Ghost Town and The Casual Vacancy: Sikhs in the Writings of Western Women Novelists by Eleanor Nesbitt

Fall 2020
In 2012 the president of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee demanded that the novelist
JK Rowling removes offensive text from her novel, The Casual Vacancy. This article focuses on the
appropriateness of the Sikh-related content of two 21st-century novels –JK Rowling’s The Casual
Vacancy and Catriona Troth’s Ghost Town – against the backdrop of previous fictional portrayals
of Sikhs. Further context is provided by both Sikh and non-Sikh responses to western novelists’
portrayal of Sikh characters and social issues. Sikhs feature – as incidental figures and as
protagonists – in a substantial body of English-language fiction, much of it by British women. While
the portrayal of Sikhs in 19th- and early 20th-century novels is framed by empire and needs to be
viewed in the context of Orientalism, and especially the image of the ‘martial’ male Sikh, many
later 20th- and the 21st-century novels (mainly by women writers) are situated in the UK diaspora
and their authors express a multicultural sensibility, attentive to aspects of the Sikh faith. This, I
suggest, counters one critical opinion, namely that white writing is inherently Orientalist and that
(only) South Asian writers can avoid this white hegemonic approach. However, writers’ affirmation
of diversity needs to be interrogated for an essentialism reminiscent of Orientalism: Rowling’s
treatment is on occasion exoticizing and binary, even though Sikhs’ response to The Casual Vacancy
has been appreciative, with the exception of the SGPC’s reaction. Moreover, while action-packed
historical novels by white authors, focusing on warlike male Sikhs, have given way to diaspora
fiction with a greater concern for female Sikh characters and youth, the tradition of historical novels
featuring Sikhs continues.

Keywords: Fiction, Sikhs, western women, Orientalism, JK Rowling, Catriona Troth

Ghost Town and The Casual Vacancy: Sikhs in the Writings of Western Women Novelists by Eleanor Nesbitt – Click the PDF icon to view, right click to save as.
Eleanor Nesbitt
Professor Emeritus, Education Studies, University of Warwick

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