The writer Monica Ali said in a recent interview that the critical reaction to her 2011 novel Untold Story tipped her into ten years of depression. Critics apparently thought she had strayed too far from the subject matter that made her name and that gave her writing voice ‘authenticity’. I don’t recall anything about this but I do remember when Ali’s first novel, Brick Lane, came out in 2003. I bought a copy because I’m always interested in fictional takes on London (it was definitely seen as a ‘London novel’) and because the reviews were good. This was around the same time I bought a copy of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, which had come out a couple years previously and had been praised to the skies. Both books were by young mixed-race women and both laid claim to authenticity in their portrayals of ethnic minority characters living in modern multi-cultural London. And both chimed with the New Labour, New Britain times.
So great had the hype been, it was probably inevitable that I was disappointed with White Teeth. So disappointed indeed that I never felt the urge to pick up Brick Lane, unfair though it was of me to lump the two together. I still have that hardback in a box somewhere (Hardback! Greater credulity hath no man than that he lays down his coin for a debut novel in hardback…). My disillusionment with the Sunday newspaper critics was complete (and, with a few exceptions has endured). Though I never took the irrevocable step of giving the book to Oxfam. So perhaps I’ll get round to it one day.
The question of authenticity is an interesting one. When Brick Lane was published there was a default assumption that Ali had particular insight into, particular knowledge of, the Bangladeshis of Spitalfields. But once more of Ali’s background came to light, it became clear that in reality she had little common ground with the immigrant community she was writing about. Though she was born in Bangladesh, to a Bangladeshi father and an English mother, she moved to England when she was three years old. She grew up in the north of England, in Bolton, before going to Oxford to study PPE. It was a very different life journey, through different social contexts, to that of her novel’s protagonist.
It wasn’t until the film of the book was being made in 2007 that people from the Spitalfields Bangladeshi community began to attack Ali’s representation of them. Regardless of how justified those attacks were, Ali’s authenticity credentials took a bit of a bashing.
One of the things the kerfuffle around the filming of Brick Lane highlighted is the default assumption in white-majority countries such as the UK that any artist from a minority background is creating from a place of authenticity, that their experiences and concerns are typical, emblematic in fact, of the identity they profess.
It’s accepted, almost without question, that a book about arranged marriages in Pakistan, say, by a writer with some Pakistani roots, or a film about street children in Lagos, say, by a filmmaker with Nigerian roots, must be largely authentic, must provide insights into what the world portrayed is really like. Never mind that those artists may have grown up in solidly bourgeois gated communities and been educated at great expense in Western universities. Whereas nobody would think that an Oxbridge-educated kiddie could write an authentic novel about petty criminals in Toxteth just because he happened to be white and English.
Fiction writers should be free to follow their muse wherever it leads them. The ‘stay in your lane’ polemics are ludicrous and anti-art. Ali was entitled to write what she wanted about who she wanted in her novels, be the protagonist a Bangladeshi named Nazneen or an Englishwoman named Diana . In any case, when did it become a test of fiction’s value that it be ‘authentic’? A novel is an artefact, not a piece of documentary evidence. The writer’s responsibility is to their art alone. And it’s the self-appointed community leaders and activists who so often point the finger, never once questioning their own representativeness, their own right to speak on behalf of others, their own authenticity.
[Image from the film of Brick Lane © Film4]