On books and blackness

Rajneesh Narula

(Another in my occasional essay series)

I love the London Review of Books, which has most recently steered me towards Erasure by Percival Everett by way of a passionate review of his newest oeuvre, I am not Sidney Poitier.  In rather short order I have become convinced that the man is, in fact, something of a genius. 

However, I have mounted my virtual soapbox on this occasion not to wax lyrical about my literary adventures nor to regale you with the sense of unbounded joy I feel on having such good fortune amongst the shelves. This is the second time in the last year that I have discovered an author who has changed my understanding of the novel as I know it, the other being Roberto Bolaño. Bolaño is, of course, now fashionable in bookshops everywhere, after having been anonymous and unpublished much of his life. Death greatly improves one’s credentials with the reading public, it would seem.

Instead, this missive is on the delights and furies of irony, and (of course) the injustices of being alive but anonymous. Walk with me, dear reader, as I retrace my thoughts over the last week.

Why had I not heard of this Percival Everett, I wondered, by the time I finished reading the review? Surely such writing should have received greater fanfare? Wikipedia informed me that Erasure was his fifteenth. I realised that he was not actually dead, but then neither is Murakami or for that matter Milan Kundera, father of the modern school of life-is-deeply-ironic-but-deliciously-unbelievable-and-full-of-coincidence fiction.

So off I went to my local library and fruitlessly searched the shelves for his books, and after some while I realise why not: Percival Everett was filed in an esoteric section between travel books and poetry that carries the classification, ‘black fiction’. Now for those of you who have not discovered this quirk of British and American libraries and bookshops: ‘Black fiction’ does not contain novels that feature bloodbaths, or documentation of sad and depressing tales that involve heartbreak, mental asylums and suicide, but books written by people whose skin colour happens to be a particular shade of non-white.  Mr Everett has been judged guilty of Writing While Black.

I don’t know what always annoys me most about this. Is it the presumption that ‘black fiction’ is of interest only to people of a certain (similar) colour? That if you were not black, you would probably not want to stop and read any of these books? That the experience of being black is something that colours your writing style, plots, and choice of metaphor? More so than being white, brown, yellow or an effervescent shade of pink? Even more worrying is the possible presumption that people of a certain colour will write similar works.  That the blackness of one’s skin will be the dominant factor in one’s life, overpowering all other stimuli, such as ethnicity, religion, upbringing? That Chinua Achebe’s novels are somehow similar to Zadie Smith’s by virtue of the odd grand parent or so being from the same continent, and thus should be catalogued together? (I note with some amusement though, that Hindu Myths rubs shoulders with Complete Lyrics of Bob Marley. Make of that what you will).

Is there a community of readers that will seek to read exclusively novels of non-white writers, regardless of their literary merits? There is an even more annoying implied presumption that novels by black writers are somehow not quite as good to be filed with the other books. Now there are occasions when I think that there is need for honesty in publishing, and that certain books should not be permitted to see the light of day, but sadly, are. Publishers have lovers and children who can’t (shouldn’t) write, and sugar daddy/mommy drops the standards a bit. There are books from vanity publishers as well.

There are of course publishers that specialise in the Experience of Being Black in America. This latter subject is a US-specific thing (nowadays called ‘African American Literature’, because ‘black’ is much more restrictive and politically incorrect), one that preoccupies much of the African-American mainstream media. There is a case to be made for such books to be so classified, as this genre of publishing addresses the pathos of a community that still struggles with their sense of identity (witness the travails of Obama who is castigated for not being ‘black enough’). Should you seek to understand your/their place in America, such a section makes sense.

But Zadie Smith, Chinua Achebe and Ngozie Adichie speak to a wider audience. Theirs are not tales specific to their backgrounds, but speak to the human condition at large.  The colour of their own skin, and that of their protagonists is incidental to their themes. The conflicts their characters experience are those of people who struggle to find their place in the world, a changing world where cultures and multi-culturalism collides. Middle class desires, the angst of never being able to go home, the loss of identity, the sense of heartbreak, all are the same whether you are in Cairo, Karachi, Crouch End or Kaduna.

My local library is in Westminster, where most people are thankfully unaware of the politics and paradoxes of US skin colour beyond their annual holiday in Florida. Some may be rubbing their nose against questions of identity, but by and large, most are solidly middle class and even drive BMWs. Surely, here in damp and bourgeois Maida Vale, perhaps a bigger section in our local library is called for, dedicated to all ‘mediocre fiction’, thereby eschewing parochialism?

But I digress.

But the Irony that I mentioned earlier is not just because of the silliness of the genre chosen to condemn it to. Irony comes in six-pack on this occasion, because Monk (the main character in Erasure) is continuously seeking ways to have his personality not be stereotyped by his colour (which happens to be black, or at least milk-chocolate). Indeed, the irony gets thicker because the character also happens to be a writer of serious fiction, who stops by a local Borders bookshop. As all authors do, he looked himself up:

I went to Literature and did not see me. I went to Contemporary Fiction and did not find me, but when I fell back a couple of steps I found a section called African American Studies, and there, arranged alphabetically and neatly, read undisturbed, were four of my books including my Persians of which the only thing ostensibly African American was my jacket photograph. (pg 34)

Just so.

There was no jacket photograph on Erasure, but the cover photo did show a black kid. Like Monk, (and for Everett, Achebe, Smith and Adichie) I also felt irate, because apart from depriving the average reader of a great book, the author of an income, it promotes and maintains a literary apartheid not just among readers, but among and between authors.  Authors are supposed to stick to the genres to which they were born, or at least ones that they have written themselves into successfully.  Where was the genre police I wondered? Surely Monica Ali, Jhumpa Lahiri, Vikram Seth, Hanif Kureishi, Salman Rushdie, all need to be pulled back from the ‘normal’ shelves and returned to the reservation? Or do they pass some sort of test, DNA-based perhaps, or even literary, that allows them free passage away from the ‘special interest’ sections?

And no sooner had I thought this, Everett chucks in some more irony– Monk, the long suffering, non-white, non-basketball-playing unappreciated author and academic (and who does not come from a broken-home, and who is a grandson, son, and brother to educated folk) writes a book dripping with stereotypes and clichés of the kinds that he has had no personal experience, as a homage to bad writing, but which fits what society expects him to have experienced. Naturally, the book becomes a mainstream bestseller, and the critics’ rave about how it could only have come out of personal experience.

All this would be especially delicious if it were not also so tedious in its repetition. I wish we could move on: black (or any other colour, racial or ethnic group) should not be necessary and sufficient basis to summarise a person’s likes, dislikes, habits, preferences follies, fetishes and novels.

These are matters close to my heart. I continually suffer from identity crises. Most recently, I was disturbed to find that my biography on World Who’s Who reads, ‘British Economist and Academic’. I object to be so classified, not least because I lay no claim to be British, or an Economist. It is the broader principle of the stereotypes, as discussed above. On the one hand, I recognise that humans have a need for classification to comprehend the complexity of their world. On the other, it is cruel that one is expected to live up to people’s expectations based on the stereotypes that you make no claim to, but are nonetheless yours for no other reason than the dull imaginations of others. This is not limited to western thinking: much of the carnage in Africa and Asia comes down to the alienation of different peoples living cheek-by-jowl but otherwise separate, distanced by stereotype and rumour. We (for I am a product of my upbringing) are bound by stereotypes, passed down and internalised, but never questioned.

My Indian heritage does not mean I love curries, enjoy econometrics or bollywood blockbusters. Feeling Nigerian does not imply I have any knowledge of scam letters or that I should be black and love football. Having a Dutch passport should not imply blond and tall, with a predilection for wooden shoes and cheese.  Being an academic does not imply that I am especially dense about non-academic things, or that I am especially intelligent and knowledgeable. Others are true. Being divorced does make you more self-protective and less likely to trust. I am profoundly non-vegetarian with a deep love of dead cows, I do like cheese, I have begun to enjoy Indian classical music, and I see nothing wrong with polygamy and a well-formed derriere.

Everett’s theme (and mine) is by no means new: Shakespeare did it brilliantly 400 years ago in Othello. It is not the colour of a man’s skin that defines his value and his virtues, or his vices.

But nobody’s listening, in more ways than one.