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hanif kureishi - buddha of suburbia & black album

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Buddha of Suburbia & Black Album 

Brownwyn T. Williams notes that rather than writing as postcolonial subject displaced in Britiain, writers such as Kureishi “write as British subjects in a post-colonial world trying to contest and displace the dominant narrative of the nation.” Kureishi, in speaking out of and to the centre, can often seem parochial in comparison with pc writers who address more obviously global issues.

Both Buddha of Suburbia and Black Album can in part be seen as condition of England novels, depicting how “things are changing under the skin of England,” as Susan says in Borderlines. As Felski says while BOS is usually interpreted through a post-colonial lens, it is also about the shifting meanings of class, cultural dislocation making Karim a “class detective”, while in BA there is a similar emphasis on how race affect class, the way the two are often grafted onto each other is evident in the Shahid’s “feeling like a Britisher in India” on the estate, and in Karim’s feeling like he “could have been from Bombay” in London.

London in both novels is as Sandhu notes represents “the ideal of possible change” of both self and society, which “flies in the face of the gloomy portrait of immigrant life in the metropolis.” In depicting the aspirations of characters for change, mimicry is revealed as more than an exclusively postcolonial problem with the depiction of Charlie in BOS “selling Englishness” as Strapper in BA mimics Jamaican attitudes. With “the myth of homogenous Englishness blown apart” in Thomas’s words, nationality becomes a question of cultural performance in both novels, as suggested by Shahid’s temporarily adopting the salwar and Shadwell’s prescriptions which as Schoene notes “exposes the contrived nature of conceptions of ethnicity which accentuate difference.”

While the often-quoted opening sentence of BOS suggests Karim’s awareness of being a “funny kind of Englishman”, critics have often noted that he is, as Helbig puts it “notoriously unconcerned about his ethnic background.” BA is more pessimistic about the possibilities of “individualistic escape from the confinement of identity” in Schoene’s words, with Shahid “going mad with an identity crisis” as Kureishi put it. However, there is a similar emphasis on performance, symbolized in the way Shahid and Deedee are, as Degabriele points out, often identified with Prince and Madonna. Shahrid finally accepts there is no “fixed self”, recognising that there s no stable culture to assimilate into. As Kaleta notes, like BOS, BA is “at its root a story about provisionally.”

However it could be argued that while Karim perceives his Indian identity as a “personality bonus” to be created at will, both novels show that ethnicity is not something which can be easily dismissed. In this sense Schoene’s argument that Kureishi’s novels reveal his belief that “everyone is entitled to their own singular cultural ethnicity” can be seen as eliding the fact that ethnicity is social in character. Both characters have to deal with the way others see them in a London which is not only a space for potential change but also as Ball notes, replicates “the world’s spatial patterning,” “the divisions…taken for granted” in BA suggesting the reconstitution of empire in a new form.

In both novels the incidents of racially motivated violence, although often narrated comically or from a distance, would seem to belie the idea than any of the characters can live their lives in a “ethnicity-free no-man’s land” as Schoene suggests. Both Karim and Shahid to varying degrees deal with their ethnicity as “if it was some kind of private problem” recalling Haroun in Borderlines, in a way which is contrasted to the social activism of other characters, underscored in Karim’s failure to join the anti-Nazi march in BOS, and Shahid’s attitude to the anti-racist vigils.

In this sense, Kureishi’s novels seem to deal with a central postcolonial theme, foregrounding the potential dangers of counterarguments to racial essentialism which Gilroy has pointed to. Shahid and Karim’s attitudes are contrasted to the retreat of other characters to ethnic enclaves and imaginary India’s, as in Haroun’s insistence that he “will never be anything but an Indian”, which seems to be an attempt to resist assimilation through the assertion of cultural difference. Ironically however Haroun’s insistence on his Indian identity can be seen in terms of assimilation in that, in Ranasinha’s words “it responds to the vogue for the spiritual sustenance of the exotic east.”

In both novels, the liberal discourse of multiculturalism is placed under scrutiny. Through the sink estate scene in BA, and the incident with Hairy Back in BOS, the novels trace the way in which deracination can lead to racism as “the last resort of the culturally beleaguered” in Schoene’s words. On the other hand, in BOS characters like Eva attempt to overcome cultural emaciation through the assimilation of alterity, while in BA Shahid’s ethnicity is a crucial factor in his relationship with Deedee.

As Moore-Gilbert notes, the “racial other is often represented as a niche object of consumption” in Kureishi’s novels, suggesting that hybridity “effected by the forces of globalization may be a reconstitution of older hierarchies.” As both novels show, the demand for authenticity represented in BOS by characters like Shadwell and Helen who tells Haroun “you benefit our country with your traditions” and in BA by Strapper who complains “you all wanna be just like us now”, ironically reinscribes the attitudes of characters like Chad and Anwar with their insistence on remaining true to origins. This attitude exists simultaneously with the assimilative tendency of Aunt Jean, and Deedee’s insistence that Shahid reject Riaz.

The implications of this double bind can be seen in Shahid and Karim’s strategies of vacillation between alternative stances. In BA, this is pervasive and in part structures the novel which juxtaposes scenes of Shahid relationship with Deedee and his ambivalent friendship with Riaz’s group, while in BOS it is possible to read Karim’s role-playing through the analogy of theatre as an attempt to resolve the postcolonial dilemma of “belonging nowhere, wanted nowhere.” Similarly in BA as Williams notes, Shahid’s uncertainty is the result of his recognition that he doesn’t belong either in the coffeehouses Deedee visits or with Riaz’s group. Like Karim, Shahid is represented as Kaleta argues as “the student who must question his teacher…the son who must go his own way.” This is dramatized in both protagonists rejection of the responsibility of behaving as the representative of a particular group.

In BA, this can be seen in Shahid’s final realisation that the cost of a common mode of identification is often blindness to the “subtle and inexplicable” world. In BOS, critics such as Spivak see Karim as politically naive in comparison to Tracey, however others such as Schoene and Moore-Gilbert have argued that Tracey’s model of Black Politics indicates a blindness to heterogeneous British minority culture.

As Hall notes, while black politics is useful as way to resist racism, it also potentially silences the specific experiences of Asian people. Moore-Gilbert underlines this, noting that Tracey can be seen as practising a form of censorship, which links her to the politics of exclusion expressed by Riaz’s group. Significantly, in both novels it is as Moore-Gilbert argues, specifically the pressure to put their work at the service of the community to which they supposedly belong which both Karim and Shahid, as aspiring artists, resist. As Kobena Mercer argues, the assumption that the minority artist speaks for the entire comm can be seen as based on the racist assumption that “every minority subject is effectively the same.” Jeena argues that Karim’s role parallels the dilemma of the second generation immigrant writer, who is both expected to write about and often accused of misrepresenting the community s/he ostensibly comes from. Expected both to concentrate “on the way [his] position in society has been fixed,” and on “what white people already think of us,” Karim’s roles have often been read stereotypes, showing the dangers of selling out, something which is also suggested by the soap opera job, which Karim recognises as ‘shoddy.’

However, as Hita suggests, in reconciling the two sides of his parentage, it also suggests the possibility of transforming the genre, at the same time transforming what it means to be English. Similarly, as Ray and Spivak note, Karim resists the stereotypes he plays, through his relapsing into Cockney for example. His use of Changez as model, which Spivak describes as a “violation that enables”, allows him “add up the elements of [his] life,” and perhaps can be seen as similar to Shahid’s subversive rewriting of Riaz’s poems. However, for Riaz and his group it seems as though Shahid has “deceived and spat on his own people”. It could be argued that readings of Shahid as a ‘subversive crusader’ reflects a tendency, as Ranasinha notes, to interpret Kureishi’s work in terms of the liberal artist defying the policing efforts of ‘his’ community. In this context, Ranasinha like Jaggi argues the representation of Riaz and his group reinscribes dominant liberalism as the norm while presenting a pseudo-polyphonic discourse which “proliferates the binary polarities between anti-intellectualism and the free enquiry of rational western liberal though” as Riaz exhorts Shahid to “just believe!”

In BOS, some critics have similarly argued that the representation of the Anwar family contains elements of orientalist discourse, in the figure of the despotic patriarch and the trope of the arranged marriage. However as Yousaf points out this elides the fact that Jeeta and Jamila are represented as strong women aware of the roles assigned to them, an elision which in delimiting the reading of British Asian women perpetuates a stereotypical hierarchy. That Kureishi’s deconstruction of binarist discourse is often accompanied by the subversion of traditional gender roles is more evident in BOS than in BA, however the fact that Riaz’s group is often referred to by critics as the Islamic brothers, suggests the ease with which it is possible to ignore the presence of Tahira, and her analysis of the paradox of assimilation “she believes in equality-but only if we forget we are different”.

The novel does present only fundamentalist Muslims, however it can also be seen as countering stereotypes about fundamentalism, for example in exploring extremism in the context of Chad’s early life experiences and in the often-cited mosque passage where Shahid finds “class and race barriers had been suspended”, which rebuts conceptions of Islam as a monolithic formation. As Kaleta argues, in Ba Kureishi “uses Islam as he has employed Thatcherism”, looking neither for vindication or condemnation, but using both as “definite ideological beliefs to fuel his story.” points to the fact that.” While Ranashinha argues Kureishi presents Shahid’s decision to leave the group unequivocally as enlightened self-interest, Holmes has pointed out that BA’s treatment of liberalism is ambivalent. this can be seen in the way Deedee’s coercive benevolence suggests the paradox that as Thomas puts it “liberalism can be fanatical in its denunciation of fundamentalism” as in My Son the Fanatic, at the same time she can be seen in the same light in which bell hooks reads Rosie “duplicating in a slightly inverted form the white male imperialist paternal position”, a position which, like Pyke’s view of Karim, depends on situating Shahid in the role of victim.

As critics have often noted, there are no victims in Kureishi’s work, aspects such as the use of farce preventing it from becoming in any way what Sandhu refers to as “emergency literature.” as MG notes Kureishi often emphasises the conformist aspect of diasporic experience which Bhabha’s theory of hybridity elides. In this sense, Kureishi rejects the idea of “useful lies and cheerful fictions” opting for the depiction of fully realised human beings, “warts and all” as Rushdie put it. Both novels end ambivalently, in BOS the question of subjectivity remains uncertain while in BA Shahid’s choice as Holmes says seems to be undermined by its ethereality. Jamal’s comment in Kureishi recent novel Something to Tell You, that “everyone revealed everything but no one understood anything,” underlines the way that as Williams argues Kureishi’s “multiple narrative of multiple voices” necessitate considering the narratives through perspectives that as Dipesh Chakrabarty urges, go beyond the limits of the nation “to allow us to comprehend what is being said.” As Ray notes, in Kureishi’s work “no one position is favoured, and yet the various voices…question the structures of the nation state and the constraints of ethnicity and national particularity.”

Rejecting a parochial ‘anthemic’ literature which is “no more effective than… public relations”, as well as being positioned as a “regional writer…writing in a sort of subgenre” Kureishi argues that “ the world is now hybrid” and that what is needed is “imaginative writing that gives us a sense of the shifts and difficulties within our society.”

written: 2008
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