Academic journal article Hecate

Negotiating Passages: Asian and Black Women's Writing in Britain

Academic journal article Hecate

Negotiating Passages: Asian and Black Women's Writing in Britain

Article excerpt

To be Black and British is to be unnamed in official discourse. The construction of a national British identity is built upon a notion of a racial belonging, upon a hegemonic white ethnicity that never speaks its presence. We are told that you can be either one or the other, black or British, but not both. But we live here, many are born here, all 3 million of us "ethnic minority" people as we are collectively called in the official Census surveys. (1)

Britain, like Australia has traditionally been a country of immigration, including Anglo-Saxon, French, Huguenot, Jewish, Polish, Italian, Irish, Caribbean and Asian peoples. And, based upon the British Empire's reaches, the British have migrated to all parts of the world, favouring the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia (in the latter case, quite a number in earlier times not from choice). Many people settling in Britain, however, have experienced racism and discrimination based upon difference of colour as well as culture.

British Black and Asian writers develop new perspectives on Britain, and upon their roles in relation to multiple versions of Britain. Insider outsiders, their readings of culturally inflected experiences enable new visions and versions of self. Meera Syal in Life Isn't All Ha Ha Hee Hee (2000) illustrates this with a description of London, locating culture, class and ethnicity, while indicating ways in which contemporary Asian women writers merrily reconstruct and represent Asian and non-Asian communities to the media.

   There was border control, the Victorian police station on the
   corner which separated the Eastenders from the Eastern-Enders;
   on one side, auto-part shops and a McDonald's, on
   the other, Kamla's Chiffons and the beginning of two miles of
   sweet emporiums, cafe-dhabas, opulent jewellers and
   surprisingly expensive Asian fashion boutiques. It was
   possible, literally, to stand with a foot in each world on this
   corner. In fact, she'd used this location several times in the
   many gritty documentaries she'd worked on, persuading
   some self-conscious presenter to stand legs akimbo, while
   they gravely intoned on the Scandal of Britain's Lost Urban
   Youth, the Secret Trauma of the Schoolgirl Brides, the
   Tomato which Contained a Message from God. (2)

Tania, one of Syal's protagonists, stands herself with her own two feet in both worlds, negotiating a border seen virtually, felt physically and psychologically. The ironic, self-conscious tone is typical of new satirical and comic forms chosen by many British Black and Asian writers including Rushdie, Kureishi, Smith, and Zephaniah. Theirs is a negotiated, sensitive, alert passage through the cultural disturbances of racism, Otherising, linguistic confusions; a passage relatively safe because of its all-round use of the comic, the ironic, the satirical. They are, as Rushdie puts it: 'Observers with beady eyes and without Anglo-Saxon attitudes.'(3)

Asian and Black Women's writing in Britain negotiates a rich and difficult passage through and between identities, histories and forms of expression. In the work of Syal, Smith, Moniza Alvi, Monica Ali, Ravinder Randhawa, Ruksana Ahmed, Grace Nichols, Jean 'Binta' Breeze and Jackie Kay, among others, we find both the tensions and the richness of diasporan existence. We also find developing definitions of the writers' own hybridity, and an accompanying perceptiveness. Syal in particular, famous for the TV show 'Goodness Gracious Me', manages ironic twists and turns which give Asian British and non-Asian British (and many other viewers besides) ways into negotiations between the mythic histories people construct for each other, and the contradictions and potentials of the present.

British Asian writers' insights into both the British culture to which they (and/or their parents/grandparents) immigrated, and the specific versions of the Asian culture which living in the UK have produced, are sharply focused and have views of the insider outsider. …

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