Every once in while we have seminal moments in the arts and at times we return to seemingly well trodden roads and in particular the subject of stereotypes or in this case Asian stereotypes in literature, do they exist?
Are there more or less then before? It was the subject up for energetic debate at the recent event held at Asia House in London.
The debate provided a looking glass on the whole subject of Asian stereotypes in literature and gifted a moment of much needed reflection on the issue as the end of 2014 hurtles towards us.There was the ever clear and present danger of the event possibly rankling a few observers through heated debate and if you were of the persuasion that things were just fine and dandy then you were likely to have your quiet non-plussed persuasion punctured.This was not going to be BBC light entertainment fodder for Saturday night television by any standards. One was almost expecting effigy burning of every publisher who said no, every publisher who said maybe and every publisher who said could be. Forgive me though for a moment of jocularity. I thought it might make for a good diversionary tactic from being overly serious or being hangdog. However the inescapable fact is that even in a multicultural, multi-media liberal leaning 2014 Britain, we still need to debate and interrogate the whole idea of stereotypes in the arts and in particular in literature.Presenter Biddsha asked presenter Yasmin Khan just what stereotypes were expected of her during her professional life. She recalls a production meeting and recounts what one programme commissioner apparently said to her during a meeting. The commissioner apparently told her “Its great that that you bring us stories but don’t feel that you cant bring other stuff, stories about your community..” and right there was the first seemingly outmoded word “community”. The idea of Asians being part of an all-embracing, homogenous community is undoubtedly an urban myth. The impression of Asians being representative of communities has always been around. How are Asians though by the very nature of the fact that we are Asian, somehow representative of all communities? Does that make us qualified to talk on ethnic matters ? possibly; to be somehow flag bearers for all things Asian or even standard- bearers possibly not, since the ethnic make-up of areas up and down the country are affected by a multitude of influences including political, social, cultural; socio-economic or otherwise.
So from a literature standpoint, its not difficult to be riled slightly, even for the more phlegmatic ones amongst us. Author on the panel Bidisha underscored the point of how there are certainly very familiar narratives in Asian fiction; the forced arranged marriage being the most popular one et al and possibly making the cosily more common stories more “publishable” then others. Govinden commented “If you are far more singular about your work then you don’t have to work in that way.” You might ask the genesis of stereotypes in literature normally is with the very publishers themselves, leading one to think that there are not enough ethnic minorities within the publishing industry. Niven revealed how the trade publication The Bookseller did a follow-up to a study done a decade ago, highlighting the problem of a lack of ethnic minorities in the publishing industry and guess what? Things have not changed a decade later. Just what are the concrete things that need to be done asked presenter Bidisha. According to Niven “It begins at university and encouraging more people who are about to graduate to join the industry.”
Frankly if that didn’t get your jowls jarring, then there is the slightly noxious combination of literary fiction and seemingly colonial or genre based Asian stereotypes. Whilst it could be vigorously argued that the South Asian fiction panorama is very much alive and kicking with Jhumpa Lahiri`s The Lowlands. and Neel Mukherjee`s The Lives of Others shortlisted for 2013 and 2014 Booker Prize respectively. According to Niven however, there is an inherent risk of writers simply comforming to a set of literary rules or a genre, just to make their book publishable.”The danger is that you don`t nurture the development of writers who work outside the tradition. Its not challenging work. Its an easy sell. If you spend the kind of attention on writing different kinds of work, you have a far more interesting landscape.”
My fear is that in satisfying the commercial whims of certain publishers who like theatre producers need to get bums on seats,like film makers need to shift cinema tickets; writers might be implicitly expected to produce stories that use cosily familiar stereotypical images that lets face it sell. Historical, political stories with high drama and tension- fuelled communal relations might be exquisitely written and deemed Booker prize worthy, but it might be argued are they really examples of fresh, challenging fiction?
Perhaps that`s a debate for another time. Yet its not all literary doom and gloom. Hope does spring eternal. There are books that are challenging that romanticised, chocolate box image of South Asian writing with redefining work that delivers a big fat Glasgow kiss so the charming expression goes, to all stereotyped or genre based fiction. Deepa Kapoor`s Bad Character was in my mind, a game-changer of a novel with its story turning the image of the young stay-at- home Asian woman on its head and presents an uncompromising image of the under-belly of Delhi. We now need a new generation of authors to rewrite the rules on South Asian literature with exciting and enduring stories that give stereotypes a wide berth.
Like a band of literary iconoclasts, ridding the publishing world of trite stereotypes and protecting challenging literature, super heroes to rival even Marvel,s finest, we will hopefully have novels that are a rollicking good read, bring in the greenbacks and challenge hackneyed literary characters in the process. Now wouldn’t that be a marvel ?
All The Days and Nights Published by The Friday Project and Bad Character published Jonathon Cape Random House are both out now.
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