So you might have seen that I’ve added a new page to the site, titled Megaphone. I’m delighted to say that I’ve been awarded funding by Arts Council England and by The Publishers Association Children’s Book Group in association with EQUIP, to deliver a new writer development scheme, based in Birmingham and aimed at Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority writers who want to write their first novel for children. There will be masterclasses from an absolutely superb line-up of children’s authors, top literary agent Julia Churchill of A M Heath, and feedback from the best editors working in the business of children’s publishing today. A dedicated website is coming in a couple of weeks, but till then please follow @MegaphoneWrite on Twitter to keep up to date.
There’s background to this – if you’d like to know more about why i feel a scheme like Megaphone is needed, check out this piece I wrote for book blog Vulpes Libris: https://vulpeslibris.wordpress.com/2015/09/28/childrens-literature-for-white-children-only/
I’ve felt more action towards diversity was needed for a very long time, and had the initial idea for Megaphone about two years ago, but it was a new departure for me (plus I have a toddler!) so everything took a long time to come together. I’m so pleased that it finally has, and look forward to discovering great new voices in British children’s literature!
I’m so pleased and excited to have Raj Lal’s response to re-reading Shanta on the blog. I’ve known Raj since she was on the MA in Writing at Warwick University, but met her again at a recent Writing West Midlands networking event. The Walter Dean Myers article had just come out and we were discussing the unfortunate fact that, even in 2014, hardly any children’s books in the UK and USA feature non-white protagonists. Raj told me about Shanta, and her words really resonated for me. It struck me that I rarely heard people speak about the impact that finding ‘someone like me’ in a book has had on them – but that perhaps if they did speak or write about it, its importance would be more widely understood. Above all, as a writer for children, I found it so encouraging to hear how a book can touch a reader deeply, stay in a heart and a mind, make a difference. Enough from me – here’s Raj, exploring her response, as an adult, to the book where she first found ‘someone like me.’ :
Re-reading Shanta 40+ Years On
I first read Shanta by Marie Thøger (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1961) in about 1970. There was magic for me in that book. Shanta, the protagonist, was only a few years older than me. It made me feel that someone, somewhere, had thought that India, and little Indian girls like me were important enough to write about when everyone around me seemed to think we were strange, smelly little creatures with oiled hair in pigtails who were expected not to speak English at all, never mind well.
For years, a copy of Shanta sat on my bookcase. I was scared to read it again, afraid that the book I had read as a young girl in junior school would disappoint me as an adult. Encouraged by Leila Rasheed to re-read it, I decided to see how the story had changed for me with age and experience.
My heart lurched halfway down the first page at the reference to a brown girl sitting in red dirt threading flowers onto a straw. But I read on, and was rewarded with a coming of age story about a young girl coming to terms with changes around her: old ways of living changed by modern thought and modern methods; and learning adult ways to prepare for marriage. Shanta faces tragedy and learns how to cope when life takes unforeseen paths.
There are some beautiful descriptions nestled in the pages: electric light helps to make the night shorter; the theories of how the mountains near the maharaja’s town came to be; the safety of Shanta’s village compared with the strangeness of the town and its people; the sharp contrast of caste status between town and village; and how the world becomes different when a child’s perspective begins to shift towards adulthood.
There were other things which did not sit so well: references to ‘dark’ people; the bus loaded with people inside and outside, a new sight but described as ‘typically Indian’; the drinking of milk straight from a coconut when it should be water because coconut milk does not occur naturally in the shell; girls are taught to obey and please their husbands; Shanta has no choice in the marriage which is arranged for her and seems to have no say in what happens in her life.
Even the blurb written by the Editor of Puffin Books, which I read last in case it contained plot spoilers, begins with generalisations which hint at all Indian children having to go hungry, carry water and do field work from an early age. While this may be true for some, it does not apply to everyone.
But the thing that made me feel most proud of having loved this book, and pleased to have read again, was that the young, naïve Shanta at the beginning of the book who had no control over her life, had grown to become a role model not just for other little girls but women too.
A few questions
Leila: The language you use in the review is so emotive – ‘proud’, ‘heart lurching.’ I absolutely know what you mean, I’ve felt that heart lurch feeling too, (unfortunately most recently when reading Rider Haggard and Jules Verne and coming across certain racist passages that stopped me reading any further). Do you think there’s a sense in which we don’t want to be let down by the books we loved as a child? Almost as if they were people –role models, in a way? Is that a feeling you recognise?
Raj: There’s definitely a sense of not wanting to be let down when revisiting old stories. That’s why it took me over forty years to re-read Shanta – and then only thanks to that final shove you gave me by encouraging me! It took me years to track down a copy of the book, and then I had years of picking it up to read but the sense of fear was so strong I’d put the book back on the shelf without even opening it. I thought the little girl who had inspired me was better as a figment of my imagination; too many years had passed for it to be regarded as a true memory. I didn’t want to lose that sense of ‘belonging’. I didn’t want to feel disappointed by discovering that Shanta was anything other than the role model I had clung to for most of my life.
Shanta had made me feel important, because a little Indian girl was important enough to be the main character in a book. I had only been living in England about two years when I read Shanta for the first time. I suppose there was also an element of familiarity because the book was set in India, the country of my birth, even though the India I had left behind was nothing like Shanta’s world: I grew up in the busiest bazaar in a town in the Punjab and attended an English Medium School (which means it taught in English). I came to England at a time when racism towards immigrants was overt. The white children at the junior school I attended would not think twice about pointing out our ‘otherness’: our colour, our smell, the way we wore our hair or whatever the taunt of each particular day happened to be. I could relate to Shanta simply because she was Indian. I felt that I didn’t need to explain myself to her. She would understand me because she was like me.
Leila: I said that I don’t hear people talking about the impact that finding ‘someone like me’ in a book has had on them, but maybe it’s because I’m not listening hard enough or am not in the right conversations! Is this something you speak to people about?
Raj: I don’t think it’s a question of not listening hard enough. I think there are many issues to consider here. Shanta was the only Asian character I came across until probably Meera Syal’s Meena in Anita and Me, and you said Mowgli was the only Asian character you’d found in a book. That doesn’t give non-‘white’ children many characters to relate to since the 1960s, does it? That’s probably why people are still not having conversations about the impact of finding ‘someone like me’. It’s because they can’t.
Perhaps people my age, who have older children, are in a reading void because there are not yet any grandchildren to read to. Sadly, with the findings of the Walter Dean Myers article, it seems that unless things change soon, there won’t be any characters my own grandchildren might be able to identify with. Also, I think maybe people are either not finding time to read, or are not reading a broad spectrum of books. I read books intended for any age, child or adult, and I don’t mind reading lots of different genres. Perhaps other readers are not doing the same and therefore don’t know which characters they might relate to are out there waiting to be discovered.
I’ll also confess to having issues after reading certain books recently. Despite being published by major publishing houses, the writing quality has been poor, or the story has been weak. As a writer, I’ve persevered with reading them to the end in order to learn how to avoid making similar mistakes. If I were reading them as a non-writer, I doubt I would have read them beyond the first few pages, or perhaps the first chapter or two. I certainly would not have wanted to read them to my children, despite them being set in India and containing Indian characters.
If we’re to have books which contain characters which non-white (or maybe non-white English) children can relate to, they need to be of good quality. Otherwise, it is an insult to us and our children to provide books for the sake of books rather than to provide good role models which children can relate to and which help to make them feel included, not excluded, in the world they inhabit. I’d like to see non-white characters to look up to as I looked up to Scout, Jem or Boo Radley in To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I don’t want my children or grandchildren to grow up thinking there are no characters who are ‘like them’.
Leila: As a mother, did you feel, as your children were growing up, that you could find children’s books that reflected them in the way you felt Shanta reflected you? If so, which titles were they? And if not, did that matter to you – and do you think it mattered to your children, do you think it had an impact?
Raj: First of all, as an older sister I encouraged my younger siblings to read ‘non-standard’ type books. I would hunt out bookswhich had non-white characters in them and would find books set in China, Africa, Asia, Australia – any place where the protagonists were not those like Peter and Jane and which did not feature the occasional golliwog or black doll as the token source of colour. I encouraged them to question what was wrong in the books (and films/TV programmes) where the only non-white characters were depicted as the bad guys or people who did not matter. I would also find books where the protagonist was a little different for other reasons, for example under-dogs such as the ugly duckling; any person, robot, animal facing adversity and prejudice or some form of oppression. I did the same with my own children.
Sadly, I can’t remember the titles or authors of many of the books I found. I do know there were lots of fairy tales where the girls, children or animals were strong, positive role models. They did things for themselves and didn’t hang around waiting for Princes, grownups or humans to rescue them. There were Arabian Nights stories, and folktales from around the world, and some of the stories I had heard from family members when I was a child. I remember buying a lot of Barefoot Books: tales about mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, how the week was made. For my daughter, there were lots of books about mermaids. I list some books or stories below which my children remembered reading and enjoying.
I think one can assume that this also means that there was a lack of role models or people to identify with in the ‘mainstream’ books which were available when my siblings were growing up, and even when my own children were young, but there were alternatives which could be found if you searched hard enough. I think this is part of the reason why I loved Barefoot Books for my children. The beautifully illustrated story books respected cultural diversity and told stories from around the world.
Some of the books my children remember:
Other books from Barefoot Books Limited by various authors included:
- Princesses by John Matthews and Olwyn Whelan (1997)
- Faeries by Tanya Robin Batt (2002)
- Stories from the Opera by Shahrukh Husain and James Mayhew (1999)
- Sun-Day, Moon-day: How the Week was Made by Cherry Gilchrist (1998)
Petey by Paul Shipton (Oxford: OUP, 2005)
The Firework Maker’s Daughter by Philip Pullman (London: Doubleday, 1995)
The Necklace by Guy de Maupassant (first published in 1884 in a daily newspaper called Le Gaulois)
Thank you so much to Raj for guesting. If you would like to write and/or be interviewed about ‘finding someone like me’ in books (you don’t have to be from an ethnic minority, or a writer) I’d love to hear from you, or would be happy to link to a piece on your own blog.
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!