Notes from a small island
A weblog by Jonathan Ali

Sunday, February 09, 2003  

As both of my readers may have noticed, I haven't blogged for quite a few days. When I first started this blog, I promised myself at least a post a day. In my early enthusiasm it seemed quite doable, and while on a daily basis I have no problem finding something to blog about (and not just any old rubbish) and the time to do it in, I sometimes just don't feel to blog. The past week's been like that, but I have managed a couple of posts, and I'm pretty sure I won't ever let a whole seven days go by without at least a few words. That is, until I decide to end this whole escapade for good; but don't worry, either of you, that won't be for some time yet.

Part of the reason I haven't felt to blog (or do much writing period) is that I've been doing quite a bit more reading than usual. Two of the books I read recently were The Lunatic and The Duppy, both by the Jamaican Anthony Winkler. I cannot remember when last I laughed so loud and so hard. The Lunatic concerns a Jamaican madman and the German tourist-lady he forms an acquaintance with, while The Duppy is about a Jamaican shopkeeper who dies and goes to heaven. Both are lean, vivid and colourful creations, that make glorious, hilarious use of Jamaican English - Winkler's raucous dialogue, liberally soused with Jamaican expletives, simply demands to be read aloud. And there's a sharp, but sublte satire bubbling under the comic crust of these novels that makes them all the more rewarding.

In other literary news, I read an interesting article today by Maya Jaggi in the UK Guardian Books Magazine, titled Color Bind. Jaggi was trying to set up an interview with Monica Ali (no relation) the author of the soon to be released novel Brick Lane. Ali, of Asian descent, is being heralded as The Next Big Thing. Ali's publicist replied that while her (Ali's) publishers, Doubleday, wanted the Guardian to have the first interview, they wished another journo, not Jaggi, who is also Asian, to do the interview, the reason given being that Ali "feels that black and Asian writers are often talked about and presented solely in terms of their race, whereas she would like to be seen as a writer who is naturally concerned about issues surrounding race, but who would also just like to be seen and judged as an interesting writer too." And so they suggested that the Guardian have another journalist, neither Asian nor a woman, conduct the interview.

They declined, standing behind Jaggi's right to conduct the interview, and both Doubleday and its parent company Transworld (a division of Random House UK) smelling bad publicity, apologised to Jaggi and the Guardian. They invited Jaggi to go ahead and conduct the interview; she doesn't say in the article if she accpted.

What she does say is that the incident, rather than being a one-off, a simple misunderstanding, is symptomatic of the mainly white London publishing world. Jaggi resents the implication made by Ali's publishers that as an Asian woman, race is her main preoccupation. She draws parallel with a Jewish author declining to be interviewed by a Jewish reporter; surely people would think that wrong. As Monica Ali sees herself as simply or primarily a writer, so too Jaggi see herself as a journalist, not an Asian journalist.

I gave this some thought. While I agree wholeheartedly that Ali and her publishers were silly and wrong to turn Jaggi down, and while I don't doubt that the publishing world is mainly white (and unfortunately so) I'm not sure I agree that Jaggi is just a journalist. She may wish to be seen as such, but a look at some of her reviews is revealing. I did a search on the books site, and the first four that turned up were: The Impressionist by Hari Kunzru, who is part Indian; The House of Blue Mangoes by David Davidar, Indian; Heaven's Edge by Romesh Gunesekera of Sri Lanka and Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry, of Indian descent.

Coincidence? I scanned through a few pages of her reviews, most, by my calculation, are of books by non-white authors, including a few Caribbean authors.

Maya Jaggi is one of the few non-white literary journalists in Fleet Street - one of two, she says. (I have always admired her work; it was her glowing notice of White Teeth that first turned me on to Zadie Smith.) As much as Jaggi or her employers may be loath to admit it, this fact of her race obviously matters, and is reflected in her work. There are some things you just can't escape, no matter how much you'd like to, particularly being noted for your race when you're in the minority. And successful non-white writers and journalists in the mainstream in the metropolitan world are in the minority. You just have to take it in stride, I suppose, as absurd or limiting as it may seem at times, keep on plugging away, and give as good as you get. As the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat in the film Basquiat says to the writer, who asks him if he considers himself to be an artist or a black artist: "Are you a writer, or a white writer?"

posted by Jonathan | 10:30 PM 0 comments


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