August 14, 2017 at 3:55 pm

Whose culture is it anyway?

Whose culture is it anyway?

By Rashida Murphy


When the editors of Southern Crossings invited me to write about the idea that migrant writers use their cultural history, ethnicity and language to mobilise the ‘exotic’ nature of our cultural cache, I was keen to explore this idea further. The notion that what was previously considered a handicap is now desirable, catches me by surprise and brings to mind the (in) famous question asked by Jana Wendt of Toni Morrison in 1998.



In a television interview that Wendt would rather not be remembered for, she asked Morrison why she never writes about white people. Morrison’s response – ‘you can’t understand how powerfully racist that question is.’ In this post-Shriver world where privilege is waved around like a beacon, it is useful to reflect on the nature of cultural cache and the time it has taken for this to be considered an (unfair) advantage. Brown people are not supposed to mind when white people write about them in ways considered (by other white people) to be sympathetic and culturally sensitive.


To unpack this idea a little, I’ll start with a brief discussion of 2 novels that troubled me deeply as a teenager, and later as a mature age student when I re-read them through a university sanctioned postcolonial feminist lens.


The first of these is E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, lauded for its sympathetic and homoerotic depiction of friendship between the sahib Fielding and the brown guy, Aziz. The novel also positions the confused Adela Quested as the wronged white woman who ‘thinks’ she’s been molested by Aziz. Forster’s Indian women exist only in absences and photographs and incoherencies. They are either restricted to the purdah or sexualised as whores, while the white women comply in the subjugation of ‘native’ women by openly expressing violent racial distrust.


Forster recycles the same tired colonial stereotype that seeks to erase the experience of the ‘other.’ When I express my concern with what I perceive to be a racist, sexist novel that has been peddled far too long as a liberal humanist text, arched eyebrows are raised and softly murmured words convey distress. ‘Oh, but I do think you’re reading it wrong.’


Apparently, The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye comes in at a close second favourite Indian text. I must admit that lovers of M.M. Kaye are also usually effusive supporters ofKipling and that man who wrote The Raj Quartet.’ They must not to be mistaken for serious readers but you’d be surprised how many people evoke Ms Kaye and her agent Paul Scott when they see me. Must be my exotic skin and accent and that cultural cache I shamelessly exploit.


I greet such declarations with what I hope is a forbidding look – as in, ‘I forbid you to name those people in the same breath as India’ look. As for the heroic Ashton/Ashok and his dark skinned princess Anjuli and their escapades in the fictional Gulkote as told by M.M. Kaye, the less said the better. We are told, in an obituary, that the daughter of Sir Cecil Kay ‘thought herself Indian, like Kipling’s Kim.’ Whether this statement is meant to reassure or repel, I really can’t say.


What I can say is that if the reader chooses to believe I draw on an unending store of cultural cache that I use to my advantage, I’d like to draw her attention to just the two novels I’ve briefly mentioned here. This is what happens when we let Kipling et al tell the story of India. We end up with hundreds of culturally appropriated, muddled and mystified tales of colonialism, race and empire.


However this is what happens when brown people tell their own stories in their own voices. Here is a scene picked at random from a single story by an Indian writer, untainted by what white people think we sound like.


“But the second I looked at him, I was not sorry. I was light as an epiphany. His eyes were open upon me and in his gaze I saw a meadow of daffodils offering respite from a blissless solitude. Beside the lake, beneath the trees, the place it seemed was open to consideration. Wordsworth would not have approved, but I held my breath for the future.” (Roanna Gonsalves, The Permanent Resident, UWA Publishing, 2016)


Sure, we have our stories, along with our languages, observations, memories and idiosyncrasies. Last time I checked, it was practically a job description for a writer – any writer, not just us exotic, migrant types.



Rashida Murphy is the author of The Historian’s Daughter, UWA Publishing 2016. Read more about her here:

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