Monday, 26 March 2012

DIVERSITY MATTERS: Colouring in Heroes by Sarwat Chadda

Sarwat Chadda is the author of the YA novels Devil's Kiss and The Dark Goddess, featuring kick-ass heroine Billi SanGreal.

tall tales & short stories would like to welcome Sarwat back to the blog to talk about his latest book, and new bad-ass hero, Ash Mistry.


Ash Mistry hates India. Which is a problem since his uncle has brought him and his annoying younger sister Lucky there to take up a dream job with the mysterious Lord Savage. But Ash immediately suspects something is very wrong with the eccentric millionaire. Soon, Ash finds himself in a desperate battle to stop Savage's masterplan - the opening of the Iron Gates that have kept Ravana, the demon king, at bay for four millennia...

Varanasi: holy city of the Ganges.
In this land of ancient temples, incense and snake charmers...
Where the monsters and heroes of the past come to life...
One slightly geeky boy from our time...



Colouring in Heroes

Remember the last time a black guy saved the world?
I do. 1996, Will Smith in Independence Day. Cinema has a lot of ‘ethnic’ (hate the word but it sounds better than ‘non-white’) heroes. Will is regularly doing the good guy gigs, we’ve Wesley on vamp-slaying duties and Jackie Chan and so on. Have you seen any of their movies? I have. And that’s without being Chinese, of African descent or anything like that.

But when you write a kids’ book with an Asian hero, you’ll have a bookseller come up to you and say ‘I can’t see anyone in my area buying you book because we’ve not got any Indians living around us.
By that logic you need to be a hobbit to buy Lord of the Rings.

Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress’ began as a conversation with my agent way back in the day. I knew my next project was going to be about India but we came to the discussion on the hero. Basically, should he be white? Could readers handle a non-white hero? Now, that may sound stupid, but all evidence in children’s fiction implies they can’t. They’re there in the nursery, Aladdin, Sinbad, Mulan, etc. But as kids grow up, they steadily disappear. Sure, they float around as sidekicks and in books about terrorism, forced marriages and religious fundamentalism, but not within the mainstream. They never get to save the world.

Time for a change, methinks.

Ash Mistry is of Asian descent. So what? He’s a 13 year old geek, likes computer games, eating junk food and hanging out with his mates. I think that covers most 13 year olds.

He goes off to India for his holidays and is forced to face the demon king, Ravana, and between the front and back cover of my novel goes from geek to demon-slaying badass.

Now, don’t we all love stories of underdogs making good? Isn’t the Hero’s Journey a universal myth? Don’t we love books about monsters? I know I do and given what’s out there (from Harry to Percy, from Alex to Valkyrie) there are plenty of other readers who feel the same.

It would be great if this could be the beginning of something new, no matter how small. Children’s fiction, more than anything else, should be the wellspring of new ideas and fresh views of the world. Kids, more than anyone, take diversity in their stride. They can handle heroes from different backgrounds. We just need to get some in front of them.

It’s been about 150 years since we last had an Asian children’s hero (that’ll be Mowgli). Seriously, isn’t it about time we had another?



Thomas Taylor said...

And it's a great story too:)

Tracy said...

It is indeed, Thomas!

Amanda Lillywhite said...

It sounds brilliant Sarwat, I am hoping to be at the book launch to hear you say "One slightly geeky boy from our time... IS GOING TO KICK THE DEMON HORDES BACK TO HELL." in a suitably scary voice.

Zoƫ Marriott said...

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin has never been out of print and the entire cast of that story is 'non-white'. My most popular book to date has a black hero and a Japanese heroine. And did having an African-American lead stop the recent Karate Kid remake from being a huge hit? No! Kids just want to read cracking good stories - to me, it's exasperating that adults (booksellers, publishers, teachers and parents) get so worried about this stuff and get in the way of children's reading enjoyment. Go Sarwat!

jongleuse said...

The book is a cracking read and hey-kids didn't have to be Ancient Greeks to enjoy Percy Jackson did they?

I've just been on a school trip with 90 Year 2s to the Indian temple and they loved it! (even though 80/90 were your standard variety White British kids)

Sue Sedgwick said...

This book sounds really exciting, can't wait to read it ... and I think the issues you raise are interesting and important.

Here's a problem: if your protagonist is non-white, however you like to describe them, how do you show that in your writing? The default assumption lacking description is that the protagonist is white, but as soon as you start describing their skin colour you're somehow buying into the stereotype - I'm drowning here. Is the answer that it doesn't matter, so you don't describe them? Whatever I say, it's going to be wrong ...

Sarwat said...

Describing a character is not stereotype, it's merely their description as much as they are tall, fat, wear glasses, whatever. Stereotype (IMHO) is when you attach attributes purely on colour of skin and, more importantly, alien-ness. I'm coming across this a lot with South Asian (especially Muslim) characters with terrorism and fundamentalism plots. What I'm after is breaking out of that.
Valid point but there's been added concern with my name being non-Anglo (or whatever). An Asian, writing about an Asian set in Asian risks being seen as a niche of a niche of a niche. It's the similar logic of why some female writers with male heroes still use their initials to hide their sex so boy readers won't be put off. It's a vast and complicated world that needn't be like that!

KMLockwood said...

I am dead chuffed to see you writing these stories - and you certainly have a point here.
I have a lot of sympathy with Sue Sedgwick's comment - as a white middle class female Northerner I feel cautious about including an 'ethnic' character in case I get it insultingly wrong.
Here's to a whole rainbow of heroes/heroines.

Jackie Marchant said...

Well, I'm just looking forward to reading it because I'm sure it'll be a cracking good read!

juju said...

Whoa! An Indian kick-asser! :) have to check this out! found you through "Read in a Single Setting" site. Good stuff!

p.s. i'm an indian btw in case you were wondering about that 'whoa'!

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