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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