Earlier this week a fuss ensued when it was suggested that Idris Elba’s depiction of the TV detective Luther wasn’t ‘black enough’ because he ‘doesn’t have any black friends,’ and ‘he doesn’t eat any Caribbean food.’ The point being made was around how ethnic characters are portrayed in fiction and on screen – a point that isn’t entirely without merit, and a point that became lost in the storm on social media.
I’m not in a position to comment on whether Luther is or isn’t ‘black enough.’ But what I can say is that this idea that someone of a particular ethnicity – be they white, black, Asian or anything in between – should conform to certain expectations when depicted in fiction is one that often incites debate.
From my point of view, as an author, I’ve always found it quite restrictive that the publishing industry often requires writers of colour to write to their heritage or to stick to tales of immigrant life. Various reports have shown that most authors of colour have found this to be the case, though the industry seems slowly to be changing its thinking. A new generation of minority writers are making inroads into genre fiction where previously they might have met with limited enthusiasm.
My parents are from the subcontinent. I was born in East London and grew up there. I went to India during my twenties, to work, but for the past sixteen years I’ve been back in the UK. I consider myself British, but retain a strong affinity to the heritage of my parents.
In our house, growing up, we ate mainly Asian meals. We watched Bollywood films. We – mainly me – loved cricket. We had a huge circle of Asian relatives and friends. We went to big fat Asian weddings that were loud and colourful and raucous and bankruptingly expensive. In all these aspects, we probably conformed to the expected narrative. We were Asians in every sense that fiction and screen has portrayed us to be.
I am an individual, just as we all are. Many of my likes and habits diverge from those ‘expected’ of Asians. Many of those likes have evolved over the years, as I have travelled and experienced more of the world. Yet, even from an early age, some aspects of my personality were not what you might call ‘authentically’ Asian.
As a family, we watched Only Fools and Horses, Blackadder, and the brilliant David Suchet as Poirot. Our culinary tastes expanded as we grew, forcing my mother to experiment with pasta, noodles, and tuna and cucumber sandwiches – I still remember the look of horror on her face at my claim that this was a healthy alternative to a lunchtime biryani.
When I was in my teens I came across a CD with music from the fifties. As I listened to it, I was instantly beguiled by the simple beats and catchy a capella performances. Even now I am a huge fan of what is known as ‘doo-wop’ – much to the bemusement of many of my Asian friends who wouldn’t know a good melody if it punched them in the face. (I say this in jest, of course, but you know who you are.)
At school, it wasn’t cricket that I first played. I fell in love with football in playground games, charging sweatily around at lunchtime in my school uniform. Even now I play five-a-side as often as I can. Cricket is still my favourite sport, but my brother is football mad and lukewarm about cricket. In fact, many younger British Asians are first and foremost passionate football supporters. Many couldn’t give a hoot about cricket.
When I was in my early teens, I discovered a biography of Lord Admiral Nelson left behind in the house we’d moved into. Nelson’s story, the tale of England’s greatest tragic hero, cut down in the very hour of his triumph, a flawed genius, valiant yet vulnerable, instantly resonated with me. Why? I don’t really know. I suppose I loved the adventurous retelling of Nelson’s exploits on the high seas, a realm so far from my own Asian East London upbringing as to be akin to fantasy. Caught as I was between cultures, I found in Nelson an inspirational figure, a man who defined what it meant to be English. (He remains one of my great heroes.)
Today, I write novels about India, but they’re laced with my very British sensibilities.
Today, many aspects of my life are Asian… and many others are far from what you might have in your mind’s eye when you think of the British Asian community.
So… the question is, am I brown enough?
Well, let me ask you: who is out there making the rules? Who decides what is or isn’t authentic for a given culture or group of people?
I suppose the point I’m making is this: in today’s world, none of us are just one thing. We’re all a mishmash, to a certain degree. Just think of the food you eat, the films you enjoy, your hobbies. Unless you live a very restricted existence, you will find your life crossing socio-cultural boundaries. That doesn’t take away from the essence of your identity or the heritage you claim as your own. For me, this is simply a natural extension of the increasingly connected world we inhabit.
My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is currently on 99p Kindle offer in the UK. The book is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here
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9 thoughts on “Am I brown enough?”
I find your article very thought provoking and forward looking. Like you, I am a big admirer of Nelson. I will certainly buy your book, which sounds very interesting.
All the best
Thank you, Martin. I always try and be balanced in my viewpoints. I’m not a ranter, by nature. In my books I try and report things as factually as possible. The British in India did some terrible things, and I’m not shy about mentioning those in my books, but not everyone was bad. Many Brits were humane and many others helped to establish institutions that did charitable works. Others helped India along the path to the modern nation we see today.
Thank you for these thoughts, Vaseem. My first reaction is how different I would be if I hadn’t lived in Arabia and loved every second; if I hadn’t grown up in Arizona alongside Navajo, Hopi, and Hispanic natives; if I hadn’t read their books, loved their cuisine … How flat and one dimensional my understanding of this life and this world would be. Why we want to put people into boxes amazes me. My second reaction is, as always, criticism tells us far more (and perhaps only) about the one leveling it than it does about the one for whom it is intended. Unfortunately, those who revel in it are blind to this. ….
I recently got hooked on, and binged Indian Matchmaker on Netflix. Not Indian Enough, or wrong kind of Indian, came up pretty frequently.
Thank you for sharing your experiences and perspectives with us all.
Thank you for your lovely words, Jane.
‘We’re all a mishmash, to a certain degree. ‘ Hooray, Vaseem!
You asked: “Who decides what is or isn’t authentic for a given culture or group of people?”
Apparently it’s the people who are not part of that particular group, but who only view it as an outsider. I think that applies to all groups. I am a woman, but unlike many women, I absolutely abhor shopping. I simply didn’t get the shopping gene. And yet, so much fiction includes women shopping. Yawn.
I think we could all take any group we aren’t a part of and come up with a list of mostly cliché things about members of that group. I was on a webinar on Saturday that included a Native American on the panel. He gave a great example about his own people that they aren’t all this earth-loving, sitting-around-drumming-and-chanting bunch of people. And yet, that image is probably one of the first that comes to mind for many.
The problem, I think, is that so much of fiction is full of tropes, stereotypes, and clichés that questions like the theme of your article come up.
Thank you for your kind words, Jeanne, and for sharing some of your own experiences. As an author, I sometimes find myself having to trot out stereotypes, but the more I write, the more I try and avoid them. Insights from others are always helpful in keeping me honest!
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In these days of being able to have our DNA tested, we learn that few of us a ‘pure race’. I’m white English but my DNA says I have small threads from several ‘foreign lands’. As an author, I wish I’d experienced living among other cultures; I’m sure my writing would be richer for it. We should refuse to be put in boxes – why should Asian writers be expected to write books solely set in Asia? If I want to put someone from another country into my books, I can do so, no questions asked. If American writers want to set their books in England, they do so (but some raise British eyebrows when their British characters eat pancakes for breakfast – ha ha!) You’re an amazing author and I’m sure wherever you decide to set your novels and people it with characters from wherever, they will be brilliant. Break out of the box!
Thank you, Jeanette. Your sentiments mean a lot. I’ve been trying to express this opinion to the industry – that they shouldn’t put authors into boxes – for years. Change is slow, but coming, and it really helps to have people like yourself who support that change. Stay safe!