Sunday 5 August 2018

#ReflectingRealities by Savita Kalhan

As a child growing up in the UK to first generation Indian parents, I read my way through the children’s library but never encountered a single Asian writer. Ever. I did encounter many other amazing writers, and thousands of amazing books. I read voraciously - I learnt to read in the library.

I grew up reading Enid Blyton, and didn’t even pause to think about the implied and overt racism in some of her books. That kind of racism was instilled deeply into society; and that ‘we are better than you’ thinking, subconscious or conscious, surrounded me. It was the norm.

One of my favourite books when I was very young was Blyton's The Magic Faraway Tree, and many years later I gave it to my son to read. He loved it too, maybe because he knew his mum had loved the book. He’s growing up in a slightly different world to mine. 

Or so I thought.

When I was growing up I did not think I could ever become a writer because I had encountered no British Asian women writers, no Asian writers, not as a young child, not as a teen, and not as a young adult. This all changed when I became an adult. I discovered writers from all across the world, and there were Asian writers too, and a wealth of stories that were so enriching that it made me wonder why children were being denied them.

Move forwards forty, fifty years and what has changed?

While many diverse voices are represented in adult fiction, the same is not true of children’s fiction. Sure, there are lots of ‘good people’ talking about it, and various bodies and industry people making a lot of noise. But much of the noise is lip service and hot air as recent studies show. Over the last few weeks the studies that have been published on diversity in children’s fiction are telling us that not much has changed.  

CLPE's #ReflectingRealities report published a couple of weeks ago.

The Reflecting Realities report was followed by Dr. Melanie Ramdarshan Bold's excellent study - The Eight Percent Problem:Authors of Colour in the British Young Adult Market (2006-2016).

The Guardian article picked up the report in their article by Alison Flood Dire Statistics Show YA Fiction Becoming Less Diverse

Enid Blyton was part of my history. Her writing was for me a form of fantasy and bore little resemblance to the world of my childhood. Would her writing be published now? I think not. So maybe we have been informed by the past, maybe we have taken some small steps to a different way of thinking and writing.

But the voices that need to be present in children’s fiction, from picture books to YA, are clearly still so very few and far between, and I speak as the only British Asian woman to have a teen/young adult book published so far this year. 

I wish I didn't have to write this at all. Diversity and inclusivity in children's literature have been much talked about. It's an ongoing discourse, or struggle, depending on who you are. Is equality and equal representation really so hard to achieve? It would appear that the answer to this, sadly, is still yes. 

The Girl in the Broken Mirror, pub May 2018, Troika Books

Savita's website



Chitra Soundar said...

It's sad yet true. As a writer from Asian background, my focus is on writing and being out there, showing children the range of diverse literature available to them today. I think the biggest change will come when the industry and its gatekeepers are representative of the society we live in - whether race or culture or gender. When editors and publishers, distributors and booksellers are from a diverse background they will identify and publish stories that they can relate to. And that means children today from all backgrounds should consider publishing and bookselling to be a profession they can enter. And that's why going into schools and talking to them is so important.

Well done on the new book! We hope many of your books are published that next year's stats looks better.

Savita Kalhan said...

Thank you, Chitra. We can but hope. Going into schools is so important for kids to realise that all professions and industries are open to them.

Candy Gourlay said...

I identify with everything you say. Congratulations again on your new book. I do hope you're not going to be the lone British Asian YA author this year!

Savita Kalhan said...

Thanks, Candy. And congratulations on your beautiful book too! I'm looking forward to reading it!

Sue Purkiss said...

The children's books that I remember from the fifties and sixties were representative of a very limited group, weren't they? Everyone had a maid, most of the children went to boarding school - none were working class. They certainly didn't live in places like the East Midlands council estate where I grew up. But like you, Savita, I didn't really notice this or think about it. Theirs was a world I lived in when I was reading; it wasn't real. And like you too, I never thought that someone from my background could become a writer - which is probably why it took me so long! But it's sobering to think that so little has changed. I'm truly shocked that yours is the only teen book published by an Asian writer so far this year. Hoping to see Candy at her event in Edinburgh in a couple of weeks, if I'm not too late to get tickets!