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Archives offer glimpse of 'colonial' media response to writers

This is one of the findings of Brunel University lecturer in Contemporary Literature, Dr Ruvani Ranasinha who has written a study of the literary history and reception of different generations of writers who emigrated to, or who were born in, Britain from what used be known as the Indian sub-continent.

Beginning with English-speaking authors from South Asia who published their novels in the 1930s, Ranasinha shows how the experience of migrancy, the attitudes towards migrant writers in the literary market place, and the critical reception of them, changed significantly through different periods. She also analyses the different ways in which writers responded to these conditions.

Ranasinha's journey involved researching original material, such as unpublished correspondence in the archives of British publishers, as well as reviews in newspapers, magazines and literary journals.

Before Salman Rushdie won The Booker Prize in 1981 for Midnight's Children and Hanif Kureishi's screenplay for My Beautiful Launderette was nominated for an Academy Award in 1985, lies a complex history of shifting perceptions of cultural difference which forms the subject of this book.

There was an era when the works of writers of South Asian origin were reviewed from what can only be described as a colonial point of view.

“Earlier writers paved the way for Rushdie,“ said Ranasinha. “Almost all were reviewed in the TLS, which was the main outlet.

“The reviews stem in part from a suspicion as to whether these Indian writers could write fiction,“ she remarked.

“They were positioned as spokesmen for their culture and community and had to translate that culture and community to a mainstream audience.

“Given the dominant attitudes of the time many of these publishers were ahead of their time in giving these writers a platform, but this support was often on specific terms, while reviewers struggled to evaluate these challenging, 'different' fictional texts.

“It's really a slice of literary history,“ she added.

South Asian Writers in Twentieth-Century Britain is the first academic study of it kind to look at the critical reception of these writers in newspapers and magazines of the time.

Ranasinha also examines and contrasts the reception of contemporary authors including Salman Rushdie, Farrukh Dhondy, Hanif Kureishi and the multi-talented actress, comedian and screenwriter and author, Meera Syal.

Ruvani herself was born in Sri Lanka, but grew up in the UK before lecturing in postcolonial literature at the University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka, for several years. She completed her doctorate on South Asian Anglophone writing at Christ Church, Oxford, and is at present a lecturer in Contemporary Writing at Brunel University, London. Her publications include Hanif Kureishi: Writers and their Works (Northcote House, 2002). She is a joint editor of Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies (Routledge).

South Asian Writers in Twentieth-Century Britain: Culture in Translation

(Oxford University Press, February 2007)

by Ruvani Ranasinha. Lecturer in Contemporary Literature, Brunel University, London