Exotic England: Five minutes with Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

14 Dec 2016
YAB, JD for blog.jpg
Last night, Yasmin spoke at the University about her most recent book Exotic England which is a 'tough love' letter to her adopted homeland exploring five centuries of English history and the ways it has helped to shape England's buildings, flavour its food, power its economy, and create a truly diverse society. The event was hosted by the University's Centre for English Identity and Politics in its Diverse England series.
As the country asks itself questions about its identity in the wake of Brexit, we grabbed five minutes with Yasmin during her visit to find out more about her book and her fresh perspective on 'Englishness'.
What is the England of your book Exotic England?

It's the England that is. It's the untold story of England going right back to the mid-1500s when it was already international, already open, already looking out and already people were coming in. When Shakespeare named his theatre The Globe, that tells you what England already was and continues to be. It was open and not narrow-minded and not mono-cultural. Uniquely in Europe and even in the United Kingdom, England was open.
What are the advantages of being, in your words, an 'outsider' in writing a book about a country in which you weren't born but have lived for many years?

I've said in Exotic England that there was a wonderful book written in 1947 on England by an Indian and his view was the 'insider-outsider'. He saw things that people don't if they're born into it and take them for granted. I always think that, like Bill Bryson, this insider-outsider view gives you all sorts of insights. William Dalrymple in India did exactly the same - only he could have written those books. As an insider-outsider you see things: my husband's English and he says to me: "I've never seen this, I've never thought about it."
You admire a lot about your adopted homeland and its people: can you single out one particular thing?

Yes - and I'm always angry with it too! It's not an easy place to live in but I couldn't live anywhere else. That is because of its quality of openness, its adaptability. Goodness me - its national saint St George is a Palestinian-Syrian! Its national dish is chicken tikka masala which isn't even Indian! I'm so thrilled that Prince Harry has a girlfriend who is part African-American​. It's all that which I love about England.
How do you personally navigate your own identity, having moved from Uganda to Britain as a young woman?
I just don't believe we're one identity, any of us, and I sometimes find the politics of identity a bit narrow and oppressive. You have to remember I'm a twice removed migrant: Indians moved from India to Africa and then I moved here, so for me identity is just a collection, an accumulation of lives. When I go to east Africa, I feel completely at home. In India I feel completely at home. London's my place, I absolutely love London. So I don't think that there's any great effort because life just gives you these opportunities. It's like sediments. Sadly my children are mono-cultural! I often say to them: "I feel so sorry for you - you don't know what it's like to have these multiple experiences."
Tensions around issues of diversity, equality and belonging across the whole of the UK in this time of uncertainty and insecurity are acute: how do you see them being resolved, if at all?
I'm very depressed about the world, it's not just England. Everybody is retreating into a kind of horrible nationalism and denying the best of themselves. I don't know where it will take us. I think we're in a pre-Fascist age. I was so pleased when London Mayor Sadiq Khan said 'London is open'. I think the only way I will survive this is in London which can never be white, clean or become restrictive. Although within London lots of awful things are happening - yesterday there was an incident on a London train with a man saying he wanted to kill Muslims. The Mayor doesn't exclude anyone - he doesn't put conditions on who can be British or a Londoner. The very fact that we elected him is the only bit of good news this year. It's been a difficult year in all sorts of ways. So I'm glad I live in London.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is pictured above after her lecture in The Stripe with Professor John Denham, Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester.
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