The term “Diaspora writing” has become something of a cliché in any discussion involving authors of south Asian origin who are settled outside their home countries. Implicit in its use is the assumption that these “Diaspora writers” must be angst-ridden, torn between cultures and at all times preoccupied with questions of identity. This is, to say the least, a simple-minded assumption. To some extent it might hold good for first-generation immigrants, but there are many younger writers who don’t much care to be straitjacketed and who think of themselves as citizens of a shrinking, multi-cultural world – their thoughts and feelings influenced by too many factors to count.
As a books journalist long jaded by the D word and the banalities surrounding it, I would normally have stayed very far away from the Jaipur festival’s panel discussion “Defining Diaspora”. But the panelists – Hari Kunzru, Tash Aw, Tahmima Anam and Nadeem Aslam – were all dynamic, interesting writers and I had a feeling they would bring a lightness of touch to the topic. This proved to be the case.
As moderator, Kunzru began by asking his co-panelists to identify why they might have been chosen for this session. “Well, I’ve done Double Diaspora,” joked Tash Aw, explaining that he was of Chinese ancestry but that he and his family had stayed in Malaysia long enough for him to think of it as his own land, and that he currently lived in London.
He was starting to elaborate when a deadpan Kunzru interjected. “Just a minute,” he said, “let’s make this as simple as possible for the audience. Why ‘Diaspora’?”
“Okay,” says Tash, “Chinese origin...”
Whereupon Kunzru holds up his index finger and goes “One!”
“...grew up in Malaysia...”
“...and now live in London.”
“Three! There you go!” says Kunzru.
The “One, two three” format was repeated for the other participants and it perfectly set the tone for a discussion where the authors joked about the widespread tendency to label them (“Why are we lot up here, and expected to orientate our lives around this word? Why not Ian McEwan?”) but also found time to reflect on their personal journeys and the journeys of their families. The soft-spoken Nadeem Aslam, one of my very favourite speakers, described how he had shifted from Pakistan to northern England at the age of 14 and now thought of himself as a British Pakistani. “But as a writer, my only nationality is my desk.” He mentioned that his English had been of the “This. Is. A. Cat variety” when he left Pakistan (where he had studied in an Urdu-medium school), but subsequently developed enough to become his principal language of expression: “I could have written in Urdu but I would have been nervous about the quality.”
Nadeem also movingly discussed how and why his parents’ feelings towards their adopted country were different from his. “Even after living in England for so many years, they discuss the weather by saying, ‘It’s quite cold here today, I wonder what it must be like there’ - the ‘there’ being Pakistan. And I can understand why that is. It’s much easier for me – I had my parents with me, in England. But they had left their parents behind, and that made such a difference to how they felt about life in the new place.”
Kunzru’s life has followed a somewhat different trajectory: the son of an Indian (Kashmiri Pandit) father and a British mother, he has lived most of his life in England and is more “English” than Nadeem is. But he recalled that when he was growing up he would often be asked “Where are you from?” and that he soon learnt that the expected answer was not, for example, “Bedfordshire”; the question was code for “Who had sex to make you?”
This was followed by banter about exotic book jackets – the sort which feature hennaed hands, saris and flowers - which, again, have the effect of labeling South Asian writers and giving the impression that they can only write about certain things, and in a certain way. Tahmima Anam recalled how one of her publishers had homed in on a jacket with a woman in a pink sari... for a book where the protagonist was a widow who only wore white. “When I pointed this out to them, they said, Don’t be so literal!”
“I get houses on stilts,” Tash Aw quipped. “Maybe we should set up an Anti-Orientalising Jacket Collective!” replied Tahmima.
Despite the panelists’ agreement about the D-word being restricting, they had different views about the role that their home countries play in their writing. Kunzru’s last (and in my view, best) novel My Revolutions doesn’t have an India connection at all (which is something I had discussed with him during our panel the previous day). In a similar vein, Tash Aw said that he didn’t feel any particular responsibility towards Malaysia when he wrote his novels, but Tahmima admitted that she felt a strong responsibility to Bangladesh, “perhaps because there are so few writers there who are presenting the realities of the country. I’m not saying that I want to write a history textbook but I do have political stakes”.
I spoke with Nadeem Aslam later and I think he feels the same way about Pakistan. More on that soon.
[A few more thoughts about the Diaspora thing in this old post about Rishi Reddi's book Karma and Other Stories. And an earlier post about Aslam's quiet eloquence here]