"Even today, few seem to link the Empire of the past with the Commonwealth of the present."
BRITAIN HAS INHERITED an impressive body of “multicultural writing” though, of course, that’s not how it was described before 1947. Within the context of the British Empire, writers such as Conrad, Henty, Kipling, Stevenson, Rumer Godden and Frances Hodgson Burnett were all bringing the world into British homes – with tales of adventure and romance. Arguably, Victorian children knew more about the countries of the world, both within and outside the British Empire, than we do today – for all our access to technology, and for all the travel which has become part of our lives. While traditionally, books for children had be educational as well as teaching moral principles, it meant that they were also full of information about other cultures and customs in the world at large.
My parents made me conscious of the origins of language and culture: this word is Arabic, or that has its roots in Sanskrit; this was Latin, that word Greek, and that so many words and terms embedded in the English language, came from India and beyond. Within the British Isles it was fascinating to know that place names were Saxon, Viking, Roman or Norman – sometimes running into each other. It brought alive the sense, that races and religions have been on the move, mixing and merging, since time began.
In the 1970s families such as mine were not being reflected in the culture around us. It seemed to me that, post empire, Britain had turned in on itself and was not properly dealing with the phenomenon of immigration. I noticed bewilderment among ethnic minority children: who were they, why were they here; why HERE – not there? Many didn’t know their own history and culture. There was an almost equal bewilderment on the part of the host country. Even today, few seem to link the Empire of the past with the Commonwealth of the present.
I heard of young black and brown school children painting themselves white. Why? Was it because they didn’t think it was O.K. to be other-than-white? Certainly, story books mostly featured white children; advertisements demonstrated that it was white people who drove fast cars and ate Blue Band Margarine. Television programmes of the time barely showed a black face – unless it was starving. To be black was to be almost culturally invisible.
As English medium schools burgeoned throughout India and Africa, the problem was exported abroad. As late as 1998, a school girl in Nigeria said, after one of my talks, “I didn’t know black children could have adventures.”
The backlash against imperialism meant that swathes of books were swept from bookshelves. I stepped into this vacuum with my first book, ‘The Magic Orange Tree’, which, though it was not the word I used then, was multicultural. My stories featured children to be found in any British city neighbourhood – Ghanaian, Chinese, Scottish, Pakistani, Cypriot, Welsh, Irish and Afro- Caribbean. I went on to write novels which reflected much of my own background and history. It felt vital to me that children should see their own mirror image, and to validate their existence within British society as something normal rather than exotic.
Everyone needs to know their own personal history and origins; their myths and legends. We acknowledge this with adopted children yet, until recently, we didn’t ensure that within our education system children were given the basic tools which would enable them to define their identity.
Multiculturalism is part of a dynamic, modern and progressive society, and I mourn the fact that it has been challenged, and labeled as divisive and damaging, rather than nourishing. However, this is not to say that this means we have to accept codes and practices which violate hard won human rights. I write within British society, upholding British values, and what I want to do is help to develop a moral consensus across ethnicities and religions in order to achieve social cohesion.
There have been some wonderful initiatives such as the AEMS project in the eighties – (Arts Education in a Multicultural Society). Funded for four years by the Gulbenkian Foundation, this initiative enabled culturally diverse artists – from within and without the British Isles, to enter schools and bring creative activities to children all over the country – whatever their make up.
I still remember this as one of the most successful and important projects I’ve ever been involved in. Now, with the constraints of the school timetable, such a project could not happen in quite the way it did then, when schools – junior schools – were able to sweep aside a whole afternoon, or even a week, for a team of artists and performers to run workshops and inspire the children.
Sadly, its legacy soon seemed to dissipate when the four years were up and the funding stopped. And that’s the problem. An initiative may work marvelously for a given period but unless it becomes part of the curriculum, we can easily drop back to square one.
Thankfully, we do now see more Black and Asian faces on television; more Black and Asian writers, painters, poets and personalities, are winning prizes and making up the short lists. But my concern is with children – as it is with them that the seeds of their identity and confidence are sewn, and I don’t see this routinely reflected in the class room – although there are individual schools and teachers doing remarkable work. I don’t see it sufficiently in the media, on the bookshelves in schools and libraries, or in children’s programmes on radio and television.
Although publishers, agents and writers recognise that cultural diversity is both a moral and a commercial issue, books, television and film are still largely white, and don’t adequately represent ethnic minorities. “Multiculturalism” should never be seen as just a duty, a fringe interest – or even a threat – but as an extension of our already hugely rich literary heritage and society, continuing to reflect the way we are today.
Since WW1 and the end of WW2, society had changed dramatically. Women were empowered, the family questioned, divorce increased, the youth culture grew and became highly commercial and marketable. Drugs, gender, sex and rock n’ roll was on the agenda as was multiculturalism. All became grist for the mill for children’s writers – and actually, a kind of mission – to deal with issues that children were directly involved with. Writers such as Anne Fine, Melvyn Burgess, Linda Newberry, Malorie Blackman, David Almond – were all dealing with highly contemporary topics, writing wonderful, readable, prize-winning books, which addressed situations they knew many children were facing. It is through stories that children learn about values and roles, about good and evil, about fun and silliness, about happiness and sadness – about life and death. It is through stories that children can make sense of a confused world and learn to overcome the obstacles they will inevitably meet.
So if society is concerned about its future and its values, then children’s writers are surely to be viewed as a massive resource. Access to libraries and support of publishers and bookshops should be a priority.