If you Google ‘multicultural British fiction’, the authors returned are, unsurprisingly, British African, Caribbean or South-East Asian – supernovas such as Zadie Smith, Salman Rushdie or Andrea Levy, in a firmament of other stars. But where do white British writers fit into the multicultural canon? The work of David Mitchell or Barry Unsworth, for example, offers the reader multicultural themes of astonishing breadth (imaginative, historical, cultural and political); but when it comes to the kind of gritty, race-centric, contemporary fiction we think of when we use the ‘multicultural’ tag, white writers are not so prominent.
Without doubt, examinations of different races and cultures are embedded in British literature, past and present, and modern multicultural themes go beyond analyses of colonialism, or post-colonialism, drawing on a huge range of styles and experience. But there are no go areas – or at least areas that should be approached with caution, and respect - if you are white.
Can white writers depict black experience?
Toni Morrison has said that white authors’ representations of black identity serve only to provide greater insight into the ‘white world of which they are a product’, rather than the world they are trying to depict. Their attempts at accuracy equate to ‘willful critical blindness’. Similarly, after reading some ‘appalling novels about Africa’ by white writers, Chinua Achebe wrote, ‘the story we [Africans] had to tell could not be told for us by anyone else, no matter how gifted or… well-intentioned’.
I could, and will, argue the toss when it comes to an author’s right to imagine/portray any situation or character they want. I entirely imagined (although thoroughly researched) the Albanian characters in Among Thieves – but still I knew I had to bear Morrison’s and Achebe’s words in mind. The novel has a prominent black character and deals, in part, with white-on-black racism. But it was not the black experience I wanted to dissect, rather an analysis of my own white, ostensibly working-class upbringing and its attendant prejudices.
It’s worth drawing a distinction here between narratives that aim to give the reader an insight into another race or culture and narratives that explicitly highlight racial tensions and divides. The opportunities for overlap, however, are manifold – and most novels labelled ‘multicultural’ tend to touch on social politics and racism to a greater or lesser degree.
The West Midlands, 2010, bears little resemblance to where I spent my youth. South East Essex, in the 1970s, was far from diverse; apart from one or two Indian restaurants and a Trinidadian ex-serviceman at the church I attended, it was an unending sea of white culture. Circa 1980, two things happened: a black family moved onto our street and a Pakistani family had the ‘temerity’ (a word bandied around at the time) to buy the empty grocer’s shop in the village and turn it into an open-all-hours store. I remember the, not so tight-lipped, consternation. Not bewilderment, not naïveté, but racism.
Now I’m sure there were communities that embraced ethnic diversity, but mine was not one of them, and the xenophobia I witnessed was played out in towns and cities up and down the country and reflected in the TV programmes and broadcasts of the day. Sometimes framed as ‘comic’, the condescension and outright nastiness that characterised the transition from that kind of Britain to the one we have today is, for most of us, deeply embarrassing to recall.
For the communities on the sharp end, racial discrimination was humiliating at best, and at worst utterly petrifying. And for many in Britain prejudice and oppression haven’t gone away – the recent rise in popularity of the BNP is testament to that.
Analysing the past
Among Thieves, therefore, attempts to analyse the kind of racism I witnessed thirty years ago: endemic, sanctioned (in places) and surreally casual – and for young black men and women growing up in inner cities, inescapable. In addition to my own observations, my husband – second-generation, British Caribbean – told me stories of the bigotry and violence he encountered throughout his teenage and early adulthood in Coventry, and these gave me the foundation for the character of Basil.
Basil’s scenes are narrated by Jez, a white youth from a racist, NF-sympathising family. The two characters ultimately find an accommodation with one another, but I wanted to describe (and not apologise for) the way in which prejudice is handed down and soaked up – and how fear, pride and poverty, serve to perpetuate it.
As my husband is black, our children, consequently, have a mixed heritage and I am interested in how they identify themselves, culturally and racially, now, and as they get older. Drawing on this, as well as my interest in digital and virtual representations of ‘self’, I am currently finishing my second novel, which focuses on notions of identity.
The central character, Lionel, is a young man of mixed African and north European heritage, adopted as a baby by a white family. He’s a bit of a geek, spends hours online playing MMRPGs (massively multi-player role-playing games), constructing an identity for himself rather than defining himself in society’s or his adoptive family’s terms. The events that prompt Lionel to confront the reality of his past and discover ‘who he is’ are harrowing, sinister and owe more to existential than multicultural traditions. But, at the heart of the novel, I hope, is an exploration of what it means to be ‘us’, black and white, in the world today.
A new collective cultural consciousness
Despite an established pattern of intellectuals coming to Britain to study, it wasn’t always easy to source books by Caribbean, African or Asian writers in the 1970s (with notable exceptions such as Achebe, Lamming, Naipaul etc.). The wider accessibility and promotion of what we now call ‘multicultural literature’ occurred in the 1980s and 1990s with the migration narratives of Rushdie and Phillips and the social realism of Kureishi. And when they arrived they were so bold and important they were not simply drama, or commentary, but seemed freighted with the power of collective cultural consciousness.
In an evolving plural society the edges of cultural consciousness begin to blur – I see it in my own family – and even if the stories are sometimes uncomfortable or shameful, white writers have critical things to add to the story of multicultural Britain. Of course, the structures of any society are constantly shifting, and hopefully our appetite for art and literature that reflects and analyses these changes will always remain, whatever the cultural background of the storyteller.