers. There is little for them to build on, from the past, of the critical look at their own society. Their mother (husband/wife/auntie) is going to freak out if they write a novel that takes an in-depth look at their community. If they hint that the their religion - as practised in their community - may have damaged the psyche of a character they portray in their book, they may be in real trouble, e.g. labelled kafir, and worse. The community may even attack them as owning the views of their characters, (as has happened overseas).

Which is why a coward like me writes fantasy and says what she wants to say about Malaysia in covert ways.

sympozium said...

Bouquets and Brick-bats..

bibliobibuli said...

greenbottle - i think rushdie's attack on greer was about much more than the present row ... she did not give her support to rushdie after the pronouncement of the fatwa against him. greer gets up my nose too.

i agree that we should understand the viewpoint of the bangladeshi community - i would really like to know what they think. they are against the book as much as the film. the film can be shot elsewhere but it would have been better to have shot it in brick lane.

glenda - i absolutely agree with you and this is why fiction in malaysia is so stifled. friends of mine who have overstepped the line have reaped the consequences. one female writer was terrified for her safety and had someone harass her in a public toilet, pounding on her door and yelling insults at her after a short story was published. a male writer was spat at in the mosque. no wonder most self-censor. no wonder so many choose fantasy or to set their fiction in "short story land" or within a single ethnic community. no wonder so many self-censor. no wonder almost no-one is brave enough to depict a multi-ethnic malaysia that is recognisable. the risks for writers are high, the rewards low. a topic to be explored at much greater length in time.

Spot said...

I too thought that a lot of Germaine Greer's comments were accurate. That's because her arguments are as much a grump against the nature of fiction as it is a defense of the Bangladeshi community's outrage.

But as with most things, the point is always handicapped by the manner of its execution. Greer's point about the power of the pen to dictate imagination is overshadowed by her condescending rant on authenticity.

The Brick Lane Bangladeshis' natural (exactly what Glenda said abt how one's perspective is inevitably self-biased) outrage at what they perceive as negative portrayal is undermined by overly dramatic book-burning.

PEN is spot on. The problem truly is the lack of understanding of the nature of fiction.

And I can't agree more with your take, Sharon, that idea that the "foot outside the culture" gives a different perspective. It's a very human thing to struggle to maintain impartiality, so when you have a tempering influence (eg. the "outsider" race in the mixed marriage), you're less likely to be defensive about the negative elements of the culture/community you live in.