“My name is Karim Amir, and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost. I am often considered to be a funny kind of Englishman, a new breed as it were, having emerged from two old histories.”
So opens Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia. That “almost” almost killed me. I remember the day I got that book out of the library. I’d seen advertisements for the BBC2 television show – starring Naveen Andrews, soundtracked by David Bowie – and thought: “There’s no way my parents are going to let me watch that.” Definitely too much sex. The one loophole, though, was my library card.
My family did not do things together regularly. My parents worked seven days a week on a small business, both too tired to do anything other than feed my sister and me, insist that we did our homework, and remind us of our responsibilities: speak good English, study hard and be polite and grateful. We all watched Desmond’s on TV, because the immigrant story of a Guyanese family living above a barbershop in south London reflected my mum and dad’s story – moving from Aden and Kenya to England – more than anyother programme. It was the archetypal immigrant story: come here, make money, go home and live large.
In one episode, Desmond is in hospital and Porkpie and Shirley are talking. Shirley talks about how “none of us expected to die here”, explaining that she and Desmond came to the UK for financial reasons, but the plan was always to go home to Guyana to die. Now, with British children and a life in the UK, she feels that dream has died.
I remember my mum expressing a similar desire, to die in India (though she had never lived there), because it was the country of her heritage and near her sisters. That immigrant’s feeling of being temporary resonated with her. And here I was, a funny kind of Englishman who had emerged from two histories – yes, I failed Norman Tebbit’s cricket test in 1990 by supporting India to a crushing defeat against England, but I felt British, a Londoner and Desi all at the same time … an “almost”.
The other thing we did as a family (minus Dad) was go to the library together. I was a voracious reader, of Star Trek tie-in novels, thrillers, comics. I loved books where kids were wronged and learned to fight back, books featuring cops on the edge, demon headmasters, mice with swords defending monasteries. I rarely saw myself represented in these books – not that I knew that was an issue at the time.
Recently, I was asked at a panel discussion to tell the chair about a time I thought I was white – a preposterous question. But at the same time, in the stories I read and wrote as a child, the characters were all mostly white. They didn’t look like me. Junot Díaz once said: “There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.”
Kureishi’s 'almost' got me. Finally, I didn’t have to be one or the other, I could be in-between
So at the library, when I saw the name of the author, Hanif Kureishi, I was taken aback. It was a brown person’s name. It felt alien to me to see a familiar name on the cover of a book. Wasn’t Mr Kureishi the name of that guy with the Datsun who drove around north-west London in the 80s, renting out pirated Bollywood VHS tapes to south Asian families from the back? Kureishi felt like family. I opened the book, scanned the opening lines there and then, saw that “almost” … I can remember the feeling as I read that word, wrapping itself around me like the orange shawl my ba’s swami used to balance on his shoulders. It made me feel less alone.
It was 1993 and I felt like a funny kind of Englishman. I was trying to figure myself out. At home, I found myself speaking Gujarati less and less. The group of Asian kids I hung around with at school was affectionately referred to as “the Paki posse” by our white counterparts. I was discovering rap and bhangra and, if I was not working with my parents in their warehouse, the odd daytime rave at weekends. Always overhead was that heavy imperative: work hard and take over the family business.
Kureishi’s “almost” got me. Finally, an acknowledged duality, a nuanced fluidity, a spectrum. I didn’t have to be one or the other, I could be in-between. I could be almost.
After The Buddha of Suburbia, I diligently scanned the spines of every single volume in the adult section of the library, looking for other south Asian names. That book had changed my life: it said everything I felt, saw things through a lens I recognised, made me feel less like a weirdo.
It also unlocked something in my reading. Though I didn’t find another south Asian name for a while, I found myself tearing through Crime and Punishment, Middlemarch, Brave New World, Adrian Mole. Instead of movie and TV tie-ins, I was reading the world. I was heading through time and space, through country and county. I learned about myself, other people, different cultures, my own culture. The library made me a citizen of everywhere.
The same thing is currently happening to my daughter. She’s two and one of the highlights of her week is a trip to the library. She chooses books herself, revels at finding ones with brown children in them because they look like her. She repeatedly wants the same ones. I am sick of Dogger at this point.
The books we choose for her are curated to make her feel included and to ensure positive representations of people from as many diverse backgrounds as possible. I search hard for books featuring black and brown characters, animals with foreign names, people with disabilities, non-traditional families. I do the work to ensure that her bookshelves are aspirational, so they present a world that she wants to belong to, that validates her experience. When she sees herself in books – as a main character, not a sidekick – doing normal things like going to the bakery, the greengrocer’s, buying flowers for mummy, her actual experience is normalised. She isn’t other. She simply is.
In White Teeth, Zadie Smith writes: “There was England, a gigantic mirror, and there was Irie, without reflection.” Books are mirrors, and I found my reflection in The Buddha of Suburbia. That one act of representation was enough to show me that I belonged. My daughter has found her reflection in Fun at the Shops, where a brown kid and her dad do the big shop. Books can be powerful tools for our aspirations and books that reflect the society we want to be in, that show the multitudinousness and multiculturalism of the UK, they make us citizens of everywhere. I became a citizen the moment I found The Buddha of Suburbia. Thanks to a library, I am “almost”, and that is enough for me.
- Citizens of Everywhere is a project by the Centre for New and International Writing at the University of Liverpool. @CitizensofWhere #CitizensofEverywhere
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