A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
By Leila Rasheed
Leila Rasheed is a children’s author. She also teaches creative writing in a variety of contexts including at the University of Warwick. Independently, she has developed and will soon be launching Megaphone, a new mentoring programme for British Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people who wish to write for children; this year-long programme will take place in Birmingham and have 5 places, with funding available to cover 100% of the fees for those in financial need. Primary funding comes from Arts Council England and The Publishers’ Association’s Children’s Book Group, in association with Equality in Publishing (EQUIP). More details to follow soon!
If anyone had asked me, as a child, if I felt excluded from books, I would not have known what they meant. Books were my home. I lived in Narnia (so why did I return, again and again, to Aravis the Calormene and The Horse and His Boy?). I inhabited Middle Earth (so why did I wish for more about dark-haired Arwen, reading the few pages that contained her over and over again as if her story might magically appear between the lines, like the secret writing on Thror’s map?). I loved Roald Dahl, Tove Jansson and Rudyard Kipling (so why did I pounce, wide-eyed with disbelief, on Leila Berg – my name in print!). Why did I feel so angry and disappointed when I read My Mate Shofiq? Why is the last scene in Disney’s Jungle Book film etched into my mind – the moment that a girl in a sari walked onto the screen for all of 60 eye-lash-batting seconds? It was the first time I had ever encountered an Asian girl in a story.
As a child I understood, as children do absorb and understand important facts, without having the words to express them, that I was different – not from the people around me (I went to an international school in Libya and the children in my class were of various backgrounds, including Indian, Polish, Turkish, Ghanaian, Egyptian, Filipino, English, Eritraean) but from the heroes and heroines in my beloved books, who were, almost without exception, English: fair-skinned and light-haired. The only non-white hero I encountered as a child, to the best of my memory, was Mowgli. I therefore understood I could never be Narnian. I would have to be a Calormene – i.e. a baddie, if a savagely noble one – if I wanted any place in this adventure at all. I learned the characteristics of Calormenes and reproduced them as I formed my identity. I understood that I would probably be an Orc, in Middle Earth. At least there was something to be, even if it was negative. Most of all, being mixed-race, I understood that the Bangladeshi bit of me wasn’t as important as the white bit of me – children’s books said so.
Fast forward 30 years, and I write children’s books. I also understand, as an adult, that stories tell you what and who you are. What books were mostly telling me, when I was a child, was that I did not matter, did not even exist. This teacher’s thought-provoking blog post illustrates the problem.
Note the date on the blog post: 2013. In 2015, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) children still do not see themselves reflected sufficiently, or with variety, in British children’s literature. From my own experience – looking now on behalf of my own child – finding picture books with non-white characters in them in libraries and high street book stores is difficult. Those you do find will probably be published by the admirable, lonely Tamarind Press.
Others may be part of reading schemes like Biff and Chip, which, being for use in an educational setting, are usually more attuned to the importance of providing a range of characters. They may also be ‘traditional tales’ from foreign countries, about Indian or African children, or stories imported from the USA. What are rarely seen are picture books that feature British BAME children. If an alien bleebled down to Waterstone’s Birmingham New Street (for example) and inspected the picture book shelves there for clues about British Society, it might bleeble back home again thinking that no Black, Asian, minority ethnic children laugh, play, go to school, dream, think, feel, have adventures or otherwise exist in Britain today. When we know how much of children’s mental development takes place before age 3, this seems like more than a shame; it seems like a crime.
It has been said that books can be mirrors, to allow you to see yourself, or windows, to allow you to see others. If you are a non-white child, your reading life is passed looking into mirrors and seeing no reflection that you recognise. In this mirror world something has sucked the blood from you, leaving you without dimension and depth. You appear rarely and when you do, you appear as a problem, as a foreigner, as a victim, as a shadow or a token or a side-kick. As an example, in 2004, while I was working as a bookseller, a very successful children’s book was published, which featured a couple of white, American children discovering they were djinns, going to Egypt and vanquishing evil. Nicholas Tucker reviews it perfectly here. What shocked me most was that the author nicknames the Egyptian boy Baksheesh. My sharp intake of breath when I read that name was not metaphorical –it was a physical reaction, because to read something which chops so neatly at the trunk of your self-worth is like being kicked in the stomach. ‘People like you beg for pennies from people like us,’ read the sub-text, ‘and we think it’s funny and joke with our children about it.’
Ten years later, I was reminded of this when Jacqueline Woodson referred to something much more shocking – a racist joke made at her expense as she was being awarded the National Book Award for her memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming. Her response is here.
The joke was made, she says, ‘lest we forget, lest I forget, where I came from’. Insults like Kerr’s, jokes like Handler’s, serve to remind BAME children, lest they forget, that people like you don’t belong in children’s books.
Daniel Handler’s career has not perceptibly suffered; his Series of Unfortunate Events is still apparently regarded as a lovable classic of children’s literature. His apology for his ‘mistake’ and his donation to We Need Diverse Books apparently are enough to silence any further questions that might be asked about his attitude to his readers of colour. Let us not forget, either, that an entire publishing team – editorial, sales, marketing – were involved in bringing Baksheesh to the 3 for 2 tables of Waterstone’s, in 2004 – not 1904. The problem is not limited to individuals.
Jacqueline Woodson is an exception in the sense that BAME children, excluded from children’s literature, casually insulted by those who purport to produce stories to enchant children (but don’t really consider a child of colour a real child, a human of colour a real human), rarely grow up to hold the pen that writes their story. BAME writers are under-represented as authors of British children’s literature. The reasons for this are many and complex but I would suggest the following are probably to be some of them, based on my own experience, observations and on conversations with other BAME writers.
When British BAME children open books, they are likely to find themselves invisible or stereotyped. It would be unsurprising if many of them close books again as a result. Instead of finding a wider world than the one they live in, they find a narrower one, which excludes them or allows them to stay only on the condition that they don’t step out of line. British BAME children thus face more barriers to reading for pleasure than white children do. They are disadvantaged in the process of becoming keen readers and therefore writers.
Equally, British BAME children do not see themselves as writers or illustrators.
There is less reading of fiction for pleasure, traditionally, in some ethnic minority cultures, and sometimes (by no means always), second generation British ethnic minority children’s parents are not confident readers in English, so books are not a familiar part of home life.
The ‘white wall’ that faces people from ethnic minorities who want to work in publishing, join writing organisations or take a course in creative writing such as an MA (in all of which areas British BAME people are under-represented) is extremely forbidding. This is also the case for someone like me who is, culturally, extremely British.
The pressure of being the only non-white person in networking groups, in offices, at industry social events, in the process of bringing their own book to market (and the editorial changes that are a part of that), is extremely stressful and can contribute to people dropping out. (This can be especially so in the climate of children’s publishing which encourages everyone to be ‘lovely’ all the time and implicitly discourages writers from being ‘difficult’ – which in practice includes voicing uncomfortable truths or valid criticisms of the systems and structures, including their real opinions on race and racism in children’s literature – for fear they may lose out on contracts. Justified or not, those fears are there, and affect behaviour).
The simple confidence that one has the right to write both one’s own story and those of others, is arguably one of the items carried in the ‘invisible knapsack’ described by Peggy McIntosh in 1988. Items 5, 6 and 7 are particularly relevant in my opinion. BAME children do not grow up feeling they have the right to write.
The humiliation of being the ‘token’ black or Asian writer on a publisher’s list – implicitly expected to produce stories that focus on or feature children ‘like you’, to identify with and ‘reach’ readers with whom you may have nothing in common except the country of origin of your parents (if that), while your white contemporaries are assumed able to write about any subject for any audience – can be extremely stressful and can contribute to writers dropping out
The exhaustion, depression and disillusionment caused by seeing no significant move towards real diversity, over decades, can be extremely stressful and can cause people to drop out, and discourage those who might have considered them role models.
These factors operate on ethnic minority writers, in addition to the obvious financial, psychological, etc. pressures on all writers regardless of their ethnicity.
If we are going to have a children’s literature that genuinely challenges rather than supports racism, we need to support BAME writers and listen to their stories. This is why I have applied to the Arts Council’s Grants for the Arts programme, and to the Publishers’ Association and Equality in Publishing (EQUIP), to fund a year-long mentoring programme for BAME children’s authors. I am thrilled to say that both have agreed to fund – more news as soon as possible! In the meantime, you may like to try some of these books by contemporary BAME children’s authors:
Catherine Johnson: The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo
Sarwat Chadda: The Ash Mistry Series
Candy Gourlay: Shine
Alex Wheatle: Liccle Bit
And some further reading you may find interesting:
For more about Leila’s work, visit her website. To keep updated on Megaphone, please follow @MegaphoneWrite on Twitter.