The Postcolonial Subject Divided between East and West: Kureishi's the Black Album as an Intertext of Rushdie's the Satanic Verses

By Holmes, Frederick M. | Papers on Language & Literature, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

The Postcolonial Subject Divided between East and West: Kureishi's the Black Album as an Intertext of Rushdie's the Satanic Verses


Holmes, Frederick M., Papers on Language & Literature


Hanif Kureishi has disavowed being influenced by Salman Rushdie as a novelist: "His writing is not like my writing in any way. We're quite different" (qtd. in Ashraf). Nevertheless, Kureishi's second novel, The Black Album, reveals several traces of his friend's monumental The Satanic Verses. Most obvious are the overt references to the controversy surrounding the publication of The Satanic Verses. The Black Album is set in the late 80s at the time of the fatwa, and Kureishi's characters argue about Rushdie's book, which, in one of the narrative's climaxes, is publicly burnt by a group of fundamentalist Muslim students at a nondescript college in the slums of northwest London. Moreover, The Black Album reinscribes some of the main themes of The Satanic Verses. Like Rushdie, Kureishi is concerned with the plight of the migrant denied a unitary identity because he is shunted back and forth between two cultures (each of which is itself internally divided and subdivided) and invited to adopt a variety of sometimes contradictory subject positions. Such a dilemma is painful, even potentially tragic, but Kureishi shows that it also contains possibilities for growth and creativity. What Rushdie has said of The Satanic Verses is also ultimately true of The Black Album: it "celebrates hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs. It rejoices in mongrelization and fears the absolutism of the Pure" ("In Good Faith" 394).

In addition to analyzing some of the intertextual links between Kureishi's novel and The Satanic Verses, this essay will chart the process whereby the young protagonist of The Black Album, Shahid Hasan, comes to accept the fluid, mongrelized condition of both the self and society at large and to reject the purity of a dogmatic, totalizing religious faith; furthermore, the essay will examine the curious split between the narrative content of The Black Album (which could be labeled postcolonialist and postmodernist) and the narrative form (which, unlike that of The Satanic Verses, is linear, unself-conscious realism). Whereas Kureishi's screenplays (particularly Sammy and Rosy Get Laid) are formally fragmented, elliptical and, in places, surrealistic, in The Black Album he relies on a traditional set of narrative methods which, by their nature, presuppose a stability and coherence denied by contemporary culture, as Kureishi himself presents it. In a context in which Kureishi confounds existing definitions and categories of all kinds, the capacity of an undramatized narrator to convey an authoritative, objectively accurate, seamless representation of this turbulent, multiform new reality is never called into question.

Kureishi has written about his own crises of identity endured while he was growing up in England as the son of an English mother and Indian father, who emigrated to England before all of his relatives moved from Bombay to Karachi after the partition of India and Pakistan. Like Kureishi himself, Shahid Hasan, at the opening of the narrative, has formerly identified with the colonizing British since he has lived all his life in England as a British subject. Out of shame, Shahid has rejected the culture of his father. Kureishi has said that Enoch Powell's racist supporters had transformed the word "Pakistani" into an insult: "It was a word I didn't want to use about myself. I couldn't tolerate being myself" ("Rainbow Sign" 7). Shahid's reaction is even more extreme: he longs to join the racist British National Front. "I began to turn into one of them," he says. "I was becoming a monster" (Black Album 19). Saladin Chamcha of The Satanic Verses, also victimized as a school boy by English racism, copes similarly with feelings of alienation and self-hatred by identifying with his oppressors and repudiating his Indian heritage. "'You're not my people," he says of Muhammed Sufyan and the other Indian immigrants who hide him in the Shaandaar Cafe after his metamorphosis into a horned, demonic creature.

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