When I come to the section about ethnicity in a diversity monitoring form I tick the box ‘White British’. I’m not that white, especially in the summer. My olive skin has had me mistaken for many different nationalities – even Turkish and Nepalese when travelling in those countries. But my ethnic origins are not nearly so interesting: I am half Welsh, half English, and as far as the box tickers are concerned, well and truly white.
So you may think it strange that the protagonist in my first novel, Lili Badger, has a strong Bengali heritage, that though her father is White British like me much of the fabric of the novel is woven from a culture to which I am an outsider.
My awareness of and interest in the multicultural world we live in began when I was very young, even though the villages I grew up in were about as monocultural as you could get. My Welsh grandparents had lived in East Africa for over twenty years, and my dad spent a good portion of his childhood there. It was not until I was in my late twenties that I was to finally find myself in Tanzania, and when I did there was something strangely familiar about it – something that had seeped into my bones from the stories I’d heard and the artefacts that adorned my grandparents’ house.
For my own part, even though being born in Wales hardly made me an ethnic minority, I was made starkly aware of my otherness when we moved from there to Birmingham when I was eight years old. My accent was so alien that to my new schoolmates I might as well have been speaking another language at first. I did my best to disguise it, though always felt relief sweep over me when I returned to see my extended family in Cardiff and could relax back into my natural voice. I never did learn the language – it was not a part of the curriculum in Wales during my early primary years. When I moved from Birmingham to London aged sixteen I began to more openly reclaim my Welshness as part of my identity, much to the amusement of my new friends there. I investigated Welsh language courses I could do in the city but never committed – something I still regret.
I vividly remember a conversation I had in a run down classroom at the top of the first school I worked at in Tower Hamlets. I was a teaching assistant, and had been assigned to support a group of boys who had recently come to the country from Bangladesh. As we muddled through the beginnings of a conversation they asked me where I came from. When I named a place that was not England, they excitedly asked if I could speak to them in my language. The surprise and disappointment on their faces when I had to admit that I did not speak the language of my country has stayed with me.
It’s something I have in common with Lili, or rather I suppose she has in common with me. Being in the second generation of her family to have been born in England it is perhaps more understandable that she does not speak Bengali, but it bothers her sometimes – and is even more of an issue for some of the people she crosses paths with, Bengali and White British alike.
Lili is not defined by her ethnicity. It is a part of her of course, but her driving force is her creativity, her love of stories and her search for a voice of her own. There are other characters in the novel who have been shaped by their background quite differently – Lili’s brother Arun for one, who in his search for his own identity is drawn to the world of radical Islam – and I drew on the diversity I saw in the communities I lived and worked in for nearly ten years to develop those characters.
I was nervous at first. When the idea for the novel first came to me, several years ago when I was way too busy teaching to actually write it, I had no doubt that Lili’s family had their origins in Bangladesh. Over the time I had to think about it before I began to write I almost lost my nerve. Would people not think I was a fraud, writing about a culture different from my own? Could I really accurately represent the hopes and dreams, let alone the day to day life, of a British Bengali family living in the East End?
But then I decided I was being ridiculous. My research had been wide and deep. I had worked with many children and families during my time as a teacher, all of them different, all of them unique. I was not trying to write the ultimate story of the British Bengali experience, only one story. And to bring it to life, to enrich it, I had a wealth of material to draw on.
And though on one level Lili Badger is the story of a girl whose mother is Bengali and whose father is White British, on another more important level it is the story of a girl. A girl whose hopes and dreams and day to day experiences echo those of many other teenagers, whatever their ethnicity.
Because if those ten years working in Tower Hamlets and Newham taught me anything, it is that people of different backgrounds have more things in common than the things that tell them apart. It took working in a multicultural environment for me to really realise that, for me to become frustrated by rash generalisations about people from a particular culture and to become even more incensed by the people who aim to divide our multicultural Britain and to pitch people like me against everyone else.
You would have thought I might have realised this as a reader. I have devoured books all my life, though it is only really since having the privilege of working amongst people from so many different cultures that I have actively sought out books from different cultures myself. Previous to that, whilst I might have described my tastes as diverse, what was easily available was resolutely monocultural. It is this which is one of the many reasons why I believe writing diversity is so important – whatever the background of the author, there is a whole world of inspiration out there and we should not be afraid to use it.