It’s vital to see more people who look, talk, think like us, in the stories we read
Earlier this year, armed with a newfound enthusiasm for uplifting readers, my husband and I introduced a bedtime ritual: share a story with the girls and let them tell it. In the middle of the second page one night my youngest daughter said, “Why don’t any of them look like me?” she asked with genuine bewilderment. Despite years of experience, reading, writing about inequality, race, and power vortices, none of us had a convincing answer. A few minutes later, her older sister solved the mystery: “Because of the color of our skin.
This trivial nocturnal exchange turned into an unexpected trigger, setting off a chain reaction to realize how much we had internalized, how little we questioned ourselves, how passively we consumed information, stories, events. Why didn’t we see more characters that looked and sounded like us? Why was our library disproportionately displaying titles with keywords limited to ‘tough country’, ‘failed state’, ‘most dangerous place on earth’; illustrations of Jack and Alice, countryside farmland and red brick cottages? Why was I reminded, before I even tried my own novel, that the likelihood of publishing as a non-white citizen, residing in a non-Western country, was ridiculously low? Because the lack of diversity in stories is real; a marginal improvement, but the asymmetry remains glaring.
Living in the Gulf, what we see around us is different – and you can’t help but be drawn to the syncretism of this place. However, when students enter the classroom, they consume school materials that dilute this diversity. From children’s literature to school curricula and college curricula, authentic depictions of race, religion, gender—characters that offer no symbolism—are a pipe dream. Despite the lip service offered by diversity committees, minority groups are “given”; researching, writing about them becomes a giant experiment, often producing the usual tropes: failed, out of this world, veiled therefore downtrodden, a comedic sidekick, or even worse, the bold and free-spirited, newly liberated “ninja in sneakers”. by the saviors – he hammers home how much work remains to be done.
Why is diversity in literature important? Why do our 5, 15 and 25 year olds need to be exposed to knowledge produced in different places by different people? Why do we yearn for unusual stories that don’t cast minority characters as coincidences or punctuation marks? Because stories are prisms, vulnerable supports for sharing differences, entering minds, shaping perspectives; the closer we get to experiencing and interpreting worlds we may never visit, meet people we may never meet. They affirm or demystify stereotypes about communities reduced to teleprinters.
This makes monopolizing stories a risky proposition; the worldviews of millions of people are in the hands of a privileged few. It also means that there is apprehension that prevents “unconventional” storytellers from entering the arena. In a recent writing workshop I led, aspiring Emirati female writers spoke about the fear of being judged, of not finding traction, “of being in a place where you’re not supposed to be” – you’re scared before you even start.
Fear, frustration, fatigue kept my own writing from taking off for years – until that bright moment when I realized that storytelling could be as much recovery as catharsis and creativity. If everyone thought, what change will my little brick make, it will produce exactly this result without incident: nothing will change. For the envelope to be pushed back, possibly torn apart, more of us need to flip that perspective and say, what if each of us starts small, puts down “one brick at a time”, could we possibly build architecture that sounds in change?
The terrain, admittedly, is still uncharted, but some select models are taking this route; the Zindagi series, Churails, by British-Pakistani director Asim Abbasi, was an important step towards punctuating lopsided storytelling. Rafia Zakaria’s book, Against White Feminism, another pioneer, takes the gun head-on. Their successes bring hope – the road is being cleared, but there is still a long way to go.
So what can we do to start
small, start right away?
· To talk: At some point, for things to happen, anger has to turn into action. We need more voices around the table – from South Asia, Africa, Central Asia, elsewhere – whether it’s a WhatsApp note, correcting a colleague or defending a thesis, talk about yourself, own it without being embarrassed or apologizing. Cleans complexes.
· Say no to the cookie cutter: producing cutout dolls or caricatures, adding a minority character for voyeuristic fun or to tick off a diversity stat, doesn’t help. We need to normalize the presence of minorities, explore their full and messy range of blacks, whites, grays, reduce the exoticism quotient.
Spruce up the library and watchlist: keep existing titles, they still have value, but also look for books, movies, travel shows that diversify the range for you and for them. children – Khalid Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, Fatima Farheen Mirza’s A Place for Us and Caramel, a film by Lebanese director-actress Nadine Labaki are worth adding to your catalog. Same Same But Different is a powerful starting point for children.
Even when stories were told around campfires, they opened windows through which we made sense of our world. Today, too, they have the potential to validate our own journeys and instill empathy in those we view as “different”; simultaneously, they hold the power to indoctrinate, to condition, to decide who and what constitutes ‘normality’ – to sharpen ‘otherness’.
For too long we’ve given up on that superpower – now, all this time later, recovery won’t come without a fight; but it’s a good fight.
Saba Karim Khan is the author of Skyfall, published by Bloomsbury and works at NYU Abu Dhabi