WHICH THREE FOR WHOM?

16 of February 2009

Rebecca Strong shares a bookshop experience.

When you’re out with good friends you’ve known for more than thirteen years, you think you know them pretty well. Such is the feeling I had last weekend when I wandered around central London with two very good, female friends, the aspirations, thoughts and emotions of whom I felt I knew and understood. That is, until we found ourselves in Waterstone’s.

We entered Waterstone’s, near Charing Cross station, in hushed tones. It was Sunday afternoon and most of the shops had shut, echoing the spirit of London, which was winding down in anticipation of the working week to come. In the book shop, bored assistants sat reading at the till, patiently awaiting the end of their day, and a few lone shoppers buzzed around corners like bees reluctant to leave an abandoned hive.

‘Recommend me a book!’ suggested one friend, who we’ll call ‘Sim’. ‘I need a good book to read. Something you’ve read that you really liked.’

I looked at her, excited by the prospect of sharing a really good book with a friend. ‘Okay,’ I said, perusing the shelves by the door, ‘how about this one? It’s brilliant.’ I picked up a copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and dangled it under her nose. She duly plucked it from my hands and studied the cover.

My other friend, ‘Cat’, peered over her shoulder and looked at the book.

‘Oh,’ she said, ‘what’s it about? Is it like that play about the women who all get together and deprive their husbands of sex?’

Confused by what seemed to be a reference to the Aristophanes play, Lysistrata, I began to attest that it was not like that at all, but my explanation of the setting of The Handmaid’s Tale was cut short by Cat informing us that ‘Mrs G (an English teacher at school) always used to go on about this book.’ That was enough for Sim - she put the book down straight away.

I tried again. ‘Well then, how about this one - I couldn’t put it down when I read it’ I assured them. I was pointing at Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, my eyes wide and my mind hopeful. Sadly, my hopes were dashed - we’d hit another impasse.

‘It looks a bit boring,’ said Sim, quickly placing it back on the shelf. ‘I’m not sure.’ Cat nodded in agreement, so I decided I’d give up.

The difficulty in recommending a book is that a) taste in literature, as with everything else, is so subjective, b) as with films, a person is likely to have higher expectations if a book’s been recommended, and is therefore more likely to be disappointed, and c) you’re held accountable if the person you’ve made the recommendation to subsequently doesn’t like the book. These were two friends who were intelligent, well-read and with whom I had plenty in common, yet when it came to literary ‘common sense’, we couldn’t seem to converge.

Fortunately, the recommended stalemates were soon overshadowed by our discovery of the ‘3-for-2′ tables. We had a common brainwave: what better way to seal the bonds of friendship than to jointly partake in the book-buying ceremony whilst simultaneously reaping the fruits of the offer. However, we then became slightly stuck again. We rejected the crime novels, the romance books, the novel about an Arab woman’s sexual awakening, the study by a dwarf and his obese lover who swapped places (he wore a skirt; she, a moustache) documenting how society reacted to them, the novels that had been over-hyped and the novels we’d all already read. And I discovered that not only did we have different taste in literature, we also had different strategies for choosing it. Sim, a lover of art and its aesthetics, picked up all the books whose covers she admired and imbibed their packaging. We had to drag her away from the book entitled Panic (she has recently developed a fear of flying and paranoia of natural disasters among other things) and a few other perturbing choices with pleasing covers. Finally, she pounced with delight on the bright green cover of The Secret Life of Trees: How They Live and Why They Matter by Colin Tudge - no, not a work of fiction, but a genuine revelation into what some would class as man’s best friend. ‘Trees?’ Cat and I asked quizzically. ‘Yes,’ she responded to our surprise, ‘I love trees!’

Cat, on the other hand, was searching for a book to suit her lifestyle - she wanted something entertaining and easy to read, given the long hours she works and the little spare time she has. We dissuaded her from choosing some truly poorly-written chick-lit and instead steered her onto The Devil Wears Prada - we had been discussing the film adaptation earlier in the day, and in this case, the re-vamped, high-heeled edition prevailed. Satisfied, and excited by their choices, that only left me before the deal could be sealed.

I have to confess I do love ‘3-for-2′ offers, and not just the thought of getting one book free (because, let’s face it, most of the time you either end up buying several books you don’t really want, or you ended up buying two expensive ones and get a cheap third one free, so you haven’t really saved money). I like the way that once you have found one book you like, you feel compelled to buy two more to take advantage of the offer (yes, I fall for the shop’s ploy), which often forces you out of your comfort zone and into the arms of books you would never otherwise discover. And I like the way the selection on offer usually includes a good variety of both books you’ve been meaning to read for ages, and those little oddities you now have the perfect excuse to purchase.

After failing with my own recommendations, I ended up following those of prize judges, the media and many book fanatics by choosing Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. And as we left the shop - a tree-hugger, a chick-lit lover and a literary shepherd-turned-sheep - we each realised that you can never really know your friends until you’ve got under their literary skin.

© Rebecca Strong 2006

First published in the Society of Young Publishers’ magazine, InPrint, Autumn 2006

IDENTITY CRISIS

16 of February 2009

Rebecca Strong discusses cultural diversity in literature, and how important identification is when it comes to our choice of novel.

This year, the Guardian is boasting that the longlist for its Guardian First Book Award is the ‘most diverse yet in ethnic origin and theme’. Authors that made the grade come from Iran, Thailand, India, Malaysia, the US, Kent, Oxford, Neasden, Doncaster and Co. Tyrone and the themes of their books vary even more (transsexuality, mythical lands, tourism and the loss of an identical twin, to name but a few). But how much is this a reflection of current reading tastes?

Successful ‘ethnic’ authors such as Zadie Smith (White Teeth) and Monica Ali (Brick Lane) broke into the publishing industry in a big way, setting the trend for novels about everyday families of different cultures becoming intertwined and struggling simultaneously to integrate themselves and preserve their cultural heritage. Their novels struck the hearts of many people - those belonging to ethnic minorities, as well as those who are interested in, or curious about, other cultures and faiths. They are intelligent, young, female, authors with a dichotomous view of the world - what’s not to like?

Yet behind their writing lie two well-educated women who have grown up in England, and I can’t help feeling that there is something slightly contrived about their writing. Both authors are mixed race - Smith is half-Jamaican, half-English and Ali is half-Bangladeshi, half-English - and both are Oxbridge graduates. Smith is married to Nick Laird, a well-known Irish writer (who, incidentally, is the writer from Co. Tyrone up for the Guardian First Book Award as mentioned above) and Ali is married to Simon Torrance, a management consultant. Zadie Smith even changed her name from ‘Sadie’ when she was 14 to give herself a more ‘exotic’ feel. Smith’s second book, The Autograph Man, shifted the focus away from ethnicity slightly, but with her latest offering, On Beauty, she returns to issues of race and class. James Lasdun in the Guardian describes the Belseys, the principal family in On Beauty as ‘its own little compact multiverse of clashing cultures: the father a white English academic, the mother a black Floridian hospital administrator, one son a budding Jesus freak, the other a would-be rapper and street hustler, the daughter a specimen of US student culture at its most rampagingly overdriven.’

I cannot say I have ever been in the same circumstances as the Jamaican, English or Muslim families in White Teeth, or as the Muslim community in Brick Lane but, being of an ethnic minority, there was something I felt I could identify with - maybe the sense of being on the outside of the dominant culture. It’s a question of just how much we want to read about ‘the familiar’ in a book, how much we need to identify with the character(s) and to what extent we can empathise with them. I imagine that most of us in contemporary British society would find it strange to read an exclusively ‘white’ book, but do those from the ethnic majority find it strange to read a novel predominantly focused on ethnic minority characters?

Helen Oyeyemi recently catapulted to literary fame with her début novel, The Icarus Girl. A 20-year-old student at …wait for it…Cambridge university, she was born in Nigeria and moved to England at the age of four. She wrote the book whilst studying for her A-Levels and, after sending a sample to Bloomsbury, was promptly handed a two-book deal. The protagonist is the daughter of a Nigerian mother and English father, who travels to Nigeria on holiday and befriends a girl named ‘TillyTilly’ who turns out to be a ghost. Through the book, Oyeyemi seems to be exploring her own feelings of growing up with two cultures, and even states that ‘you can read a lot of books and the main characters are white people - especially in the classics - and after a while you forget that you’re not white, almost, because it’s this big pervasive culture’. Due to her subject matter, she may come across as a mature, perceptive young woman, but some critics have said that the book is too ‘young’ to be read by adults. Although it received a certain amount of critical acclaim, how much of her success if down to fashion, marketing, and the drive of publishers trying to produce the next ‘Zadie’? It is time other cultures and voices were given the space to flourish, but is publishing every other Oxbridge educated female with ethnic roots the way to go about it?

I don’t mean to criticise any of these authors - their writing is very popular and I have enjoyed their books myself, but it makes me question just how much of a position they are in to offer a realistic picture of society, and how much they are simply good storytellers. They may be the voice of mixed-race Britain, but where is the authentic, foreign, immigrant perspective, rather than these voices hailing from the most hallowed educational institutions in the country?

Recent events, especially in British society, have raised awareness of multiculturalism and perhaps created a real trend for ethnic writing and embracing the exotic. Recent newspaper reports have shown that cockney rhyming slang is being replaced by Bangladeshi slang in certain parts of London where there are high numbers of immigrants, and that even white youths are incorporating this language into their working class culture. It’s unfair of me to label these authors as ‘ethnic’, seeing as they have all grown up in Britain and their writing is accessible to everyone. All of them draw from their own backgrounds when expressing themselves, and it may be this that appeals to the reader the most: not the chance to read what is familiar to them, but the chance to fall into an unfamiliar world created by someone who is all too familiar with it - vicarious identification, if you will.

The majority of us are interested in other cultures, especially when they are presented to us in an enjoyable, gripping, humorous fashion. But how ready are we for a more ’street’ or ‘real’ perspective? We can only hope that publishers will continue to promote cultural diversity, both in the authors they choose to promote, as well as in content.

As for me, I’m going back to reading Small Island by Andrea Levy - another award winning novel by a Jamaican author that grew up in Britain. Set during and after the Second World War, this book is predominantly about the challenges faced by Jamaicans who move to Britain and suffer prejudice, and the English people who try to help them. I just might learn to further identify with people who are in situations as far removed from my own experiences as can possibly be - and it can only make me a more rounded person…can’t it?

© Rebecca Strong 2005

First published in the Society of Young Publishers’ magazine, InPrint, October 2005

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