Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Brick Lane and the republic of letters

I quite liked Monica Ali's Brick Lane. It wasn't a great work of literature, but it was well-written, interesting, and moving in places.

The book has next to nothing to do with Brick Lane itself: it's mainly set in a housing estate near Brick Lane. Its "issues" include a woman's struggle to find her own identity in relation to her intellectually aspirant but emotionally un-intelligent husband; the confrontation between fascists and the Asian population in the East End, and the rise of militant Islam among the young generation. I believe the publishers urged the title Brick Lane to exploit the emotional cache of that famous street.

A tiny number of stupid local Bangladeshi bigots - Sylheti nationalists, not Islamic fundamentalists - objected to the book. They claimed it was racist against Sylhetis (assuming the words of the husband, hardly the hero of the book, to be the views of Monica Ali). And they resented that a half-white, middle class woman whose dad was from Dhaka not Sylhet should write about their world.

A film has been made of the book, and the bigots campaigned to stop if being filmed in "their" turf. Germaine Greer waded in on the side of the bigots, and then Greer's old enemy Salman Rushdie waded in on Ali's side, which upped the temperature a little. I wrote extensively about this in 2006. (See here.) Basically, Greer said Ali has no right to write about Brick Lane, because she's not there. As Noosa Lee puts it, this is the conceit "that a fiction writer has no jurisdiction beyond her a posteriori experience when referencing living cultures. This is fairly restricting unless you’re content with writing episodes of Doctor Who or live next door to Pete Doherty."

The film is due to be released soon, so the whole thing is flaring up again. For some reason, the queen was given an opportunity to see it: it was chosen as this year's Royal Film Performance. - a highlight of the film world's calendar. In a piece of extreme understatement, Baz Bamigboye writes "I guess the Royal Family needs to be jolted with a bit of realism now and again." Then, Islamophile Prince Charles decided to pull out of the Royal Film Performance.

On one level, I don't give a shit about what the prince does. But this is kind of important. Parminder Vir OBE, an advisor on the film, eloquently objects to his decision:
"It is very sad that the film was announced and then withdrawn just a few days later because someone at Clarence House, or wherever, had seen the film and fears that it will damage the Royal Family in some way," says Parminder Vir, who collected an OBE from Prince Charles in 2002 for her services to broadcasting and film.
"This plays into the hands of people who want us to live in fear of immigration and Islam. Showing this film would not damage anyone. It is not a film about race but about one woman's struggle in a new country. She just happens to be a Muslim from Bangladesh."
Nick Cohen describes the Prince as "spineless".
a group of self-appointed ‘community leaders’ stopped the crew filming in Brick Lane and threatened to burn Ali’s novel last summer. They claimed the film would show a Bengalis infested with lice. It doesn’t. That it would insult them. It doesn’t do that either. Their bluff was called during one demonstration, when a young Asian man stepped forward to ask if the protestors had actually read the book. The furious reaction suggested they hadn’t.
As so often, the intelligentsia behaved worst of all...
After all this time, do you still need to know what is wrong with Germaine Greer and Charles Windsor? The short answer is that if we don’t take them on London will be balkanised into mono-cultural ghettos too frightened to tell stories to each other for fear of offending opportunist reactionaries and their royal backers.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

London, and every other British city is ALREADY balkanised into separate racial communities. Why are you people so afraid of facing up to reality that you pretend it "might" happen in the future? This is part of the middle-class tendency to stuff their fingers in their ears and go "la la la", while berating the working-classes for their "racism" and "bigotry" for telling it like it is? Being able nay, forced to face reality, I opted for emigration. Not that my new home is monoracial or even monocultural, but it does attempt to encourage all its disparate peoples to find some unified set of values and sense of belonging, and consequently is less of a blood-bath than the oh so enlightened Londistanis.