I am often asked about
why I set my first novel in India, rather than Britain.
I tend to make decisions
intuitively, to understand the logic later, if ever. Now, five years
after the event, I think it was because I needed to distance myself,
imaginatively, from Britain. I used to be an anglophobe - I hated
everything English - and to an extent I still am, though in a more
reasoned way. I could, of course, have written about Britain nonetheless,
but I chose not to.
In Beautiful Disguises
is the story of a young South Indian girls loss of innocence.
Many first novels are coming of age narratives, though I didnt
know this at the time, and was largely unaware that this was, indeed,
what I was writing. It is written in the first person, from the perspective
of an unnamed heroine who, in an attempt to evade reality, takes refuge
in dreams and in movies. The first line is, "I was born a girl
and remained so until I became a woman", establishing, if you
like, the distance she has to travel in order to impose subjectivity
on objective circumstances determined in spite of her, before her.
To do this she has to accept reality, because reality destroys fantasy
if unchallenged. All of this mirrored my own condition, though I was
only partially aware of this.
Why did I hate England?
Because of racism. There is little doubt in my mind that this is at
least eighty per cent true. While writing In Beautiful Disguises
I didnt think about racism once, and I didnt think about
England. My narrator says, "
I had developed problems distinguishing
between fantasy and reality, or rather, I could make the distinction,
but somehow I would invert the significance. I had a habit of trapping
myself in that place that lies between dreams and consciousness, and
I would stay there until someone pulled me back."
It has been suggested to
me that I set In Beautiful Disguises in India because of a
longing for my roots, because of a fractured identity. This is largely
untrue. It was to liberate my imagination, to impose subjectivity
on circumstances, as my heroine does. Like her, I was to find that
fantasy can only be a temporary refuge. After finishing the novel
I had to write another, and I decided it was time to address the question
of England and my relationship to it. It was at this point that I
began to implode with hatred and anger.
I began by attempting to
write a novel about my childhood, convinced that I was traumatised
by my childhood experience of racism and that I had to bring it to
the page in order to exorcise its memory. This turned out to be untrue.
The novel was bad and I scrapped it. I then decided to write a novel
about a man who hates white people, the narrator being a surrogate
for me. This also failed, and after two or three attempts, I gave
up on the project. Instead, I spent some time reading about the history
of racism, without any definite goal in mind.
After weeks of reading
I realised that I didnt hate white people, something I ought
to have known earlier. Perhaps there was too much propaganda around
me, telling me that I ought to. Trauma and associated psychoses are
fashionable. Hatred is encouraged, it seems. I realised instead that
I hated the technologies of racism, and the hypocrisy in Britain that
leaves its racist legacy and modern day practice unchallenged. It
took time to understand this. I was convinced that it was, indeed,
white people I hated. This was the easier explanation for an anger
that was so intense and unrelenting that, usually, it baffled me.
I wanted to justify the anger, to give in to it, and to do this quickly.
I didnt realise that anger is always justified, if it is genuinely
felt, but that it empowers demons and not the self. This realisation
took a long time.
The irony is that such
anger among first generation non-white immigrants is often credited
to "crises of identity", another fashionable phrase. This
identity crisis is said to stem from torn-out roots, from a loss of
history due to migration, to immersion in a new culture, the discontinuity
of which is unsettling, baffling. First generation immigrants are
said to experience a sense of bewilderment because they do not have
an adequate knowledge of "where they came from". This simply
wasnt true, in my case. The problem was that I didnt have
an adequate knowledge of who I was in the eyes of the society I was
born into. Hence, there was a crisis of identity, but not as it is
My earliest memories include
racism. From the age of four, when I went to an all-white school,
I experienced a lot of it, on a daily basis. I didnt live amongst
Asians of my own age, only white children, and all of them, to some
extent, were infected with racial prejudices. They did not know about
the history of racism. They didnt know how old their perceptions
were, how and why they had distilled and changed over time. It wasnt
so urgent to them. But to me, at least recently, it was very important.
I had to know because my sense of self was radically distorted
due to the historically constructed perceptions of others that seemed
to bore into my own sense of self, splitting it into pieces, mutilating
it from the earliest age. Racism cannot be explained by platitudes.
It is not a simple thing. It cannot be reduced to fear or ignorance
or stupidity. It wouldnt be a great exaggeration to say that
the British psyche is racist, and this isnt as essentialist
a statement as it appears. It is simply that, over time, certain modes
of behaviour become embedded in the subject after centuries of practice.
Language changes, symbols change, culture changes. History leaves
indelible imprints in the present, transforming the present, transforming
culture and action. This is what I mean by the British psyche. To
transform this one has to interrogate history, counter its effects.
A great many people in
the west are born racist. This is a fact. There is nothing they can
do about it. To change requires great effort, almost like spinning
the earth backwards on its orbit. Migration is a spatial movement,
yes. But it is also a temporal one because suddenly anothers history
becomes ones own, not because of ancestry, but because the migrant
is constructed by that history, in the eyes of society at least, and
comes to occupy that construction, even if the migrant occupies a
position of resistance.
So, to understand myself, I had to understand at least three hundred
years of European history, the invention of race, the construction
European racism is a very
recent invention compared to, for example, Vedic racism in India,
three and a half thousand years ago. Before the eighteenth century,
there was little or no systematisation of race in Europe. However,
the European voyages of discovery, the crusades and the Atlantic slave
trade gave rise to crude practices of racialised imitation and mockery
that have left their mark in language and culture. When I was a child
I used to go to village fairs where I saw Morris dancing, or enactments
of St George, the patron saint of England, slaying the dragon; traditional
English customs. Morris dancing is properly called Moorish
dancing, and refers to English people blacking up their faces and
jumping around in imitation of Moroccan folk dances. The dragon St
George slew represented the infidel Turkish opponent. The Harlequin,
a traditional figure in European custom, was another representation
of "the black man", complete with an enormous phallus. These
practices cannot be reduced to racism, but they set an important precedent;
the representation of the Other, which became a tool with which to
construct myths of racial essences.
By the eighteenth century, race entered the field of enquiry of European
science due to the maturing of the Atlantic slave trade, and the related
preoccupation with the classification of the natural world, taxonomy.
To people like Voltaire, it seemed undeniable that we were not one
species but several, with different origins; this was called, polygenism.
However, the Christian tradition contradicted this; all humans came
from Adam and Eve, a single origin. Advocates of this view were called
monogenists, and they opposed the apparently blasphemous polygenists,
though many of them still believed that the single human species was
divided into races which were biologically different. Hence, the distinction
between species and race was largely meaningless in eighteenth century
This confusion persists
today. I recently had dinner with a group of highly educated Italians,
one of whom reacted with horror when I suggested that there was no
such thing as race. He said, of course there is, in the way that in
the animal kingdom we have the hedgehog and the donkey and the tiger,
we have the Negro and the Caucasian and the Oriental in the human
kingdom. I tried to correct him by telling him that hedgehogs and
the donkeys are specie, not races, and I challenged him to define
race. One of the other Italians, replied that it is equally impossible
to define a species. I suggested the definition that two species cannot
mate. He said they can, the donkey and the horse for example, but
of course their offspring are sterile. He then sat back with his arms
folded, as if to say that he had refuted my argument.
He was an academic, and
a biologist, and yet what he was saying had no basis either in logic
or fact. And yet he clung to his argument because the idea of the
species divided into biologically distinct races still carries so
much currency today. To rebut it can have a shock value equal to telling
certain sixteenth century Europeans that the earth went round the
sun. In 1795 the German taxonomist Blemenbach divided humanity into
five races; Caucasian, Mongolian, Ethiopian, American, and Malay.
This system was still used in the fifties by the US Immigration authorities!
In Britain the police have their own system of racial classification:
IC1, Caucasian; IC2, Mediterranean; IC3, Black; IC4, Asian, etc. It
is hard to tell people that their deeply held beliefs were discredited
in the nineteenth century, if the world around them still operates
according to these principles!
So, by the turn of the
century polygenism was no longer respectable in the scientific establishment.
First of all, the abolitionist movement gained respectability, with
the slogan, "Am I not a man and a brother?" Christian humanism
took a more evangelical bent, with the idea of the civilising mission
in Africa and Asia. Racialised sentimentality and romanticism replaced
strict ideas of inferiority and difference. The black man became to
be seen as a primitive version of the European who had retained qualities
the cerebral Europeans had lost; physicality, a closeness to the earth,
raw sexuality, courage etc. Rousseaus atavistic idea of the
noble savage became popular, along with the idea that Europeans could
help the blacks, and could regain what they had lost from them. This
was reflected in the literature of the day, the imperial romances
of Rider Haggard, for example, but this sentimentality is equally
apparent in todays Europe and America. Hollywood, literally,
is full of it: "buddy films", like Lethal Weapon,
with the black man as loyal sidekick to the white man, or Seven
Years in Tibet where Brad Pitts sidekick is none other than
the Dalai Lama; or the inter-racial love story; or films like Biko,
Hurricane or Amistad (returning to the abolitionist
root of it all) which appear to be about black heroes, but turn out
to be about white heroes who make black heroism possible. In Britain,
East is East was a very successful film, telling the story
of a white woman who marries a Pakistani man and successfully integrates
into Muslim culture. While she is tolerant and self-sacrificing, he
is intolerant, weak, and, ultimately, violent.
Similarly, there is the
current vogue in England for all things oriental: Madonna wears bindis
and sings in Sanskrit, Hinduism and Buddhism appear to have become
the official religions of California and Hampstead. I continually
hear white people telling me that they, unlike myself, presumably,
have lost their spirituality in the modern age, but found it again
in India. Alternatively, take the white fascination with black culture,
hip-hop, ebonics, all attempts to recover a lost "physicality"
that the cerebral modern age has removed from their personas. Or the
attitude of middle-class voyagers to Africa or India, re-enacting
Tarzan of the Apes and Kim over and over again.
This is not hybridity and it is not multiculturalism. Underpinning
it all is the romantic spirit, the positivist naturalisation of European
thought in the early nineteenth century, which relies on the celebration
of difference, the natural laws which separate us into unique cultural
groups which can glance sideways at each other but never truly merge
because, at the end of it all, white sentimentality does not truly
aim to be black, but merely to dip an ankle in the water, admiring
its reflection. Transgressive titillation, again.
Of course it is impossible
to draw a strict division between sentimentality and hybridity. To
reduce all hybridity to racism would be to embrace the racist idea
that members of particular groups are so different that they cannot
practice one anothers cultures. This is equivalent to the notion of
cultural authenticity. Hybridity is opposed to the celebration of
difference, as love is opposed to sentimentality. The danger is to
confuse the two.
I once heard a white girl
say that she knew when she was watching authentic black comedy - comedy
for a black audience, not a white one - because she couldnt
understand the jokes. This is ridiculous. Not only is the notion of
an authentic black space false, but the presumption that this must
be demarcated by the limits of white understanding is arrogant and
Opposed to the romantics
were the rationalists, scientific advocates of monogenism, most importantly,
Charles Darwin. By the middle of the eighteenth century, imperialist
romanticism was on its way out. Buxtons evangelical mission
up the Niger Delta had failed disastrously in 1834. Abolitionism had
become respectable and hackneyed. There was a fear for colonial possessions
in the West Indies, a fear that colonialism was becoming a drain on
the nation, that the blacks should be made to work rather than receiving
hand-outs. The American Civil War had convinced many of this. There
was a mood of pessimism and anxiety, and hence a hardening of racial
attitudes, and so Darwins ideas, in the eighteen fifties and
sixties, were received during a latent revival of polygenism, and
a time when sentimentality towards blacks was replaced by hatred and
loathing. Monogenists, like Darwin, were concerned with loose, descriptive
ethnology, whereas the polygenists of his day, like Charles
Dickens, were more interested in anthropology, the rigid classification
of races according to biological difference.
What Darwin did was to
synthesise his monogenism with polygenist attitudes, such that while
he refused to accept that humanity was divided into different species,
he maintained that, from ancient times, the species had divided into
races via sexual selection who, over time, had become so different
that they might as well have been different species. He predicated
that the Caucasians, the most civilised race culturally and intellectually,
would eventually wipe out the lower, savage races. Darwins used
words like species, sub-species and race interchangeably because,
for him, there was no empirical difference, and Darwin was an empiricist,
and not a romantic.
So, with Darwins
theories of evolution and natural selection, the difference between
polygenism and monogenism became irrelevant. The Darwinian world view
holds that the human species is divided into different races which
are so different that they might as well be separate species, and
that the Caucasian race, the most civilised, will wipe out the other,
more savage races through the process of natural selection. This is
genetic racism, racial theory, biological determinism.
The Victorians began to
use the word "race" to classify any group which they wanted
to exclude. The working class and the Irish, who were depicted as
monkeys in the press, included. Race at this point was not about skin
colour but about perceived biological difference. However, by the
turn of the century democracy had made it unacceptable to talk about
the working class as biologically different, and so race difference
gradually came to refer to colour difference, particularly after the
scramble for Africa. There is a clear logical progression between
the Victorian view of race and Nazism, which classified homosexuals,
Jews, blacks, gypsies etc. as biologically different.
Continue to Part II