It’s so important that we celebrate and commemorate not only the cultures of our heritage countries, but also the lives of South Asian people living in the UK.
A couple of months ago, I started an Instagram project – South Asian Book Club, a platform for exploring and analysing all kinds of writing from South Asia and its diaspora. I’d like to share some British Asian writing and explore what it can tell us about contemporary British Asian culture.
Firstly, not surprisingly, most of the British Asian literature that I’ve come across skews heavily towards authors from north India and Pakistan. This is a function of the demographics of South Asians in the UK, but it’s a bit disappointing not to see a wider variety of voices. Secondly, a number of repeated themes emerge; honour and its preservation, the communal culture, forbidden love. These are interesting to read about but I hope in the future British Asian writing can expand far beyond those themes. With this in mind:
Sairish Hussain – The Family Tree (2020)
A highly acclaimed debut novel from the Bradford author. The multi-generational story of a British Muslim family is told with heart, compassion and humour. Hussain takes on weighty themes of grief or racism with a deft hand. For me, it’s refreshing to see a novel with British Muslim characters that avoids tropes of forced marriages, extremism and the like, stories that have been told enough times.
Hanif Kureishi – The Buddha of Suburbia (1990)
One of my favourite opening lines of any novel – ‘My name is Karim Amir, and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost’. Iconic. It sets the tone for this witty satire of 1970s suburban life. Kureishi delves into the semi-autobiographical as he explores the point of view of a character with English and Pakistani heritage, desperately trying to escape the drab London suburbs for the bright lights of the city.
Monica Ali – Brick Lane (2003)
Brick Lane tells the tale of Nazneen, who moves from a village in Bangladesh to a high-rise near Brick Lane in London after an arranged marriage. A migrant’s tale of loss, adjustment and hope, exploring the isolation that is inevitable when uprooting a life.
Kavita Puri – Partition Voices (2019)
Following on from an award-winning series on BBC Radio 4, Partition Voices allows us to hear the stories of some of those who experienced Partition, now living in Britain. Stories that had been silent for decades. Moving and utterly essential work. Puri’s father was twelve when he became one of the millions caught up in the tumult of Partition – after he broke a seventy year silence to speak about it, it compelled her to seek out these stories, hidden away in corners of the UK.
Sathnam Sanghera – The Boy with the Topknot (2008)
A memoir of growing up in 1980s Wolverhampton as Sanghera aims to make sense of ‘a life lived among secrets’. Full of love and humour, as Sanghera tries to understand his place in the world while confronting a difficult family history. I recommend this one as it tackles topics such as mental health, often a taboo for South Asians to talk about.
Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan – Postcolonial Banter (2019)
Debut poetry collection by educator, writer and poet Manzoor-Khan. Wide-ranging and unflinching, covering topics from the nation-state to British identity. Manzoor-Khan has a powerful and eloquent voice and she uses it to elucidate, educate and confront the reader. Weaving in elements of her Pakistani background, Postcolonial Banter questions what it means to be a British Asian today.
Anandi Ramamurthy – Black Star, Britain’s Asian Youth Movements (2013)
Ramamurthy recounts the history of political British South Asian youth movements, as they fought against racism and injustice in the 1970s and 80s. An important read to understand how others had to fight for the things we take for granted – I’m often shocked when I read of the open racism and violence previous generations faced as they navigated life in this country. This is the story of the fight back.
Jasbinder Bilan – Asha and the Spirit Bird (2019)
Winner of the Costa Children’s Book Award and one of the Guardian’s Best Books in 2019, Asha is an adventurous, heartfelt journey in the Himalayas. It’s great to see diverse kids’ books. I don’t remember seeing them when I was growing up. Bilan incorporates themes of spirituality and ancestry, giving depth to the novel. Plus, it has the most beautiful cover!
South Asian Book Club is a new Instagram project set up to platform, explore and analyse writing from South Asia and its diaspora. Ranging across themes and geographical regions, it aims to take a holistic and deep view of South Asian culture through its literature