Unspoken Rules – Daisy Hay talks to Afua Hirsch
Afua Hirsch on British racism.
Since the publication of her first book in January this year, Afua Hirsch has been busy. Brit(ish) is a hybrid work which combines memoir, travelogue, social history and political analysis. It has generated a great deal of comment and debate and Afua has been in hot demand at festivals, for talks and in the print and broadcast media. The vast majority of the reviews for Brit(ish) – which won an RSL Jerwood Award in 2017 – have been overwhelmingly positive. The Guardian described it as ‘warm, informative and occasionally heart-wrenching’; the Financial Times as a ‘fierce, thought-provoking and fervent take on the most urgent questions facing us today’. A minority of its readers have reacted to its diagnosis of Britain’s problems with hostility and have argued against its insistence that Britain has a long way to go before it can consider itself a post-racial society.
Brit(ish) is about identity, racism, this country’s troubled relationship with its slave-owning history, and about the problems generated by well-meaning liberal attempts to be ‘colour-blind’. It also describes a national refusal to talk about race in any meaningful or productive way. When Afua and I talk by phone, amidst the background hum in both our houses of children’s bedtimes and dinner preparations, I start by asking her what she has made of the whirlwind of interest in her story. Had she known what kind of attention it would garner, she responds, ‘I would have been stunned’.
As we talk about the last few months, Afua tells me how touched she has been by the people from across the spectrum of British society who have testified to the way in which she has spoken to the complexities of their own lives. Of those critics who have attacked her and her project (in some quarters in appallingly personal and gendered ways), she comments, ‘Those reactions rather bear out my thesis, which is that Britishness is a very fragile identity, and people can react in a hostile way because they are sensitive to or frightened of that.’ And, she continues: ‘It is a phenomenon that when you are a person of colour and you have the audacity to critique Britain you are accused of not being grateful. There are unspoken rules: this is a society which tolerates minority people as long as they behave in a way the majority find acceptable. Our right to be here is conditional, and one of the conditions on me, as a well-educated woman of colour, has been not to draw attention to my otherness.’
In Brit(ish) Afua defies such conditions with precision and style. At its heart the book is an account of her own heritage. She was born in Norway to a Ghanaian mother and a Jewish-English father and she grew up in Wimbledon. privately educated and with an Oxford degree, she is quick both in the book and in person to acknowledge her privilege, and the way in which it complicates her perspective on our society’s knotty relationship with race and class. ‘I felt self-conscious talking about my experience and perspective,’ she tells me. ‘At first it was really hard, but the more I wrote the more bold I became.’ I ask her about the genesis of the book, whether there was a single moment that spurred her to start writing. She began, she explains, ‘for the younger me. I was writing the book I wish I could have read when I was growing up, that could have helped me understand the things that threw me into an identity crisis.’ And despite the gravity of the subject (she is eloquent on the way the experiences of people of colour in Britain are systematically diminished by racist micro-aggressions and liberal complacency) she is proud to have written a book which is essentially optimistic. ‘I believe in Britain, and I believe in the essential goodness of British people.’ But, she continues, ‘we have to do the work: we can’t just jump to being post-racial’.
We slide into talking more generally – about reading, about feminism in Britain and America, about the process of writing, and future projects. I ask Afua about her writing. did a book which segues rapidly between genres emerge on the page fully-formed, or was its composition more approximate? ‘I’m a one-draft writer,’ she replies. ‘Writing a book was one of the happiest periods of my life; I felt such clarity of purpose.’ editing was rather less dreamlike. cutting a manuscript 100,000 words over-length was, she recalls, a ‘form of torture’. And as for what comes next? She’ll start work on a new book in the autumn. Its subject remains to be pinned down, but it will definitely move on to fresh territory. Brit(ish), she tells me as we say goodbye, ‘was something I felt so strongly I needed to do. But I’ve done it now.’
First published in the 2018 RSL Review magazine.