Monday, November 5, 2007

Westernisation

Westernisation or the adjective, 'westernised' is a word that is I've come across a lot lately in my reading and at political haranguing matches - otherwise known as the dinner party. And it makes me nervous; the way this emotionally charged term is exalted or abused seems to leave me little choice but to sit on the sidelines dumb and increasingly numb. I begin to wonder really whether it is just an outdated word - and obsolete unless referring to phenomena at least a century old.

Part 1
Let's start with the informal dinner party. On the face of it I share political and social convictions with all those who were present; they are a group of right-thinking, left-leaning women concerned about all the big injustices and occupations. And I'm not making light of this as I don't know anyone who can afford to.

The divisions arise when we come to talk of the recent controversy over the filming of Monica Ali's novel, Brick Lane. I haven't read either the book or seen the film and it seems I'm not alone there. The reference point is a leader article in the Guardian and a 'Comment is Free' piece by Monica Ali. The leader suggested that Ali should take some responsibility for the anger and sensitivities of a group of protesters from Brick Lane's Bangladeshi 'community' that was provoked by her portrayal of gender conflict in her novel. Since the marketing of the novel explicitly promoted Ali as a member of the Bangladeshi community giving an insight into a 'hidden world', and Ali is in fact only half Bangladeshi and didn't grow up in the East London's alongside these particular Bangladeshi residents, then she had misled the public into believing hers was the authentic voice of this 'community'. Ali responded by saying that there were always going to be people offended by something and her novel is a work of art and not the representative piece on one community.

One of the women present said that what riled her most is the patronising tone of Ali that suggested the largely working-class residents of Brick Lane could not appreciate Art for Art's sake, while several people said that Ali should not have allowed her publishers to use Orientalist terms such as 'hidden world' about a Muslim, Eastern residential area. Of course it wasn't long before Ali was discredited with the insult, westernised'. Ali is too westernised for these people's liking.

I had little problem dealing with their initial charges: it is unlikely that Ali as a new writer had much say in the marketing of her book and it would be extraordinarily difficult for her to get onto the bestseller's list without her Indian sub-continent origins - and thus her work - being exoticised for a British public bored of their apparently colourless society. Where there is a demand, the booksellers will comply. As for Ali's assertion that she never intended to be a representative of a community and this is Art and people will always be offended, I think that broadly I agree, not least because it is rare for good writing (I still don't know how good her writing is though) not to be provocative on some level, and because novel writing should never be required to dumb down, as have the political debates we are subjected to, just for fear of not being absolutely clear with whom they stand on absolutely every issue, never mind how problematic. I would feel sick to my stomach if Ali were bullied into coming out onto some sort of public platform and declaring her love, loyalty and sympathy with the 'Bangladeshi community' and apologising for offending some of them. It is still unclear how many people who live in the vicinity of Brick Lane were actually offended - some were surely indifferent and others may even have been fans of Ali's.

But as the informal post-dinner debate progressed what became clear was that many present hated Ali. They just hated her; for them she had become emblematic of all they despised in this imperialistic world. She simply wasn't a good enough Bangladeshi person - she was irresponsible, she was insensitive, she was conceited. And she was Westernised.

I remember showing some copies of the English language magazine I had worked on in Egypt to a curious friend and she had glanced over them - been surprised at how contemporary and pretentious it looked and with one word had declared the magazine null and void as far as its Egyptian credentials: the magazine was Westernised - she could therefore learn nothing about Egypt and Egypt's youth from it.

There is always one woman that turns the debate into the political haranguing match and this occasion was no different. Her coup de grace that struck me finally dumb with incomprehension was during a discussion on whether British publishers were deliberately blocking positive portrayals of Eastern or Muslim communities. A few of us thought that on the whole writers were critiques of their own societies and the sinister and disheartening aspects of their cultures and governmental systems were what prompted them to write as well as a very human feeling of disquiet, and of compassion for those that fell through the gaps. I said that I had studied Arab literature and saw many so-called 'negative portrayals' of Egyptian society, for example. After all a 'community' is not an entirely healthy or natural organism. She accused me of pathologising non-white, non-Western communities and then said that anyway the publishing sector in Egypt was controlled and funded by the Americans and that is why the books are not all positive portrayals of peaceable and integrated indigenous communities.

I felt sad

1 comment:

Persephone said...

Oh for fuck's sake. That woman is a bore. Let me at her. It must be exhausted to be offended constantly.