Afua Hirsch

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - PATRICK FREYNE - MARTINA EVANS

The Brit(ish) prob­lem fil­tered through the darkest of fairy tales



Jonathan Cape, 318pp, £16.99

In his Nobel lec­ture, Isaac Ba­she­vis Singer ar­gued that sto­ry­tellers might have the best chance of any­one to “res­cue civil­i­sa­tion”. Afua Hirsch must be up there with the best of the res­cuers be­cause she has pro­duced a daz­zling book of sto­ries; dark as the darkest of fairy tales, sto­ries of mis­taken iden­tity, of rob­bery and mur­der, of slav­ery, in­jus­tice and cru­elty of such mag­ni­tude that the ex­tent and weight of Brit(ish), her book on race, iden­tity and be­long­ing, is al­most un­bear­able. But all th­ese sto­ries are true and Brit(ish) is, de­spite ev­ery­thing, a hope­ful book.

The book is di­vided into eight packed chap­ters, cov­er­ing top­ics such as “Class”, “Bod­ies” and “Ori­gins”. Brit(ish) deals in black his­tory, pol­i­tics, iden­tity and Africa – in par­tic­u­lar Sene­gal and Ghana – but its beat­ing heart is Hirsch’s per­sonal mem­oir. Chap­ter one, “Where Are You From?” be­gins in af­flu­ent Wim­ble­don, where Hirsch grew up. Her par­ents “scrimped and saved from immigrant be­gin­nings” to pro­vide a mid­dle-class life­style, in­clud­ing 11 years of pri­vate ed­u­ca­tion for their daugh­ter. But school friends and neigh­bours were white, the char­ac­ters in chil­dren’s books were white and Hirsch with a white fa­ther and a Ghana­ian mother felt “at odds with” her “en­vi­ron­ment” es­pe­cially be­cause, “Most of the well-heeled res­i­dents of my sub­urbs would pre­fer to say that they don’t see race at all ... but since there was no such things as race then there was no space in which it could mat­ter.” Later on she con­cludes, “The era of racism with­out racists has been the story of my life.”

Scar­ily live

In 1961, when my mother de­cided to chris­ten me Martina after St Martin de Por­res (pa­tron saint of mixed-race and heal­ing, among other things), one woman ex­pressed her sur­prise that my mother “would call her child after a black man”. When she told me this story, it was the first time I re­alised that racism was scar­ily alive. I’d read about slav­ery in books but I thought the bat­tle was won. And shock­ing as this story was, I still as­sumed this kind of ig­no­rant prejudice was on the way out. I thought ev­ery­one was mov­ing away from racism. Not so. I moved from Ire­land to Lon­don in 1988 and I am still learn­ing about racism’s sub­tleties and my own blind­ness. As Hirsch quotes Ben­jamin Zepha­niah, “Time has moved on and racism has evolved.”

Trau­matic kind­ness

In the chap­ter en­ti­tled “Class”, dis­cussing the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment, Hirsch says that “I know that black peo­ple are treated like crim­i­nals be­cause of my own ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing treated as a sus­pect by shop se­cu­rity guards.” In Wim­ble­don where racism sup­pos­edly didn’t ex­ist, Hirsch as a young­ster was fol­lowed around shops on the lo­cal high street. Far worse was the day her school friends told her not to worry, they didn’t con­sider her black. “This act of kind­ness is one of the most trau­matic things that ever hap­pened to me. It taught me that be­ing black is bad. It taught me that see­ing race has sin­is­ter con­se­quences.”

When I men­tion fairy tales, I am think­ing of Blue­beard in par­tic­u­lar – a story about look­ing and not look­ing. Most peo­ple pre­fer not to look; they don’t want to see the con­tents of the bloody cham­ber. It’s easy for white peo­ple not to look but you have to be very brave to look as hard as Hirsch does, com­pelled, mag­ne­tised from a young age. Here is a sense of some­one who is writ­ing not only to make sense of the racism she di­rectly ex­pe­ri­enced or the wide­spread racism she has ob­served, she’s writ­ing to save her own life and the lives of oth­ers.

Sav­ing lives might sound dra­matic but it’s lit­er­ally as well as sym­bol­i­cally true. In the “Class” chap­ter, Hirsch dis­cusses the end­less stop-and-search ha­rass­ment suf­fered by black men and the too-fre­quent in­ci­dents of young black men dy­ing at the hands of the po­lice.

You re­ally would want to be blind not to know what’s go­ing on, although some peo­ple man­age to be more con­cerned by the un­der­stand­able protests that fol­low. On July 17th, 2017, Rashan Charles, a 20-year-old black man, died on the floor of a Dal­ston shop less than five min­utes from where I live with my daugh­ter. The video footage re­leased on­line is too hard to watch – a slen­der child-like fig­ure strug­gling on the floor un­der the full force of the adult po­lice­man who pur­sued him. Hirsch de­scribes the heart-break­ing case of Mzee Mo­hammed, who died trag­i­cally in sim­i­lar cir­cum­stances in 2016.

Up lift­ing and tragic

It is im­pos­si­ble to do jus­tice to the scope of this book. Hirsch has a wide ex­pe­ri­ence of bat­tling with as­pects of race and iden­tity in her work as a hu­man rights bar­ris­ter and as a jour­nal­ist. The book teems with fas­ci­nat­ing and up­lift­ing as well as tragic sto­ries – peo­ple she has in­ter­viewed, her friends’ sto­ries, the co­in­ci­dence be­hind her meet­ing with Sam, her part­ner, a sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Ghana­ian from Tot­ten­ham.

De­spite or per­haps be­cause she doesn’t feel quite Bri­tish or Ghana­ian, Hirsch has a par­tic­u­lar gift for de­scrib­ing both coun­tries. This is writ­ing that re­ally shines. The sounds and smells of Africa come alive with vivid­ness and force and she has an ar­chi­tect’s eye, too, so that even the view from a car­riage on the District Line leaps off the page.

The chap­ter “Ori­gins” pro­vides a dense, eye-open­ing slice of his­tory – Bri­tain’s re­la­tion­ship with slav­ery and the coloni­sa­tion of Ghana. If we’re in any doubt about the con­tin­ued abuse of Africa, Trump’s re­cent re­marks about “s**thole coun­tries” should make us think again. Hirsch’s cool, clear-eyed views in this book are a gift we can’t ig­nore.

Martina Evans is a poet and nov­el­ist. Her books in­clude Petrol and The Win­dows of Grace­land: New and Se­lected Po­ems


Flo­ral trib­utes for Rashan Charles, whose death in east Lon­don caused anger in the lo­cal com­mu­nity. Left, Afua Hirsch, whose book on race, iden­tity and be­long­ing, is al­most un­bear­able.

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