Monthly Archives: July 2011

Unworthy Heroes

The Jungle Book changed my life. I remember going to the cinema with my dad, I was about seven and I’d been to the movies a lot (loved Bugsy Malone) and the cinema was some smoky, ill-kept flea-pit with the velvet peeling off the seats and a crackling audio system. This was before THX, my friends. Yes, I am that old.

Then, Mowgli. My hero. For the moment he wandered onto the screen in his red nappy, hip, happening and not a care in the world. His mates were wolves, how cool was that?

But as a skinny, mop-headed brown kid living in 1970s Britain with its race riots and ‘Paki bashing’ there was something so much more about Mowgli. He was just like me.

That was the moment I realised the heroes weren’t all white.

I loved Superman, Batman (of course). I was pretty keen on Wonder Woman (though that might have been more to do with Linda Carter in THAT outfit) and Six Million Dollar Man, and the entire Star Wars crew.

I followed the Pakistani cricket team. I worshipped Muhammad Ali (then, as now, the baddest of bad-asses). I listened to Chubby Checker and Jimi Hendrix, I listened to Ravi Shankar on the one Asian interest programme on TV (Eastern Eye, Sunday mornings). There was colour creeping in everywhere, in movies, in TV, in music.

But when I grabbed a book off the shelves, it was a bleached-out world. There were non-white good guys, Sinbad, Aladdin, Ali Baba. All characters out of the Arabian Nights. A book about five hundred years old. So, that made Mowgli, a mere stripling at about 120 years of age, the most modern ethnic character in children’s literature.

That was in the 1970s. My God, that’s almost half a century ago.

Now?

The characters on the MG/YA shelves are still as bleached-out as the pages they inhabit. Mowgli remains the most modern ethnic character in the children’s literature.

That is totally INSANE.

Yes, there are characters of colour out there. My own creed (male, South Asian and Muslim) is well-represented in many stories. I like to play a game when I come across a book with a character with my type of background. I go to the back blurb and look for the following words (you can play too, it’s easy), different words score different points: terrorism (10 pts), religion (5 pts), Muslim/Islam (8 pts), fanatic (5 pts), jihad (10 pts), culture clash (8 pts), Bollywood (5 pts), arranged marriage (10 pts), honour killings (new flavour of the month, 3 pts for now).

You get the idea. The higher the score, the less likely I’m going to read it.

These are worthy subjects, to be sure. But that’s the problem. They’re worthy.

They’re kind of hand-wringing, pitying books. But they merely reinforce our stereotypes. That’s surely not the point of writing for children, is it? We’ve plenty of time to develop prejudices as adults, shouldn’t we give the younger generation a break from all that?

Big and noisy. That’s what I like to read and that’s what I write.

Yes, I know a book can’t be ‘noisy.’

When I mean noisy I mean the clash of swords, I mean battle cries, fate of the world stuff. I mean cast of thousands and heroes who bleed and swear and come back for more. The big, bold old-fashioned Boys Own adventures but ones where the heroes aren’t the blond, blue-eyed, defenders of civilization fighting against the bearded, turbaned fanatical hordes.

I watched 300 with the thongs and buffed-up Spartans but (and maybe it’s just me) but the Persians knew how to PARTY! I know which side I wanted to be on.

I watched Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and I can tell you right now ‘chilled monkey brains’ is not a common Indian dish. And I think the death goddess Kali is pretty damn cool.

Let’s embrace the ‘unworthy’ heroes of colour. They don’t bitch and moan why they’re not accepted in the best restaurants or schools because they’re too god-damn busy saving the world!

My first heroine is Billi SanGreal. Mixed race with a Muslim mother and Christian father. She prays in Arabic, Latin and Greek. She goes to church and knows which direction to face Mecca. She could be about culture clash (5 pts), religion (5 pts), Islam (8 pts). She could be worthy but what she is, is BAD ASS. That’s it. Oh, there’s more but it’s mainly sword fights, tragic romance and monsters.

Big and noisy.

Next up (because, in the end, we write children’s books because we’re writing for our younger selves) is Ash Mistry. An Indian boy with a big life choice ahead of him. Should he go to school study hard and become a doctor or an accountant like his parents would like (very worthy) or should he dedicate himself to the blood-thirsty goddess Kali and become the greatest assassin the world has ever known? Totally unworthy.

Being unworthy. It’s just so much more fun.

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[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://www.diversityinya.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/071811sarwatchadda.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Sarwat Chadda writes about bad-ass warriors. He writes books where the fate of the world hangs in the balace, where blood must be shed and only the baddest, toughest survive. The romance is tragic, the colour is red and you bring a sword to the party. His debut novel, DEVIL’S KISS, introduced Billi SanGreal, a fully paid up member of the club of bad-asses. Her father’s a religious fanatic and psycho, he’s brought her up be just like him. The book’s been short-listed for The Brandford Boase and a number of regional awards but Sarwat’s most proud of Billi’s selection in Kirkus Review’s list of top Tough Teen Heroines in YA recently. The sisterhood of bad asses, basically. In the sequel, DARK GODDESS, the bad-ass rating goes through the roof as Billi faces down the ancient witch Baba Yaga and her werewolf followers, descendants of the orginal Amazons. His website is www.sarwatchadda.com. [/author_info] [/author]

A Skin Not Your Own

I like to call my YA novel, Sister Mischief, the world’s first interracial gay hip-hop love story for teens. It’s hardly news to anyone reading this blog that young adult literature has historically suffered a dearth of queer protagonists and strong, whole characters of color. Including those identities in my novel was important to me, but as a white woman who’s in a committed relationship with a man, part of me wondered, am I entitled to borrow these skins?

While I was writing SM, I thought a lot about a phenomenon I’ve come to call the Good White Person Syndrome (GWPS). GWPS involves not just being a honky with positive values about race, but more sensitively, figuring out how to convey to others, especially people of color, that you are not a racist like Bad White People are. To be a GWP, you must banish the following phrases from your vocabulary:

“Some of my best friends are [insert non-white ethnicity here].”
“Can I touch your hair?”
“[Insert non-white ethnicity here] babies are SO ADORABLE.”
“No, but where are you FROM?”

Politically correcting your language, of course, doesn’t make you a GWP, and neither does living in a major urban area, donating to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, listening to hip-hop, or hanging pictures of solemn-faced brown children that you took on your trip to Mexico, India, or Kenya in your living room. The tricky thing about GWPS, I’ve realized, is that it comes from a more familiar infection commonly known as white guilt.

The reason white guilt angers me, though I’ll certainly confess to feeling it sometimes, is that it only addresses a racial dialogue retroactively. A feeling of guilt comes from a perceived failure to do something that you know you should have done, past tense. White guilt is a resignation, an apology, a slinking-off, a statement that you’re not capable of promoting equality for all people by acting, speaking, and thinking in an identity-positive way, and that’s why I’m not interested in it.

What I am interested in is white responsibility: a forward-looking, anticipatory outlook on identity politics that communicates what can I do? rather than what have I failed to do?

From this sense of responsibility, not guilt, emerged one of my favorite people who doesn’t really exist, Rohini (Rowie) Rudra, co-heroine of Sister Mischief. I knew I wanted SM to include a major character of color, and the process of making Rowie Bengali Indian began from a series of questions like what racial identities other than whiteness are most familiar to me? What ethnicity could a 16-year-old girl living in a predominantly white, affluent suburb believably be? What values or characteristics about family, education, class, and upward mobility is a heroine raised in this area likely to embody?

These are dense, complicated, and in some ways uncomfortable questions that reach back to my own experience of growing up in a predominantly white, affluent suburb. In answering them, I feared homogenizing the Asian-American experience into a big, unoriginal, model-minority tangle of good grades and strict parents — Trisha Murakami highlights these recurrences in Asian-American YA characters especially well in “Spotlight on Asian American YA,” I think. That said, the questions themselves also speak to the closeness and generosity I’ve been shown by a number of South Asian women in my life, and it is to them that my debt is owed. Here, watch me violate my own GWP injunction, but it’s just true: some of my best friends are Indian. In fact, my first non-Caucasian friend was Indian. Long story short, I felt as though I had the best chance of not falling on my honky face in writing an Indian character.

Writing Rowie took a lot of research: from other South Asian authors (Jhumpa Lahiri, if you ever read this — thanks a bunch), from endless Google searches about Vedic astronomy, common Hindi and Bengali words, and the love story of Rama and Sita, as well as from my friends’ anecdotal contributions, which were much more valuable. Some friends donated a mispronunciation of “windshield wipers”; others donated their angst over body hair. I remembered a story from a childhood friend who thought she was adopted just because that’s what the only kids who looked like her were. Slowly, holistically, Rowie became an amalgamation of my own stories and the stories other people had been generous enough to share with me, and she became as real to me as any character I’ve written: a smart, complex, pissed off, ambitious, and self-aware teenage girl who eschews yoga, likes her samosas with ketchup, and prefers jeans to saris. In other words: an American.

For some reason, even though I don’t identify as a lesbian (though for a variety of reasons, paramount among them my solidarity with my GLBTQ loved ones, I do identify as queer), writing a lesbian character didn’t cause me nearly the same anxiety that writing an Indian character did. I think it’s this anxiety about imagining a racial experience not your own that leads so many white authors to write one-dimensional BBF (brown/black best friend) characters, who only show up to support the white protagonist in a time of need, ask exposition-inducing questions, or basically prove that the protagonist is not a BWP. Because of my irritation with the prevalence of the BBF phenomenon, it was really important to me that Rowie challenge Esme’s preconceptions about her, express frustration with her whitewashed surroundings, and exhibit an identity beyond a talent for math and science.

Both within and apart from racial identity, every character in Sister Mischief feels alienated in some way, like an outsider in an insider’s world. In fact, the fundamental conflict of Sister Mischief’s paean to female friendship is its heroines’ search for sameness in collective otherness. All four primary characters represent my effort to portray a certain way of being women that exists completely beyond race: an unbridled way, a fearless and smart one. Together, they find that the only antidote to the alienation they share is to collaborate and aspire together, to question everything, and to choose each other as sisters.

It’s no coincidence that it’s Rowie who asks what I consider the most important question in Sister Mischief, and maybe in all of YA: “What the f*** is normal, anyway?” As I imagined her, it was Rowie’s job to pose the challenge implicit within that question. My job — my responsibility — was only to give her the microphone to ask it. My biggest wish for the young, diverse generation of girls that Sister Mischief reflects is that they continue to ask that question relentlessly, continue to reject the premise of one “normalcy,” continue to strive against BBFs, GWPs, BWPs, and the myths they propagate — until none of their voices can be obscured by these myths any longer.

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[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://www.diversityinya.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/071111lauragoode.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Laura Goode is the author of Sister Mischief. You can also read some of her other stuff here, here, and here. She was a spelling bee kid.……….. ………… …………. ………….. …………… ……… ………. …………. ……….. ……….. ……….. ……….. ………. ……….. …………. ………… ………… ………… ………… ………… ………… ………… …………
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