Monday, 22 July 2013

Literature Is Another Front In The Identity Politics War

Bim Adewunmi on the perils of the written word:
The majority of the characters in the books I loved were white. There's just no getting away from this. Through them, I very quickly learned (thanks to the context, and then a dictionary) what it was to blush, or to "go purple with rage". I understood that these were not things I could do; my body would not allow it.
Well, my body won't allow me to fly, but it didn't stop me reading 'Peter Pan' or 'Superman' comics...
There was magic in these books too: faraway trees, enchanted woods and worlds beyond wardrobes and looking glasses. I rarely encountered a single character who was a person of colour, and when they were they were very often the bad guy – their non-whiteness a signal for their morally bankrupt insides. You notice it as a child, and even though you shrug it off it lingers at the back your mind, perhaps unconsciously.
Oh, does it? Or does a decade or so of 'gender and racial politics' implant it?
The Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recalls writing about characters who played in snow and drank ginger beer.
Well, isn't that the point of fiction? To show you other worlds? To show you other cultures, other ways of viewing the world?
Years later, selling stories to kids, I noticed that regardless of genre, there was still a dearth of brown faces and voices in children's literature. We got our diktats from head office on what was on promotion "3-for-2" that week, or the movie tie-ins we were looking to push, but then we were given "free" displays to fill as we pleased. That's when the scramble would begin, trying to find books with a black or Asian character, and then even more stringently, one that was a lead, and written as a complex, non-stereotypical creature.
We pulled our selections from the main stocks and even with the most sympathetic of eyes, it was almost always a paltry haul, some of the sorriest-looking displays you ever saw. It was the same even (especially?) when we widened our remit to include picture books: I cannot tell you how many times I pressed Handa's Hen or Handa's Surprise into the hands of parents looking for some much-needed diversity for their children's bookshelves.
So the children weren't bothered, it was the parents?
But here's the thing – they sold. Every time we put up this feature wall – from picture books to teenage YA fiction via young readers' titles – we sold out of several of the books on display.
And that's great for booksellers. But I wonder how many of those books were read. And enjoyed? And how many were glanced at, then left on the shelf...
So I am very pleased to hear that the new children's laureate is Malorie Blackman.
Why? Because she's black.

And it seems that - like Obama - all that counts for Bim and her ilk is the colour of a person's skin, and not the content of their character. Martin Luther King must be spinning in his grave...
I hope her appointment, and her books, will serve to inspire more writers to power up their computers and finish their manuscripts. Equally importantly, I hope it will encourage publishers to push these stories as well. After all, what good are books if, as well as taking us to magical far-flung places, they do not showcase the everyday magic of the diverse world we live in?
Because it's never too early to plug that message!

13 comments:

Fidel Cuntstruck said...

" wibble wibble .. I rarely encountered a single character who was a person of colour, and when they were they were very often the bad guy – their non-whiteness a signal for their morally bankrupt insides.

Strange ..I distinctly remember Uncle Remus always being portrayed as the good guy :0p

Maybe it was before her time ... or maybe it just doesn't fit on her soapbox?

Bucko The Moose said...

"The majority of the characters in the books I loved were white"

I loved little back Sambo. The tigers nicked all his clothes, although I could never quite figure out why.

Dr Evil said...

Would she be happy with Edgar Rice Burroughs Martian series? Nearly every character is red or green except for John Carter.

Furor Teutonicus said...

Writing is too much like "work".

Why work when the great white 16 wheeler god "UN" turns up at the village every day with all kinds of wonderful goodies?

Make the bastards WORK for a living!

THEN, when they have a bit of spare time, they may learn to write.

Anonymous said...

Bunny

As I seem to remember being born in the late sixties in the North West, I didn't see anybody physically who wasn't white until I was 8 and didn't speak to anyone who wasn't white till I was 17. I am not that unusual in that experience. Why can't these cretins understand if you were writing in the UK up till recently we didn't have many black people, so why write multi cultural crap when it didn't exist?

Twenty_Rothmans said...

"The majority of the characters in the books I loved were white"

Sounds like Bim had never got past Enid Blyton. And why not love whites? We gave you a clean(ish) country to live in.

But to be fair, there aren't that many black role models out there in literature, because they couldn't write and print. We could, so we wrote about ourselves, much like this gusset froth in the Grauniad.

And although old Bimbo can't tell us apart, we can - that's why we end up in arguments about whether the great Scottish scientists can be claimed by the English as their own, Einstein German or Swiss, and if the execution of Lavoisier was a good thing as he was a tax collector.

Then get started on the architecture of great cities - tatty, ancient London, timeless Paris, naughty Amsterdam, imperial Vienna.

A late-night discussion about the world's luminaries and grand cities from Africa would be concise, I'll grant you that.

a person of colour, and when they were they were very often the bad guy
That is bound to happen if you read the newspaper.

The Children's Laureate is a NuLabour concoction apparently devised by some people with a great deal of time on their hands. I'll nominate Gary Glitter when the post comes up, to lend it some gravitas.

John Pickworth said...

There are hundreds of languages spoken in Nigeria. The major languages are Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, Ibibio, Edo, Fulfulde, and Kanuri. Nigeria also has several as-yet unclassified languages, such as Cen Tuum.

And tribalism being what it is, you can be sure one lot wouldn't (if they could) read something from one of the other lot. Write in English and it too would remain ignored by all except the elite, the highly schooled and those already fed on a diet of imported English titles. None of the locally produced works, if they even came into existence, would ever sell overseas no matter how good.

Meanwhile, in other news: How come we don't have banana plantations in dear old England? I fear my diversity is being weakened, and demand the Government provides a plantation for every county.

Greencoat said...

'The Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie...'

Oooh! One of me faves!

Anonymous said...

I remember reading 'Jungle Book' quite early on, and then delighting in seeing some new production of it (late 60s or 70s) at the cinema. It was set in India and our hero of the tale is a little brown boy called Mowgli.

Then there was Jai, who accompanied Tarzan sometimes. I never worked out what nationality Jai was, but nobody at our school had such a name and as Jai only seemed to own a loincloth I think he would have struggled in Lancashire.

Uncle Remus too, as has been mentioned.

What about Sinbad and all his crew? They weren't evil whiteys.

The aborigines in 'Skippy' were always good guys and always helped to put evil, white criminals under lock and key.

Hmm, I wonder if Skippy was liberal-left? Nay, I don't think so.

Paul.

JuliaM said...

"I loved little back Sambo."

:D

"Would she be happy with Edgar Rice Burroughs Martian series? Nearly every character is red or green except for John Carter."

I doubt she'd be happy with ANYTHING...

"Why can't these cretins understand if you were writing in the UK up till recently we didn't have many black people, so why write multi cultural crap when it didn't exist?"

Well, indeed! Hence why so many classic English children's stories are set in other climes, as Paul points out?

Macheath said...

With baby names in the news, I'm reminded that, many years ago, the older children of friends issued a unanimous request that their new baby brother be called after the hero of their favourite book and had to be convinced that 'Little Black Sambo' might not go down too well.

Meanwhile, , speaking of the Jungle Bookone of my favourite stories as a child was 'Toomai of the Elephants', but Kipling to progressives is a bit like garlic to vampires so it presumably doesn't count.

And since it appears that they won't accept black or brown characters if the author is white, all this starts to look suspiciously like a call for positive quotas in future publishing.

Woman on a Raft said...

Mowgli has done well for himself - umpteen editions of the book, starred in a film and ranks with Alice for treatments by world-class illustrators. He didn't even speak English.

Or is her real beef with the authors rather than their characters?

Watchman said...

The great irony here is that Mallory Blackman (despite her name) is very much against this sort of racism - her noughts and crosses books, about a world where whites are the prosecuted minority, are a pretty clear indictment of any sort of racist definition by skin colour - and she is on record as saying we are all people, not colours. Which may be why she is a succesful author, not a bitter hack...