Monday, October 29, 2007

This cant about cultural authenticity

Hari Kunzru has a great letter in the Guardian about this controversy concerning Monica Ali's representation of Brick Lane. I quite agree with everything he's saying, and I also admire his tone of righteous irritation, this is quite right!
As a mixed-race novelist (hell, just as a novelist), I would like to say to your leader writer (The trouble with Brick Lane, October 27) that I reserve the right to imagine anyone and anything I damn well please. If I want to write about Jewish people, or paedophiles or Patagonians or witches in 12th-century Finland, then I will do so, despite being "authentically" none of these things. I also give notice that if I choose, I intend to imagine what your muddled writer quaintly terms "real people" living in "real communities". My work may convince or it may not. However, I will not accept that I have any a priori responsibility to anyone - white, black or brown, let alone any "community" - to represent them in any particular way.

If Monica Ali isn't brown enough or working-class enough or Sylheti enough for you, then, well, that's your weird little identity-political screw-up. Presumably she's not white enough for someone else. I'm sick of all this cant about cultural authenticity, and sick of the duty (imposed only on "minority" writers) to represent in some quasi-political fashion. Art isn't about promoting social cohesion, or cementing community relations. It's about telling the truth as you see it, even if it annoys or offends some people. That's called freedom of expression, and last time I checked we all thought it was quite a good idea.


  1. I have loved Hari Kunzru for his writing, and his refusal to accept an award from the Mail on Sunday for its immigrant-bashing positions, and now this - thank you for pointing me to it. Fabulous.

  2. This is so right! It hits home as well, not because I am a writing a novel about Patagonians, but because too many times I've been asked why I study English literature? Why not Latin American? What's wrong with Hispanic American literature? Nothing is wrong with it! What's wrong is cultural determination. Thanks for sharing, I had no idea.