In Zadie Smith’s essay about the British Pakistani writer Hanif Kureishi, she recalls his debut novel, The Buddha of Suburbia, being passed around like contraband in her history class. It was treasured for its sexual freedom and punk spirit, but its most thrilling quality was not its profanity, it was its perspective. “My name is Karim Amir,” the book begins, “and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost.”
Half Indian and half British by birth, he is more likely to be considered black, Asian or Muslim in his native England. But in spite of that final designation, which casts a long shadow over perceptions of Karim’s family by their suburban neighbors, the book follows him to the pub more often than to the mosque. Kureishi’s world, populated by the “new breeds” of multiracial south London, was unlike the literary worlds of Dickens and Austen to which Smith and her schoolmates had previously been subjected. “We had a Kureishi in our class (spelt with a Q),” she remembers, “and felt we recognised the world of this novel.”
Growing up Pakistani-American, the first time I recognized myself in the world of a novel was when I read Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. In Roth’s notoriously bawdy bildungsroman, Alexander Portnoy’s coming-of-age involves his first violation of Jewish dietary law, in the form of a lobster claw. The effect of its consumption is so powerful as to cause sexual arousal. As the adult Portnoy tells his analyst:
That taboo so easily and simply broken, confidence may have been given to the whole slimy, suicidal Dionysian side of my nature; the lesson may have been learned that to break the law, all you have to do is—just go ahead and break it! All you have to do is stop trembling and quaking and finding it unimaginable and beyond you: all you have to do, is do it! What else, I ask you, were all those prohibitive dietary rules and regulations all about to begin with, what else but to give us little Jewish children practice in being repressed?