& occasionally about other things, too...

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Whose voice is it anyway?

Image take from Native Appropriations website

There is a fierce and polarising debate going on in the Canadian media and literary circles over ‘cultural appropriation’.  As with any debate, it has many sides, but not all get reflected in the angry interactions on media, and especially on social media. 

An edited version of the following piece that I wrote for my friend George Abraham was published in the New Canadian Media in January (Whose Voice is it Anyway?). 

Here’s the original piece, for whatever it’s worth.

Last year my debut novel Belief was published in Canada. It’s a story of an immigrant family’s struggle to integrate into the Canadian mainstream, and just when, after nearly two decades of struggle to survive in an alien land, facing constant rejection, everything seems to be falling into place, the family discovers their son’s evident involvement involved in some sort of terrorist plot. Hurriedly, they consult their neighbours and inform a police officer known to the neighbours. It leads to the son’s arrest. The novel explores the family’s trauma following the son’s arrest.

The family’s Muslim identity is central to the story because it deals with the manner in which people of colour who are adherents of Islam are generally (and often unconsciously) treated in a society that they adopt as immigrants. Hearteningly, one (of the three) reviewers of the novel understood the nuanced and calibrated approach I’ve adopted in portraying this difference. Author Veena Gokhale, in her review in Montreal Serai, an online literary journal, observes, “Bhatt exposes the diverse ways of being Muslim – a reality that mainstream society does not care to comprehend.”

This is an important issue because in the desperation to grab eyeballs, the mainstream news and entertainment media often forget to make that critical distinction that Islam is not a monolith and all Muslims are not the same. While writing my novel, I had a simple objective to achieve – that there is little to distinguish between people on the basis of their beliefs.

The other issue that I wanted to examine was this whole business of radicalisation and terrorism. It’s important to underline that such a phenomenon doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Young men such as Rafiq, the main character in my novel, go astray in an environment where they are unable to make an emotional or a material connection with the society, and this leads to many complications for them, for their families and the society.

From the family’s perspective, how different would a son’s radicalisation and subsequent involvement in terrorism be from drug addiction? I’m not saying that there is no distinction. Society will definitely distinguish between the two, and weigh down heavily on radicalization and terrorism while condoning drug addiction, and we can argue that this has a lot to do with race, but that really is a different debate. I’d still want to believe that for the parents there wouldn’t be much to differentiate. I don’t know whether the parents of a son who’s a drug addict would take comfort from the fact that their son is not radicalised and is not a terrorist.

The other challenge of portraying the complexity of being a Muslim in Canada was posed by the fact that I’m not a Muslim. This is a sensitive matter. Would I be able to portray with accuracy and empathy the life of a Muslim family, the family dynamics, and the inner turmoil? I was born in a Hindu family, where but for my grandmother nobody really practised the religion regularly and ritualistically. But I grew up and lived in a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood for more than three decades. When I was young Bombay was proudly cosmopolitan.

Also, as a journalist in Bombay, I covered religious violence that wreaked havoc on Bombay in 1992-93, witnessed firsthand the callousness of the state in bringing justice to the survivor victims of these riots, and recorded the adverse long-term effects of official neglect that Muslims in India have suffered. And perhaps, most pertinently, I’ve been married to a devout Muslim for over two decades.

Yet, to construct a novel was a grave responsibility. In recent years, there have been intense debates in the literary spheres about ‘cultural appropriation’.

Lionel Shriver let loose a veritable storm last year when she defended her right to write about anything that she as a writer wanted to (Read her speech here, and Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s response here). Closer home, our own Giller Prize winner Joseph Boyden has been hauled over the coals for claiming to be something that he isn’t quite – a native; his defence is that he feels like one, even if genetically he may not be.

To frame the issue in the Indian context (which I can claim to know better): should an upper caste Brahmin be allowed to depict the life of a Dalit (the so-called lower caste that was considered untouchable, till the Indian Constitution banned such practices)? The example that came to my mind was of Munshi Premchand’s Sadgati (Deliverance). Premchand, one of the foremost Hindi language writers of the 20th century, was born into the upper caste but was a radical progressive who advocate equality. His short story Sadgati is an evocative tale of the plight of a Dalit. Satyajit Ray, the iconic 20th-century filmmaker, who also belonged to the upper caste, turned it into a cinematic classic.

Let me hasten to add here that the exploitation of the Dalits in India continues even today in all forms – economic, cultural, social, and political – despite innumerable laws that are meant to prevent it, and that it is about time opportunities especially in the arts are created for them.

Well-meaning Muslim friends of South Asian origin cautioned me that my attempt at depicting a Muslim milieu in Canada would lack authenticity and sincerely advised that I abandon the misadventure. I was of course not going to do that mainly because I believe that imagination and craft could be better substitutes for experience. I believe that a novelist’s primary responsibility is to tell a story competently and responsibly. Innumerable novelists have created a world in their novels that are palpably real without ever being even remotely connected to the world they create.

I have done so in Belief, my debut novel, and I’ll leave it to the reader to judge whether the novel succeeds in portraying the complexity of being a Muslim in Canada.

No comments:

Post a Comment