I remember hitting thirteen-years-old, wanting to run away from home, grow a fringe, cut my hair short and move to Paris where I would paint and write and listen to Francois Hardy. However, I was outraged to discover that my frizzy South Indian inherited locks would not allow for a shiny straight fringe in those pre-hair straightener days. I certainly didn’t have the time to learn the skill of blow drying when there was so much teenage angst to spill into my journals.
In hindsight, I wonder if I’d dreamed up a white-faced future for myself, even though my hair didn’t fit. And was that because I’d spent my childhood reading books filled with white-faced protagonists? Not to say that such a future is only for people of a certain cultural background; it’s just that the choice of such futures was rather narrow.
In many ways we have come a long way since my childhood reading days. I can honestly recall only one author, Jamila Gavin, and her Kamla and Kate books that dared feature a brown-faced girl on its cover.
The conversation about the lack of diverse characters in children’s literature is hotting up. It’s a topic close to my heart. For me it’s a no-brainer, the diversity of characters in children’s literature is not representative of the diversity in society. Children’s books have, to some respect, the added responsibility of educating the reader about the world.
We need diverse books. Not just with characters of all ethnicities, but also characters that represent all sexualities, characters of all socioeconomic backgrounds, characters of all faiths, all cultures and characters of all abilities, both physical and mental.
My question is whose responsibility is it to write these stories?
I had an interesting conversation with a fellow author a couple of weeks back. We were talking about this very same subject and she raised the question of the ‘right to write’. It is something that has stayed with me since our conversation.
Does a Caucasian writer have the right to tell the stories of Indians? And vice versa? And is it the responsibility of writers from minority backgrounds to write diverse books?
There was a point before the summer where it was put to me that I should actively ‘support’ my ethnic background and write books which embraced diversity, because diversity was all the rage. As a writer, there is nothing more stifling to creativity than to be told what to write.
For me it’s simply about the character. The character comes first, and the story comes from the character.
Ultimately, we all have the right to ask questions about the world and it is the responsibility of the writer to stay true to what they discover. It is about being empathetic to the real situations that influence the fictional stories written and not about matching the face of the author to the characters of the book.