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.


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.


[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]

10 thoughts on “Unworthy Heroes

  1. btw I don’t usually have much to say on this type of thing. I just get on and write the best stuff I can. However the line..

    “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!”

    Was just too awesome not to reply ..nice one!

  2. Oh Sarwat – what a fantastic blogpost. I am cheering for Billi and for Ash!

    Thanks to Malinda’s writings on her blog and this site, and some others, I never (as a white female) realised how…white my reading world was! I have two nieces whom I love, who aren’t represented by the fiction I read and used to write. My sister married a lovely Muslim chap some years ago and so now, whenever I work on anything, I keep my nieces in mind! And of course, Ash and Billi are great examples.

  3. Great post — but there are a lot more than they used to be, and I don’t think Mowgli is the most modern at all. It’s not like the situation is good, but there are more “‘unworthy’ heroes of colour” than there used to be. Busy saving the world we’ve got Divakaruni’s Anand, and all of Okorafor’s heroines. We’ve got Cindy and Malinda’s own characters. We’ve got Gratuity Tucci, saving the world from the Gorg. Laurence Yep heroes have been saving the world for years, of course.

    And you can’t get much more unworthy and noisy then Dia Reeves’ protagonists, although in a very different way. Man, I love those girls, in all their psychopathic glory.

    So hooray, embracing the unworthy heroes of color!

  4. Dear Deborah,
    I know where you’re coming from BUT (and this is a big BUT)none of the above are sadly mainstream, yet. We’re still waiting for a black Harry Potter or an Asian Edward Cullen.
    I had a long discussion with Cindy about this last year when we did a joint event and she’s not even published in the UK. I’m not sure Dia Reeves is either. I’m ashamed to admit that I’d not even heard of Dia until Ari from Reading in Color recommended her to me. So there’s a profile issue, perhaps.
    Totally sorry state of affairs, especially considering how genre-busting both Slice of Cherry and Silver Phoenix are.

  5. This is a website that I have been looking for. There are so mamy talented writers out there who write wonderful in-depth characters, but are not as recognized as they should be.

    Like Sarwat said, “We’re still waiting for a black Harry Potter or an Asian Edward Cullen.” It’s true, there ARE diverse characters out there, however, they are not popular…yet. I have a feeling that one day soon there will be a miniority hero that causes the next YA tween obsession.

    Here’s Hoping! 🙂

  6. @Briana, I just found this blog too, and I am estasmic!

    Mr. Chadda, your blog made me think about whether or not there is something fundamentally different about the way that people of color write hero stories.

    Hmm…this may necessitate a blog response. I will be back to post a link.

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