Germaine Greer versus Monica Ali

An article in the Guardian earlier this week by Germaine Greer makes my blood boil with almost every sentence. That’s Germaine Greer’s job, I suppose – being contrary and “controversial”. But usually, however wrong she is, she’s smart, whereas in this article she’s silly and sloppy. Anyway…

Monica Ali’s acclaimed novel Brick Lane, set not on Brick Lane but in the council estates of East London, is to be made into a film. Some people in the area, of Sylheti Bangladeshi origin (the ethnic background of a large percentage of the people around Brick Lane), have long had it in for Monica Ali, who is not Sylheti but the daughter of a white woman and a middle class Bengali man, and Oxford-educated to boot. Ali doesn’t live anywhere near Brick Lane, but South of the river, in well-heeled Dulwich.

Brick Lane gently pokes fun at the patriarchal culture brought from Bangladesh, gently pokes fun at the political Islam of the London-born youth, and finally endorses a rather utopian liberal feminist vision of Asian women determining their own lives rather than being defined by their menfolk.

The book is quite good, although not worth the hype it got – hype which got some of its colour, shall we say, from Ali’s (and her characters’) exotic ethnicity and from the trendy buzz that’s surrounded Brick Lane for quite a few years now.

I don’t know enough about the animosity to Monica Ali in the East End to comment on it, so I‘ll turn to Greer’s endorsement of their objection.

“Ali did not concern herself with the possibility that her plot might seem outlandish to the people who created the particular culture of Brick Lane.” Well, I imagine she did concern herself with that. But who are these people anyway? Not one homogeneous group of identikit Sylhetis, as Greer imagined, but a range of competing interests: the savvy Sylheti restaurateurs who got together to market Brick Lane to white consumers as “Banglatown”; the moderate Muslims who pray at the former synagogue on Brick Lane; the hardcore Islamists who go to the East London Mosque across Whitechapel High Street; the shopkeepers who sell Hindi-language videos from India featuring very un-Islamic dance scenes; the British-born children of Sylheti immigrants who go clubbing, take drugs, couldn’t give a shit about Bangladesh; the white people who run the fashion boutiques and coffee bars that line upper Brick Lane; the Orthodox Jews who own lots of the freeholds on the street even though they themselves have moved up to Hackney; the taxi drivers that buy bagels on Brick Lane at three in the morning before going home to Mile End or Redbridge; and plenty of others too. I have friends and acquaintances in a few of these categories (mostly in the drug-taking clubbing one) who enjoyed the book and didn’t find it that outlandish.

“As British people know little and care less about the Bangladeshi people in their midst, their first appearance as characters in an English novel had the force of a defining caricature.” So, the category “British people” can’t include anyone of Bangladeshi origin? And white British people don’t flock to Brick Lane in their masses to consume some version of subcontinental culture in the restaurants there, and in the clubs that play “Asian underground” dance music? And if they couldn’t care less about Bangladeshis, how comes so many of them bought Brick Lane in the first place? And, for that matter, all the other English novels that have actually featured Bangladeshi and British Bangladeshi characters, ranging from the more obscure (The Mapmaker of Spitalfields) through to the fairly hyped Foxy-T by Tony White* to the classic (Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, one of the truly great masterpieces of the English novel, which prophetically described Bangladeshi kids and white kids and black kids listening to dub reggae in the old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane).

“Brick Lane is a real place; there was no need for Monica Ali to invent it.” That’s kind of like saying New Jersey is a real place; there was no need for Philip Roth to invent it. Or Prague is a real place; there was no need for Kafka to invent it. Novels are meant to be fictions Germaine!

“Bengali Muslims smart under an Islamic prejudice that they are irreligious and disorderly, the impure among the pure, and here was a proto-Bengali [sic] writer with a Muslim name, portraying them as all that and more.” Here, Greer designates Ali’s sin as not portraying Sylhetis as sufficiently fundamentalist – whereas if she’d portrayed them as bomb-making Al-Qaeda operatives, that’d presumably be OK. In fact, one of the distinguishing features of East London’s Bangladeshi community was always that it was fairly secular and cosmopolitan; it is a younger generation, as Ali correctly identifies, who have been seduced into an austere, sectarian Muslim Brotherhood form of Islam that comes from the Middle East and has little to do with the relaxed forms of Islam their parents and grandparents brought from South Asia.**

“The community have the moral right to keep the film-makers out [of Brick Lane].” Here, Greer sums up a deeply pernicious form of identitarian logic that I’ve attacked before on this blog. Identitarian logic states that: “cultures” are absolute and absolutely different from each other (you can’t be British and Bengali); cultures and territories are the property of ethnic “communities”; some people have the authority to define and police and represent (in politics or in fiction) cultures and others don’t. In literature, the outcome of this logic literature is that you can only write about people absolutely like yourself. More importantly, the outcome of this logic in politics is that people of cultures or communities designated as other than British have to kept out of the universal public sphere and managed instead by authoritarian, reactionary bosses and elders (always male, often clerics) who are identified as having the authority to represent “their” community.

And I’m not even going to bother dealing with Greer’s claim that Londoners watch Coronation Street and not EastEnders.

*My Foxy-T example might undermine my argument – it was published in 2003, the same year as Brick Lane. Not sure which came out first.
**I’ve paraphrased in that sentence from Chetan Bhatt talking on Martin Bright’s 30 Minutes documentary the other week about the Muslim Council of Britain.

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