This Week’s Column:

THE CULT OF THE ETHNIC AUTHOR

... a MobyLives guest column

by Laila Lalami


6 October 2003 — To write and publish a first novel requires much talent, enormous persistence, and also a bit of luck. To have that first novel hailed by critics on both sides of the Atlantic, selected for prestigious prizes, and read by an increasing number of people is to be extraordinarily blessed. Monica Ali is a fortunate woman indeed. And yet, for all the attention Ali is getting, there is something deeply depressing about reactions to "Brick Lane."

Ali is touring the United States to promote her book, and she was in Los Angeles on September 18, two days after the Booker shortlist was announced. (She is now the bookies' favorite to win the prize.) Ali read from the novel and then settled down to hear questions from the audience of about thirty people.

Readings usually evolve in such a way that you can be guaranteed of a few things. People will listen politely, smile or laugh when they're expected to, applaud, and then ask the same questions in nearly every place the author will visit. Examples: "How did you get the idea for this book?" "What is your writing routine?" "Are you (like your character) a zookeeper, a lawyer, a linguistics professor, a hermaphrodite?"

If the author is young, you can add a few things to that list: "How did you get that advance?" "Who is your agent?" Or if she happens to be female, she might be asked, "How do you find the find to write with children around?"

In Ali's case, the questions reveal as much about the current obsession with the young and gifted as with our attitudes to ethnicity.

In her introduction, the hostess gushed, "I'm a sucker for immigrant books." Perhaps, the lady surmised, it was because these books reminded her of what her own grandparents might have gone through when they arrived in America. And so it was a special treat for her to be hosting Ali's reading.

During the Q&A, the first question was "Tell us about yourself," which was quickly followed by "Did you grow up in Tower Hamlets?" and so on, culminating in a gentleman's question, "Were you raised black or white?"

If she was stunned, Ali didn't let on. She patiently explained that she was in fact half–Bengali half–British, that she was born in Dhaka and grew up in Britain.

"Which parent were you closer to?" asked the same gentleman. Ali raised a quizzical eyebrow. "Who did you talk to more?" the man offered. "Fought with, more like," Ali quipped. The smiling coolness with which Ali responded to these questions suggested that perhaps it wasn't the first time she had heard them.

Assumptions about Ali don't just come from readers. Critics, too, have been eager to label her, usually by lumping her with other "ethnic" authors.

She's been called the next Zadie Smith by The Guardian and others, despite the fact that just about the only thing they have in common is their mixed heritage. Ali and Smith are very, very different writers. Where one enjoys language pyrotechnics and humorous turns of phrases, the other prefers careful characterization and deep irony.

Some reviewers talked about the theme of cultural identity ("belonging" is another word slung about in write–ups), as if every immigrant writer's debut novel is bound to be about this.

While it's true that "Brick Lane" deals with that subject, the book is also much wider in breadth. Aliís character Nazneen spends a good deal of time thinking about her fate: applying herself to accept it, struggling with it, before finally rejecting it and taking her destiny in her own hands.

The cult of the ethnic author is infuriating for the simple reason that it takes the focus away from the work. Who cares if Ali is "black" or "white," or whether she was closer to her Mum or her Abba? People have been so wrapped up in Ali that few have bothered with critical examination of the book.

"Brick Lane" is engaging, not least because of Ali's deeply compassionate eye for her characters and her incredible handling of the ambiguities with which they struggle (Nazneen, for example, is a religious woman who sews lining on thirty–seven miniskirts in one night.)

The book is not without fault. A few passages, for instance, could have done with more careful editing. The epistolary chapter where Nazneen's younger sister Hasina recounts eight years of her increasingly miserable existence abruptly, and perhaps needlessly, breaks the narrative.

Still, "Brick Lane" takes the reader into complex, challenging, and enriching worlds. Ali shouldn't have to be reduced to a pat, exotic persona; her book is far too important not to be judged on its own merit.


Laila Lalami was born in Morocco and educated in Britain and the United States. Her fiction has been awarded the British Council Prize in 2003. Her non–fiction has appeared in The Los Angeles Times and Al–Bayane. She lives in Los Angeles, where she runs the culutural webzine Moorishgirl.com.



©2003 Laila Lalami


Previous column; THE BLOOM IS OFF THE MARK ... Harold Bloom's remarks against the notion of giving a literary prize to Stephen King inspires frequent MobyLives contributor Steve Almond to ask if Bloom really knows the scene.




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