Voices of the Crossing
edited by •Ferdinand Dennis• and •Naseem Khan•_(Serpent’s Tail, ISBN 1 85242 583 0)_
Colonies of the Heart
by *Jeremy Seabrook*_(The Gay Men’s Press, ISBN 0 85449 267 4)_
Fourteen people arrive in Britain from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. Some are early arrivals, migrating in the 1940s and 1950s; others in more recent decades. But what they have in common is that all are to become successful writers. Stored in their mental luggage are vivid pictures – coloured by imperialism – of what the place they are coming to has to offer. Less clear is the sense of what it may take away from them.
As a project, Voices of the Crossing was prompted by a fear of loss – of roots, culture, language, experience, identity. Paradoxically that fear has produced a collection of essays that is superbly rich in thought, feeling, recollection and insight. The contributors are nearly all fiction writers – and it shows. Their sheer diversity is an added bonus, ranging from John Figueroa, poet and regular contributor to the BBC World Service Caribbean Voices programme in the 1950s, to Pakistani-born contemporary feminist playwright and translator, Rukhsana Ahmad.
Belonging, writing and isolation are recurrent threads, most movingly spun by a Pakistani writer of an older generation, Attia Hosain: ‘It is only with the written word that one can reach out to people and let them know they are not alone. But that sense of aloneness is often heightened when people who have never “crossed frontiers”, or never needed to do so, deny one a sense of belonging anywhere…’
For Jamaican-born Ferdinand Dennis, writing was a refuge from such feelings. Coming to a cold grey Britain, aged eight, shivering in cotton shorts, his first few years were ‘lost in the trauma of arrival’, made worse by the almost immediate breakdown of his parents’ marriage. There followed the racism of the playground, withdrawal into the solitary act of writing, then, in his late teens, a political awakening thanks in part to writers like Fanon and Cleaver. Dennis wrote and was published. But ‘having discovered the pleasure of reading and writing before my racial awakening, I was alarmed to hear intelligent people speak of encouraging “black literature” and the birth of a new genre of “Black British Fiction”.’ A sentiment which will no doubt find many echoes, not least in the redoubtable and idiosyncratic Nigerian-born novelist Buchi Emecheta who complains of the publishing industry’s relentless need to try to pigeonhole her – an impossible task.
Collections are tricky. They can be bitty and repetitive. But this one really works. It also offers some of the most eloquent and instantly recognizable vistas on Britain itself. ‘There is great subtlety in this old England of ours,’ writes Indian-born Homi Bhabha, ‘shades of meaning and degrees of cultural distinction seem to flow into each other like a range of old hills disappearing, fold upon fold, into the unseeable distance. You stumble upon a social landscape where the merest tremor of a tone, a vowel flattened or faltering, reveals a whole geography of belonging – class, region, family, education.’
Colonies of the Heart has a different, more metaphorical take on the colonial experience. It’s a mixed double from a frequent NI contributor, Jeremy Seabrook. The first part consists of a novel entitled Dilraj: Empire of the Heart, which sets its protagonists on a journey of self-deception and discovery across cultural and emotional shifting sands. Detailing the uncharacteristic love affair between Frank (an older British man at the receiving end of the gay-lib fall-out) and Prakash (an Indian hill lad from a poor family for whom a ‘gay’ identity in the Western sense is an alien concept), it rises above being an exercise in social anthropology by dint of the author’s unflinching gaze. But the real jewel in this book is A Woman’s Life, a fictionalized memoir of his mother’s blighted marriage and the shadow it cast over his own Northampton youth. At one point Seabrook writes: ‘My relationship with my mother had little to do with love: it was inevitable, necessary, an inescapable bonding by sensibility, a kinship of character; desolating, emancipating, crippling and enhancing. It took its course like any other natural phenomenon.’ There is no denying the rightness of such contradictions and Seabrook’s voice is by turns surgically dispassionate, suffused with tenderness or bitterness, raging one moment, reasoned the next. The writing glows off the page and the overwhelming impression one takes away from this account is of a hard-won honesty.