A couple of days ago Cecilia Busby wrote an excellent post on diversity in children's literature. I hope she will not mind if I pick up her post and write about the fear involved in writing about a minority group even when you happen to belong to it.
In my up-coming book, This is Not a Love Story, there is a diverse cast. There is an African-American girl, and a bisexual boy. The mixing of cultures, the judging and the misunderstanding and the lack of comprehension that can arise is one of the themes of the book.
I was not especially worried about imagining my way into the heads of these characters. For me, they were individuals, with their own histories, as easy to imagine as any other person. I hope that I have got them right. I do not have great worries about having tried to imagine what it is like to be them. I want all my books to reflect the diverse world in which I live.
I've posted before about why I decided to write about Jewish teenagers in this book. I was not expecting to find it so difficult. Suddenly I had a load of new fears and worries to deal with, that I'd never had to grapple with before.
Here are some of the questions that I thought about.
- How to get the voices right - without my characters explaining words and concepts to themselves that they'd know, but their readers may not.
- How to show a range of experiences which all fit into the general heading 'Jewish' - to go against the impression given in school RE lessons that Jews 'believe' certain things, and are defined by those beliefs.
- How to show frustration with tradition, anger within a family, the flaws of a community without falling into stereotypes, self-deprecation, disrespect and, at the worst, anti-semitism.
- How to talk about the Holocaust - difficult enough in real life, let alone a book.
- How to portray the London Jewish community and some of the kids within it, without generalising too much.
- Was there a danger of being labelled as a Jewish writer?
- Were my thoughts and experiences in any way representative? Did that matter?
- Should I write about Israel, even though it was not very relevant to my characters? Should I write about antisemitism? (The bulk of the book was written before the summer of 2014, otherwise my answers to these questions might have been different)
- How to do all of this without upsetting a) my mother b) my kids c) the wider Jewish community.
It took forever to find the voices of my narrators, partly because of these questions. In despair, I sent some early chapters to my brother (he has a PhD in English Literature from Oxford University, and occasionally can be helpful) 'Lose the Jewish stuff,' he said. I persevered, and showed an early draft to my mother. 'Well,' she said, 'You're obviously very disturbed.' (She relented once she read the final version) Later drafts were showed to some Jewish friends. They demanded: 'Why are you using words like 'frummer'? No one will understand!' I carried on, regardless.
There is a lot of talk about anti-semitism around at the moment. I'm curious to see if there's any hostility to my book as a result. Jewish people, unlike many other minority groups, can often hide their difference. Our fear is often about being visible. And so, like Cecilia, I am feeling the fear and doing it anyway.
Oh, and my kids haven't read it yet.
This is Not a Love Story is published by Atom on May 7.