Being called a butterfly is often a derogatory term. It implies you flit about, unable to stick at anything. But the fact that my life has been all about flitting around, hasn’t made me feel a failure. It has made me feel greedy and emboldened: unable to say no to a challenge; boastful: I can do that! Wanting to do everything and anything that looked interesting and which caught my eye or my ear.
As a very young child, I flitted from just simply learning: how to speak, how to sing, how to run -often before I could walk; how to dance; how to rhyme, and tell stories, and play make-believe? Many of my friends had dressing up clothes, or stole them from the wardrobes of their parents. We were all playwrights, actors, and directors, and my earliest piece of childhood writing was a play. Do children do that now? Are creative games triggered from their devices, computer games and play stations? This is not to be critical. How could I be, when I’ve never experienced a play station? But I do hope they get the same intensity of pleasure I got, and will remember vividly the games of their childhood.
My games, and make-believe in due course, turned into story-telling, written stories, and then published stories when, after a lot of flitting, I landed up joyfully and unexpectedly, writing books for children. It was only children I ever wanted to write for.
My first book, The Magic Orange Tree, was intended to reflect the diversity of Britain, post Empire which had morphed into the Commonwealth.
I was lucky: in the right place at the right time, when writers and publishers for children were looking at the post war years around them. We all wanted to reflect the reality of the world we lived in: the very changed world, where families and society were challenged; where an equality in education, aspirations, and ambition were demanded. A kind of post empire utopia was envisaged, with people coming in from all parts of what had been the British Empire. So, The Magic Orange Tree was followed up by books about friendship, like Kamla and Kate, and Grandpa Chatterji. I also wrote collections of myths and legends, as I believed very strongly that children from all backgrounds, and especially varied ethnic backgrounds, should feel proud of their cultural heritage.
Established British communities were often, reluctantly, having to mix; having to live together, having to understand each other, having to tolerate religions and practises which were alien to those who felt encroached on. Others were idealistic and excited by something called “multiculturalism,” and wanted everyone to feel enhanced not threatened. Was it all a lie? Many of the Windrush generation who were later to be so betrayed, might call it a lie. They faced racism and prejudice and treated, not as equals, but inferior, and merely cheap labour to help build post-war Britain.
Yet, I believed in Multiculturalism passionately. It was to be the absolute inspiration behind almost all my writing. My Indian father and English mother, having met in Persia (now Iran) valued each other’s culture and the global cultures they encountered. Both were linguists. They loved demonstrating influences: this word was Latin, Greek, Persian, Sanskrit – let alone French, German, Italian – yet embedded in what we call the English language. That’s why I am saddened by the term “cultural appropriation,” as if it’s a crime; that we have to stay true to one purity, one essence of language and culture. That is not to say I don’t recognise cultural exploitation – and that may be another conversation to be had, but we are all born out of some kind of appropriation, whether geographic, linguistic or cultural. And never forget that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
I often teach in schools with a map of the world behind me pointing out the trade routes: the silk routes, the spice routes, fur, and metal, religions, music, dance and storytelling. Many of Aesop’s stories are found in India as well as Greece, and Cinderella is found in almost every country in the world – the oldest version being from China. The genius of the Human Being is the cultures it produces, from which we learn, learn, learn, and continue to reproduce throughout time.
I have always loved researching and rewriting myths and legends, and feel so enriched by this aspect of my writing life.
My most recent little book for Collins Big Cat series, is a retelling of an Egyptian Cinderella – well actually she was Greek, but enslaved and sold off in an Egyptian market place. Such kidnapping I call exploitation and theft, (not the story, but the girl.) Justly to be condemned!
Never Forget You is the title of my last YA novel, published last year by HarperCollins. As with nearly all my books, I have been able to call on my oldest memories. This one recalls aspects of WW2, writing about the fates of four young women, from different backgrounds, and how they transition from school girls to young women, going into the war to fight in their own way. I used my real memories mixed with parental memories and their lived experience. Just a few days ago, I was in a school in Birmingham, talking to 6th Formers about my Surya Trilogy, written in the 1990s, yet almost a counterpoint to Never Forget You, though from totally different perspectives. I realise that there are themes in my books which never go away.
Now I’m writing a new novel called The Man in the Red Trousers. Set in WW1 this time, and perhaps, for the first time, I am also including the perspective of a young German boy who joins up into the Imperial German Army, under age. I do hope I won’t be accused of cultural appropriation.