Monday 29 October 2007

A mealy-mouthed attempt at censorship

I somehow managed to miss this editorial in Saturday's Guardian, about the film version of Monica Ali's novel Brick Lane. The leader writer acknowledges that 'like any other community, the Bangladeshis of London's East End cannot have the right of veto over how they are portrayed'. But s/he goes on to censure both Ali and her adaptors for being insensitive to the community's 'concerns', arguing: 'A film or a book that sets out to be a contemporary record of a particular community living in a well-known area cannot ignore them'.

What's more, the writer imposes strictures on any author daring to cover such communities, demanding that they show 'a greater sense of responsibility'. I detected an inverted snobbery, not to say indirect racism, in the dismissal of Ali's capacity as 'a mixed-race Oxford graduate' to depict the inhabitants of Brick Lane. I can't imagine a white writer being the target of such patronising advice. The editorial concludes:

The artists are responding to a public hunger for some insights into British-Bangladeshi life. They are providing reportage from an under-reported community. There is a price for that, and it comes in treating one's subjects with greater care than if they were made up.

Thank goodness that this mealy-mouthed attempt at censorship was roundedly condemned today by a number of contributors to the newspaper's letters pages. They included the novelist Hari Kunzru, whose withering riposte is so good it's worth reproducing in full:

As a mixed-race novelist (hell, just as a novelist), I would like to say to your leader writer 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.

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