These books echo worries about the difficulty of building a diverse and cohesive societyby Sameer Rahim / November 12, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
This year Europe’s refugee crisis became impossible to ignore as 430,000 people arrived, fleeing war or poverty. But mainly absent from the political debate have been migrant voices. What does it feel like to be an illegal immigrant or to be British-born but culturally alienated? Four novels published in the last year describe how newcomers to Britain negotiate with the host culture a dozen times a day. The picture they collectively draw is not of a happy multicultural nation; they all echo worries about the difficulty of building a diverse and cohesive society. They also explore how those migrants keen to work and integrate into Britain, experience a country very different from the one they imagined. There is opportunity, yes, but also isolation, poverty and racism.
Sunjeev Sahota’s Booker-shortlisted The Year of the Runaways (Picador) delves into the grimy world of illegal immigration. Sahota, of Punjabi descent, was born in Derby in 1981. He has an eye for newsworthy issues: his first novel, Ours Are the Streets, was about a would-be suicide bomber. His new work follows three Indian “illegals” working on a Sheffield building site.
The story of one character, an auto rickshaw driver from Patna, examines an asylum seeker who is also an economic migrant. Tochi and his family are attacked by Hindu extremists for moving beyond their caste; his parents are killed and he is badly burned. Disillusioned with India, Tochi pays people smugglers to take him to Britain. Tochi’s deprivation is inseparable from his caste status, something he believes he can slough off in his new country through working hard. “Work on day one. This was good. Maybe it was true what they said about England. That this is where you could make something.”
This summer some people offered to welcome those fleeing persecution into their own homes. What might motivate someone to make such a generous gesture? Sahota’s most intriguing character is Narinder, a British-born Sikh woman, who agrees to a visa marriage with another migrant. Her reason isn’t money, but religious guilt: she wants to help fellow Indians make a better life.
Narinder has a cultural connection with the person she is helping. In contrast, Michael, an elderly white man from Doncaster, is surprised when Avtar turns up on his doorstep. Avtar had made friends with Michael while working in a call centre in India. Now, looking to escape his gangmaster in Sheffield, Avtar asks Michael whether he can rent a room. The old man seems amenable but his suspicious son sends him packing. This sequence enacts an urgent political argument. Ageing Europeans need immigrants to look after them while their children work longer hours; but that requires an accommodating trust from the hosts, something Michael’s son is not prepared to give.
For those who do make it the past can still cast a long shadow. Zia Haider Rahman was born in rural Bangladesh and brought up in London. A gift for maths took him to Oxford University and then Wall Street. His intelligent novel In the Light of What We Know (Picador), which won this year’s James Tait Black Memorial Prize, follows a character with a similar background. Zafar feels that no matter how much money he makes or how English he becomes, his adopted country will never accept him. A Pakistani-American friend tells him America is different. When he arrives at John F Kennedy Airport the immigration official always says: “Welcome home.” Zafar responds: “If an immigration officer at Heathrow had ever said ‘Welcome home’ to me, I would have given my life for England, for my country, there and then. I could kill for an England like that.”
Rahman said something very similar in an interview with the American journalist Claire Berlinski in 2006. He also disclosed a connection with Zadie Smith’s bestselling novel White Teeth (2000). Smith knew Rahman and partly based a character called Majid on him. Majid grew up in Bangladesh but is a fastidious “pukka” Englishman with a BBC accent he has learnt from the radio. Her portrayal is gleefully funny but, Rahman said, “conspicuously absent from White Teeth is the anger… Immigration is a very bitter experience for many people.” Rahman pours that anger into his own novel. At a party, a man named Hugh asks Zafar the perennial question: “Where are you from, if you don’t mind me asking?” Zafar replies he lives in Brixton. Hugh “let out a guffaw, gently nudging me on the shoulder, relishing what his drunken imagination took for mutual amusement. I acquiesced with a grin. ‘No, I mean really, Zephyr. Where are you from?’” That grin hides his humiliation.
Similar themes are handled in a humorous way in Amit Chaudhuri’s Odysseus Abroad (Oneworld). Through his six novels Chaudhuri, an Indian-born long-time resident in Britain, has become the master of wry observation. Odysseus Abroad is set in the early 1980s. It follows 22-year-old Bengali Ananda and his uncle Radesh, an eccentric who has lived in a Hampstead bedsit for 30 years. Chaudhuri describes the catch all description “Asian” as “an equivocal category, neither British nor Indian, for people who had essentially nowhere to go.” Still, equivocal categories have their uses. The Sylheti owners of a Bangladeshi restaurant welcome Ananda and his uncle. As Hindus from the other side of the border, they might well have been rivals back home, but in London those old conflicts can be put aside: the chicken jalfrezi is on the house. Though Ananda feels alienated, he also has a calm determination to make the best of things. Echoing the famous opening of VS Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, he reflects that: “The weather was what it was; Empire had happened; Ananda was here.”
The legacy of empire is a dominant theme in the fiction of black British writer Caryl Phillips. His tenth novel, The Lost Child, (Oneworld) skilfully weaves together a postcolonial retelling of Emily Bronte’s
Wuthering Heights and the story of Monica, a white woman in 1960s England who has two children with an Afro-Caribbean man.
Neither wholly in one place or another, children like Monica’s are prone to cultural confusion. But they can also act as an emotional bridge. “Mixed-race” is now the fastest-growing ethnic category in the UK, which means more of the older generation than ever have grandchildren with a different racial background.
The current debate about teaching British values offers the chance to argue about what these values might be in 2015. And while all these writers seem to have a pessimistic or fatalistic take on the chances of a multicultural society succeeding, their existence shows how English literature at least is being renewed by their vital new voices.