Broken identity

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Book/Video Reviews, United Kingdom on 2018-02-26 23:01Z by Steven

Broken identity

The Times Literary Supplement

Bernardine Evaristo

Afua Hirsch ©Ken McKay/ITV/REX/Shutterstock

Afua Hirsch, Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging (London: Jonathan Cape, 2018)

People of colour raised in the openly racist Britain of the 1960s and 70s often put an identity quest at the heart of their fiction, poetry, drama and non-fiction. Joan Riley’s novel about an alienated girl, The Unbelonging (1985), and Caryl Phillips’s pan-European travelogue, The European Tribe (1988), provide powerful early examples. Hanif Kureishi’s first novel, The Buddha of Suburbia (1990), opens with the mixed-race protagonist declaring, “My name is Karim Amir, and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost”. In her play Talking in Tongues (1991), Winsome Pinnock wrote about an Afro-Caribbean woman who sought to reassemble her fragmented identity back in her parents’ Jamaica. In my own verse novel, Lara (1997), the mixed-race protagonist journeys to her father’s Nigeria to see if she can belong there. Back then, writing in this genre spoke of the dilemma of not feeling accepted in Britain; to the children of immigrants, the seemingly harmless question, “Where do you really come from?”, was seen as a challenge to their British birthright. Jackie Kay’s memorable poem “In My Country” encapsulates one response: “Where do you come from? / Here, I said, Here, these parts” (Other Lovers, 1993).

It is a question I haven’t been asked in decades; I hoped it had died out along with the idea that Black and British was an oxymoron. Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish), however, finds it still tripping out of people’s mouths, as the most “persistent reminder of that sense of not belonging”. The book digs deep into the reasons for this enduring question, skilfully blending memoir, history and social commentary around race, culture and identity. Hirsch writes with an incisive honesty that disproves the idea that privilege can be easily reduced to racial binaries. She fully acknowledges the exclusive pedigree of her own background as a lighter-skinned woman of mixed parentage in a colourist society, who enjoyed a comfortable middle-class suburban childhood with her Ghanaian-born mother and English Jewish father. Her education was private all the way to Oxford University, and led to a first career as a barrister. Ten years ago she became a journalist. Hirsch is ostensibly the successful embodiment of Britain’s multicultural project, but her privileged status has not immunized her from the perniciousness of racism…

Read the entire book review here.

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