British Muslim Fictions

By Claire Chambers

What does it mean to be a writer of Muslim heritage in the UK today? Is there such a thing as ‘Muslim fiction’? If so, is it cultural background or belief that makes writing (or identity) Muslim?

My book, British Muslim Fictions: Interviews with Contemporary Writers (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), is the first in a two-part book project, which seeks answers to these complex questions. It is a collection of conversations with writers who live or work in Britain and have an intimate relationship with Islam, whether they are religious, cultural, or even – paradoxically – atheist Muslims, and whether South Asian, Arab, African, or European.

Over thirteen interviews, I talked to Anglophone writers including Aamer Hussein, Fadia Faqir, Hanif Kureishi, Leila Aboulela, Abdulrazak Gurnah, and PULSE’s own Robin Yassin-Kassab. This is a group of writers who are highly diverse but, like a loosely connected and often discordant family, they have much in common, through their connections both to Islam and the United Kingdom. As well as discussing their literary techniques and the impact that their Muslim heritage has had on them, I became increasingly persuaded that this body of writing shares certain preoccupations (relating to gender, class, the war on terror, al-Andalus, the Rushdie Affair, and a cosmopolitan outlook), and is some of the most important and politically engaged fiction of recent years.

As you can tell from my name, I am not from a Muslim background myself, although I was fortunate enough to grow up in Leeds in West Yorkshire, surrounded by many South Asian Muslim friends. As clichéd as it may sound, my worldview has also been crucially shaped by my gap year, 1993-94, which I spent teaching English in Peshawar, Pakistan, at the age of eighteen. I went on to specialize in South Asian literature in English as a postgraduate student, and continue to fuel my interest by return visits to the Indian subcontinent and by working with diasporic communities.

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Ghoshwood’s Mendacity

"Keeping Doors Open" (Photo: Jon Elmer)

by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Claire Chambers

Novelists Amitav Ghosh and Margaret Atwood have accepted the Dan David prize at Tel Aviv University, an institution at the heart of Israel’s military-industrial complex. By doing so they have spurned Palestinian civil society’s call for boycott, divestment and sanctions on the Zionist state. Atwood has specifically ignored this wonderful open letter from the students of Gaza. The shared prize money amounts to a million dollars, of which 10 percent will be handed back to support Tel Aviv’s graduate students.

Of course it would be a mistake to expect writers to attain to higher moral standards or to to display more political intelligence than anyone else. Two things stick in the craw in this case, however. The first is that both Ghosh and Atwood have made names as ‘progressive’ and ‘postcolonial’ writers. We aren’t surprised when an openly-declared Zionist like Martin Amis visits Israel, but when writers who sell books on the basis of their opposition to oppression visit, the resultant hypocrisy is quite nauseating.

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