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Writings in English by South Asian diasporic communities in contemporary Britain have frequently been discussed within the framework of representation and authenticity. Critically speaking, the exploration of national identity and cultural authenticity in examining the creative potentials of South Asian narratives in Britain tends to construct a margin within the margin of postcolonial otherness.  The penchant for representational dimensions has dominated the critiques of this diasporic literature in which national and cultural authenticity of the subject matter becomes the major focus for narrative analysis. Critics are so concerned with the expertise of credible presentation of cultural authenticity in British Asian authors that the other aspects of their craftsmanship seem to have been lost altogether. Hence, the writings of South Asian diasporic authors in English have yet to be given their due evaluation and treatment.

In the study of postcolonial culture, a ‘fixed reality’ – which Homi Bhabha refers to as a ‘system of representation, a regime of truth…’ – is articulated to designate the migrant community as authentic.[1] Theoretically, this perspective imagines diasporas within the trope of realism – an allegedly conformist theory of colonial authority designed for cultural sabotage. And so, for South Asian narratives in Britain the confines of realism remain the most available touchstone of analysis. Here, the writers are seemingly embarking upon the world of literature as the representatives of classes, societies, and cultures to which they belong. They are looked upon invariably as being committed to voicing their ethnicity and cultural values in their works. What follows as a result is a complete indifference toward the other aspects of the literary expertise of these talented writers. They seem to ‘eschew fantastical elaborations of language or narrative’, yet it is assertively admissible that the creations of South Asian writers have never been outside of literary artifices.[2] They have the exuberance of imagination, the aura of poetry and innovative techniques of expression. It is not the reality of the real world but the reality of author’s vision that dominates their works. But strangely enough, our diasporic writers who speak of ‘the confusion and trauma of the new world’ in their own creative way, are still being judged by the touchstone of perfection because of the persistent critical debate of ‘who is least authentic, who is least universal,’ and so on.[3]

          Some examples may be presented here in support of my claim. Salman Rushdie, for a well-known case, put his life at stake when his The Satanic Verses earned him a fatwa (death sentence for blasphemy) in 1988. Rushdie was charged with defaming Islam and the prophet Muhammad by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran. In an online article for the BBC news channel published in February 2009, editor Lawrence Pollard admitted that, even aside from the political upheaval, he felt ‘the book was not well-reviewed when it came out – and seemed to cause confusion.’[4] Pollard had tried ardently to destabilise any imposed truth in Rushdie’s narrative, however, as he still underpinned The Satanic Verses with a certain depictive perfection, insisting that ‘[i]ndeed, the book … feels so real and convincing’ in terms of representing South Asian migrants in the UK.[5] On the other hand, The Satanic Verses has no motivation to be realistic and authentic in its expression. The narrative structure itself is a corollary of creative chaos fully dominated by the author’s restive imagination. The spectacles of phantasmagoria that Rushdie showed in his novel are purely fictitious, and imaginary, and therefore have no intent of religious blasphemy. I would argue that part of the controversy revolving around this novel resulted from its interpretation as a manifesto of cultural authenticity.  A section of critics and readers who propagandised the novel as a piece of blasphemy explored the narrative in terms of cultural and national purity.  They alleged provocatively that the novel is a reflection of the distortion of cultural and religious values. This phenomenon of confining a literary work to the representation of cultures and customs actively marginalises the potential of the work within the periphery of mere representation.  Another controversial South Asian novel in contemporary Britain is Monica Ali’s Brick Lane (2003), which has apparently enraged some of the Bangladeshi community in Britain. Ali has been accused of depicting the Sylheti community in a derogatory way in her novel. The major reason for such controversy is that the novel is thought to be conceived and narrated from a realistic point of view which credibly presents, again in Poornima Apte’s words, ‘an accurate telling of the immigrant experience.’[6]  Applying the term “accurate” to a fictional work gives scope for marginalizing the text, to some extent, within the framework of the ‘burden of representation’, which, in fact, debases the aesthetic proprieties of any work of art and literature. Another critic, Natasha Walter, who eulogizes Ali’s narrative in representing experience authentically once again confirms Apte’s view of presentational perfection when she posits: ‘Beyond this moving portrait of the domestic world, I cannot think of another novel in which the politics of our times are caught with such easy vividness.’[7] Walter’s remark about the expressional ‘vividness’ also reconfirms the representative dimension of the text which is, of course, an aspect of the narrative; but by insisting on the writer or the artist being true to the fact, the critic always tend to explore a conceivable proximity between the real world and the works of these migrant writers. Ali’s narrative, however, does not strictly adhere to this dimension as the narrator devises numerous shifts from the representational verisimilitude to the intensely subjective but fragmented and reflexive articulation of the action which contextualizes a non-western storyline. Pakistani-born diasporic writer Nadeem Aslam, too, has received similar critical reception for his Maps for Lost Lover (2006), which has been deemed ‘an accurate barometer of the public taste for tales of Asian assimilation…’ by Jasper Rees in an article for The Telegraph.[8] Aslam’s success in fashioning a fictive narrative seems not to be the concern of the critics, as they find it ‘a rare sort of book that gives a voice to those whose voices are seldom heard.’[9] Repeated emphasis on the preservation of cultural authenticity and on being realistic in a fictional text essentially closes all the ways of exploring its aesthetic potentials. This kind of critical practice is the founding basis for outlining a margin within the margin.

          The monolithic evaluation South Asian diasporic literatures can be questioned from a two-fold perspective. Firstly, on the platform of South Asian diasporic literature writers from different schools of thinking converge at the point where they sketch out the world around them candidly. Such an endeavour by diasporic writers has formed a sweeping impression that minority writers have constructed their narratives within the framework of representation instead of any other structure of writings. In rendering their literary zeal South Asian writers may emblematise experiences derived from the real world. But this hardly has any link to the representation of national and cultural specificities of the writer herself, as those experiences have massively been reshuffled and reconstructed in an author’s world of literary sensibilities. If it is the only criteria a work of literature can fall into, then where should the aesthetic potential – the real force behind the creation of a literary piece – be place? It may be argued that the incidents we encounter in the works are derived from the real world, the world full of hardship, crisis, and grievances of the diasporic multitude but these realities are prettified by the imaginary and narratorial versatilities of the authors. Thus, they transcend the mere discourse of representational authenticity. Even from the ‘postcolonial perspective,’ South Asian diasporic narratives destabilise the primacy of the paradigm of authenticity as their formative ground. In his most significant work, The Location of Culture (1994), Bhabha defines the ‘postcolonial perspective’ as the departure ‘from the tradition of the sociology of underdevelopment of ‘dependency’ theory’; he rather explores the notion of the binary between the First and the Third world relationship on the basis of this ‘postcolonial perspective’ that, as he feels, ‘resists the attempt at holistic forms of social explanation.’[10] It ‘evinces an undifferentiating disavowal of all forms of nationalism and a corresponding exaltation of migrancy, liminality, hybridity and multiculturality.’[11] Likewise the literary narratives of postcolonial authors have become a convergent platform of multiple paradigms. Authors like Naipual and Rushdie explore the transitional ambivalence of South Asians in Britain, at the same time the new generation writer Hanif Kureishi encompasses the terrain of cultural and racial miscellany and multiplicity. Meera Syal’s realistic but extremely witty fashion of narrative, Sunetra Gupta’s modernist narratives, and Monica Ali’s exaltation of feminist zeal and post-diasporic identity in her novel—all these contribute to the facet of multiplicity in the works of South Asian writers in Britain.

          Secondly, it is worth mentioning that the trope of realism has most frequently and exhaustively been explored by the western critics in their criticisms of diasporic, especially South Asian diasporic, narratives in order to idealise the intensity of nationalism and native cultures. As a result, the burden of representation seems to have influenced their evaluation to a great extent. The more authentic the representation is, the greater becomes the narrative. In fact, such critical estimation of any narrative, especially of diasporic narrative, precludes it from its aesthetic diversity. Even realism itself deals with the aspects of imagination, fictionality, and aesthetisization. It is surely paradoxical that when narrative concerns reality it affects the temporal artifice of representation and thus turns out to be a mere description. The external world that to which it corresponds is expected to be exactly reflected in the narrative; this hype of expectation problematizes the understanding of realism as a creative doctrine because in contemporary discussions on realism, it is argued that realism is not a photographic reflection of reality – for which it is often mistaken. The verbal verisimilitude is distinctly set apart from graphic representation of fact. Pam Morris rightly argues that ‘realist novels never give life or slice of life nor do they reflect reality. In the first place, literary realism is representational form and a representation can never be identical with that which it represents.’[12] So what we can infer from Morris’s notion is the recognition of an author’s imaginary faculty that goes beyond the imitative phenomenon of realist speculation. Morris goes further, saying

Indeed, if we accept too quickly or unquestioningly the assumption that realist texts copy reality, we tend to overlook a long, impressive tradition of artistic development during which the writers struggled and experimented with the artistic means to convey a verbal sense of what it is like to live an embodied existence in the world.[13]

 

This is because reality is not what we refer to as realism. Realism itself is an aesthetic that is underpinned by the potentials of the imaginary and the subjective point of view. Referring to Jean Paul Sartre, Christain Metz posits: ‘reality does not tell stories but memory, because it is an account, is entirely imaginative.’[14]  It aestheticizes the reality with the fictive ambience that never fails to play upon the reader’s consciousness. The fictionality in realism thus creates an identifiable proximity between the reader and the narrative. It may be one of the prominent reasons to explain the wide-ranging popularity of this discourse. It is undeniable that realism as a discourse contributes to building up the primary platform for South Asian diasporic narratives not as a mere system of authenticity but as a genuine creative aesthetic.

          The burden of representation that readers bring to these writers leads to a reading that does not fully appreciate their writing. Kobena Mercer addresses this point with reference to the disenchanted status of black artists in contemporary Britain:

“Representation” concerns not only practices of depiction or textual production, but practices of delegation and substitution such that, at the point    of reception, the black artist is expected to speak for the black communities as if    she or he were its political “representative”.[15]

 

Mercer’s concerns are that such ways of reading lead to an inescapable obligation on the part of literary practitioners from South Asia and other diasporic communities to represent their home in texts with unfailing accuracy. The intention behind such reductive criticism is not always knowingly malicious: Brazeil, in examining the issue of representation in the context of diaspora, notes that giving a diasporic writer a voice can seem like resistance, stating that diasporic ‘“arts of resistance” articulate honour, respect for those too often nameless, faceless individuals who due to poverty, illiteracy, or disenfranchisement, cannot represent or agitate for political changes.’[16]

          Diasporic writers, then, are often considered legitimate spokesmen for their respective cultures. Specifically, representation in South Asian diasporic literature is equated with the major responsibility of discharging the self, which invariably leads to works being read for the morality of the self-discharged therein, rather than to discover any given text’s literary potential. It is undeniable that writers have, in Britain, connected both home and host cultures in their works. London becomes, in Sukhdev Sandhu’s words, a ‘Cultural Capital’ – ‘a home away from home’ nurturing the growth of multicultural art and literature.[17] Authors like Mulk Raj Anand, Nirad Chaudhuri and Kamala Markandaya arrived in London ‘not as economic migrants or political refugees, but in order to be educated or to become writers.’[18] While adapting to their new surroundings, these writers successfully transformed their prose into a representation of home. As they launched South Asian diasporic literature in Britain, this transformation will always be a foundational element; their works clearly identify their national culture for a readership from a different geographical and cultural landscape.

            These diasporic writers drew on English narrative form in order to tell their stories, but the lack of an organic connection between the content and the form meant that their works were not always compatible with the demands of the British market. The publishing sector in London has, of course, always been concerned with the commercial prospects of any work, and even in its early days South Asian writing in Britain was not exempt from considerations of profitability. The commercial success of a work was central to the writer’s career prospects. Writers from the decolonised British colonies were expected to present their unfamiliar national issues to a broad reading community without being unusual in terms of style, form, and structure. The early South Asian writers in Britain, such as Mulk Raj Anand, Kamala Markandya, and Attia Hosain, presented their narratives from a postcolonial perspective: they are representative indeed, but their true success lies in their experimentation with the English form of writing – a form which they draw on to narrate a non-English reality. Second generation authors, such as V.S. Naipaul and Rushdie, stand ‘distinctly as transitional figures in the development of British Asian literature, as the connecting forces between migrant postcolonial narratives and the new British Asian literature.’[19] Naipaul’s realist style, emulating nineteenth century English prose, directly contrasts with his thematic focus on diasporic traumas, and thus Naipaul creates an individual style that subverts the idealistic form of realist writing by blending his autobiographical experiences (which are often expressed in a pessimistic tone) with imaginary ones. ‘Naipaul in fact has enacted his own more subtle subversion of form through fusions of autobiography and novel…fiction and memoir.’[20] Naipaul’s use of English was critically applauded for its perfection in portraying postcolonial realities, and it is this that facilitated his relocation to a transitional position between his British and Indian identities. Rushdie, too, radicalises not only South Asian fiction in English, but also English writing in general by experimenting with forms and themes. His narratives are subversive in the sense that they connect fantasy with fact, deliberately depart from the art of realistic writing, and incorporate a new language which is rhetorically pungent and ironic but interestingly multicultural and dynamic. Rushdie, too, engages with a narrative style which makes a connection between fiction and ‘the living process in that both are a making anew of things’.[21] The ‘living process’ that Rushdie articulates in his writing is a mutation from one stage to another, encountering both culture and history with a perspective that leads to the emergence of a new life and identity. Philip Tew’s reference to Stephen Baker’s comment on Rushdie indicates this aspect of Rushdie’s writing: ‘Salman Rushdie’s writing is based on endless conflict and revision, particularly in its engagement with cultural, literary and socio-political history’.[22]  Thematically, Rushdie interrogates the diasporic sensibility in order to find the possibility for shifts toward a British Asian identity epitomised in The Satanic Verses. The last chapter of this thesis, in an examination of Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, considers how a South Asian diasporic sensibility is expressed in a metropolitan context. Rushdie and his peers are categorised as postcolonial due to their migrant status. The generation after them, however, has been born and raised in Britain. Writers such as Hanif Kureishi, Meera Syal, Monica Ali, and Nadeem Aslam have successfully grappled with the issue of cultural hybridity, defining themselves as British Asian rather than South Asian migrants. They have drawn on and extended the legacy of their ancestors, to express what Vijay Mishra terms ‘the social imaginary of the larger nation’, in the production of a ‘new diaspora’ whose works not only represent native cultures of origin but also diaspora culture focused on ‘questions of justice, self-empowerment, representation, equal opportunity, and definition of citizenry.’[23]      

          Colonial discourse predominantly interprets South Asian diasporic works in Britain from a politically encoded disposition. This disposition includes some burning issues such as lingual appropriation, cultural representation, and the ramification of insurgence. That’s why postcolonial cultures, in Stephen Slemon’s words, ‘have a long history of working towards “realism”…and they have developed a number of strategies for signifying through literature “an order of mimesis”.’[24]There is an underlying tendency to sideline the significance of the art and the elemental diversity in the assessment of the colonial forum; and realism has become the master tool of those critics for theorizing South Asian diasporic works as authentic and representative. Beside the spur of marginalization by colonial critics, the other most palpable reason for relating realism to the works of the ‘Other’ may be outlined in Michael Dash’s notion of ‘Third World’ writers to whom ‘dialogue with history’ and ‘a continuous and desperate protest against the ironies of history’ are fundamental to their ‘literary fraternity’.[25] Their adherence to history, sometimes as an abysmal issue to be retreated or sometimes as a perspective to encounter the present, typifies their position as the envoys of culture and community. With this emphasis on ambassadorship of South Asian writers, living and creating their works from the metropolis or the centre, the centre tends to create a margin within the margin.  This margin from within is conceived by grouping the works of South Asian diasporic writers inside a specific parameter of appropriative strategy that often seeks to establish the worth of a work in the light of representation and authenticity.       

          Nevertheless, the exploration of aesthetic particularity in a literary text becomes more important than propagandising the official truth of authentic presentation. The role of realism here is not to sustain any idealised hierarchy but to embody the worth of the text in relation its literary fecundity and generative context. ‘[A] book is not justified by its’ author’s worthiness to write it’, as Salman Rushdie has written, ‘but by the quality of what has been written.’[26]  Realism, as a theorizing contrivance, examines this ‘quality’ of art – nothing more or less than this.   

          The categorization of South Asian writers who had their formative years as writers in Britain is made on the basis of territorial identities which have significantly narrowed down entire genealogies to a group of so-called representative writers. English critical outlook on South Asian writings have bracketed them into a conformist pattern. Even after the destabilization of European Grand Narrative (a typical Enlightenment theory of homogenisation and assimilation), South Asian narratives in Britain are still established as authentic by ‘those metropolitan Western reviewers who were unable to read the innovative cross-cultural experimentations of such writers from outside the narrow confines of a Eurocentric gaze.’[27] Their attitude is mainly propelled from a political dimension rather than an artistic signification. South Asian writers may reproduce their national cultures and social values initially but gradually culminate into transnational metamorphosis, formation of hybridized identities, and, at the present, post-diasporic cultures. The portrayal of the contexts, themes, and the characters’ interaction with the multicultural elements at the centre relocates South Asian narratives in Britain to the position of mainstream literary form, which transcends any claim of being authentic and establishes itself as British literature. To conclude, I would like to quote Sarfraz Manzoor from The Observer Review: “If you are white and middle-class, it seems, you are allowed to be an artist; if you are Asian, you must be authentic? ... Can they not be allowed to have imaginations? Can they not be allowed to simply tell stories?”[28]  

Notes

[1]Homi K Bhabha, “ The Other Question”, Black British Cultural Studies A Reader, ed. Houston A. Baker Jr., Manthia Diwara, and Ruth H. Lindeborg, (London & Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996),  93.

[2] Niven, ‘ South Asian Diaspora Literature in Britain’ Salidaa- South Asian Diaspora Literature and Arts Archive.

[3] Roohi Choudhry, in Introduction to ‘Exploring and exposing books by the writers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Burma and Nepal,’ (August 2002), <http://www.bookslut.com/south_asian_bookslut/2002_08_000045.php

[4] Lawrence Pollard, “Satanic Verses Polarizing Untruths”, BBC News Channel, 14 Feb 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/7889974.stm

[5] Ibid, BBC New Channel.

[6] Poornima Apte, ‘Brick Lane by Monica Ali’, desi journal Chronicles of Indian Diaspora, (n.d.),  http:// www.desijouranl.com/book.

[7] Natasha Walter, ‘Citrus scent of inexorable desire’ Guardian’,  http:// books.guardian.co.uk/print/0,,4689330-111622,00.html.

[8] Jasper Rees, Telegraph.co.uk, (14 June, 2004), www.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml?xml=/arts/2004/06/20boaslam.xml&sSheet=/arts/2004/06

[9] Soumya Bhattacharya, ‘Goodbye, young lovers’, Guardian Unlimited, (18 July, 2004), http://books.guardian.co.uk /reviews/generalfiction/0,,1263491,00.html,.

[10] Homi K Bhabha,  ‘The Postcolonial and The Postmodern’, The Location of Culture, (London and New York: Routledge, 1994),  173.   

[11] Neil Lazarus, ‘Introducing postcolonial studies’ in The Cambridge Companion to Postcolonial Literary Studies, ed. Neil Lazarus (England : Cambridge University Press, 2004), 04

[12].Morris, Pam, ‘Introduction’,Realism the New Critical Idiom, ( London & New York: Routledge, 2003), 04.

[13] Ibid,.04.

[14] Christian Metz, “Notes Toward a Phenomenology of the Narrative”, The Narrative Reader, ed. Martin Mcquillan (London & New York: Routledge, 2000), 90.

[15] Kobena Mercer, ‘Black Art and the Burden of Representation’, Third Text, 10 (Spring 1990), 61-78, (p.65).

[16] Jana Evans Brazeil,  ‘Transnational Activism, Diasporic Arts of Resistance’, in Diaspora- An Introduction, (UK & USA:    Blackwell, 2008), 162-163.

[17] Sukhdev, Sandhu, ‘Cultural Capital’,  in London Calling: How Black and Asian Writers Imagined a City, London: Harper Perennial, 2004, 188.

[18] Ibid, 190.

[19] Sara Upstone, ‘Salman Rushdie and V.S.Naipaul’, in British Asian Fiction: Twenty-Firs- Century Voices, (Manchester & New York: Manchester University Press, 2010, . 17.

[20]  Ibid,.18.

[21] Philip Tew, ‘Multiplicities and Hybridity’, in The Contemporary British Novel. (London & New York: Continuum, 2004),  151.

[22]  Ibid, .151-152.

[23] Vijay Mishra, ‘Bombay Cinema & Diasporic Desire’, in Bollywood Cinema Temple of Desire, (London & New York: Routledge 2002),  236.

[24] Stephen Slemon, “Modernism’s Last Post”, Past The Last Post Theorizing Post-Colonialism and Post-Modernism, ed. Ian Adam and Helen Tiffin, (New York & London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991),p.07.

[25] Michael Dash, “Marvellous Realism , The Way out of Négritude”, The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, ed. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, Helen Tiffin, London & New York: Routledge, 1995, 199.

[26] Salman Rushdie, “Imaginary Homelands”, Imaginary HomeLands: Essays and Criticsm 1981-1991, London : Granta, 1991,.14..

[27] SusheilNasta, “ Points of Departure, Early Visions of ‘Home’ and ‘Abroad’ ” in  Home Truths Fictions of South Asian Diaspora in Britian, (New York: Palgrave, 2002) , p.22.

[28] Sarfraz Manzoor, ‘Why do Asian writers have to be ‘authentic’ to succeed?’,  The Guardian,  April 30, 2006, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2006/apr/30/1,  (05 August 2019).