At the end of David Dabydeen’s poem ‘Coolie Odyssey’ (1988), the poet, deracinated by education, distance and time from the dirt-poor ancestors he is elegising, considers his British audience:
congregations of the educated
Sipping wine, attentive between courses –
See the applause fluttering from their white hands
Like so many messy table napkins.
The poem’s skill is part of its predicament. It raises a question that has preoccupied not only writers from Britain’s former colonies, but many of Britain’s native writers. How can a literary art, with its highly developed codes, language, conventions and traditions, do justice to those excluded (often deliberately) by those codes? And how can the applause of the self-styled owners of those conventions and traditions be other than condescending and self-congratulatory?
‘Coolie Odyssey’ begins:
Now that peasantry is in vogue
Poetry bubbles from peat bogs,
People strain for the old folk’s fatal gobs
Coughed up in grates North or North-East
’Tween bouts o’ livin dialect . . .
Dabydeen’s tacit questions – about dialect, exclusion, preservation, authenticity and vogueishness – have been dealt with explicitly by other writers: Douglas Dunn, Tony Harrison, Linton Kwesi Johnson, John Agard, Grace Nichols and Tom Leonard, to name a few. For some, ‘literary art’ is a territory to be attained (Harrison’s ‘we’ll occupy/ your lousy leasehold, poetry’), in others a rule-book to be torn up (Agard’s ‘mugging de Queen’s English’), in others again a privilege to be deconstructed (Leonard’s ‘yooz doant no/thi trooth/yirsellz cawz/yi canny talk/right’). But for all of them, the concept of the ‘literary’ is itself part of the problem.
Some twenty years later, the questions persist. Daljit Nagra’s first full-length collection, Look We Have Coming to Dover!, was greeted by an unusual degree of media attention, including a thrilled appraisal by Newsnight Review, a programme which tends to restrict its poetry discussions to the likes of Seamus Heaney. One well-meaning, napkin-fluttering commentator described Nagra as ‘the voice of British Asian poetry’. But given that his collection works pretty hard to make that epithet impossible, it is worth thinking about what is happening here.
Nagra is only Faber’s second poet of colour (the other is the Nobel prize-winner Derek Walcott). His book has been published just as the ‘under-representation’ of ‘black and ethnic minority’ poets (BEMs, in the unlovely acronym of arts workers) has occasioned a publicly financed, expensive-looking and statistically illiterate report from Arts Council England, and a new arrangement that makes Arts Council funding – of magazines and organisations – dependent on BEM representation. Nagra’s work has excited attention because he deals with the experiences of, for the most part, the British Asian working class, specifically Punjabis, and employs both standard and non-standard English to do so. He is, as one sympathetic blogger recently wrote, ‘ethnic, proud, intelligent, multicultural, sarcastic, witty and everyone’s favourite non-majority poster boy’.
But Nagra employs a self-critical metacommentary across the collection which anticipates and argues with these reactions, while deliberately not resolving them. In ‘Booking Khan Singh Kumar’, for example, he directly asks the audience whose applause he seeks: ‘Did you make me for the gap in the market/Did I make me for the gap in the market . . . Can I cream off awards from your melting-pot phase . . . Do you medal yourselves when you meddle with my type.’ There is a tart honesty here about the opportunities for a poet who can turn racial difference into entertainment: who can, so to speak, make the right noises. And while the questions asked are sarcastic, even angry, the conclusion offers a regretful confession: ‘More than your shell-like, your clack applause/What bothers is whether you’ll boo me if I balls . . .’
Nagra’s parents came to the UK from the Punjab in the 1950s. His autobiographical pieces agonise about ‘fitting in’ in the country of his birth, about mastering the right way of speaking: ‘I was one of us, at ease, so long as I passed/my voice into theirs – I didn’t bud-bud ding-ding/on myself.’ In ‘In a White Town’, he writes of his mother that ‘I would have felt more at home had she hidden/that illiterate body’; but his mother is, of course, illiterate only in English; she laughs at her son’s own ‘stuttered Punjabi’.
Most of these autobiographical pieces are conventionally written, and straightforward about the emotions at stake – an uneasy mix of suffocation, anger, embarrassment, ‘shame of blood-desertion’, love and loyalty – but several are markedly ironic in their handling of literacy and literary conventions. In ‘Arranged Marriage’, an unwilling groom describes the undesired ceremony in caustic detail, including the stuffing of ladoos (‘saffron-coloured sweetmeats’) into his mouth by female relatives. Then suddenly he breaks into unexpected alliterative distich:
Numb, I sat necklaced in flowers,
a costumed prat from another world,
as the cash bedded between my lap I deadened my head inside the turban
from holy muzak of moaning harmonium
(and buk-buk-buk that bored me rigid),
still feeling sick when my deaf grandad
started to let rip in fake posh-Indian:
Who says today’s children don’t eat the old food?
The quirky deployment of a pastiche Old English metric is a violent reaction to his cultural background; the adoption of an ancient, pseudo-national poetic mode (probably now read mostly by poets and students) seems to be a rejection of one culture for another. But might the grandfather’s remark be further ironised by the fact that ‘today’s children’ are ingesting the (fake, posh) old verse forms? Or is Nagra satirising both forms of cultural atavism?
In ‘Yobbos!’, Nagra complicates these issues further. Reading Paul Muldoon’s ‘sharp lemon-skinned/Collected Poems’ on the train home, he is abused by a racist passenger: ‘Some Paki shit, like,/eee’s loookin into!’ Finding Muldoon’s use of names like ‘Badhbh’, ‘Cailidin’ (both Gaelic) and ‘Salah-eh-Din’ (Arabic) confusing, he wants to reply: ‘Well mate, this Paki’s more British than that inde-/cipherable, impossibly untranslatable/sod of a Paddy,’ before catching himself, ‘my throat gungeing/on its Cromwellian vile’. It’s handled well, right down to the Muldoonish line breaks and pararhymes (‘inde-’/ ‘Paddy’ etc – though the parody could have been taken further), and neatly delivers its reminder that being ‘civilised’ generally involves being shamelessly barbaric to the ‘barbarians’.
On the other hand, Nagra’s comic monologues, written in a language he has described as ‘Punglish’ or ‘Punjabi-accented English’, entertain through his consciously literary representation of the less literate, as in ‘The Speaking of Bagwinder Singh Sagoo!’, whose narrator, baffled by his smarter wife’s liberated ways, says things like ‘cardigan arrest’ and ‘odour toilet’, and concludes: ‘what is England happening for us?’ Given that this sort of voice is the staple of the worst British sitcoms of the past few decades, one might ask who is laughing here, and at what? But there are only a few of these monologues in the volume, and in most of them the knowing mutations of parts of speech are there for their effect rather than being genuinely idiomatic: Bibi, for instance, a widow who despairs of the Westernisation of her daughter-in-law, speaks of the ‘legs/of KFC microphoning her mouth’. And that metaphor is part of a more elaborate conceit about performance and identity; at times, Bibi’s voice has Nagra’s fingerprints all over it.
Similarly, in ‘Rapinder Slips into Tongues . . .’, Rapinder, the Sikh-born narrator, is telling his Catholic schoolteacher that he instinctively joined in the Hail Marys when watching the film Amar, Akbar, Anthony, causing his father to freak out. He describes his father as
shouting in ‘our’ language
Vut idiot! If you vunt to call on Gud,
call anytime on anyvun of our ten gurus . . .
Now, where do the inverted commas around ‘our’ come from? Surely not from young Rapinder, whose monologue is in any case spoken, and whose character has a charming ingenuousness. And what language did his father speak in? It could be Punjabi (with the quote marks around ‘our’ reflecting the son’s cultural ambivalence), but in that case, why render the translation in a funny English? Or it could be the funny English (with ‘our’ meaning the English of the teacher and Rapinder, but in quotation marks to indicate a distance between their ‘good’ English and his father’s mocked delivery). Neither seems quite right: the quotation marks are, I think, a gesture towards the hybridity and inbetweenness that interests Nagra – at the expense, for a moment, of the lively realism of the rest of the poem.
Nagra worries, in other poems, about the ethics of these routines: ‘should I read for you straight or Gunga Din this gig’; ‘whatever voice i put on/i know i’m heading for bother.’ He also allows the stories in the book to comment on one another. So in ‘The Furtherance of Mr Bulram’s Education’, Bulram, an elitist Sikh who has studied English literature and become a teacher, worries about his working-class Indian neighbours. He grows roses in pots; they grow cardamom, swede, coriander, vegetables in every available space. He has mastered ‘the diction of Dr Johnson,/the Homeric canon’; they – ‘onion-breath Calibans’ – want him to teach them ‘Queen’s/ quick “shop-keeper” English!!!’ Not for the first time, the questions of literacy and culture are identified as much with class as with ethnicity; the collection is notable for its subtle but persistent attention to the pressures of work and money.
Bulram, a snobbish but baffled character (one of several here), is partly a self-criticism of Nagra himself, who has read the English canon but no Punjabi poetry, and who sprinkles his work with epigraphs, allusions and references (to Matthew Arnold, Shakespeare, Kipling, Heaney, Orwell). In the exorbitantly titled ‘Kabba Questions the Ontology of Representation, the Catch 22 for “Black” Writers . . .’, a father takes to task – with some justice – the GCSE poetry anthology in which canonical figures appear in Part One (including the working-class Scottish writer Carol Ann Duffy) and Part Two offers ‘Poems from Other Cultures and Traditions’ (including several coloured writers, but also, confusingly, the working-class Scot Tom Leonard). Seamus Heaney – who isn’t British and doesn’t live in Britain – is in Part One. Nagra’s character Kabba takes this on:
For Part 2, us
as a bunch of Gunga Dins ju group, ‘Poems
from Udder Cultures
and Traditions’. ‘Udder’ is all
vee are to yoo, to dis cuntry –
‘Udder’? To my son’s kabbadi
yor poets are ‘Udder’!
After having a fine old time assaulting the patronising cultural guff of the well-meaning ‘free-minding’ teacher, Kabba turns on his own creator:
Yoo teachers are like
dis Dalgit-Bulram mickeying
of me as Kabba . . .
. . . So vut di coconut do – too shy to uze
his voice, he plot me
as ‘funny’, or a type, even vurse –
so hee is uzed in British antologies –
he hide in dis whitey ‘fantum’
to make me sound ‘poreign’!
That is the dilemma, variously negotiated in this book: ‘he plot me/as “funny”, or a type, even vurse.’ The volume’s epigraph, taken from Orwell’s ‘Marrakech’, in England Your England, is: ‘The people have brown faces – besides, there are so many of them! Are they really the same flesh as yourself? Do they even have names? Or are they merely a kind of undifferentiated brown stuff.’ Nagra’s use of monologues, and (importantly) of named characters (Suka, Bibi, Bagwinder Singh Sagoo, Rapinder, Bulram, Jaswinder, Kabba etc), is an attempt to differentiate the community he writes about; to introduce the tensions of class, culture, gender and age that prevent an entire ethnic group becoming (as he has it elsewhere) ‘we badly lumped blacks’.
What Nagra does feel he has taken specifically from working-class Punjabi culture is a noisy excitement; in an interview he has said: ‘When in doubt, use an exclamation mark . . . English poetry is really quiet, isn’t it? Really calm. Mine is full-on. These poems don’t whisper, they shout. The characters are frenetic and hectic, because that’s the way I remember my community.’ Of the 31 titles in Look We Have Coming to Dover!, nine contain an exclamation mark. Furthermore, there is a refreshing lack of propriety in the twisted language and cartoonish comedy of several pieces; as Nagra has said, ‘it feels liberating and wonderful that Faber should want to take on a book that contains such silly stories and gossip and slapstick.’ It has, indeed, an unusual vivacity – a multicolour, singing-and-dancing vivacity – which satirises stuffiness and conformity as much as the narrative content does. The profusion of exclamation marks, the thick swatch of adjectives, the rogueishly wandering parts of speech: this excess, perversely, is one of the merits of Nagra’s style.
But at the same time it is not always easy to tell, between the broken English of the monologues and the flashy poetic catachresis in many of the poems, whether certain effects and bafflements are deliberate. The typos (‘Barrett home’, ‘Vasaikhi’) certainly aren’t; and though a phrase like ‘the whole of India sundering/out’ might be a fusion of ‘surging’ and ‘thundering’ that also acknowledges the differences within a mass, it’s hard to know for sure. There are some sentences in which syntax, grammar, metaphor and punctuation collapse deliberately – the gnarled centre of ‘Karela!’ precisely mimics its literal and figurative subject-matters, for example – but there are others in which a similar effect looks more like sloppy writing, and editing, than an aesthetic decision. Nagra is surely right, though, that the problems of division – whether of class, ethnicity, nation, gender, religion or culture – are not merely reflected but embodied in language; right too that homogenisation is as dangerous as division. It will be interesting to see whether, in future poems, he pushes his disorientations of language further, or instead chooses to cultivate the well-behaved, familiar style in which the least interesting poems are written. The pressure to fit in, which drives much of the drama of this book, is an aesthetic problem as well as a social one.
Beneath the exuberance and charm of the collection there are fierce undercurrents that reviewers have tended to ignore. The celebratory communal pieces – especially ‘All We Smiley Blacks!’ – hide sly gestures at conflict and difficulty beneath their glossy surface. The Guantánamo-tinged, e.e. cummings-style poem ‘X’ is an affecting description of the racist logic of the state. And Nagra’s identically titled parody of Seamus Heaney’s ‘Digging’ – perhaps a de rigueur gesture for a younger poet joining a particular club – is unsettling in its refusal of the original poem’s sentimentality and sense of lineage.
In Heaney’s ‘Digging’, the poet takes up his pen as his rural forefathers took up spade and hoe. In Nagra’s ‘Digging’, the narrator’s sense of not being rooted in any culture – neither rose nor cardamom – leads him to dig, not into Heaney’s fertile ancestral soil, but into his own flesh, with a Stanley knife, eliciting
a cry from some of myself.
So this is me. This
jameen. This meat
for which I war
He has carved, from his leg, a slice the shape and size of a passport photo.