Risk

Uzma Aslam Khan lives in Lahore. Her novels are The Story of Noble Rot, Trespassing and, forthcoming from Rupa Books, India, The Geometry of God.

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"The West must save the East!"

The moral justification of 19th- and 20th-century colonialism was civilizing the native. The moral justification of 21st-century imperialism is liberating the native. Britain's jewel in the crown, the Indian subcontinent, is today being secured by those Asian-British writers who espouse the last line of Monica Ali's novel Brick Lane: "'This is England,' she said. 'You can do whatever you like.'"

Ali's ending clinched the political banner sewn in the pages of the book – England equals freedom – though not until the final page was it made explicit. But novelists ought to be challenging slogans, not trumpeting them. If a banner is waved, it should be the banner of scepticism. What if Nazneen's sister in Bangladesh had found a good-looking young man to hump, dumping her stodgy husband in the process, and Nazneen had been locked in a room and raped by a racist white man who pimped her to more racist white men, and she'd begged for freedom only to be told, 'This is England. We can do whatever we like"?

Today's "Asian" novelists face an unspoken list of dos and, implicitly, don'ts. First is the "West must save the East" dictum, which denies the enormous range of people who comprise a part of the world being written about almost entirely by those who've never, or barely, lived there.

Writing about a family from Bangladesh or Pakistan or India who actually live there is old-fashioned, and it's especially unfitting that the author live there. This is the second rule. The hyphen (Anglo-Indian, Afghan-American) is what confers credibility; by emphasizing ethnic differences within Britain, banner-waving diaspora writers end up eliminating differences – by denying them outside of Britain.

"Multiculturalism" is, in fact, not multicultural at all. Asians living in Asia are only ever portrayed as reactionary dullards, while those who go West have but two roads to choose from: the backward path home, or the forward path of assimilation.

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