I just skimmed through yet another article about how, growing up, we associated ‘white people doing white things’ with ‘people doing people things‘. This is an idea that I have to confront all the time, for racism is everywhere.
It has forms that we unwillingly perpetuate too. For instance, I have an Indian friend who is studying in the US, and she is not working on South Asian writers. This is something she repeatedly has to defend.
“Why don’t you work on your own culture?” everyone asks.
In the beginning, this is a seemingly harmless question. In fact, it is a relevant question, even an important one, when we look at representation and diversity. Yet, very soon, this begins, insidiously, to translate into the idea that brown people must write about brown people.
Must I write about my own culture? How is this a duty that I must fulfil while western writers may write fantasy where the prime purpose is the story itself and not representation?
Yes, I know I am not saying anything new here. Yet, this is something that I constantly battle with, especially when I’m working with children.
At my Writers’ Club, I often tread the fine line between encouraging children to set their stories in India and forcing them to set their stories in India. Here’s the kind of story I usually get right through the year.
For a recent writing assignment, I asked them to set their stories anywhere in their school. That yielded interesting results.
More often than not, I still had Laura, Grace and Jess attending school, discovering a portal and going to a different world. Else, there were blue-eyed girls and red-haired ones, who became enemies.
The problem, of course, is that we can always justify our ideas. For instance, who says Laura, Grace and Jess aren’t Indian? Also, why can’t we have foreigners in our school? And how am I to argue with a story where Roxanne with peach skin and rose-red lips has to fight disgusting Dharmsur?
I've written more than my fair share of western stories too. I wrote about Amelia Jane and 'dames' when I was eight years old. As I grew older, I had stories where the forest had a maple tree and an oak tree. These later became a banana tree and a cashew tree, but when I made the change, I felt that the new trees were somehow less exciting.
The other thing I do is to invite children to read Indian fiction. That is one of the ways forward, isn’t it? However, anyone who has tried to get children to read something they don’t want to read knows what this involves. They virtuously read Sudha Murthy and Ruskin Bond — because what else exists, right?
It’s an uphill task, but I love how it makes me question myself, my agendas and my writing. Also, I just received a story I’m waiting to read. It’s called ‘Chaos at the Charminar’. Sounds promising, doesn’t it? I also read a lovely play set in a fictional Indian museum, where, for once, a Harappan artefact was stolen, instead of an Egyptian one.
My next step at the Writers’ Club? To investigate why all their monsters are black and all their fairies are blond.