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

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

Recruitment Genius: Production Operative

£13000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to a period of sustained an...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Marketing Content Leader

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This role requires a high level...

Day In a Page

Read Next
George Osborne walks down the stairs from a submarine during a visit to the Royal Navy's submarine base at Faslane on August 31, 2015 in Faslane Scotland  

Sorry George Osborne, but it's Trident that makes us less safe, not Jeremy Corbyn

Kate Hudson
Fighters from Isis parading in Raqqa, northern Syria, where the ‘Islamic State’ has its capital; Iranian-backed Shia militia are already fighting the group on the ground in Iran  

Heartlessness towards refugees is the lifeblood of jihadist groups like Isis

Charlie Winter
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent