Courage mon amie, I say to Julie Myerson. Her new book, The Lost Child, is a candid reflection on her son Jake, whose teenage cannabis habit led to a calamitous family breakdown and his ejection from the home. All week the writer has been vilified as heartless, an evil mother, and a canny money-spinner selling her own flesh for cash.
Pray why the molten vituperation? Because she rejects the Victorian codes of bourgeois family life, where chintz and decorum concealed domestic unrest, violence, betrayal and malice. In his fascinating BBC series on 19th-century art, Jeremy Paxman revealed the sordid realities behind many an idealised family portrait.
The recession and costume dramas have brought on fresh nostalgia for those corseted times of thrift and containment when society appeared safe and sound – even though it was as least as "broken" as ours is today. The romanticised Fifties similarly buried family crises. Myerson may have become the first victim of this urge to go back to the future. Her face has replaced Fred Goodwin's in the hall of treachery. The self-righteous want society once again to hide secrets and lies and put on a good front.
Myerson's crime is that she is unflinchingly honest. Some of her friends now say she should have softened or withheld the story, or pretended it was "fiction". That is a trick used by countless writers who haven't the guts to write about real experiences – one of the hardest things to do, with consequences that usually sour financial gain even for authors who have churned out bestsellers.
The black barrister Constance Briscoe wrote about her struggles to overcome a blighted childhood, and was taken to court by her mother. Frank McCourt, author of Angela's Ashes, an account of his squalid childhood, has had endless flack, as have others accused of producing "misery porn". It ain't easy for those who feel they must publish and be damned.
I would say that, wouldn't I? I frequently use personal experience in columns and books and even in a one-woman show. But the reasons are less cynical than they might appear. What I do comes partly out of a passionate opposition to cultural protectionism. Asians are brought up never to expose what goes on behind the closed doors of homes, the secure gates around communities, cultures and faiths. We don't wash our linen in public because so much is so dirty, spattered with unspeakable truths. Coming to the West opened up the incarcerated feelings in many of us and gave us a voice to speak out. Asian women who have published their stories of murderous husbands and of oppressive dads, mums and in-laws remain the unforgiven.
When I wrote a short autobiography 10 years ago, half the family cut me off. One because I said she had "generous hips" – which she did. In my show I dramatise a formative experience – a father who refused to speak to me until he died because as a teenager I played Juliet to a black African Romeo. I didn't know until now that Myerson was similarly rejected by her dad.
Now I have a new food memoir, The Settler's Cookbook, which I read on Radio Four this week. I haven't been able to sleep through the night for a week because I can imagine the rage it will whip up, even though this is a tender recollection. Some of my people will love the opening up of memories. Members of my clan will be apoplectic; some mosque elders will say I am being perfidious, some old friends will not talk to me as they once did, the ex-husband's family will be hurt and he may find new reason to hate me.
British patriots too are offended by the book, which is a love letter to London, a city both receptive and yet sometimes callous and cold towards incomers. Jane Kelly, in her published response to an extract, wonders why I live in England when I am uncomfortable with Gordon Brown's "Britishness" and "liberal fundamentalists". So all Englanders, then are liberal fundamentalists and proudly British? Patently not, but an "ethnic" must be. We have a duty to spin for GB. Someone called Stephen emails to say he worked for the Immigration Service and would arrange for my deportation if he was still there.
Yet we "cannibalistic" scribes are compelled to carry on. In return, the people we describe must have their say too, however hurtful. Jake has spoken out against his mum – which is his right, surely. Julie Myerson has to accept that, as do I. She has done herself proud, and us a service, by exposing the new age of hypocrisy.Reuse content