Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Hari Chucks a Brick

The Brick Lane debate (which I blogged about last year) has been continuing in the Guardian stoked (according to Monica Ali) by the journalists of aforesaid liberal newspaper, and by the premier of the film (which was to have been a Royal premier ... only the Royals pulled out).

And then in a Guardian leader writer called into question Ali's very right to write about the Sylheti community:
... she was a mixed-race Oxford graduate whose main characters were not from Sylhet (the original home of nearly all Brick Lane residents) but a completely different region: Mymensingh. This is a bit like a story about geordies being treated as if it were about cockneys.
This questioning of ethnic authenticity rightly enraged (among others) Hari Kunzru:
I reserve the right to imagine anyone and anything I damn well please. If I want to write about Jewish people, or paedophiles or Patagonians or witches in 12th-century Finland, then I will do so, despite being "authentically" none of these things. I also give notice that if I choose, I intend to imagine what your muddled writer quaintly terms "real people" living in "real communities". My work may convince or it may not. However, I will not accept that I have any a priori responsibility to anyone - white, black or brown, let alone any "community" - to represent them in any particular way. ... I'm sick of all this cant about cultural authenticity, and sick of the duty (imposed only on "minority" writers) to represent in some quasi-political fashion. Art isn't about promoting social cohesion, or cementing community relations. It's about telling the truth as you see it, even if it annoys or offends some people. That's called freedom of expression, and last time I checked we all thought it was quite a good idea.
Forget for the moment Brick Lane, Monica Ali, Bangladeshis and Britain ... isn't the right to write about whosoever you "damn well please" one that you would claim for yourselves - particularly in multi-ethnic Malaysia?

(Pic of Brick Lane from the Guardian.)


Anonymous said...

Actually people are the same the world over. Some people here claim to support free speech too, but for some of them there/s a disclaimer -- "only if you agree with me."

Glenda Larke said...

Taking this one step further: The question of "cultural misappropriation" is quite a big issue to a writer - you might be amazed at how rabid some folk can get over this issue, even for fantasy writers. The word "plundering" is dragged out regularly...

For example, a white Australian author is in trouble if s/he "plunders" Australian aboriginal culture as the basis for an imaginary world in a fantasy. White Australian artists get flak if they use Aboriginal-type art forms in their art. (One wonders where modern music would be if white folk had not plundered the black jazz of southern USA).

So my question to all you Malaysians out there: how do you feel if a non-Malay writer/artist uses Malay cultural icons in their writing/art? How does a Malaysian Chinese or Indian or Iban feel about someone "plundering" their culture for inspiration? Think of a fantasy world containing pontianak and pelesit and bersanding, or with a villainous god that looks like the Chinese kitchen god and a festival of hungry ghosts, nyonya/baba culture, etc etc.

It seems that it is fine to set one's world in a Scandanavian/Germanic Middle Earth if one is a white Englishman, but forget about using the world of the Australian aboriginal and thinking you are paying them homage if you are a white Australian.

animah said...

Yes, I'd like to write as I damn well please, and if I have upset someone, well my writing must have worked.
Do you think my writing is provocative Sharon?

bibliobibuli said...

animah - yes, very pleasingly so. you go girl.

glenda - wow that is an interesting response and something i wouldn't have thought of.