"The West must save the East!"
Uzma Aslam Khan
The moral justification of 19th- and 20th-century colonialism was civilising the native. The moral justification of 21st-century imperialism is liberating the native. Britain's jewel in the crown, the Indian subcontinent, is today being secured by those Asian-British writers who espouse the last line of Monica Ali's novel Brick Lane: "'This is England,' she said. 'You can do whatever you like.'"
Ali's ending clinched the political banner sewn in the pages of the book -- England equals freedom though not until the final page was it made explicit. But novelists ought to be challenging slogans, not trumpeting them. If a banner is waved, it should be the banner of scepticism. What if Nazneen's sister in Bangladesh had found a good-looking young man to hump, dumping her stodgy husband in the process, and Nazneen had been locked in a room and raped by a racist white man who pimped her to more racist white men, and she'd begged for freedom only to be told, "This is England. We can do whatever we like"?
Today's "Asian" novelists face an unspoken list of dos and, implicitly, don'ts. First is the "West must save the East" dictum, which denies the enormous range of people who comprise a part of the world being written about almost entirely by those who've never, or barely, lived there.
Writing about a family from Bangladesh or Pakistan or India who actually live there is old-fashioned, and it's especially unfitting that the author live there. This is the second rule. The hyphen (Anglo-Indian, Afghan-American) is what confers credibility; by emphasising ethnic differences within Britain, banner-waving diaspora writers end up eliminating differences by denying them outside of Britain.
'Multiculturalism' is, in fact, not multicultural at all. Asians living in Asia are only ever portrayed as reactionary dullards, while those who go West have but two roads to choose from: the backward path home, or the forward path of assimilation.
In Khaled Hosseini's wildly successful The Kite Runner, an Afghan-American returns to Afghanistan to save the son of his childhood servant and friend. Again, the West liberates
the East, with an immigrant author suitably positioned in the West. "I was freed in America!" is a jarring flag to wave, given that the novel uses the US bombing of Afghanistan as its frame.
Which leads to the third do on the list: the West must be shown saving the Islamic East, preferably through a good (i.e. assimilated) Muslim. To be successful in the West, the book must have a hyphenated, "authentic" East-West hero.
Like "democracy" and "defence", the word "authenticity" is used only when the opposite is meant. Rather than encouraging Western readers to understand other cultures on their own terms, especially those cultures routinely depicted as dangerous, the book business has created an "authentic" way to bring them, who live over there in Fanaticstan, to us. How? By making us the heroes. By treading the divide, the divide is created.
The final item on the successful ethnic novelist's checklist concerns the "freeing" of women. It's the most insidious of the lot, for rival powers have always used women as their battleground, and Muslim women in particular are a favoured terrain. The veil is only the most tawdry incarnation of this battle. Regarding her "emancipation", capitalists, communists, and religious reactionaries all agree: Muslim women are the signposts of their separate camps.
Fiction about Muslim women routinely depicts them as hidden, voiceless creatures that need saving. Almost all feature forced marriages and battered daughters. Few depict women from the same communities struggling daily to buck the conventions by marrying of their own choice, sending daughters to university, or having any kind of intellectual life at all.
Memoirs about Muslim women are also consumed like ice cream, with titles that make slurpy cones indeed: Choke on your Lies by Inci Y. (German woman of Turkish descent is forced to marry a man in Turkey); Married by Force by Leila (Moroccan-French girl is, guess what, married by force); My Forbidden Face by Latifa (Afghan woman's "personal account" of life under the Taliban); Princess by Jean Sasson (anonymous Saudi princess speaks out about her "gilded cage"). Near-identical book covers feature eyes behind a veil or beneath a headscarf of soft purple or extreme black. The homogeneity is deliberate: she is a product already known.
On Amazon, gushing readers admit to consuming these books "in one gulp". Gratitude is expressed for understanding "the female Muslim's place in her society" and for "a peek behind the burka". One wonders, what would happen if the burka came off?
But that's the point it mustn't. Just as, in real life, Eastern women's emancipation is a key moral justification for Western colonialism, war, and puppet regimes, so too in fiction: the burka must stay on, the women must be effaced. If not, who will feed the West its favourite tonic for feeling smug about itself? If militant Islamic regimes are guilty of instilling the humiliation and abuse of women, predatory Western markets are guilty of profiting from it. No pity, no sale.
To ignore these golden rules would annihilate the hierarchy of victimhood and enlightenment, inviting readers to understand the East the way we're meant to know the West: not from a place of pity and power, but from empathy and equality.
The risk is that Thomas Macaulay's dream of 1835 will not have been fulfilled: "We must do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions we govern; a class of persons Indian in blood but English in
taste and opinion."
The risk is that there is no clear divide.