Sunday 14 November 2004

The Neither-Here-Nor-There Reader

Though race is a strong feature of multicultural writing, at the end of the day it’s all about the universal human need to belong

From 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

Tanuja Desai Hidier used to say she came from a “neither-here-nor-there” culture, growing up in the only South Asian family in a Masachussetts suburb. Until that is, she discovered the term ‘ABCD’ – American Born Confused Desi – which placed kids born of two cultures like herself firmly in a culture of their own.

Says Hidier: “It was the first time it occurred to me that what I saw as a neither-here-nor-there culture was a new culture – the culture of diaspora”.

The Culture of Diaspora: this was the underlying theme of a panel discussion titled “How East Meets West in Their Work” at the 2004 Children’s Literature Conference at Roehampton university. In the panel were Hidier, whose first novel Born Confused touches on the ABCD subculture in America; the children’s author Tony Bradman who edited Skin Deep, a collection of stories about racism; and Bali Rai, the award-winning author of contemporary young adult novels.

Born Confused evolved from Hidier’s discovery of that she belonged to this third culture, members of which, she says, “as far as I could see did not seem confused”. Hidier took pains to make sure that non-English words in the text were not italicised. “I did not want the words to be screaming off the page because I should just be part of the language since the character has a hyphenated identity in the first place.”

In 1990s America, the ABCD culture was giving birth to a great flourishing of South Asian departments in universities, with young people developing a unique vocabulary to express themselves. Pop culture embraced Asian Cool with fervour – from Madonna taking up yoga to Starbucks serving chai.

In Britain, Asian Cool is a trendy turntable that has its swings and roundabouts, says Bali Rai, a young Leicester author who is “proud to call myself British Asian than Indian”.

“Asian culture gets popular every few years and you have to jump on when you can!” says Rai.
The Asianness of Rai’s writing is not incidental, but neither is it central to his narratives. He writes about what he knows, and by doing so explores the realities of being British of Asian origin – and all the issues of identity that come with.

“Up until the age of 15, I didn’t think I could call myself British,” Rai says. “Yet when I go to India, my cousins called me English boy. (In India) I called myself an outsider with a head-start simply because my mother was born there. For a while, I had real trouble working out where I belonged. It made me think perhaps I just belonged in the plane. It was only when I was 15 to 16 years old that I discovered that it is okay to have brown skin and call yourself English.”

The only multicultural text he knew was Come to Mecca by Farrukh Dhondy (1978) “foisted on me by my well-meaning teacher”. He began writing because he wanted to read “about the kind of kids I sat next to in school”.

Rai wrote (un)arranged Marriage based on the experiences of people he knew, viewing the issue of forced marriage from a male perspective. His short story, Beaten – published in a collection of Asian short stories Walking a Tightrope, edited by Rehana Ahmed – emerged from his outrage at the treatment of a woman who was imprisoned for killing her abusive husband.

Tony Bradman, joking that he was the panel’s “token white liberal” , described growing up in a working class family where racist comments and attitudes were acceptable. “I grew up with racism, but I did not experience racism directly so I could not write about it myself,” he says. “The idea of Skin Deep came out of that. I also realised that there was very little writing about these experiences coming from the communities where this was a day to day problem.”

Bradman sought to include stories that “went beyond BNP nasties” – although this was the subject of one of the stories – The Fever by Allan Gibbons.

The writing of Rai and Hidier are attracting an audience of the “Hey, that’s me” variety – Rai says he receives hundreds of letters from Asian kids saying, “That’s exactly how I feel” “That’s what happened to me”. But such work is also of much value to a non-ethnic audience.

“I still believe that part of what a book like (Skin Deep) does is to inform a white audience,” says Bradman. “I wanted it to be read by the widest possible group of people.”

Having just returned from a trip to Scotland where he visited seven schools – amongst which there was only one non-white pupil – Rai agrees. “It gives (children) insight into a kind of Britishness that they wouldn’t have experienced before.”

Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier won the Larry King and Sunday Times Book of the Week, and ALA BBYA Book of the Year. (un) arranged Marriage by Bali Rai won the 2002 Angus Book Award. Tony Bradman has been writing for children for 20 years. He is chair of the Children’s Writers and Illustrators Group of the Society of Authors.

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