Multicultural writers

By Taina Tervonen

Published 25/03/2005
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Each from culturally-blended backgrounds, Leone Ross, Zadie Smith and Ranya ElRamly explore in their own way and with a radically different tone, the meanders of multicultural society and the relationship from which they were born: the mixed couple.

« I am English, Jamaican, mixed-race, bisexual. I am all of these things and I don’t want to forget it. But if we talk about publishing as a commercial issue, it can be both an advantage and a disadvantage to be in any of these boxes. In England it’s more a disadvantage. It can feel to many Black writers that the publishing industry in England is happy with one nigger at a time. » British-Jamaican writer, Leone Ross, feels bitter: « It is very frustrating for many good and solid writers in England. They are boxed and then forgotten, because you are not our nigger right now. I might be a puzzle to some, they don’t know where to put me, » says Ross, the author of two remarkable novels, All the Blood is Red and Orange Laughter, published in England in 1997 and 1999 and translated into French for Actes Sud.
Multicultural relations and prejudices that undermine mixed couples make up the central theme of her books. Born in England to a Jamaican mother and a Scottish father, as it says on the fourth cover of her novel, Leone Ross comes from a culturally blended background. At the age of six, she left London and immigrated to Jamaica with her mother. « Regardless of the shade issue in Jamaica, you are part of a community, of a majority. You have the opportunity to see black doctors, black thieves. You see that you can be most things and you are part of a community that you belong to. I feel that my base is in Jamaica, that I am part of a society where I am not a minority. When I got to England, I was deeply disturbed about a response to racial identity that I was not familiar with. » But, she goes on to say, « In Jamaican society, like in all former slavery societies, there is a relationship between shades of skin that is important. Certainly, being fair-skinned like I am, I’ve had a relationship with that, which was often an irritating and difficult one. The expectation that if you look like me, in Jamaican society, you will have money, be more beautiful, etc.
Leone Ross is of mixed parentage, but has no intention of trying to save the world.
Ross’characters cannot escape the colour of their skin either. The deep-rooted racism of the Southern parts of the United States drives Tony, the main character in Orange Laughter, crazy. In All the Blood is Red, solidly-built relationships are broken by violent prejudices. The English society described by Ross is segregated to an extreme.
When we ask her if she thinks she is a bit radical, Ross answers with an anecdote, « I remember standing at a bus stop with my boyfriend of the time who was black, and we noticed that people were glaring at us. Black people thought I was white and were glaring at him, and then same for white people but for different reasons. »
« I don’t think these are relationships that we can get into, even in our century, without being knowledgeable about the consequences in society, » she adds without hesitation. Seen as white by some and black by others, Ross feels that her mixed background is both a burden and an opportunity. She has the both freedom to define herself and a difficult mission to accomplish. « Some think that these mixed-race kids will be the beginning of a wonderful movement and I am thinking why do I have to save you? Why do we have to save the world? »
Zadie Smith, « the nigger of the day », has a lot to say. Zadie Smith is also a British-Jamaican. She is the person who Ross calls the English literary world’s « nigger of the day ». Smith’s first novel White Teeth, published in England in 2000, was met with tremendous success and was translated into several languages. In 2002, an adaptation of the novel was made for television and aired in six countries. The thick, 700-page-long book describes English society with zany humour and paints a satire, which uses and abuses irony without ever falling into bitterness. It seems likely that the book met such great success because it avoids an overly dramatic tone – despite there being many good reasons to be dramatic. It is impossible to resist the scene in which the young Millat, whose parents come from Bangladesh, presents his favourite music to his teacher who deeply into multiculturalism. (« There is always something we can learn from other people’s cultures, isn’t there? –Yes, Mam’!): « Bo-orn to run… Bruce Springsteen, Madam! » Then, under the teacher’s insisting look (« …nothing else? Something you are used to listening to at home for example? »): « Thiiiii-ller! Thiiiiii-ller night! Michael Jackson, Mam’! » (1)
From immigrants who want to be more English than the English, to the right-thinking middle-class, multicultural fanatics and young suburbanites looking for an original identity in ethnology books written by Westerners, each group faces heavy criticism.
The fear provoked by cultural blending.
But, mockery is just an easier way of exploring the deep fears surrounding cultural blending:
« Immigrants can only laugh at the fears of nationalists (invasion, contamination, racial mixing) because they are so insignificant compared to the fears of immigrants: division, absorption, decomposition or even extinction. Even the phlegmatic Alsana Iqbal sometimes wakes up in a cold sweat after having nightmares all night about Millat (BB genetically-speaking, « B » meaning Bengali) marrying a girl named Sarah (AA, « A » meaning Aryan) and having a child named Michael (BA), who then goes on to marry Lucy (AA), leaving poor Alsana with a flock of unrecognisable great-grandchildren (AAAAAAA!). The entire Bengali descent becomes diluted forever, the genotype disguised by the phenotype. » (2)
The character Irie Jones, daughter of a Jamaican woman and an English man, becomes the mirror for all of these fears. Wishing to discover her Jamaican roots, Irie Jones finds herself confronted with resistance from her mother doesn’t like the idea of looking into family history, a history filled with rape and bastards born from turbulent relationships. When Irie becomes friends with the Chalfens, an English family as English as can be, who she admires for what she calls their « integrity », she doesn’t tell her parents because she feels guilty about being able to identify with people who find dark-skinned foreigners fascinating.
The most ironic of all is that Irie later becomes Mr Chalfen’s assistant. Mr Chalfen is an eminent researcher in genetics who strives for glory with his ffuturistic mouse, a tiny rodent whose genes have been modified to give it long life and to produce a whole array of different hormones. This « opens the way for a new era in the history of humanity. An era in which we are no longer subject to hazard, but in which we can choose our own destiny. » (3) A new era in which the hazards of mixed parentage are no longer relevant? Smith leaves the question hanging: the mouse escapes in an ultimate slap in the face for those who thought it was possible to control the surprises in life.
Ranya ElRamly, or the paths of poetry.
Ranya ElRamly takes a completely different path. She inherited her Arabic-sounding name from her Egyptian father and from her Finnish mother, the Finnish language, which she handles with sheer poetry. Her first novel, Auringon asema (The Position of the Sun), published in 2002, is one of the first Finnish novels to study the subject of cultural blending. ElRamly tells the story of how her parents met, the problems faced by the mixed couple, as well as love and her childhood memories as she searched to find her place amongst the two adults who seem to be worlds apart.
ElRamly’s description of the subject is full of sensations and disarmingly simple details. Like a child, she insists on concrete elements – like how to peel an orange: « When I sat down at the table to peel an orange, I knew that I could make four cuts in the skin so that it would come away easily, that was what my mother did. But I also knew that I could cut the peel away in a long spiral which I could wind around my wrist like a jewel, that is what my father did. An orange can be peeled in two ways, but I cannot peel it in both ways, not the same orange in any case, not at all. » (4)
The orange becomes a metaphor for belonging to two different worlds, a problem that she has trouble resolving. Between what her mother is and what her father is, how can she find her path in life without choosing sides? How can you live with a multitude of references when others only live with one?
Culturally blended, despite herself.
While ElRamly’s novel is, above all, a story about maturation, about finding one’s path, in Finland, it was seen as a book on multiculturalism. Critics and readers alike tended to view her work as the beginning of a new genre never seen in Finland as of yet: novels on immigration. Yet, ElRamly has little to do with the other small immigrant communities in Finland. Born in India, as a child she lived in Libya, then in Egypt and finally moved to Finland as a teenager with her mother and sister when her parents split up.
When some critics ask her about the influences of Arabic poetry in her work, ElRamly just smiles. It is relatively foreign to her. She reminds them that her sister, an actress, who bears the name Kaisa, which cannot be more Finnish, has never been asked about the oriental influences in her acting. It made her angry when a critic described her novel as « postcolonial ». She describes herself above all as Finnish but regrets not having needed to choose and envies how easily her sister talks about her origins.
It is the ambiguous feelings and ambivalent attachments, which oscillate between violence, humour and poetry, that link these three very different novels. There is the underlying feeling that one must choose, although it is impossible to choose, and the guilt that appears as soon as the author leans towards one side rather than the other, as if choosing was like jumping into the unknown. There is also the fear of being categorised and put into more boxes than one wishes, of not being able to assert oneself as an individual amongst the images that one gives of oneself. While their position as eternal foreigners sometimes gives them reason to suffer, it also gives the three young women a different outlook. And, that is what makes them such exceptional writers.
(1) Translated by Africultures for the purposes of this article.

(2) Translated by Africultures for the purposes of this article.
(3) Translated by Africultures for the purposes of this article.
(4) Translated by Africultures for the purposes of this article.
White Teeth (Sourires de loup) by Zadie Smith. Translated into French by Claude Demanuelli. Ed.Gallimard, 2001. (Also published in paperback by Folio).
Orange Laughter (Le Rire orange) by Leone Ross. Translated into French by Pierre Furlan. Ed. Actes Sud, 2001.
All the Blood is Red (Le Sang est toujours rouge), by Leone Ross. Translated into French by Pierre Furlan, with the assistance of Lyonel Trouillot. Ed. Actes Sud, 2003.
Auringon asema, by Ranya ElRamly, Otava, 2002. Extracts from Auringon asema (The Position of the Sun) in English: ttp://dbgw.finlit.fi/fili/bff/403/elramly.htm. Available English and German translation.
Translator and independent journalist of Finnish origin, Taina Tervonen works for various French and Finnish magazines on society and culture. She has been writing for Africultures’ literary column since 1997.///Article N° : 5732

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