Tag Archives: diversity

Across the cultural divide

I have wanted to write this post for a while, but as I’ve worked on drafts in my head I have kept finding myself stumbling over clumsy expressions about an issue I really don’t want to get ‘wrong’. I find myself coming face to face with assumptions I have made in the past which make me question whether I really understand the area I am tip-toeing around at all. The reality is that I am an outsider in this territory, and the urge to turn away and run is strong. But that is not really how I do things, so I won’t.

The issue I have been grappling with is, essentially, the authenticity of my first novel. And when I say authenticity, I am talking about the thorny area of cultural appropriation: my protagonist is of mixed heritage, Bengali and British. The folk tales of Bangladesh are woven into the fabric of the plot as it unfolds, and the challenges facing Bengali people carving out their lives in Britain are integral to the journeys of several characters.

Now I lived and breathed that story and those characters for the several years it took me to write a first draft. My protagonist, Lili, borrowed much from the young women I taught at a school in Tower Hamlets. And in fact the first tentative steps from plan to prose were made at an Arvon writing retreat that I attended with a small group of those young women: I discussed my ideas with them, asked their advice on elements of language, listened as they told me their stories.

As the draft developed further, I read copious research files on the experiences of different generations of immigrants from Bangladesh on settling in East London. I devoured Bengali recipe books, and tales of the mythology that reached back into Bangladeshi culture.

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And eventually I had a novel of which I was proud: the culture that I was borrowing from was part of it, but by no means all, and I had worked hard to avoid stereotypes. Lili was complex and engaging, and the London that I knew and loved was intrinsic to every page.

I got an agent on board, we made a few tweaks, and then went out to publishers. And then things sort of stalled: almost all of the feedback we got was positive, particularly around the multicultural elements, but there were no takers. For a while I wondered whether this was in part a response to the monocultural bias that is clearly evident in the publishing industry, particularly when it comes to books for children and young adults. I latched on to a campaign that had been established to encourage more diverse books, and wrote about it to try to explain why diversity was so important to me. But the people I reached out to appeared to have no desire to engage with me: sure, my book was diverse. But I wasn’t.

Nothing overt was said, but my enthusiasm for that first novel dwindled. I still loved the characters and their story, but thinking about them made me feel guilty. I couldn’t quite put my finger on the source of that guilt, but in a creative landscape where the smallest excuse is enough to give the self-doubt demons all the strength they need to inflict silence I decided it was time to focus on something else.

Fast forward two years, and I found myself reading Lionel Shriver’s address to the Brisbane Writer’s Festival about cultural appropriation. And whilst there were elements of what she said that I couldn’t help but agree with, I was embarrassed by the crassness of her refusal to engage with the very real concerns of those whose culture had been exploited. And I began to wonder whether maybe the book I’d written was part of that entitled, white exploitation that can only come from a position of privilege.

I began to wonder whether Lili’s story was actually mine to tell at all, whether in trying to push out my interpretation of the challenges facing a mixed heritage family in East London I was standing in the way of more authentic voices that might be trying to do the same.

But then once I’d started off down that rabbit hole any claim to integrity began to dissolve entirely.

Because it’s not just Bengali culture I could be accused of appropriating. There’s a question of class too, one which is perhaps much more central to the novel that I wrote. Am I not, as a comfortably-off graduate from a middle-class background appropriating the struggle of working class families? And there’s an important theme about the status of elderly people in society – and teenagers for that matter. Are their stories mine to tell?

These are not exact parallels, but they are still examples of where I am using someone else’s truth to build a narrative. And all of these groups of society lack the privilege that is inherent in my existence as a thirty-something, white, university-educated woman.

Except it is here that I grudgingly accept some of Shriver’s points: without stealing other people’s stories there is very little left for the novelist to do. Interestingly the protagonists of the two novels I’ve written since are much closer to me in terms of social and cultural background. That wasn’t a conscious choice I don’t think – and whilst I’ve enjoyed exploring a world that is closer to my own I can’t guarantee that my ideas in the future will not be influenced by a more global outlook. As a writer I am drawn to the outsider – and culture is often a big part of that.

There is also the argument that if we want more diversity in our literature then that needs to come from all quarters – not just from those writers who are themselves ‘diverse’.

And so on balance, despite my reservations about Lili Badger, I am still proud of what I’ve written. And I don’t want to shy away from giving voice to people from different cultures in my writing in the future.

I will continue to endeavour to be respectful and avoid stereotypes – a courtesy I would hope I extend to all of my characters, not just those whose culture is different from my own. But the bigger the gap, the more work there is to be done to find authenticity and integrity – and the more difficult the challenge of convincing others that this really is a story that you can tell.

 

Writing Bubble

Writing diversity

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.

 

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Why the DfE is wrong to dismiss OCR’s new English A-Level as ‘rubbish’

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In a response to Gove’s demands for more rigorous A-Levels the exam board OCR seem to have thrown him a bit of a curve ball. They’ve worked closely with the brilliant English and Media Centre to create an English Language and Literature course which celebrates diversity in the texts it has chosen to examine – from Emily Dickinson to Dizzee Rascal, from William Blake to Russell Brand. Turns out this is not what Gove had in mind when he said he wanted to increase the potential for pupils’ ‘thinking skills and creative ability’ – at least not if we are to believe a DfE source who has dismissed the course, carefully constructed by education professionals, as ‘rubbish’.

This is yet another example of the narrow-minded approach that typifies all that is wrong with the people running our education system at the moment. They are stuck in the past, and have no understanding of how people learn or what constitutes good teaching. Worse, they appear to be afraid of innovation and change for how it might upset the status quo which they have relied on so heavily to gain – and keep – the power they enjoy.

Having taught English and Media in secondary schools for ten years, I know that there is nothing intrinsically dumbed down about the study of contemporary texts, whether they are literary fiction such as the work of Jhumpa Lahiri (also on the new OCR course) or come from the wide range of multi-modal communications that surround us in our daily lives. In fact I would argue that it can be more intellectually challenging to dissect a text that we are less culturally removed from – to unpick the assumptions that our media is laden with and see how language is being manipulated to create effects that we are usually just passive consumers of.

This is particularly important for young people, and gives them power in a world where they are surrounded by overt and hidden propaganda, where the written word has celebrated a resurgence in social media and where everyone now has a myriad of public platforms to choose from if they want to be heard. The ability to know how to use that voice and to interpret the cacophony around them has arguably never been more urgent than it is for our young people today.

There is, too, the question of diversity. Whilst the DfE dismisses it as ‘patronising’ to presume that young people can only be engaged in Literature through culturally relevant texts, I would argue that they have again missed the point. They have latched on to the headline grabbing names which are sure to make every self-respecting Daily Mail reader weep into their bran flakes and decided to ignore the fact that these texts are only part of a varied patchwork compiled to enable young people to see the power of language across boundaries of time and place. The OCR course in question has not done away with the canon – it still finds space for Shakespeare’s plays, for the works of Charlotte Bronte for example – but it tells students that language does not stop there, that other voices are just as relevant and worthy of discussion.

The urgent need for increased diversity in the books available to our young people has recently been highlighted by the We Need Diverse Books campaign. But until they are written, perhaps it is by exploring a range of different types of texts that the diversity that enriches our society can form part of an English education that truly reflects where we are – not just where we’ve come from.

Of course there’s nothing really new about what OCR are doing – for years teachers have used a range of texts in the classroom, and this has been reflected in source material provided by exam boards. So what is it about this new course that has sparked such derision from the DfE?

It all comes back to that lack of understanding, really. They don’t understand how an education different from their own could be as good – or better – for the young people of today. They don’t understand how contemporary texts they’ve never really engaged with could possibly stand up to a linguistic analysis worthy of A-Level study. They don’t understand how young people might learn from the words of people with similar origins to themselves, rather than by being indoctrinated by the status quo of white, male supremacy that has held such disproportionate power up until now.

And perhaps there’s another lack of understanding too, one of which people like Gove and Cameron are even more afraid. Perhaps they do not understand the world that people like Russell Brand and Dizzee Rascal speak of, perhaps they do not understand the new cultural norms which are sweeping the globe – perhaps they do not want to, but perhaps they are even more terrified by the thought of being surrounded by people that do.

Perhaps this is why their spokesperson resorted to such an immature and unsophisticated rebuke. To dismiss this new course as ‘rubbish’ is insulting on so many levels – and such a dismissal can only have come from someone who really doesn’t understand, and is afraid that in their lack of understanding the world is just going to start to pass them by.

We owe our young people more than that. We owe them an education which prepares them for the world they live in – this includes the opportunity to study the canon, but also to get their teeth into the complexities of multi-modal communication that surround them on a daily basis. OCR should be proud that they have used Gove’s cries for increased rigour to produce a course which is more rather than less innovative than what has come before, and Ofqual would be very wrong to miss the opportunity to add this level of diversity to the range of qualifications on offer.

 

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