[Review] The Brown Anthology edited by Sofia Amina — Daunish Negargar

The Brown Anthology: Language, ed. Sofia Amina, (૧૦:૧૦ Press, 2020), 106pp.

“The Brown Anthology series is about historical, present and future Brown, without the need or prerequisite to explain, justify or create art to suit the perception of Brown.”

So reads Sofia Amina’s publisher’s note to The Brown Anthology. This bold introduction certainly befits Amina’s project, which despite being published by her own independent micro-press ૧૦:૧૦ Press, is one of truly towering ambition. This anthology showcases a diverse range of works from authors of South Asian heritage. The poems, short stories and essays all loosely revolve around questions of language, and while predominantly written in English, are peppered with Urdu, Gujarati Tamil, Hindi and a host of other South Asian languages throughout, both in transliterations and the original script. However, Amina’s helpful translation notes at the close of the anthology ensure that this collection is accessible and enjoyable for any wishing to read it. Her drawing together of a rich tapestry of works by already published and undiscovered writers makes for an incredibly cohesive, and emotive reading experience. Indeed, The Brown Anthology highlights the rich diversity of writing, lived experiences and languages which are too often relegated in mainstream publishing to the broad categories of ‘brown’ ‘ethnic’ or the even more dreaded ‘world’ literature. This anthology is refreshing in its boldness and authenticity, particularly at a time when major publishing houses are tripping over themselves to make promises on Twitter to ‘do better’ in highlighting more authors of colour. They would do well to take notes from The Brown Anthology, which illustrates and celebrates brown authors from a range of backgrounds, whose work does not, and indeed never has required justification. 

It would be impossible to discuss the work of every author within this anthology and do them all justice. To discover the true beauty of the project, I would encourage readers to snap up their own copy and enjoy the writing and gorgeous illustrations for themselves. Nonetheless, there are a few common themes within the anthology which bear focusing on. Amina’s references to ‘historic’ and ‘present’ brown are an excellent starting point, with a number of more esoteric elements of brown history explored within the collection. Sonya Hundal is one author who writes about ‘historic’ brown. In her short story ‘Correspondence,’ detailing an Indian soldier’s experiences of fighting in the First World War she delves into an often-discussed, but little-explored pocket of Indian history. His letter home to his wife aches with poignancy, as he encourages her to explore India upon his return, writing:

It is foolish of us to stay so small and humble. The French people fight the oppressors with passion. I have come all this way to understand how little I know of how to fight for my own country.

As so many other works throughout the collection do, Hundal’s story unveils the nuanced and intertwined history of the South Asian diaspora and Britain – and gives it a human element which is so often lacking in other renditions. Indeed, many of the works in the anthology which interrogate the concept of ‘present’ brown express the alienation felt by so many brown individuals in Britain and America. The sense of not belonging to one country or the other is expressed playfully and joyfully in Leela Soma’s ‘This is my Ain Land,’ as she professes in a mixture of Scots slang and Tamil:

hame is Glesca tae

ma heart an’ soul play strange tunes rare, I’m me

not an Indian in India nor a Scot in Scotland, a new wean

fae an Indian womb, nurtured rich in tartan air.  

By contrast Farhana Khalique’s ‘Chai Tea, Naan Bread,’ betrays the conflicting feelings about her native language common to so many South Asians who have grown up in the West. She writes of her mother tongue Sylheti:

Shame I can’t read it now, let alone write it

Mother tongue dwarfed by the giant beanstalk of school

Now my words grow and climb paper walls

Where proud parents get the gist

But can’t quite follow. 

While Soma flits between her native tongue and Scots slang easily, for Khalique the mother tongue becomes more alien – something lost, and a source of anxiety. This is just one example of the rich nuance which can be found throughout this collection, as it demonstrates that ‘brown’ as we know it is not a homogenous concept, but rather a rich and multifaceted range of experiences and emotions, whether written in Gujrati, English, Urdu or any other tongue. 

The conceptualisation of language throughout The Brown Anthology is particularly fascinating, and indeed, is the main focus of the collection – which is subtitled ‘language.’ Questions about what language means and who can claim ownership of it saturate the works contained within the anthology. In Amna Naeem’s poem ‘Urdu’ she writes:

I have heard Urdu less and seen it more

 wandering barefoot wrapped in a black and white dupatta

around my angled house at the 13th hour

Here language is rendered much more than something we use to communicate, becoming rather an inextricable part of our existence – something intangible, which can be expressed through gestures as insignificant as a smile, or a smattering of henna. In K. Devan’s touching story ‘Lost in a Jangal’ Hindi becomes the only link between a grandmother with dementia and her grandchild. Understanding becomes irrelevant for the parties involved, and indeed the reader, with the untranslated Hindi words allowing us to experience the grandmother’s confusion and disorientation. Language is a bridge between the two family members, a moving expression of love in its purest form, whose meaning goes beyond comprehension or understanding. This ambitious and bold deconstruction of language features throughout the anthology, as English, Gujrati and Hindi interact within its pages both harmoniously and discordantly. 

It seems fitting that the first and last poets within the collection are amongst its most concerned with questions of language. Rukmini Bhaya Nair’s ‘Ode to Our Languages,’ which closes The Brown Anthology is breath-taking, pitting the world’s languages, from ‘Andamanese’ and ‘Angani’ to ‘Zemi’ and ‘Zou’ against one another in an epic and bloody battle. English is ‘smart, jack-booted of our languages/The one we fear the most.’ Nair writes ‘To this divinity we have willingly sacrificed/Our children, to it we kneel, babbling.’ Here, English is an aggressor which will stop at nothing to annihilate the other languages of the world. However, in ‘Mitti,’ one of the collection’s opening poems Arundhathi Subramaniam sketches the relationship between different languages more peacefully. In her poem ‘ooze, mire, manure’ and ‘mannu, matope, barro’ become equal, in ‘the democracy of tongues’ in which there are:

none superior,

none untranslatable,

all reminders

of the anthem

of muck

of which we are all made 

It is this ‘democracy of tongues’ that The Brown Anthology creates, celebrates, and operates within. The freedom with which different languages, forms, and stories dance across its pages is a thing of wonder. To return to Amina’s bold opening statement, it becomes clear after reading these vibrant and varied works that she has succeeded in her aim of presenting ‘historic, present…Brown, without the need or prerequisite to explain, justify or create art to suit the perception of Brown.’ One can only hope that ‘future’ Brown is characterised by more of the bold, refreshing and multifaceted literature and artwork which features within this marvellous anthology. 

*

Daunish Negargar is a creative editor at New Critique. He’s a big fan of modern queer literature, and is currently trying to find the determination to write his own creative work like so many of the bold contributors to New Critique whose work he so admires.

Sofia is a writer and publisher, Lancashire born and London based. She is currently exploring her writing through her languages of Gujarati and Hindi. Her micro-publishing company, ૧૦:૧૦ Press, is self-funded and will always try to push the boundaries of literature.

 

 

 

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