Suhayl Saadi on why his writing remains ignored by the British literary establishment
Psychoraag – Suhayl Saadi
See all books by Suhayl Saadi at Amazon.co.uk | Amazon.com
In the context of the publicity surrounding the forthcoming novel, Londonstani, which like my recent novel, Psychoraag (Black and White Publishing, 2004), appears to play with demotic, my best wishes go out to the author, good on him. I have only been able to read the first chapter, which appeared in Prospect magazine. The following critique is reserved for the transnational publishing industry and mainstream, England-based print media, neither of which entities would touch Psychoraag in terms of publication, reviews, interviews, invitations to literary festivals – so that in the two-and-a-half years since Psychoraag has been published, in these terms there has been almost zilch. In this piece, I’m not going to discuss the overtly political stuff (such as D-Notices, planted journalists, etc.) which applies more to news and political features reportage, investigative journalism and other areas of non-fiction. I am concerned here with fiction, and in particular, what is known as literary fiction.
I should say that I am very lucky to be based in Scotland – a country which has produced many wonderful writers of fiction, including, in recent years, Irvine Welsh, James Kelman, Alasdair Gray, Janice Galloway, J.K. Rowling, AL Kennedy, Ali Smith, Louise Welsh, Alexander McCall Smith, Iain Banks, Ian Rankin and many more (the list grows longer very year). This corpus of work represents some of the most exciting, commercially successful and ground-breaking writing of the past three decades in the Anglophone world. Coda: Scotland is not a literary backwater.
Psychoraag has just won a PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Literary Award in California, was shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (the oldest literary prize in the UK) and has been nominated by librarians for this year’s (Dublin-based) IMPAC Prize. Psychoraag has received good reviews in Scotland, South Asia, various web-based magazines and in the British Asian media, is being translated by the Paris-based publisher, Editions Métailié into French and is being made into a Royal National Institute for the Blind ‘talking book’ – so it can’t be total rubbish. When my first novel, The Snake (Creation Books) came out in 1997, under the pseudonym, ‘Melanie Desmoulins’, to my knowledge it was the first ever novel written by a black Scottish person to have been published and Psychoraag was definitely the first published novel by an Asian Scot. Psychoraag was compared with the work of both Rushdie and Irvine Welsh .
One prominent and respected Scottish academic, himself a novelist, recently wrote that Psychoraag is “the most important and innovative Glasgow novel since [James Kelman’s seminal novel, published in 1984] The Busconductor Hines” . In 2005, along with works by the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson, Walter Scott, Adam Smith and Jackie Kay, Psychoraag was listed as one of the ‘100 Best Ever Scottish Books’ as compiled by the Scottish Book Trust and the List magazine (the Scottish equivalent of Time Out). It is a primary text in the study of Scottish Literature at university undergraduate level and my work is also taught in Scottish secondary schools in conjunction with BBC Scottish TV Education. Another prominent contemporary Scottish writer described my work thus: “From his earliest writings, [Saadi] was an important and unique voice. Quite apart from being one of the breakthrough Scots-Asian (if that term means anything) voices, his work was always refined, sure, and deeply erudite. It speaks not just for one community – Scottish, Asian, Glaswegian – but, as all great writing should, for the human condition. What it is to be alive, now, in this complex world. All the various histories, mythologies and circumstances that shape us” . And there’s much more of this.
I do not say all this to glorify myself as an author or my books as works of art, but simply to provide context for the points which I am about to make. The fact remains that there has been virtually no mainstream print or physical coverage or exposure of any of my work in England, the country where actually I was born and the most powerful and populous part of the United Kingdom. At times, it feels as though I and my work have been blacklisted.
I have had many discussions with artists working in the literary, film and TV fields in the UK and find that many of their experiences or views mirror my own. I also have read widely on the subject. There are writers of South Asian origin living in, for example, the north of England whose work similarly has been frozen out. Recent Whitbread Novel Prize Winner, Ali Smith, in The Guardian newspaper, ironically enough, described the process by which “the critical silence that met [Psychoraag] down south is an interesting reaction in itself to a book about race and invisibility, voice and silence, whose central theme is the question of whether anyone out there is actually listening” . This highly relevant political discourse pertaining to permissible perceptions of reality is one which seldom appears in the mainstream literary media, but which goes right to the heart of British society. It’s not so much a brick lane as a brick wall, not so much the melting-pot as the deep freeze. This is the majority situation, the reality in most walks of life for those outside of the charmed circle. Crucially, it is also a basic employment issue.
The infamous FBI psy-op goal “to enhance the paranoia endemic in [1960s oppositional] circles and [further serving] to get the point across that there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox”  means that I’m always fighting my own sense of paranoia on this, but I do think that censorship in advanced liberal capitalist democracies is far more insidious, sophisticated and less well recognised than in totalitarian states. It occurs on overt and covert levels, but also through unconscious and structural architectures. And of course, it’s tied-up with economics, class and imperium:
1) Firstly, there are the growing overt, anti-entrepreneurial demands of the increasingly monopolistic corporate marketplace. Much has been written about this, by myself and others, in other places. By means of transnational corporate marketing resources it is entirely possible to turn a book of a merely competant standard into that orgasmic icon of our times, the ‘!!International Bestseller!!’. The interactions between retailers and publishers and between publishers and literary agents/ writers, in some ways, are boiling down to being not dissimilar in essence to the invidious, coercive relationships that exist between major Western corporations and small-scale producers in countries in the economic South. That this would happen, should not be a surprise since this unenlightened capitalist dynamic is being replicated across the entire spectrum of manufacturing and service industries in the UK and elsewhere. People are ‘encouraged’ to grow, say, cash crops or else are compelled by various factors to cultivate drug crops and there are parallels to be drawn in the kinds of fictions we, as writers, are allowed/ encouraged/ compelled to produce. Let’s call it the cartelisation of being.
Of course, in 1996, Noam Chomsky and Edward Hermann went over the whole game in Manufacturing Consent. In a subsequent article, Hermann states that “We had long been impressed with the regularity with which the media operate within restricted assumptions, depend heavily and uncritically on elite information sources, and participate in propaganda campaigns helpful to elite interests. In trying to explain why they do this we looked for structural factors as the only possible root of systematic behavior and performance patterns” .
It is inconsistent to argue that the highly concentrated corporate ownership of the media compromises the notion of a free press and yet to deny that a similarly concentrated ownership of the book publishing and retailing industry does not compromise the freedom of fiction. We read a lot about the former, mainly on the web, but very little about the latter. Perhaps this is because novel-writing is regarded as an apolitical (bourgeois) activity. But of course, apart from the hotly-debated historical origins of the novel – and whichever long view one takes about this, both the debate itself and the possible origins of the form remain acutely political – every novel embodies a unique political act, the creation of a topology of being. Therefore the people who write them, and those who decide which novels get published, are politicians. Therefore, it is important that we look at these people and the organisations for which they work if we are accurately to delineate the politics of fiction in our society.
2) Some senior editors in major publishing houses/ literary magazines in the USA were/ are allegedly on the CIA payroll (and why would it be any different in the UK?). Anyway, most publishing entities now are transnational, with HQs in the USA. This idea is seriously spooky but does not sound like disinformation (indeed, disinformation to what end?) and pertinent claims of this nature relating to the US publishing industry, credibly made by Americans who have worked in or with the industry and who have witnessed the effects of this on publication lists, have appeared on a number of occasions in reputable and serious outlets such as the Hull-based Lobster magazine .
3) Furthermore, commissioning editors in the UK are almost exclusively drawn from a very narrow social class segment – white, middle-class, English, often Oxbridge-educated (or Ivy League in the USA), or else, Colin Powell/ Condoleezza Rice-style, have been co-opted and assimilated via institutions such as these. This means that whether or not they realise it they are at high risk of effectively having been brainwashed into regarding certain types of writing (and hence, certain types of realities) as saleable/ valid, etc. Many successful writers are drawn from the same social class groupings as their editors, critics and other persons in key positions in the literary industries and this means that there is a danger that concepts of the ‘Other’ – that which lies outside one’s own individual being, i.e. the rest of the world – come to be defined and delineated in similar ways, ways which over a period of time and through endless repetition come to be seen as objective truth. Let’s be kind and call it a convergence of thinking. Many journalists are taking up novel-writing these days and all the best to them, but as a class perhaps their success in terms of the publishing industry – at least in some cases – has to do with having equal measures of talent and access. The much-vaunted ‘ironic distance’ and ‘London cool’ (personified through the writer as, bizarrely, life imitates art, in the imperious expressionless countenance and that certain kind of lisp that denotes prestige in the English social order) often are really just the stigmata of class arrogance. Let’s call it a concordance of behaviour. My perception is that many people, including some writers – both within and outside the UK – are very aware of and are alienated by this kind of posturing approach to both writing and writerly behaviour but seldom say so because either they are too polite, or else they have no effective access to the mainstream media or else they are afraid of being labeled racist, Marxist, Fundamentalist or just comically stupid, resentful and envious, i.e. they are afraid of displaying traits characteristically associated with (a caricature of) the ‘working-class’.
All these factors combine effectively to exclude/ marginalise ‘dissident’ writing (I use the term deliberately).
If one openly attacks the liberal bourgeois racism and class dominance that is at the heart of the publishing world in the UK, well, this is one of those things you just aren’t allowed to do in mainstream print, unless that is you’re inside some charmed circle in which case you can say anything about anything under the sun because you’re not a threat to the perpetuation of the ‘great lie’, that the Emperor has no clothes. ‘Unreformed’ (in this sense) Black and Muslim men (I use these terms in their broadest senses) and those from working-class consciousness viewpoints have always been seen as threats in these contexts. The Pakistani minority ethnic group is one of the largest in the UK but remains one of the most disadvantaged and derided. One might say, then, that I am not fashionably ethnic. I am just ethnic.
Now it is important to note that I am English. I was born in that most vigorously English of counties, Yorkshire, in (of all people) Philip Larkin’s home town of Beverley. In the late 1960s and early 1970s I was an avid supporter of Don Revie’s Leeds United football team and also of the English national side (much to the annoyance of my Scottish pals; this was at the high watermark of Scottish nationalism and furthermore, at that time, Scotland had a really superb football team). Growing up in the west of Scotland, I also endured a certain amount of anti-English sentiment and an awful lot of white racism. So this is not some pompous Scottish chauvinistic outpouring, a sort of ‘Wha’s like us?’ tirade. Rather, it an analysis of the enduring power of social class, a brief critique, as far as the literary industries are concerned, of the rate-limiting step that is social class in the UK. It is important to note that there is now less social mobility between the classes than was the case during the post-War decades (1940s to 1970s). The burgeoning of writing from working class points of view which occurred from the late 1950s onwards would have been far less likely to have occurred in the absence of the relatively redistributive and egalitarian policies of a number of governments and the activities of various mass social and political movements of the time.
A straight rightwing colonial worldview, bourgeois liberal de facto censorship and a number of other political issues – and (to imitate Tom Wolfe for a moment) the Hyper-Hip Multicoloured Multicultural Metropolitan London-Oxbridge ‘Liberal’ Literary Mafia (may God love ’em, because I bloody well don’t) – and the fact that one cannot talk or write effectively about most of the important bits of this stuff (and have it published in the Heart of the Lion) all adds up to an ongoing and disempowering Orientalism. How many more novels about Japanese geishas or Chinese concubines, cool kids from the melting-pot (the ‘Zadie Smithereens’, these are often simply the thematic equivalents of early 1970s ‘Blaxploitation’ figures), Muslim feudal lords or exotic Indian spice-sellers can we stomach? Like vindaloos, they pour endlessly into our system and out the other end, changing nothing in the process. As a notable arts journalist remarked recently to me, this hip-but-inoffensive menu represents, quite simply, “safe multiculturalism”. We have become bulimic with TV comedy dramas about Asian restaurants, dancers chained forever to their bangles, arranged/ multiple marriages and everywhere, as though in some smokey dwam of metaphysical trans-substantiation, the odour of curry – it seems that as soon as the prospect of a brown face appears on the page or the screen, the repertoire, the vision, of commissioning bodies suddenly becomes terrifyingly limited. And understandably, writers pander to all this because they know it’ll give them the break they need, make ’em big bucks, get ’em film deals, etc. and that if they don’t, the likelihood of publication or production is commensurately less. So let’s all jump onto the korma train and dance exotic for the English über-classes!
Even when the writing is urban realist, about ‘gangstas’ or whatever, usually the writers maintain a sense of linguistic decorum, which in a sort of pre-Kelman, Billy Bunter hallucination internally perpetuates the class-based, subject-object viewpoint. Instead of exploring the exciting reality of manifold voices that play for dominance within and without each of our heads, this voyeuristic, faux street-cred approach – the stylistic equivalent of the (probably public school) writer ‘slumming it’, has the effect of perpetuating the idiocy that great thoughts can be thought only in ‘Standard’ English and thus, far from subverting or deconstructing the pre-existing hierarchy, merely reinforces it.
So what’s new? Franz Fanon had it down decades ago. I mean, there are many good people working in these industries, too, obviously, don’t get me wrong. And in spite of everything, as some actors, writers and directors from black and minority ethnic communities will tell you, there are signs of some exciting things happening now in, for example, British theatre and that’s very encouraging. I don’t want readers to go away from this thinking, “O my God! It’s all so awful!” There is always hope, struggle, incremental progress. As the sages say, there are many waves in the ocean. Occasionally, there are tidal waves. But fundamentally, the essentially unreconstructed, ever-so-polite (so you can’t biff ’em), dissembling (so you can’t pin ’em) yet totally arrogant English class system remains the key (or should I say, the closed door). You’re only allowed in if you fit the bill. To quote from John Lennon’s brilliantly perceptive but scandalously under-aired song, ‘Working-Class Hero’, in truth the rest of us remain “fucking peasants”. He wrote that in 1970. It is now 2006. I am as disempowered in the UK as my immigrant parents were, forty years ago because I do not possess a ‘white pass’. It is very humbling and gratifying that my work – Psychoraag, The Burning Mirror and the other books and plays I have written – has gained many plaudits from respected individuals outside of (and occasionally even inside of) these corporate institutions and I am eternally grateful to these individuals, in England and elsewhere, who by reviewing, seriously critiquing or lecturing on Psychoraag or The Burning Mirror consciously have made a stand and gone against the grain , but the fact remains that both their opinions on my work and the work itself have been virtually ignored by mainstream England-based organisations, some of whom, if they rise into coverage at all, seem capable of rising only to the level of ‘mock the Jocks’. My work can be discomfiting and not in a way that easily can be accommodated. Remember, this is not about the English, the Scottish or any other ‘ishes’, but primarily is about the class system, corporatism and empire and the manner in which, in the field of literature, the three interact.
Now, I will tell you a story. Just before Psychoraag was published in the spring of 2004, the CEO and millionaire founder of a major, Scottish-based but UK-wide music products retailer ‘phoned the publicist at my (small, Edinburgh-based) publisher’s and bawled her out. His manner was rude and he told her quite clearly that on no account would his stores stock Psychoraag. This had been provoked by nothing more than polite communications between the publicist and the management of the retailer (a totally normal procedure) as to whether this very obviously rock ‘n’ roll novel would sit well in their shops.
Psychoraag (the title means, ‘A Raga of Madness’, or, if you prefer, ‘A Symphony of Madness’) employs the idea of music as a unifying force, both in the individual and society at large. It is set during a single summer’s night in a Glasgow radio station and the DJ is the protagonist; he plays psychedelic songs by Sixties bands like The Beatles, The Yardbirds, The Byrds, Kaleidoscope, etc., material by Pakistani rock band, Junoon, Celtic rock, classic old Bombay film-songs spanning from 1902 to the late 1990s, jazz by the likes of John Coltrane, ‘world’ music by singers such Algerian rai star, Cheb Khalid, songs by a number of contemporary UK rock bands and also British Asian music by the likes of Susheela Raman, Nitin Sawhney, Sheila Chandra, Joi and Cornershop.
The music retail chain concerned stock a variety of books, including many novels, especially those with musical relevance but many others as well. I cannot explain the reaction of this CEO. Why did this Scottish entrepreneur, who heads a major Scottish (and now UK)-wide business which focuses on all genres of rock but also on jazz, club and world music and which projects a very trendy, cosmopolitan image (and in fact which runs very exciting shops into which one can walk and not easily emerge for several hours), refuse to stock a Scottish (but UK and American rock, jazz-and-world music-referenced) book about music? My publicist had not even had the chance to begin to discuss business terms – so it wasn’t that. Though no push-over, she is a very mature, polite and quietly-spoken person, actually. The odd thing is, local managers of the self-same retail outlets were very keen and already had agreed to host my book launch in Glasgow and reluctantly pulled out only when they saw that the guest-list I had sent them was too large numerically for them to accommodate safely in the shop (this was before the phone-call from the CEO and was unconnected with it). So, on the local level people were fine; it was on the high corporate plane that things were different. This kind of thing happens in business, I suppose, but still, it’s quite inexplicable and for legal reasons I do not wish to speculate further in writing. In institutions like this, there may be all kinds of intra-corporate dynamics going on (possibly entirely unrelated to Psychoraag), of which I am likely to be completely unaware. However, it remains an anomaly that this significant contemporary Scottish rock ‘n’ roll novel appears to have been excluded from the most prominent contemporary Scottish rock ‘n roll store. I will leave you to draw your own conclusions.
This divorce between attitudes at ‘street level’ and actions at the top seems to elucidate some kind of more generalised pattern. Readers and people (literally) on the street have given me very positive feedback about my books (though of course the ones who don’t like ’em are less likely to say so to one’s face!), but overall, wherever I or my books go, I’ve had loads of interest whenever people have been allowed access to my work. This seems at direct variance with the situation vis à vis the higher levels of corporate power in the book world, where the big decisions are made. Snakes and ladders.
Travel writing and travel television are great hits, but the legacy of Western travel writing, its close association with the imperial projects of the last half-millennium, is rarely examined. We laugh in complicity with the ubiquitous jokey white imperialist adventurer, the epitome of normality, civility, civilisation (and the smoke rising into the camera lens is not that of exploding white phosphorus), as he pokes gentle, post-modernist fun at the eternally, constitutionally, exotic natives. I would like to see a modern Arab travel writer take a leisurely stroll through parts of inner-city Glasgow and let’s make a funny film about it, about my home city, the ‘dear green place’ – whose Lear Jet-infested airport, where, once-upon-a-time, I used to take my daughter to “look at the ‘planes”, is now known as ‘Torture Rendition Central’ – and where, in spite of the much-vaunted (and real and very welcome) regeneration which is occurring, in certain parts of which life expectancy is on a par with that in occupied Iraq . The deleterious impact of economic inequality, ingrained over generations into the structures represented by social class, does not apply only to England. Like many in the city and in the country, I am deeply ashamed of all this. Of course, they’re already there, at the tops of our tower blocks in the slums of our great, happy-clappy metropolises, the ‘asylum-seekers’, the Arab, the African, the Kurdish writers who indeed like Marco Polo, Jacob d’Ancona and Ibn Battuta have traveled across continents and oceans but who have no jobs and no prospect of jobs, and nobody’s writing and nobody’s laughing.
But I would argue that the continuing imperial ethos inherent and so baldly manifested in so many of these books and documentaries operates far beyond the bounds of the genre of travel-writing. Some years ago, when I told a prominent sociologist, an Englishman of South Asian origin, that I was planning to write a novel exploring some of the themes to which I have alluded in this article, he looked me straight in the eye and told me, “Oh, you won’t be allowed to do that”. At the time, I was stunned, but now I am less naive and I understand what he meant. The central focus of this rambling, somewhat arachnoid article is not a critique of the British State as such, though of course there is much to critique in the state; yet if anything, organisations like the BBC, the Scottish Arts Council and the British Council (through whatever motivations and often via the varying degrees of local autonomy enjoyed by individual arts managers and producers, as well as a certain degree of public accountability) and also through the effects of devolution, the Scottish Executive (the Scottish Government) and these other institutions building cultural industry alliances internationally increasingly independent of London actually have been far more open to different kinds of voices, including my own, than major publishing houses, the mediators of ‘live’ literary discourse in English metropolitan centres and the mainstream London-based press. In fact, in the context of Greg Dyke’s notorious comment of a few years ago about the BBC being “hideously white”, in my view, currently, the unreformed state of the literary industries is so extreme, by comparison it makes the BBC look like the Black Panther Party!
Mahatma Gandhi courageously burned his ‘Indian’ pass a hundred years ago in British-ruled South Africa. Much has changed since then, but too much has remained the same. The systems of imperialism have merely adapted – their iron grip, on our consciousness, our labour and our purse, remains as tight as ever. At times, the system seems irredeemable. This is very dangerous for society.
But it’s not so much about ethnicity as about consciousness and this piece is a snapshot analysis of society itself and the way the core structures of society maintain dominance over economic flows and the presentation of thought, information and communication – and hence, over literature, meaning, the Word.
Although I deliberately have over-personalised this article, largely in order to demonstrate some of the human effects of the macro-processes I am attempting to describe, in essence this is not about me. It is about freedom of expression and its antithesis, censorship, and this duality is far more complex than suggested by the conventional image of ‘the man with the blue pencil’ and is deeply rooted in the structures and power dynamics of society. And so, as in the ‘Indian Subcontinent’ (as it used to be called), in East and South Africa, etc., where imperial rule was established and maintained through native and imported (i.e. South Asian) elites, we see the same dynamic at work here, today, in the UK. A few, selected ‘Good Indians’ are elevated to pedestals of great wealth, power and almost totemic significance, the ‘gods of the door’ opening into the house of the ‘Other’, while the rest of us ‘natives’ (whether artists or not) remain either dead on the beach or else banished to the marches, cold and without real means of sustenance – effectively, migrant labour – powerless and samizdat. Silenced.
My aim is not to get everyone to stand up and agree with everything I have said in this piece – I’m sure that there are at least eight sides to every coin, exceptions to every rule and perhaps also some signs of genuine change (and believe me, I would be the first to welcome this) – but rather, to stimulate public discussion about the subject. In my view, it is only through such discourse that we can have some chance of holding fast the freedom of the subconscious – the level upon which fiction operates and which is the pre-requisite of an open society.
At the beginning of this article, I wrote that at times I feel as though my work has been blacklisted. But the image that comes to mind now is that I am staring into the glass and that facing me there is no reflection but only endless night. One day, I will take up a hammer and smash the glass and see what comes out of the darkness.
Suhayl Saadi, January 2006
 Calder, A., ‘Saadi’s All the Raag’, The Sunday Herald, 25/4/04.
 Bissett, A., personal correspondence, 15/1/06.
 Dolan, C., written submission to the Scottish Arts Council, 10/1/06.
 Smith, A., ‘Life Beyond the M25’, The Guardian, 18/12/04.
 Bovard, J., Quarantining Dissent: How the Secret Service Protects Bush from Free Speech, www.indymedia.org, 6/1/04, originally article published in the San Francisco Chronicle, January 2004. Original phrase, now widely quoted in a multiplicity of articles, comes from an FBI dossier relating to the ‘COINTELPRO’ operation released under the US Freedom of Information Act.
 Hermann, E., ‘The Propaganda Model Revisited’, The Monthly review, July 1996.
 Cummings, R., ‘The Paris Review and the CIA’, Lobster magazine, ed. Ramsay, R., Issue 50, Winter 2005/2006.
 Examples include: the great world authority on linguistics, Professor David Crystal, University of Bangor, Wales; leading European light on English language and literature, Dr John Stotesbury, University of Joensuu, Finland; journalist, author and columnist on The Independent, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown; Professor Keith Dixon, Professeur d’Etudes Anglophones, Lumière University, Lyon, France; T.S. Eliott Prize Winner, Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, translator and creative writing lecturer at East Anglia University, England, George Szirtes; and Ziauddin Sardar, the London-based information scientist, writer, broadcaster, New Statesman columnist and leading authority on Islam – but there are many more.
 Hubbard, G. and Miller, D., ‘Glasgow and Globalisation’, edited extract from Arguments Against G8, Pluto Press, 2005.