Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: I'm all for washing my family's dirty linen in public

Julie Myerson's only crime is that she is unflinchingly honest

Share
Related Topics

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.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst Consultant (Financial Services)

£60000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

Systems Administrator - Linux / Unix / Windows / TCP/IP / SAN

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading provider in investment managemen...

AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer

£600 - £700 per day: Harrington Starr: AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer JVS, ...

E-Commerce Developer

£45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Exciting opp...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The first lesson of today is... don't treat women unequally?  

Yvette Cooper is right: The classroom is the best place to start teaching men about feminism

Chris Maume
Forty per cent of global trades in euros are cleared through London  

The success enjoyed by the City of London owes nothing to the EU

Nigel Farage
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

Hollywood targets Asian audiences

The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting