You may call me a BAME author, but this misleading term hides more than it reveals

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Sheena Kalayil, University of Manchester

Apparently, I am BAME. This places me as a contender for The Guardian’s BAME awards or the Jhalak prize, both aimed at BAME writers like myself. Ah, BAME – this acronym, which means black, asian and minority ethnic, joins many other appellations offered over the decades (not all of them very nice), painstakingly attempts to address the complexities of a multicultural society. But isn’t it, despite its best intentions, rather limiting?

As a child in Zambia, I was a mwenye, if the speaker wished to be disparaging (it’s an unflattering term that I won’t translate). In most contexts my family was “Indian”, while we regarded ourselves as Keralites (being Indian was secondary). Back in Kerala, if denoted by religion, we were proud to be “Syrian Christians”, members of a Catholic congregation pre-dating the arrival of Islam in India, formed by the disciple Doubting Thomas. Of course this meant we were a cut above those “Latin Christians” who had converted centuries after to curry favour with their Portuguese colonisers.

Later, as a teenager in a new Zimbabwe, I was once again “Indian” and, in a Harare which had been segregated under the Rhodesians, my family should thus have lived in the suburb of Belvedere, which was the Indian zone, rather than as we did on the edge of the “coloured” (mixed-race) Braeside. I resisted these tortuous preoccupations with skin tones and bloodlines – and by my late teens, inspired by the rising tide which was turning against apartheid in South Africa, I was resolutely, in my eyes, “black”.

But when I arrived in the UK, I was suddenly “Asian” – defined by a great continent, of which my home state in India was a mere slender slip of a thing. I was properly foreign, with a student visa stamped in my Indian passport, but my proficiency in English led many to believe I was “British Asian”, alongside an assumption that I was second-generation British, well versed in both Withnail and I and the career of reggae DJ Apache Indian, and full of fond memories of that incredible summer of 1976. I have done my homework since, as you can see.

I returned to Africa as a young woman, and when living and working in Mozambique, I was a monye – another disparaging term, not dissimilar to mwenye, but this sobriquet was seasoned with the erroneous assumptions of being Muslim and wealthy. Then, on to the tiny island of Bioko, part of Equatorial Guinea, where I was memorably known as la chica blanca – the white girl. Oh yes, and in Spain some years later, I was declared a hindou, the religious divisions that beset my homeland refreshingly ignored. Reader, an identity crisis in the making.

The journey so far

But, actually not. For, observers often overlook the id and the ego: your own innate understanding of yourself. Are we swayed so much by what others call us? Probably not. Despite my nomadic childhood, my peripatetic young adulthood, my membership of a wider diaspora, angst over love affairs and migrations and appearance and employment, if I’m honest, I’ve always known myself: as impulsive, restless, often inept, but well-intentioned. Despite all the assumptions made in the geographical/religious/social “names” I have been given, these qualities best define who I am.

Author’s latest work: a modern romance novel.

The journey I have taken to arrive at the roles I currently have – wife, mother, writer, teacher – baffles many people. My first novel (roundly rejected, then published independently) juxtaposes a young woman’s passionate love affair in Mozambique with her arranged marriage in the US. My second, published as my debut by Polygon, follows a widower’s return to India after 30 years in London. My most recent, The Inheritance, features an affair between a young student and an older lecturer, the latter born in Zimbabwe-then-Rhodesia.

As a writer, if I tap into my experiences of geographical dislocations and multilingual communities, the literary industry and reviewers often locate the story as one of identity crises, of a quest to belong, in which I give “a compelling insight into what it means to be rootless, with characters torn between the culture of their parents and that of the society in which they grew up”. All true. But not the whole story and not a unique story by any means – instead, one that is shared by millions over a shifting, transient world, including readers of fiction. To a lot of us, the mobility and code-switching and reinvention are rather normal. What informs my sense of self? Whom I love, my children, the opinions and advice of the people who are important in my life.

BAME at a glance

It feels churlish to question BAME. But, if identifying a misrepresented or under-represented minority, then why not just “minority”? The writer and historian Paul Gilroy, in his book There Ain’t no Black in the Union Jack, has already queried the “imploded, narcissistic obsession with the minutiae of ethnicity”. Why the splintering and separation? Does the “B” in BAME reference the Windrush generation or the recently arrived Somali, or neither, or both?

A ‘bittersweet, uplifting tone’.

Are we in danger of engendering a hierarchy by stealth, so some minorities are considered more “minority” than others? As a “British Asian” (holding a British passport now, I have become one) I cannot claim to have the same experiences and reception as a Briton with Nigerian origins. But I might well share some of her experiences if she is a woman (like me), if she is a writer (like me), or if she is as scared of her teenage daughter as I am.

And if we take the “A” – what constitutes a (British) Asian? Not all of us emanate from the Punjab or Gujarat or Bangladesh, or made a prolonged stopover in East Africa. Not all of our parents arrived in the UK in the 1960s or 1970s. Not all of live in a large, dense community, or speak its language – or even wish to. Not all of us dance bhangra or admire Bollywood. Our families may not all have served in or near the Raj and we may not have a strong memory of or feelings about partition.

Disappointed? You might well be, so embedded are the discourses surrounding British Asians. A discourse which can blind an “A” in BAME to the heterogeneity and diversity within – and which is perpetuated sometimes by these individuals themselves. I once watched on television a very well-known British Asian comic whose punchline centred on the unlikelihood of finding an Indian at a Catholic school. The laughter from the audience only served to show how they little knew of the millions of Indians who are Catholic. But, more depressingly – neither it seemed, buying into the discourse, did the comic.

To note, the aforementioned Jhalak prize, is the Hindi-Urdu word for “glance”. Considering it is open to all BAME writers, the Bs and the MEs alongside the As, perhaps this is not the most inclusive title?

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Perhaps rather than trying to solve issues about diversity by making diversity more explicit and more fractured at the expense of cohesion, we should simply acknowledge that it is, frankly, impossible to categorise a creature as self-reflective and self-concerned as a human being.

Sheena Kalayil, Senior Language Tutor, University Language Centre, University of Manchester

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Authors & YouTube

The link below is to an article that considers how authors can use YouTube to their advantage.

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Five books by women, about women, for everyone

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Get stuck in.
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Stacy Gillis, Newcastle University

Women’s writing has long been a thorn in the side of the male literary establishment. From fears in the late 18th century that reading novels – particularly written by women – would be emotionally and physically dangerous for women, to the Brontë sisters publishing initially under male pseudonyms, to the dismissal of the genre of romance fiction as beyond the critical pale, there has been a dominant culture which finds the association of women and writing to be dangerous. It has long been something to be controlled, managed and dismissed.

One of the ways that publishers, booksellers and critics use to “manage” literature is through the notion of genre: labelling a book as “detective fiction” becomes an easy way to identify particular tropes in a novel. These genre designations are particularly helpful for publishers and booksellers, with the logic running something like this: a reader can walk into any bookstore, anywhere, and go to the detective fiction section and find a book to read, because s/he has read detective fiction before and enjoyed it.

What complicates this is who makes the decision of which genres are deemed to be appropriate, and which books are put into which category. Genre is also complicated by the idea of women’s writing. Can we have a genre that is designated solely by the sex of the author? What if we turned this around, and rather than a genre, women’s writing was a term we used to simply celebrate writing about women?

Here are five novels by women – and about women – from across the 20th century. These novels all grapple, in very different ways, with women and independence.

Agatha Christie, The Man in the Brown Suit (1924)

South Africa on a whim.
Jeremy Crawshaw, CC BY

Anna Beddingfeld, a self-mocking heroine, who is very aware of the conventions of gender and genre, impulsively buys a ticket to South Africa because the boat fare is the exact amount she has left in the world. She ends up taking down an international crime syndicate with aplomb and panache.

Lucy Maud Montgomery, The Blue Castle (1926)

Doss is the expendable unmarried older woman in a Victorian novel. But in this story, she walks out on her largely uninterested family to move into a cabin on an island with a man she has met only briefly. A fantasy of the Canadian wilderness, the novel was one of Montgomery’s few novels for adults.

Mary Stewart, Nine Coaches Waiting (1958)

A rewriting of Jane Eyre, the novel contains all the tropes of the Gothic romance – a castle, a family secret, murder – but these are challenged by one of Stewart’s finest protagonists, Linda Martin. Martin is employed as a governess by an aristocratic family, but rejects the trappings of romance to protect her charge, and her own integrity.

Octavia Butler, Kindred (1979)

Edana Franklin wakes up in hospital with her arm amputated and the police questioning her husband. It is revealed that she has been travelling back to 1815, where she comes into repeated contact and conflict with Rufus, one of her slave-owning ancestors. A novel that raises important questions about masculinity, power and violence.

Shirley Jackson, Patchwork Girl (1995)

One of the earliest pieces of electronic fiction, this retelling of Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Baum’s The Patchwork Girl (1913) places the narrative in the hands of the reader, who pieces together the story through illustrations of parts of a female body.

Often popular novels by women have a narrative arc that is visible from the outset: the protagonists will find a romantic partner in the end. In some of the above books, some of the women do, and some of them don’t, find a romantic partner. For those who do, the romance is secondary to the work they do, and the choices that they make about their own lives.

What unites the novels is an exploration of the choices that some women have to make as a result of their sexed and gendered embodiment, whether travelling to South Africa on a whim, being jolted unwillingly back onto a slave plantation, or making an explicit call to the (woman) reader to make choices about how the electronic story develops.

The ConversationWriting about women (and often by women) gives us some examples of how to challenge the status quo, if only for a little while. Each challenge, however, provides another example of how to effect change in a patriarchal culture. Here’s to the writers about women who have done this – from Jane Austen to Shirley Jackson, from Frances Burney to Josephine Tey, and from Angela Carter to Val McDermid.

Stacy Gillis, Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Literature, Newcastle University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Farewell Ursula Le Guin – the One who walked away from Omelas

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Fantasy and science fiction author Ursula Le Guin has died, aged 88.
© 2014 Jack Liu

Christopher Benjamin Menadue, James Cook University

Author Ursula Kroeber Le Guin has been the subject of critical debate, analysis and discussion for generations. She died this week at the age of 88.

Le Guin published her first paid work April in Paris in the September 1962 issue of the magazine Fantastic Stories of the Imagination – and I am the proud owner of an original copy. I am a lifelong Le Guin fan, but also an academic exploring how science fiction is a cultural artefact that acts as a lens on changing attitudes and specific issues of its time. For me, Le Guin hit the sweet spots of her time powerfully and frequently.

Le Guin explored what it is to be human, faults and all, and the impact and influence of her work is undeniable in the world of fantasy and science fiction.

Read more:
Science fiction helps us deal with science fact: a lesson from Terminator’s killer robots

A fantasy writer for all ages

I first encountered Le Guin as a child through the Earthsea Cycle, and it set the bar high for what I considered ever after to be good fantasy literature, leaving me disappointed by many otherwise quite respectable authors.

A Wizard of Earthsea, published in 1968, was the first of three books exploring the life of Ged, a young wizard. Spoiler alert: Ged grows and matures into an adult, starting with his attendance at a secretive wizarding school, where he is scarred on the face by a dark power (which he discovered is inextricably linked to him) and that he later defeats.

Tehanu Frontispiece.
Charles Vess 2016

If this sounds familiar, you’re not the first to note it. Regarding the story of Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea, Le Guin didn’t say that J.K. Rowling “ripped me off” in her Harry Potter series, but felt that Rowling should have been “more gracious about her predecessors”.

In the Earthsea series, we are introduced to the complex responsibilities of becoming an adult, and asked to consider the values of life and the nature of death. It’s heavy, but significant and humanly realistic reading for a teenager.

Professionalism and style

Le Guin was fiercely protective and supportive of other authors. In 1973, she made a humorous critique of the problems faced by writers trying to make their worlds fantastical and strange in From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, encouraging and emphasising the importance of appropriate style.

Style is something Le Guin seemed to be able to master effortlessly and consistently. I consider her short story Semley’s Necklace – first published in 1964 and later included in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters – to be the finest of its kind in fantasy writing, its crystalline prose equal to Semley’s tragic fate.

Le Guin maintained an interest in encouraging writers and sharing her art. I have an original and much-thumbed copy of the elegantly titled (and naturally masterfully written) Steering the Craft: a 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, published in 1998: it didn’t make me a better writer, but it made me respect and appreciate the craft of writing.

David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas, waxed lyrical about Earthsea. He was one of a range of famous admirers including Neil Gaiman, Stephen Fry and Billy Bragg who have been tweeting their sorrow.


On human nature, science, ethics and duty

For me, Le Guin has been such a powerful influence in science fiction and fantasy literature that I can’t imagine how it might have developed without her.

My own much loved, much lent copy of The Left Hand of Darkness (Granada Publishing, 1973).
Christopher Benjamin Menadue, Author provided

The Left Hand of Darkness, published in 1969, inspired and informed a generation of gender writing in fantasy and science fiction. Yet, in her 1976 introduction to this novel, Le Guin maintained that androgyny was not what she considered the theme of the book – it was more to do with essential human feelings about fidelity and betrayal. Her employment of what were to become tropes of science fiction and fantasy was in service of the story, not the other way around, and this was a characteristic of her work.

More than many other author, she employed language, culture and concept in service of writing significant stories about the condition of being human.

Where writer Philip K Dick might be considered the expert of the “what if” scenario in science fiction, for me Le Guin is the expert at “what is?” She asked questions about our nature, aims and desires. She was consistently writing at the coalface of cultural change, or anticipating it.

Read more:
Friday essay: science fiction’s women problem

Her short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, written in 1973 is a devastating, slow-burn exposition of the implications of taking the utilitarian route in our exploitative relationships with other people.

The power of this writing has only increased with time, as we become more aware of “ethical outsourcing” and labour inequalities. These are portrayed in the film The Last Train Home, where the lives of those in the “developed world” become more comfortable, but at the expense of people we don’t know and can’t see.

The Dispossessed, published in 1974, was my introduction to a reader-friendly explanation of comparative ideologies – I suspect it was the same for many people.

But it was also a story about scientists, and the duty they have to be responsible, ethical and honest. It is another very human story in which Le Guin skillfully portrays the difficulties of presenting complex concepts to an unwelcoming world – something that is still pertinent in an age of climate change denial, anti-vaccination lobbying and fake news.

Le Guin was not a universal fan of scientific progress, but always took a human perspective. She was horrified by the “deal with the devil” of the Google book digitisation project, which although a great technological innovation, she recognised as a potential assault on the rights of authors.

Fantasy and science fiction author Ursula Le Guin.
Copyright Marian Wood Kolisch

Le Guin was a prolific novelist, and I only realise how small a proportion of her work my collection includes when I look look her up on the Internet Science Fiction Database.

Unlike many of her contemporaries, Le Guin consistently wrote thoughtful and artful science fiction and fantasy throughout her life, without becoming fixed in any particular style.

Like Ged in Earthsea, she matured gracefully and elegantly with age, and continued to be powerful force and influence in the world of science fiction and fantasy writing.

The ConversationThe world has lost a great and influential writer and humanist. When I heard the news of her death I was heartbroken.

Christopher Benjamin Menadue, PhD Candidate, Literature and Society, James Cook University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.