Kavita Bhanot: Developing Cultural Character

Sunetra Senior Monday 28th March 2016 13:02 EDT

Bhanot is the editor of the soulful and diverse anthology ‘Too Asian, not Asian Enough’ (2011). She has also had short stories published in journals such as the Asia Literary Review and Kindle Magazine, and been broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Unlike the usual, tired narratives of ‘comical or villainous figures’ who restrict the protagonist from ‘the pleasures of Western life’, or the pitiable portrait of sari-clad mother mourning an ancestral home, Bhanot’s fiction and compilation ‘Too Asian, not Asian Enough’ showcases original accounts of the British Asian experience, bringing to light nuanced and unexplored corners of this subjective cultural niche. “My own work often draws from my background as Punjabi working class, and I have been told my writing is ‘too Asian’” Bhanot explained to us. “This really prompted me to provide a space for writers to write from and through the specificities of their cultural, political background. This is an important distinction from the concept of writing ‘about’ our particular background.  We write from a perspective because that is who we are. When we are writing ‘about’ a perspective we are framing it in a self-conscious way, as if it is something unnatural; we perform for white publishers and readers.” And this literary ambit extends from the political into the individual. With a genuine interest in ‘the process of the written, new writers and new works’ – Bhanot is also a manuscript reader for The Literary Consultancy and sat on the editorial team for India’s first literary agency Osians – she sees the freeing art of storytelling as a means for British Asians to reinforce their individuality, independently of cultural influence. One of the premises in the anthology, for example, hinges around the mystery of ‘a collector of hair arriving at a European village’ while her own short work – Gust of Life – organically describes the unlikely friendship between an older woman and a local man she meets at the Gurdwara. Thus Bhanot makes fluid the definition of cultural identity through the depth of creative expression.

Tell us more about the impetus for compiling your collection: ‘Too Asian, Not Enough’?

I knew many wonderful writers who were having difficulty getting published: ‘Too Asian, Not Asian Enough’ is a response to the two kinds of response that writers of South Asian origin receive when their work is rejected; forming the parameters of what it is acceptable to write.  I wanted to provide a platform in the anthology for writers to write what they like. In the process of performing our ‘south asianness’ we simplify it, exoticise it, mock it. We don’t take it for granted and can’t write about it with the complexity that is there in our lived lives. 

What do you feel is the main issue with the definition of ‘British Asian’?

The category, as imposed externally upon us, has been a marketing category, it has been a part of the process of ‘depoliticising’ ourselves – so we only celebrate our ‘British Asianness’. To be British Asian is to be British first and foremost, and to subsume our specific identities into a broad ‘Asian’ label.

Do your own stories have a theme running through them?

While writing mostly about Punjabi lives in Britain, I have been consciously setting out not to privilege the white reader, writing, instead, for those I am writing about. This has changed my writing style greatly – there is humour, but I am not ‘laughing at’ my characters: they are more complex, there is more compassion. I have been interested in unpicking the layers of history, religion, politics, culture that forms each character, as well as exploring his/her psychology.  

What would be your tip for writing good character?

It is impossible to truly capture the consciousness of characters who are different from yourself (and arrogant to assume that you can). You're limited by language, fictional form and your own point of view. I tend to focus on empathy, three-dimensionality, and spend a lot of time thinking about the lived life, the social, political, cultural, as well as psychoanalytical background of each character I create. 

Do you hope to write a novel in the future?

I have written a draft of my first novel. It’s the first of a trilogy I’ve been working on, on and off, for the last 12 years, that explores the lives of Punjabi immigrants in Britain over three decades. The first novel is primarily set in Handsworth, Birmingham, over the 1980s. It was actually a part of my PhD. I also wrote a thesis on contemporary British Asian literature, focusing on Punjabi, working class origin writers, whose background and writing most resemble mine. I argue this represents a departure from earlier ‘British Asian’ literature, partly because of the writers’ backgrounds. I am also exploring how this literature tends to be located in structures of whiteness, privileging the white reader, and adopting a white gaze while writing about the South Asian community to ridicule and simplify. It is important to unravel and ‘see’ this in order to act on it differently.

Finally, what is your advice to aspiring writers?

Practice! Keep writing, study the ‘craft’ of writing, and then play with it- question it, reject it. Think also about the politics of writing – who are you writing for? (There is always a direction, a certain kind of reader that our work faces), why are you writing?  Finally, read critically, dissect the literature you read: if we don’t read critically, we can end up reproducing what is already out there. It’s also important to take your time, to live, to feel, to understand yourself, others, the world around you, because that will bring depth to your writing.      


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