- Black British Literature: Novels of Transformation
Mark Stein's excellent survey of recent black British fiction begins and ends, appropriately, with Zadie Smith's White Teeth, a novel that has done more than any other to raise the profile and encourage the study of a new generation of young British writers with Caribbean, African, or South Asian backgrounds. Not only does Smith's audacious debut incorporate the major themes of her forebears and peers—migration and displacement; hybrid identities; space, place, and race in multicultural Britain—but in the short time since her arrival, Stein rather cheekily notes, she has already become "a yardstick for assessing new talent" (175). Indeed, Hari Kunzru and Monica Ali were each subsequently hyped by their publishers as "'the new Zadie Smith.'" Newness is a leitmotif of Stein's book: in the texts he examines (published between 1985 and 2000), in the banner under which he locates them (anthologies and studies of "Black British Literature" are largely a twenty-first-century phenomenon), and in the various ways these "novels of transformation" represent and precipitate change.
Transformation and newness are Salman Rushdie's themes in his only novel set mainly in Britain, The Satanic Verses. His narrator repeatedly questions how newness continues to appear in the world. [End Page 621] The authors on whom Stein bestows major attention are younger and less famous than Rushdie; in addition to Smith, they are Hanif Kureishi, David Dabydeen, Bernardine Evaristo, Meera Syal, Andrea Levy, and Diran Adebayo. Postcolonial authors writing in and about Britain have typically been young, but what distinguishes this group from an earlier generation of postwar migrant settlers such as George Lamming or Sam Selvon, who came from the West Indies in their twenties, is that so many of them were born and grew up in Britain. Their novels reflect that experience, and what connects their otherwise heterogeneous work is a shared attraction to the bildungsroman, the "novel of formation" that Stein reveals to be their favored form (23). Formation of the self, he asserts, goes hand in hand with transformation of the social and cultural environment: a character's "coming of age" in narrative reflects, performs, and enables "the transformation, the reformation, the repeated 'coming of age' of British cultures under the influence of 'outsiders within'" (xiii).
Stein defends and theorizes his use of what some consider "a rather outmoded, almost dusty term" by situating the bildungsroman within a complex framework that draws on Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy, Homi Bhabha, and others from the pantheons of postcolonialism and black British cultural studies (22). Gilroy's "Black Atlantic" and Hall's "New Ethnicities" paradigms also help him articulate the necessity of the category "black British": it provides an alternative and supplement to postcolonial theory—which presumes a non-metropolitan contact zone—and to the old habit of grouping texts under regional or national labels. Black British literature, whose creators come from various nations and regions, and that engages with British subjects, spaces, and experiences located both inside and outside the nation, foregrounds "transnational interconnections, that is, correlations across nations and disjunctions within them, which throw into relief the notion of the homogeneity of national cultures and nation-states" (16). In Stein's subtle reading, Diran Adebayo's important novel Some Kind of Black serves as a case study of the "multiplicity of divisions" that prevent the protagonist's "clear identification with any one locality, one identity, or one positionality" (19) emphasizing his "navigation across a continuum of black British identities" (20). Furthermore, Dele differs from young white and earlier black protagonists in his need to negotiate conflicts at both a generational level (with his parents) and a cultural one (with a white-dominated society). As a new kind of Briton, this bildungsroman hero "has no predetermined route to choose" but must "chart his journey himself," just as the transformed and reconfigured nation must do (29).
With occasional comparative excursions to discuss poems, an earlier generation's novels of arrival, cultural texts such as museum displays on imperial history, or artworks that playfully thematize ethnicity...