Sunday 7 November 2004

The Challenge for Multicultural Writing

The realities of post 9/11 means multicultural writers may have to abandon the comfort of the culture clash cliché, says FARRUKH DHONDY

This talk was delivered at the 11th Annual NCRCL/British IBBY Children’s Literature Conference on the theme 'East Meets West in Children’s Literature', 13 November 2004, Roehampton University, London

The way he tells it, Farrukh Dhondy got his first book published for all the wrong reasons.

At the time, Dhondy was contributing 500 to 600-word short stories to one of the angry migrant newsletters circulating in the seventies – mainly vignettes of life he witnessed as a South London school teacher. The stories attracted the attention of an editor from MacMillan, who tracked him down at his school.

“He said, would you like to write a book? I said, are you from the police? No? Then how much?” Dhondy laughs.

The result of the meeting was East End at Your Feet, a collection of stories from a Britain of many hues. “It caused quite a stir which was good for the sales of the book,” says Dhondy, with characteristic humour. “The BNP (British National Party) tried to ban it. The Telegraph wrote an editorial about it.”

But Dhondy was under no illusions about the reasons behind the publication of his first book.

“Looking back at it now, I think the book was born out of the wrong impulse. (The editor) came to that school to find somebody who had a certain amount of intimacy with the immigrant community. He said, ‘An audience exists for this book.’ So the book came out of the liberal impulse of British people wanting to know who the people in their midst were … It was born of an anti-racist impulse; of a let’s-find-out-about-these-strange-creatures-they-might-become-troublesome impulse.”

Dhondy does not debate the rightness or wrongness of these so-called impulses. “I think these misguided impulses were perhaps the motivation for the great writers of multi-cultural literature.”

His examples of multicultural writers are something of a surprise because there is nothing of the East in them: Mark Twain for Huckleberry Finn; Rudyard Kipling for Kim; JD Salinger for Catcher in the Rye.

In effect, Dhondy says, multicultural writing is about journeys: “They are books of discovery, books of travel … escape. (Other) writers have felt the necessity to use that picaresque form and take a character to a country not yet discovered by that person or needing discovery by fresh eyes.”

Dhondy’s most recent novel for young people, Run!, may be a case in point, though he is careful not to rank himself up there with Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling. “Possibly I have taken my character Rashid through modern Britain on a sort of journey.”

The task now for multicultural writers, he says, is to resist the clichés of diversity and multiculturalism.

“My first book was published out of a deviant impulse. I feel that multicultural writers should go beyond these impulses. Such writers have got stuck in trying to explain one culture to another. We are still producing anti-racists books without examining the nuances of racism in a country … we are still writing books that are basically written for a white audience, published by publishers because they are liberal enough to want to publish it. (So Clichés) have become the currency of multicultural literature – the I-am-so-unhappy-you-have-a-green-card story, the daughter-father-patriarchal-relationship story, the charming-tale-of-a-childhood-in-India.”

One of the challenges for multicultural writers today is leave behind the discovery template and use their narratives to respond to the realities of the post 9/11 era. “Our society is producing the Karamazovs, the Raskolnikovs, who go off after university to take flying lessons in order to blow up American buildings. What is going on? What is giving rise to this? … I want literature not to tell me about magical realism in a certain caste in India. I want somebody to explain to me what the hell is going on in our societies to produces this clash of civilisations. And I want the answer told in the tradition of European literature.”

The point of multicultural writing today, Dhondi concludes, is not “never the twain shall meet” but that “we live under the same human law and that ultimately we live in a multicultural world where the things that ultimately matter are the same”.

Farrukh Dhondy was born in Poona, India in 1944. He came to England in the 1960s and studied English Literature at Cambridge University. He became a political activist working with the Indian Workers Association, the Black Panther Movement, and Race Today. He has adapted some of his short stories for television and has written screenplays for the BBC. He was Commissioning Editor for Mulitcultural Programmes for Channel 4 until 1997.

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