This month’s PEN event at the Guardian newsroom brought together three writers, George Szirtes, Marina Lewycka and Daljit Nagra, whose immigrant backgrounds supposedly made them suitable panellists for a discussion on the extent to which one’s roots and upbringing influence or impel one to write. It was interesting, therefore, that certain among them admitted that they in fact identified more strongly with English culture than with the cultures of their ‘homelands’; what became clear as the evening progressed was that the impetus to write often stemmed from a desire to articulate and understand their parents’ experiences rather than their own. Unavoidable in a discussion of subjective experiences was a debate about what constituted ‘Englishness’ (as opposed to ‘Britishness’), and the evening ended with speculation about whether such a concept still existed in a United Kingdom where immigrants are now ‘integrated’ rather than ‘assimilated’.
Chair for the evening – accepting the position at rather late notice – was Sarfraz Manzoor, Guardian contributor and himself marked as an immigrant writer after the 2007 publication of Greetings from Bury Park, his memoir about growing up part of the Pakistani community in Luton in the seventies and eighties. After introducing the panellists and breaking the ice with a quip about the perhaps undiplomatic title of the night’s talk, he suggested the evening might be kicked off with a short reading by each writer.
George Szirtes, a Hungarian immigrant and widely published poet, began with ‘My father carries me across a field’, a poem in which light-hearted referencing of A.A. Milne is coupled with the bleakness of such lines as: “We have no function/ In this place but keep moving, without sound,/ Lost figures who leave only a blank page/ Behind them”. The irony of such a metaphor in a description of immigrant experience by a successful writer, reading his work in the company of several other successful immigrant writers, was pleasantly understated, and Szirtes’ sonorous voice earned him an appreciative silence at the poem’s end.
Marina Lewycka, best-selling novelist since the 2005 publication of The Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, read the opening pages of her new novel, Two Caravans, which depicts the experiences of immigrant fruit pickers in Kent. She was unfortunately twice interrupted by the ringing of mobile phones, but her evocative description of the Kentish countryside nevertheless provided an enticing teaser.
Daljit Nagra was the only writer present not to have been born outside of England, but growing up the son of Punjabi parents in London was enough to impel him to try and “write Indianness” into English poetry. From his recently published debut, Look We Have Coming To Dover!, he chose to read ‘Booking Khan Singh Kumar’, whose polemical rhetoric (“Did you make me for the gap in the market/ Did I make me for the gap in the market”) provided the impetus for later discussion about the commodification of immigrant experience.
The final reading was given by Manzoor himself, who chose a passage from Greetings from Bury Park that described his childhood discovery of the differences between Christianity and Islam. The appreciative response to the 6-year-old Manzoor’s conception of Jesus as “just another superhero” (in the same class as Steve Austin, Spiderman and The Incredible Hulk) foreshadowed another facet of the subsequent discussion, that of whether immigrant writing exploits difference to create humour.
The audience having thus been given a taste of each writer’s work, Manzoor initiated discussion amongst the panellists over how much they felt the concerns of their work reflected their immigrant backgrounds. The key word in the first part of this discussion was “dislocation”, which, Manzoor posited, “starts by being a curse, [but] ends by being the place you go to when you create”. However, it was evident that for Szirtes and Lewycka, both of whom had lived in England since a very early age, a sense of dislocation was not their overriding childhood memory. Szirtes admitted that he was not brought up “to feel Hungarian”, and that he did not speak Hungarian for 28 years. Lewycka described her swift acquisition of “a lot of English habits”, adding, with just a hint of cultural cringe, “To be honest, I’m very grateful for that.” When Nagra described his experience as feeling a need to “be white” in order to fit in at school and suggested that things might be easier for European immigrants than Asians or Indians, it was an indictment of a preoccupation with skin colour that still lingers in twenty-first century Britain.
The idea of dislocation “being the place you go to when you create” was not invalidated, however; simply, it transpired over the course of the discussion that – consciously or not – it was the dislocation felt by their parents that often lay at the heart of the panellists’ creativity. Lewycka (tongue-in-cheek) stated her belief that it was a mid-life crisis that impelled her to write The Short History, reaching “[that] point in your life when you stop looking forward and start looking back”. Looking back on where she had come from, suddenly she “wanted to hold onto the part of [her] parents that was different”. Nagra similarly said he felt a need to interrogate his parents’ experiences. Szirtes conjectured that a first generation of immigrants feel a certain lack, which is not an overt nostalgia but an underlying sense of something lost, and that it was in search of this missing dimension that he made his first trip back to Hungary at the age of 36 – a trip which dramatically altered his creative trajectory.
Setting aside thematic concerns, it was agreed that the style and quality of the panellists’ writing might owe something to their immigrant backgrounds, as “outsiders” generally have well-developed observation skills, sprung from years of comparing differences between “that lot” and “us lot”. Manzoor’s comment that many non-immigrant writers “affect” being outsiders in order to be taken seriously was met with laughs of acknowledgement. Humour was a further offspring of cultural difference, it was felt, as (in Szirtes’ words), “humour comes from misunderstandings”, and misunderstandings are often cultural or linguistic.
The differences in experience for a writer from a post-colonial country such as Pakistan and a peripheral European state such as the Ukraine were brought to light when Nagra described his disappointment at not finding any “Indianness” in the traditional English poetic canon. He sees his motivation for writing as stemming largely from a desire to redress the balance, and in particular to reclaim the Anglo-Indian accent. Lewycka, by contrast, freely admitted that she had never been to the Ukraine prior to writing The Short History, and that the Ukrainian-sounding phrases in her novel are simply made-up, evidencing a creativity unhampered by a sense of obligation towards the “truthful” depiction of her country of origin. “If you’re the first, you can create something”, she stated, and the problematic “gap in the market” was once more invoked. While Lewycka’s views made her appear a savvy literary entrepreneur, it was with some regret that Nagra confessed his suspicions that his early poems were published not because they were particularly good, but because they slotted into a marketable niche.
Audience questions to the panel set off a discussion of what constituted “Englishness”. The debate responded to the hypothesis that the fervent patriotism assumed by some immigrants towards England could be their way of justifying to themselves their move here. It was quickly decided that this patriotism belonged to an older generation who expected to assimilate rather than integrate into English culture; Szirtes’ digression about the suicide of his mother poignantly illustrated the dangers of assimilation. As “Englishness” has become a more mercurial concept, assimilation of “English” culture has become more implausible: Nagra pointed out the ridiculousness of trying to essentialise national identity, as exhibited by the questions in the British citizenship exam.
Further questions covered the nature of “communities”, the acceptability of saluting national flags in schools, and the place of the white working class in Britain, but the main focus of the discussion was the assimilation/integration issue. Lewycka’s and Szirtes’ description of themselves as “citizens of the world” during this discussion betrayed an entirely fitting impatience with such categorizing terminology. If literature knows no frontiers, nor, it seems, do its creators, despite the parts different countries or cultures may have to play in their writing.
With warm thanks to Sarfraz Manzoor, George Szirtes, Marina Lewycka and Daljit Nagra for their spirited participation and to Waitrose for very kindly supplying the wine.
Report by Hannah August
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/events/reportsonrecentevents/easycomeeasygo/