Sunday, 27 November 2011

DIVERSITY MATTERS: Zannah Kearns on being inspired by different cultures and the world around her.

Zannah Kearns is a debut author whose YA novel, No Use Crying, has been described as ‘an emotional rollercoaster, the perfect coming of age novel.’


Secrets, secrets, secrets, she thought. It's just another word for lying. 
The discovery of a grandfather Niki thought had died years ago means a sudden move to London and the start of a whole new life. 
Niki has to learn quickly to fit in and survive in the school halls and on the tough streets. And at the same time she must get to know her grandad and come to terms with the fact that her mum has been hiding the truth. 
But when Niki suddenly discovers her mum's biggest lie of all, could it change their relationship -- and Niki's own sense of identity -- for good?


Zannah Kearns ~ 'my life experience has been one of enjoying diversity, and I have come to realise how much I like to see that reflected in stories - not only the ones I write, but the ones I read, too.'

In British terms, I would not fit into any ‘diverse’ sort of category. I was born and raised in this country, am blonde-haired, blue-eyed and milk-skinned. I have the sort of accent that could have me presenting the news for the BBC.

So, how is it I ended up writing a novel largely populated by Afro-Caribbeans, along with a few Indians, and even a walk-on part for a girl from Eritrea?

I was living in London at the time, and quite simply I was inspired by the world around me. Through helping out at local youth groups, I met larger-than-life teenagers with amazing vibrancy and a whole new way of speaking.

I was struck by the fact that, even though they were second generation British and had never left the country, they considered themselves to be more Jamaican than British. I met Indians, Eritreans, mixed-race kids, Eastern Europeans - pretty much anyone from anywhere.

I didn’t really think about what I was doing when I began to write No Use Crying, I simply fell in love with the people I met, of all ages and all backgrounds, and the story of a mixed-race girl finding out about her roots started growing in my head.

Maybe that was how I was able to legitimately write my way into these different cultures - Nikita starts as one looking in, trying to navigate her way and find her sense of self. She has been raised by her white mother, never having a permanent home, and only as the story progresses, does she begin to discover who she really is.

I didn’t realise I’d done anything unusual in writing a story that didn’t have a white protagonist; that was populated with only two main white characters with everyone else being from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. I didn’t have an agenda - I am hardly Benjamin Zephaniah! And I was fortunate to be taken on by publishers Frances Lincoln who are committed to publishing books that celebrate cultural diversity 'in the widest possible sense'.

I can’t be a ‘voice’ for non-white minorities. However, my life experience has been one of enjoying diversity, and I have come to realise how much I like to see that reflected in stories - not only the ones I write, but the ones I read, too.

I suppose various travels have given me an insight into what it is like to be seen as ‘other’. I lived in Costa Rica and travelled through South America a few years ago, and there I realised that however long I might live in a foreign country and claim it as my home, the first question I would always be asked would be 'Where are you from?' In that sense, I would never fit in, although I was welcomed into families like a daughter and made some very dear friends.

I’ll never forget walking through a village in Peru where some elderly ladies in traditional Quechuan dress - long plaits of greying hair, little red hats tied under their chins, embroidered skirts and capes. They pointed at me in my western trousers with all their handy pockets, my quick-dry t-shirt so good for travelling and sturdy hiking sandals, lugging a great big rucksack on my back - they pointed at me and started laughing.
‘Oh, I’m the one who looks funny?’ I asked in English. (I spoke no Quechuan and they spoke no Spanish.) This seemed to be the funniest thing they’d ever heard and they fell about laughing all over again.

There was difference, but no hostility. When multiculturalism works it’s a wonderful thing.

I remember hearing Zadie Smith being interviewed years ago on the radio. She was asked how she felt about being a black role model - whether she thought others would feel able to achieve success as she had done, inspired by her example. She dismissed the question - why did her skin colour have to be their inspiration? Couldn’t a black person see ANYONE achieve something, no matter their colour, and believe they could do it themselves?

I wonder why it is we have so many automatically presumed to be white protagonists? Is it because most of our authors are white? Is that because the notion of white privilege is still in fact a reality, and children of other cultures don’t find themselves in books and so don’t read and so don’t write? I remember Malorie Blackman saying that as a child she never found anyone like herself in the books that she read. She’s done much to change that, and there are others, but are there enough?

I think in our politically correct culture we are afraid of getting it wrong. Afraid of offending by writing about someone from a culture to which we don’t belong. Well, yes, we need to get it right, to not fall back on stereotypes, to be authentic. But that’s possible. If a middle-aged woman can write in the voice of a teenage boy, or I can write the thoughts of an old man, then why not an Indian woman or any other race or age or gender?

And there are common truths about humanity that unite us. To love and be loved. To want to know truth and meaning; to be accepted and have a sense of home. Don’t we all want these things? Maybe the radical thing in books these days that use modern-day Britain as their backdrops is to make race non-radical, to simply reflect the mix there is.

Maybe to achieve that, to be authentic in voices that aren’t naturally our own, we need to reach out into the communities around us and discover this diversity for ourselves.


1 comment:

Jasmine Richards said...

Am really looking forward to reading this!

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