Did I Know Enough to Be British?

Is literature interwoven with the building and maintaining of national identity? That rather begs the question: What is national identity? It’s a question that we’ve become obsessed with in Britain, especially since the introduction in 2005 of the citizenship test for immigrants applying for a U.K. passport. The government-published book, Life in the United Kingdom, that applicants have to study, gives some key historical information (about the Magna Carta, for example) but also tries to paint a picture of how we Brits supposedly go about our daily lives and what’s important to us.

I remember taking one of the online tests that immediately sprang up, to see if I knew enough to be truly British. I did fine on the historical questions. The other stuff was trickier. I couldn’t name the four national saint’s days in order (Saints David, Patrick, George, and Andrew). PG, I guessed, was one of the nation’s favorite brands of teabags. It is—but in the book, PG was the “Parental Guidance” part of the cinema classification system. I did guess right that if we spill someone’s pint in the pub, what we are supposed to do is offer to buy them another. (Although I had been tempted to plump for another option, which was to prepare for a fight in the car park. That might be more accurate, in certain pubs at least.)

What Life in the United Kingdom pointed up was the seeming impossibility of agreeing on what the British identity, for which applicants are signing up, actually is. Newspaper columnists frothed fulsomely. Everyone appeared to disagree with everyone else. It’s not hard to see why. What’s important to some, for example saints’ days, makes not a whit of difference to me. Even our “core” values are being questioned daily. According to the government, to be British we should hold the “traditional values of mutual tolerance and respect for rights and mutual concern.” But how does tolerance intersect with freedom of speech? Should we be tolerant of Muslim clerics who broadcast against homosexuality? Will the increased state sponsorship of religious schools foster mutual concern, or lead to more division?

So what about literature? Can fiction build or maintain our national identity when we are in such a state of flux, when (despite the official version) no two people in my country can agree on who we are and what we stand for? In our modern, multicultural world, one that has become geographically unbound, perhaps literature too has become unanchored. It can only add a sense of rootlessness, as writers and books traverse the globe. Certainly the university departments of post-colonial literature are behind the times. We’ve moved beyond that. V. S. Naipaul has spoken of writing “from the periphery.” But there is no longer a center against which the margin can be measured. And if there were, it would have to include Naipaul himself in his Wiltshire manor house.

This is not just a question of geography, of migration patterns. It’s also about trends in fiction itself. We’re all postmodernists now. Or at least we must give a nod to the idea that fiction cannot reliably hold up a mirror to an individual life. And if fiction can’t do that, then what hope for telling the story of a nation?

I believe just the opposite—that fiction is still essential to the way that a nation understands itself, perhaps more so than ever before. I’ll give two examples from the States. Both hinge on momentous events. The first is Tom Piazza’s novel City of Refuge, which tells the story of two New Orleans families caught up in Hurricane Katrina. Piazza also wrote a very good nonfiction book about Katrina, but it is the novel that really allows the reader to pause and reflect on what that disaster and the government’s response (or non-response) meant for those who were caught up in it. With Katrina, as with every major event in the West, the news coverage was instant, huge, intense, and frequently ill-informed. Nonfiction goes some way to remedy that; it is essential in uncovering the lies. But it is fiction that reveals the truth; the emotional truths that delineate the state and psyche of the nation, as the disaster and its repercussions unfurl. In an age when information comes at us in unreliable tides, and when on-the-spot “analysis” is served up 24 hours a day, there we may harbor an even greater desire for something that reflects more deeply on national events. Joseph O’Neill’s fine novel, Netherland, captures the darkness and disintegration of post-9/11 New York, and its success appears to attest to that desire.

Of course it’s not only major events by which a nation reckons itself. In Britain, the only thing we can say for sure about our national identity is that it is changing around us, faster now than in previous generations. How better than through fiction to reflect and examine that change? We have a national literature now; that it is created by a multitude of diverse voices, many originally from other countries, that it presents a plurality of ideas and themes and perspectives, in no way detracts from its role. Indeed that is what makes it our national literature. It gives us a picture of ourselves that the government’s own work of fiction, Life in the United Kingdom, fails to paint.