OPINION: Why Asian Visibility and Representation Is Important

When I was a kid, if I’d have been offered an opportunity to bleach my skin, I probably would have taken it. This was the extent to the vitriol I felt towards my Bangladeshi heritage, culture and the brown skin I lived in. I despised all events that called for me to be dressed, like a doll, in traditional lehengas and sarees. I plodded around like a kid in stilts, stiff with discomfort at every party, pining for the moment we’d get home and I could peel the colourful garments off in favour of my band tees and joggers. There was no plausible reason for this rejection but I do think it was learned, as opposed to something I was born with.

See, I’d grown up with my nose buried in books about predominantly white characters or watching white characters in my favourite TV shows. The few Asian characters I did see were massively exaggerated archetypes, and I knew for a fact that I didn’t identify with them. Conservative, religious, thick accents and a resistance to western culture: this is what Asians were, if you looked at TV. Yet my family were party people who couldn’t recite a passage of the Gita verbatim. They ate a lot and drank more, had secret boyfriends and rebelled against the elders. The only shows I knew I could relate to, in some respects, were East is East, Goodness Gracious Me and Anita and Me (God bless Meera Syal), where cultures clashed and identities were forged from a mish-mash of traditional Asian values versus modernity in England.

Naturally, it’s perhaps no surprise that I instead looked to what was available in abundance and spent the following years idolising my white friends and the white singers, writers and actors on TV and in my books. I wanted to fit in, so I conveniently shelved Bollywood, eating curry with my hand and stories of gutting fish in Bangladesh to a box in the back of my brain.

I would honestly say that until I was at university and away from home, I was still running from who I was. It was in the absence of hearty home-cooked curries and the constant witticisms of my large family that I really began to question how authentically Asian I was. Then came reading lists that touched upon post-colonial texts by names I’d never heard of and the embarrassment of the realisation that I knew nothing about the history of my family’s homes in Bangladesh, or the bloody battle for independence, or the significance of most Hindu mythology tales.

The other thing about university was the expectation that I had to fight my own battles when it came to racist remarks. I’ve grown up with the names “coconut” and “Paki” in equal measure: too white for some and too Asian for others (which is so bizarre to me now, at twenty-seven years old). However, at university, I encountered more diverse retorts that really challenged me.

I’ve heard “you’re hot for an Asian” on a Rev’s dancefloor. I’ve had “I’ve never fucked an Asian before” from a stranger in the queue for an ATM. I’ve had “you’re the whitest Asian I know” from a known misogynistic, racist, and traditionalist pig in my year group at university, who often tried to stoke the fire with some controversial remark. I never knew whether that one was unintentional or whether he truly meant it, being the ignorant, sheltered momma’s-boy asshole that he was, but I didn’t take the bait. Instead, my friends (all of them white) stepped in and told him straight. At this point, I had given up hope on the boy-child who was threatened by any ideas outside of the black/white picture his hometown had painted, but it was still nice to see that others were affected on my behalf.

I’d have taken coconut as a compliment when I was eight, believe it or not. I’d have felt lesser and believed the very cruel, insensitive quips people threw my way in a heartbeat. However, I was so blanketed by my infatuation with whiteness as a child that the insults bounced off because they couldn’t affect me as I didn’t identify as brown in the first place.

Meanwhile, at university, when left to my own devices, I was critiquing everything. On the news, there was the constant anti-immigration spiel from bald, white men and in my lectures, there were closeted Tories squirming in our extremely lefty-liberal classes, led by proactive tree-huggers and passionate anti-Brexit lecturers. When it came to meeting new people, I discovered that not everybody hailed from multicultural cities like Bradford. Someone told me that Huddersfield’s diversity was a shock to him as, where he was from down south, there was one black kid in his village, but no Asians. In my research, I was seeing the disparity between female and male representation in literature and film, as well as the numbers that demonstrated how ethnic minorities are still marginalised on TV in comparison to Caucasians.

University opened my eyes to a lot of things and the experiences I had there made it truly impossible to ignore/reject my brownness. It also made me lament the “lost years” spent in denial, internalised anger and silence.

In the years since my postgraduate degree came to an end, there has been a significant rise in violence against Asians within the UK. There has also been a very loud and very aggressive outcry to the BLM movement, so much so that incensed viewers of Britain’s Got Talent turned up in their droves to complain about Diversity’s dance, inspired by the events, because it wasn’t the “right” platform to voice that kind of message. Alongside the anger of gammons, there has been an uprising in strong minority voices who are tired of accepting the same old as the same old.

So, what do I do now? How do I come to terms with the massive chunk of my DNA and heritage that I boxed up and tried to chuck away? Well, firstly, I try not to be disheartened by the xenophobic, right-wing spiel that so often populates the news reels. I accept that I occupy space and deserve to, and don’t dignify the mouthpieces of hate speech with the privilege of my ears. I have also come to enjoy the sounds of silence that come from deleting/blocking bigots on social media, who are either all too unwilling to listen or too stubborn to change.

Secondly, I pay attention to those who are fighting the good fight against institutionalised racism each and every day. Rome wasn’t built in a day and systemic racism can’t be undone with the click of a finger. I pay attention to the figures as per Ofcom reports and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, among various others. I try to plug in to the positive developments. For example, trailblazers like British actor Riz Ahmed are intent on changing the narrative after experiencing years of racial prejudice in the industry: just this year, he announced a $25,000 fellowship to encourage Muslim “storytellers”.

The third solution to dealing with my identity and coping with racism is looking inwards for a while. It turns out you can silence some critics and morons with just your mere existence! By finding who you are and existing loudly and proudly, you can actually threaten some critics into submission! My greatest satisfaction is being the antithesis of every expectation and stereotype. Sometimes when I speak, it throws people off-scent and there’s a visible confusion: she’s brown but she’s so… Yorkshire. Other times it’s a furtive glance at the various tattoos that fill my arms and, again, the confusion of my appearance contrasting with what was expected, perhaps a fully covered, modest, bomb-toting woman averting eye contact. My existence is defiance and that’s enough for me, on some days. No words needed. No air wasted.

The final thing I do is bide my time writing up how I feel and taking solace in some brilliant books by people who get what it feels like to straddle being Asian and living in the west with two identities fighting for dominance. My main objective eventually, with this belly of fire and frustration, is to turn all of these feelings into words that matter. I’d love to create Asian characters that live and breathe authentically, without being shackled by stereotypes. I’d love to be involved in a movement that could make it so that future kids don’t grow up trying to scrub the brown out of their skin, because they’re ashamed or angry about who they are. I’d love it if an Asian kid went to a gig or a theatre show or watched a programme or read a book and had somebody they could identify with, representing some aspect of their lived experience on a platform. Maybe if I’d have had that, I wouldn’t have felt the need to push my God-given heritage down, out of sight and mind.

In the meanwhile, as reams and reams of writing occupy space on my desktop and shelves, waiting for the day I feel they’re ready, I guess the best thing I can do is be honest about who I am and where I come from. I am brown and proud, baby!

BOOK REVIEW: The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970)

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Alice Walker, author of The Third Life of Grange Copeland

Just a note:

In my final year of university, I looked into slave narratives and the black identity (predominantly by female authors) in literature. I’ve plucked a short excerpt from some of my notes on one of my favourite novels, one that is often overshadowed by the likes of The Colour Purple, scribbled down before a conference paper examination I did towards the end of my degree. This is just a brief deconstruction as to some of the ideas within the novel, but I thought to share as it might be of interest to those looking for some new reads as an ally to BLM or as an individual who wants broaden their understanding/appreciation for black lives, voices and experiences. Please do let me know your thoughts on this book, as I’ve not come into contact with many people who’ve given it a read before and I’m desperate to have a chat about it!

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In my opinion, this novel eclipses The Colour Purple!

The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970) explores the repercussions of slavery in Southern America as opposed to the first-hand account of the slave experience.

In terms of a rough plot overview, Grange Copeland is the protagonist, a failing share-cropper who resents the world and in particular, the white people who govern it for him. His ‘first life’ is miserable. The South is synonymous with stasis and the North is represented as the idyllic escape. With a promiscuous wife, a raging alcohol problem and no prospects in terms of building a life that is truly his own in the South, Grange takes off for the North to start his ‘second life’, shedding his family like old snake skin.

His son Brownfield sets off to find his father only to wind up essentially morphing into him, violent and angry at a world he feels he cannot change. As Brownfield descends further into madness, Grange decides to return home, dissatisfied with the offerings of the North. However, he must face the consequences of his actions.

Walker sets the novel in a world where slavery has already been abolished: she draws attention to systemic racism and how this is bequeathed from one generation to another, an awful legacy that is difficult, if at all possible, to escape. Though legislation should empower the black lives in this narrative, the characters still find themselves bound to the prejudiced power dichotomy which sees white folk as superior and black people as their inferior subjects.

The novel evaluates the relationship between the past, present and future. Walker dissects the trauma bequeathed from generation to generation in a familial context: for example, Grange’s hatred trickles down to his son Brownfield, who then in turn inflicts his wrath upon his wife Mem and his children, Daphne, Ornette and Ruth. The novel offers an authentic insight into the tensions within black communities and for this reason I would argue that it serves as a significant milestone in the contemporary female canon, preceding notable works such as Beloved, Roots and The Colour Purple.

Another powerful element of this novel is Walker’s portrayal of the female struggle as the doubly oppressed. I use this term to describe the female struggle because I feel it represents two levels of oppression: race & gender. Female protagonists continue to be bound to violence and subordination, often taking the literal and metaphorical blows from both the emasculated black men within their local communities and the white fellows who continue to dictate so much of their “free” lives.

Of the motivations behind violence, E.L Birch suggests that, ‘In father and son, hatred of white oppression had been internalised to find expression in violence against the women they feel unable to protect.’ (Birch, E.L, 1994: p. 198). The crushing ideals of masculinity bind the men to lives of misery and rage and thus, their families are inevitably dragged to these depths too. We see this in Grange. Grange is resigned to his fate: after years of persecution at the hands of white people, including Shipley (who overlooked the cotton fields at which he worked), Grange resolves to remove himself from interaction with white people altogether. In a world in which he is powerless, Grange must reclaim his sense of power and manhood by belittling those within his own community.

Thematically, the notion of metamorphosis is recurrent in that many characters undergo significant changes. Titular character Grange evolves from a figure overcome with hatred to a dishevelled old man seeking redemption whilst his son Brownfield, initially determined to live a different life to his father, winds up filling the very same shoes.

In terms of salvation, Ruth’s existence in itself serves as a symbol of hope both for Grange and for the local community. The violence embedded in her past is the fuel for her ambition to destroy the divide between whites and blacks in the South.

Ruth Copeland is the youngest of three children. The reader comes to understand that from a young age, Ruth and her siblings are completely dehumanised. Collectively, they grow up in fear. After watching their mother being beaten half-to-death, Walker describes the children as falling asleep, ‘dreaming in chilly exactness of killing that would set them free.’ (Walker, A, 1985: p. 92).

Liberation in this context is only imagined with the death of patriarchal dominance. The role of Master/Slave is clearly established within the Copeland home and whilst Ruth’s older siblings are apprehensive in their approach to their father, the primary oppressor, Ruth is resistant. She stands up against her bully brother from an infantile age, one such incident is outlined: ‘She was the youngest, barely four. “You ain’t nothing but a sonnabit,” she said, and quickly covered herself with her blanket so she wouldn’t feel the first really hard blows Brownfield ever gave her.’ (Walker, A, 1985: p. 108). Ruth mimics the profanity she’s heard from her father since birth and arms herself with it. The expectation is for Ruth to accept a status of passivity but she challenges this from the outset, and represents a break in the status quo, becoming a beacon of hope for future generations.

Grange’s ‘third life’ is his return to the South. He seeks to protect Ruth from the very oppressive forces which have threatened him and considers this to be the fundamental purpose of his ‘third life’, his redemption. This implies that the hostility and hatred is cyclical, that the same fundamental narrative will be perpetuated. Yet, it’s Ruth’s inherently childlike attributes of sensitivity and innocence which provokes in Grange a sense of epiphany, he learns through Ruth, ‘an invaluable lesson about hate; he could only teach hate by inspiring it.’ (Walker, A, 1985: p. 137) and it’s this notion, that he may destroy any chance of Ruth’s future liberation, that Grange adapts.

However, the union between Grange and Ruth is not without its difficulties and this is evident when a discussion is had about Ruth’s ambitions for the future. Whilst Grange envisions her taking over his farm, she dreams of travelling up North. Ruth insists that, “I’d be bored stiff waiting for black folks to rise up so I could join them. Since I’m already ready to rise up and they ain’t, it seems to me I should rise up first and let them follow me.” (Walker, A, 1985: p. 196). Ruth still has the ability to dream and she is outspoken in her efforts to make a change whilst Grange is passive, tethered too much to the pain of the past. Birch implies that Ruth’s ability to foresee change is a direct result of developments such as televised marches, a generational shift in overcoming prejudice and claiming black rights. She states that, ‘Ruth can anticipate a political as well as an emotional liberation.’ (Birch, E.L, 1994: p. 202) and this is the very emancipation she seeks.

Alice Walker encourages the audience to consider the implications of oppression and prejudice upon all those affected, including the perpetrators themselves. She challenges the reader to partake in a complicated dialogue about accountability, activism and “real” change. As readers in the present day, with the momentum of the George Floyd catalyst behind us, it is worth considering that though much has changed, and we can plead ourselves products of a more “liberated” and “progressive” world, there is so much more to be done. For a book that was written in 1970, much of the thematic content and commentary on society is still as applicable in the present day, which is a disturbing reality-check for those who believe lynching, apartheid and racial prejudice are but memories of a distant past.

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Bibliography

Walker, A. (1985). The Third Life of Grange Copeland. London: The Women’s Press Ltd.

Birch, E.L. (1994). Black American Women’s Writing (A Quilt of Many Colours). Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf.