Hanif Kureishi’s novel The Black Album stirred up many discussions about segregation in the United Kingdom. Many cultures still live next to each other but do not mingle. When reading this novel a segregation between ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ cultures is highlighted. Even second and third generation immigrants feel different from ‘native’ Brits, and are treated accordingly.
Everyone is confronted with stereotypes. Stereotypes are often based on prejudices, especially in the sense of images about ‘others’ which are usually already formed in early childhood. Cartoons and children’s books play an important role in the formation of these stereotypes. Prejudice in this context can therefore be read as: knowledge in advance. In Kanif Kureishi’s The Black Album a contrast between East and West is apparent. Moreover, stereotypes about the difference between East and West are important, just as stereotypes relating to images of ‘Asians’ or ‘Europeans’. This article explores to what extent stereotypes in this novel are relevant to the depiction of a contrast between East and West.
Related to the reasoning that stereotypes are formed in early childhood through children’s books and cartoons, it can also be stated that a Bildungsroman shows how this process developed. The Black Album can be interpreted to be a Bildungsroman because the novel follows the cultural-political development of the British-Asian Shahid who moved from Kent to London to study there. Shahid changes over time in the novel, illustrating that a personal (or national) identity does not have to be consistent and permanent through time. The purpose of The Black Album as a Bildungsroman is to illustrate that you can change your identity or distance yourself from it. An identity (or stereotype about a certain (national) identity) does not necessarily have to be timeless. Just as the contrast between East and West can change over time. A clash between the Eastern and Western cultures is evident in both the identity of the author of the novel, Hanif Kureishi, and the protagonist of The Black Album, Shahid Hasan. Both identified with the British, thus Western, culture during their childhood. However, when Shahid arrives in London he rejects his father’s culture. This is illustrated by a conversation Shahid has with Riaz in Hat’s restaurant: “I have wanted to join the British National Party” and “I began to turn into of them” (Kureishi 11).
The role of skin-color in the formation of stereotypes depicting ‘Brits’ or ‘Asians’, seems to be prominent. Shahid emphasizes that “I wouldn’t touch brown flesh, except with a branding iron” (Kureishi 11). This illustrates that the West is seen as ‘white’ whereas the East is perceived as ‘non-white’ i.e. brown, black or yellow. The title of the novel already conveys a certain idea about these stereotypes. The Black Album refers to an album by the musician Prince, himself being seen as half black and half white, half male and half female. No one is purely black or white, or fits into one stereotypical ‘box’. No matter how hard you try. If one tries to erase a part of his/her identity, you could ‘lose’ yourself along the way. Just as Chad used to be called Trevor Buss but changed his name to Muhammad Shahabuddin Ali-Shah. By embracing a fanatic part of Islam, he erases his former identity. Through the way he turns his back to pop culture and music, which he used to like, it seems that Chad loses his former identity. As Beller and Leerssen state: “there is no cognition without recognition; confidence in our place in the world is impossible if we cannot trust our memories; amnesia destroys identity” (Beller and Leerssen 335). Chad now forms part of a new Islamic world, but he still does not feel ‘at home’ or is able to grasp his real identity. By destroying his former, mainly British, identity by turning his back on the culture he used to love, it is impossible for him to form a new Islamic or Pakistani identity. The novel seems to give a sense of being lost between two worlds: the Western and the Eastern cultural world. In neither the mainly Pakistani characters are entirely accepted.
There is a post-colonial divide between East and West. Shahid does not seem to belong to either side but desperately tries to find a way to ‘belong’ to a certain group. The divide between East and West, portrayed in the novel as fights between the English and Asians, can also be read as being orientalist in the sense of a “eurocentric discourse that assumed the normality and pre-eminence of everything ‘occidental’, correlatively with its representations of the ‘oriental’ as an exotic and inferior other” (Abrams 277). This idea is also expressed by Riaz in the novel: “your liberal beliefs belong to a minority who live in northern Europe. Yet you think moral superiority over the rest of mankind is a fact. You want to dominate others with your particular morality, which has – as you also well know – gone hand-in-hand with fascist imperialism” (Kureishi 98). The discourse used in Western Europe is hegemonic in some ways. Hegemonic here refers to a cultural imperialism by means of the control of discourse. By continually reinforcing that Asians are inferior and dangerous, Asians themselves also start to think in this way. Just as Shahid starts to look at himself as being an ‘Asian’. Especially during his youth in Kent, being the only black person around. But also in the many clubs, dominated by white western people, where Deedee Osgood takes him. This hegemonic discourse is also illustrated by the fact that the Brits in the novel often reduce ‘Pakistani’ to ‘Paki’ or ‘Asians’. Even Shahid and other Asian characters start to refer to themselves as being ‘Asian’, especially when talking to Western people.
Another stereotypical divide between East and West is ideological. The East is depicted, especially by Riaz, as religious, pure, natural and morally good. While he describes the West as immoral, not religious and liberal. Especially the word ‘liberal’ carries a negative association: “as usual Riaz pronounced the word ‘liberal’ as if it were the name of a murderer” (Kureishi 184). Shahid is caught between both fronts. On the one hand he tries to be a Muslim, although he does not feel that the religion suits him. On the other hand he tries to find a place in western society with its liberal literature, other ideologies and morals. This internal struggle is also represented in the novel as a fight between Western and Eastern ‘ideologies’: Marxism as a secular faith for Brownlow, and Islam as the perfect faith for the East which creates order and stability in the world; one Islamic community. Brownlow’s communist world is falling apart and class distinctions are returning, as the reaction of a British woman feeling threatened by Pakistani migrants illustrates: “you stolen our jobs! Taking our housing! Paki got everything! Give it back and go home!” (Kureishi 139). Shahid, however, notices that Islam still erases these class boundaries, especially in the mosque: “here race and class barriers had been suspended” (Kureishi 139).
In sum, this essay illustrated that the stereotypical Brit, seen from an Asian perspective, is depicted as being drunk, on drugs, generally immoral and poor, or on the other hand elitist and orientalist; only mingling with other Brits. However, the stereotype of Asians by Asians shows that they represent themselves as pure, natural, morally good and respectful. But when we look at the Asians from the British perspective in the novel, they’re described as fanatics, dangerous and immoral. The contrast between East and West is thus mutually reinforcing, whether looked at from the British or Asian perspective. But the novel also illustrates that cultures start to intermingle more often, and should enjoy mutual respect thereby avoiding conflict. As Upstone argues: “Kureishi’s didacticism is transformed into a powerful, and overlooked, warning on the dangers of government policy towards Britain’s ethnic minority populations” (6).
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- Beller and Leerssen. Imagology: The cultural construction and literary representation of national stereotypes, Amsterdam: Rodopi 2007. Print.
- Kureishi, Hanif. The Black Album. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1995. Print.
- Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Boston: Cengage Learning, Inc. 2009. Print.
- Upstone, Sara. “A Question of Black or White: Returning to Hanif Kureishi’s” The Black Album’ Postcolonial Text, No 1 (2008). Print.