Part three in Darren Chetty and Karen Sands-O’Connor’s series looking at representations of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic voices in children’s books.
Ever since Inigo Impey itched for an Indian image in Peter Piper’s Practical Principles of Plain and Perfect Pronunciation (1819), British children’s literature has expressed a fascination (sometimes a horrified one) with the people of South Asia. Writers such as G. A. Henty described the picturesque villages of the ‘Mohammedans’ with their mosques and the ‘Hindoos’ with their temples, even as the white, Christian Briton carefully remained separated from them (see, for example, In Times of Peril: A Tale of India, first published in 1900). Sara Crewe, in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess (1905), saw the Indian servant Ram Dass as a kind of good magician, but this was an exception; most non-Christian people of colour in British children’s fiction were depicted at best as inscrutable, and at worst a threat to the white Briton’s life and way of life. This depiction continued even after World War II, when many Hindus and Muslims from India, Pakistan and the Caribbean came to Britain to find work. Perhaps the most egregious portrayal of non-Christians from this time is in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia stories, where the dark-skinned Calormenes worship an idol-god called Tash (a very common way for white Europeans in the 19th century to depict Hindus was to show them as superstitious idol-worshippers), about whom the Calormenes always declare, ‘May he live forever!’ Several critics, including Muslim critics like Imran Ahmad, have noted that the Calormenes declaration recalls the Muslim response to the use of the prophet Mohammed’s name, ‘Peace be upon him!’ The final book in Lewis’s series, The Last Battle (1956), has the ‘good’ Narnians, white-skinned and following a Christian-like religion, fighting the dark-skinned Calormenes because they reject the religion of Aslan.
By the 1970s, British writers could no longer keep South Asian Muslims and Hindus (not to mention Sikhs) at a distance; due to ever-increasing migration, these groups were now a part of Britain too. But how they were viewed in children’s literature depended on who was doing the writing. White writers often highlighted the separation of British Asians from everyone else. Jan Needle’s My Mate Shofiq (1978) detailed the awkward friendship of a working-class white British boy, Bernard, with a British Pakistani, Shofiq—but throughout the novel, Shofiq is isolated and racially abused, and even Bernard talks about Shofiq and his home having ‘the curry shop smell’ (35). Tony Drake’s Playing it Right (1979) centers on a multiracial cricket team, but the only Asian (a Sikh) on the team is constantly singled out; the white boys want to fight him and the ‘West Indian’ boys try to get him off the team. Isolation of the British Asian character and misunderstanding about his culture or family mark both these books. However, Farrukh Dhondy’s short story collections, East End at Your Feet (1976) and Come to Mecca (1978) demonstrate a unity between people of colour; in the short story ‘KBW’ from his first collection, graffiti advocating Keeping Britain White was aimed at a Bangladeshi family. Dhondy, who was a member of the British Black Panthers, embraced the concept of political blackness that unified Black British and British Asian people against white racism. Dhondy’s stories, unlike the stories by white writers, do not just mention religious affiliation; they discuss specific aspects of Islam and Hinduism. Dhondy’s British Asian characters are not mysterious entities for white Britons to fetishize or reject without ever learning anything about them, but central characters in their own right.
Although Dhondy and other writers in the 1970s and 1980s allied Black Britons with British Asians, children’s literature throughout the 1990s continued to mark the British Asian as different and isolated, especially from white British counterparts. White characters continue to claim ‘normal’ and ‘British’ for themselves, and British Asian characters are ‘strange’ and ‘foreign.’ Jamila Gavin’s characters Kamla and Kate (1997) are best friends, but that doesn’t stop white British Kate from telling British Asian Kamla that her house ‘smells funny’ (4) and refusing to eat anything but chocolate biscuits at Kamla’s house. And while Gavin uses Kate’s initial reluctance as a way to show how learning about another culture can help friendships to grow, Kamla still must do most of the work of explaining herself to Kate—she cannot just exist in her difference.
Yet, in children’s literature, an explanation of British Asian characters and their ‘difference’ is seen to be crucial, because lack of understanding leads to racist incidents. Robert Swindells’ Smash! (1997) begins with Stephen Crowley and Ashraf Khan as friends, but soon racism drives them apart. And while the British Asians never call white people names directly in Swindells’ novel (even when they are shouted at with racial slurs), Stephen can still assume that Ashraf and the other ‘Asian lads have suddenly decided to get stroppy. It makes you wonder whether they’ve been got at by those whatsits—fundamentalists’ (36). British Asians are no longer just mysterious, but they have the potential to be threatening. Following the 9/11 attacks in America and the 7/7 attacks in London, ‘fundamentalist’ would become ‘terrorist’ with increasing frequency.
The 2017 Bookseller Children’s Conference included a number of presentations that indicate that publishers are becoming more receptive to the idea that they should make greater efforts to include stories by authors from the communities they depict – or what is often termed ‘own voices’ literature. Yet the pervasive British media narrative of South Asians, and particularly South Asian men, as threatening provides a particular challenge for South Asian writers. How to acknowledge this narrative without bolstering it?
Zanib Mian’s The Muslims (2017) is a first-person middle-grade book with a handwriting font, illustrations and typographic experimentation reminiscent of Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Narrator Omar and his family are rounded characters, with their individual eccentricities and a warmth that even manages to win over Mrs Rogers, their neighbour whom they hear talking about ‘The Muslims’ next door. Mian skillfully offers a depiction of a Muslim family who are aware of the suspicion and hostility that they are often subjected to but are not defined by it. There is assuredness in the narrative that ‘The Muslims’ belong here, and a lightness of touch that is perhaps most likely to be found in own voices writing. For example, when Omar is told by Daniel, a classmate, to go back home he quizzes his cousin Reza about life in Pakistan, ‘Well, the pizza is yuck and you can hardly understand what people are saying.’ For attempting to fast during Ramadan, Omar hopes to be rewarded by Allah with a Ferrari Italia.
Muhammed Khan’s I Am Thunder (2018) is a YA novel told from the perspective of Muzna Saleem, who is thirteen at the beginning of the book. Many reviews of the book have focused on Muzna’s encounter with Islamic extremism, and indeed Khan comments in a note at the front of the book that he himself has lost a relative to religious extremism’. At the beginning of the story, Muzna is aware of the potential tensions of being Muslim in Britain, but takes them in good humour ‘Four years ago the academy had been funded by the National Lottery to be renovated and updated. I was going to a school that gambling had paid for. Maybe they’d have extra classes to teach me how to be a croupier.’ (61)
Khan portrays a girl who openly discusses her own identity and has both struggles and insights throughout the story. Muzna’s parents appear to see themselves as primarily Pakistani. Muzna sees Pakistan as a place she’ll be sent to if she misbehaves. Yet the hostility she experiences for being brown and Muslim alienates her from feeling fully British. In interview Khan commented, ‘There was a time when I sought refuge in Islam as an escape from both Pakistani and British cultures.’ And in the book, Khan appears to emphasise the power of narrative in the process of young people making sense of their relationship to the world. Muzna is more desi than Disney in a society where, as her friend Salma puts it, nobody wants to read, ‘Hare Krishna and the Prisoner of Afghanistan’ p4 Muzna is aware of negative media coverage of Muslims and has ambitions to write ‘books about people like me…Representation is incredibly important’. Whilst this might sound like the author’s voice coming through, any accusation that Khan is portraying radicalisation as an inevitable consequence of racism, Islamophobia and marginalisation would be very misplaced. When Muzna is told by Jameel who intends to involve her in terrorism that ‘Writers of fiction are among the worst of people’ (208) we become acutely aware that we are reading a work of fiction. We look forward to future work from Mian and Khan and hope that the burden of representation that often befalls Muslim and South Asian writers is soon shared with many others.
Karen Sands-O’Connor is professor of English at SUNY Buffalo State in New York. She has, as Leverhulme Visiting Professor at Newcastle University, worked with Seven Stories, the National Centre for the Children’s Book, and has recently published Children’s Publishing and Black Britain 1965-2015 (Palgrave Macmillan 2017).
Darren Chetty is a teacher, doctoral researcher and writer with research interests in education, philosophy, racism, children’s literature and hip hop culture. He is a contributor to The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla and published by Unbound, and tweets at @rapclassroom.
Some recent books with South Asian characters
Randa Abdel-Fattah, The Lines We Cross. Scholastic, 2017.
Ahmadreza Ahmadi, When I Coloured in the World, Tiny Owl, 2015.
Samira Ahmed, Love, Hate and Other Filters, Hot Key, 2018.
- K. Ali, Saints and Misfits, Simon and Schuster, 2017.
Nandana Dev Sen, Kangaroo Kisses Otter-Barry, 2016.
Reem Faruqi,. Laila’s Lunchbox Tilbury House, 2015.
Veera Hiranandani, The Night Diary, Dial, 2018.
Shelina Janmohamed, Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World, I.B. Tauris, 2016.
Savita Kalhan, The Girl in the Broken Mirror Troika, 2018
Hena Khan, and Amini Mehrdokht Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colors. Chronicle, 2015.
Elizabeth Lymer, Islamic Nursery Rhymes. Greenbird, 2013.
Irfan Master, A Beautiful Lie, Bloomsbury, 2011.
Tariq Mehmood, You’re Not Proper, Hope Road, 2015.
Michèle Messaoudi, My Mum is a Wonder, Islamic Foundation, 2016.
Zainab Mian, It Must Have Been You! Sweet Apple, 2015.
Jackie Ould, (ed) Liberté: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan. Ahmed Iqbal Ullah, 2008.
Bali Rai, The Crew Corgi, 2003.
Na’ima B Robert and Shirin Adl. Ramadan Moon. Frances Lincoln, 2011.
Nikesh Shukla, Run Riot Hodder, 2018
Bhajju Shyam, The London Jungle Book Tara, 2014.
Verna Wilkins, A Visit to City Farm. Firetree, 2016.
Malala Yousafzai with Patricia McCormick. I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World Orion, 2015.