Permission to write? My experience of being a British Asian reader, and writer, of children’s books.
The following is a blog post I wrote in 2008. I am re-posting it now because the other day I read this article by Walter Dean Myers,
plus the one by his son
and a reaction from Tanya Byrne:
I’m re-posting my blog because what Walter Dean Myers said rang so true to me, especially what he says about Sonny’s Blues giving him ‘a permission that I didn’t know I needed, the permission to write about my own landscape, my own map.’ I believe this element of experience –the sense of being left out of books – is common to many BME writers and readers, no matter how different their cultural backgrounds. I am sad to still be reading articles on this topic. I’m angry that things haven’t changed, or haven’t changed faster.
*Re-posted from 2008 (that blog went into administration :))*
!!! My excellent brother has found the original Verna Wilkins talk online: http://www.thebookseller.com/news/tamarind-more-multicultural-writing-needed.html !!!
AN ENTIRELY PERSONAL RESPONSE TO AN IMPORTANT TOPIC
I saw this report – very well worth reading –( http://www.thebookseller.com/news/tamarind-more-multicultural-writing-needed.html) about Tamarind Books’ founder, Verna Wilkins, who has received the 2008 Diversity Award from the British Book Industry Association. You can read the report to find out the background, but essentially Verna founded Tamarind Books 20 years ago to publish books to remedy the general lack of ethnic minority characters in British children’s literature. Reading her words made me think again about a fact which is never far from my mind: although I’m half Asian, half British, all my main characters are plain white.
Why is this? I ask myself. Why don’t I write characters who are like me? Why? Why? And there’s no point saying ‘they are like you, they reflect aspects of your character, what does their ethnicity matter?’ It does matter and it’s very important. Being colour-blind is something that only white people think is easy.
I know it’s important for children to read books that feature children who are like them. I know because I remember how as a child I was drawn to The Jungle Book because it featured a child who was Indian. I know how excited I was when I found my first ever book featuring a modern Asian child – My Mate Shofiq – and how disappointed I was when it turned out to be all about the usual things Asian children can expect in books: bullying and racism. What Verna Wilkins says about books featuring non-white children being all about issues rings so true. (And when she says books featuring non-white children were ‘painfully few’ she’s right again – it is painful to realise you are invisible in the book world you love).
In the books I read while growing up, being non-white was treated – well-meaningly, of course, and I do appreciate that these books were good and important in their way – as an issue, just like drug-taking or poverty. It led to Problems. White children could cavort happily in magical lands, through wardrobes and under lamp-posts, down rabbit-holes and across secret islands, without worrying that anyone would call them names based on the colour of their skin, or bar their parents from jobs, or refuse them entry to clubs, or simply let them know, without need even for speech, that they were, intrinsically, at an atomic level, Wrong.
Asian children in books, meanwhile, had to trudge morosely around council estates, waiting for skin-heads to call them Paki. This was not the stuff my semi-Asian dreams were made of. What I wanted to read about back then was Mohammed runs away to sea, Fahim on Kirrin Island, Halima’s pet dragon.
So now that I have the chance, now that I know I can write children’s books and with any luck get them published, why don’t I write main characters who are Asian, or British-Asian, or mixed-race, or mixed-culture? Why don’t I write Fatima in Wonderland? It upsets me, this question, because I feel I am failing the children like me who need to see themselves portrayed as normal in books.
Here, with no attempt at order or logic, at priorities, with no attempt at anything except to honestly set down what enters my mind, are some possible answers:
- Because whenever I think of writing about an Asian or part-Asian character, I feel instantly exhausted – beaten down hopeless somehow – at the thought of all the things I would have to explain to the reader.
- I couldn’t even begin writing a simple story without explaining what it’s like to not feel normal. I would have t explain the things I know – chapatis, saris, aunties, religion and the lack of it, control, culture, taking off your shoes when you go into a house, parties where the women sit in one room and the men in the other – and I’d have to explain the things I don’t know – Bengali, the Koran, cooking – and why I don’t know them, and before you know it, I’d be writing an issue novel, about how Terribly Difficult it is Not Being White But Not Being Particularly Anything Else Either. Which is exactly what I want to avoid.
- I don’t naturally come up with ideas featuring Asian children. When I think of characters, they tend to be white. Guess why? Because more than 99.9 % of the books I read as a child featured white main characters. When Europeans colonised the world, they colonised the world’s imagination too. Just like Verna’s little boy painting his self-portrait pink, I can’t help imagining the heroes in books to be white. Let’s have a look at those titles again: Mohammed runs away to sea, Fahim on Kirrin Island, Halima’s pet dragon. Just writing these ideas down, there’s something about them that I can’t take seriously. It’s the names. They read as if they’re taken from some worthy reading scheme that dutifully inserts multi-cultural names into every fifth book, with the aim of meeting a government target on equality . We all know no real children’s book would have a main character called Mohammed – oh, unless he was due to be forced into an arranged marriage, or possibly set up as a suicide bomber.
- After all, I’m 50 % white and 50% not. Can I write a believable 100% Asian character? I’m not sure at all that I can. But I don’t doubt my ability to write a 100% white character. Well, naturally, all my life I’ve lived in a context where white was normal, where it was the white sector that you defered to and tried to fit in with. So of course I’m better at pretending to be white than I am at pretending to be Asian. And I presumably write a more believable white character as a result. ( 2014 – I think I’m all confused here. I’m thinking like the publisher who told an Asian author that his characters were ‘not authentically Asian’. What is a ‘believable 100% Asian character’? That’s exactly why we need a plurality, diversity of voices, so we don’t fall into the trap of thinking that there’s only ‘one story’).
- Who wants to be the stroppy Asian when no-one wants to rock the boat? Publishing in general obviously doesn’t see the problem in the lack of non-white main characters, or if it does, doesn’t care enough to make a fuss. 20 years ago Verna Wilkins started Tamarind Books, and we’re still in the process of ‘redressing the balance in children’s books’. (and in 2014 Walter Dean Myers wonders if anyone even cares).
Go to a large, multi-ethnic British city like Birmingham. Look around you: how many non-white faces do you see? Now go to a big bookshop in the same city. Look along the bookshelves. How many non-Anglo-Saxon names do you find? How many books do you find that feature non-white children? (Consider chapter books too, not just picture books). While the adult fiction section is ablaze with writing from all around the world, the children’s section is sort of like Devon. You may even find that books with non-white characters – everything from Noughts and Crosses to books about celebrating Divali – are shelved together in a well-meaning little ghetto in the corner, under ‘Multicultural’ or some such. Why aren’t they shelved in with the other, normal books? Is it because not being white is still, in children’s book world, considered a sectionable offence? Do people imagine that children cannot possibly be interested in reading about children of any other skin colour or culture ? Children are brighter and better than that – or they can be, if we give them the chance to be.
I may or may not achieve anything of worth during my time on this planet, but at the very least, I’m glad of this: that my non-Anglo-Saxon name is on the spine of a few books in the children’s section, doing its tiny, passive bit to redress the imbalance. I’m glad that if a child with a name like mine wanders into the bookshop and glances along the books , they will find at least one name that will allow them the possibilty of thinking ‘Hey, maybe someone like me could write books like this too’. Maybe that child will grow up to write books for children. And maybe – let’s hope – he or she won’t feel the complexity and confusion that I feel about putting my face into my books.
So that was 2008. How have things changed? Well, I can now name more British BME writers than I could back then. Tanya Byrne, Sarwat Chadda, Sita Brahmachari, for starters. But I think most people would still struggle to name more Black British children’s writers than Malorie Blackman and Benjamin Zephaniah. I took my toddler to the library the other day and the only book I found on the shelves that featured Black British children as main protagonists in normal stories set in Britain (as opposed to traditional tales, or one of several children of different shades ) were Let’s Feed the Ducks and Let’s Have Fun by Pamela Venus. They are good books. My toddler was really engaged by them. He likes books with human characters doing things he does himself. BUT both books were published by Tamarind Press – why aren’t there more books like this? Why hasn’t Verna Wilkins’ example been followed by other publishers?
To be clear, I don’t think that there is some kind of ‘plot’ to keep BME writers off the shelves, characters out of books. I think the reasons behind the lack of both writers and characters are complex, but there’s no doubt that it’s a problem. As Walter Dean Myers says, children need to find themselves in books. They also need to find themselves as writers. They need to know, to see, that they have permission to write, to tell the world as they see it. It is not simply a matter of needing more representations of BME characters in children’s books. We need more BME authors of children’s books, because the voice that tells the story has the power.
I want to put a reading list of British BME authors (rather than characters) on this website. If you have authors to recommend, please do so, in the comments!