Picture a twelve-year-old protagonist who has magic.
Now, be honest.
How many of you thought about a brown-skinned girl with dark eyes and dark hair living in an apartment complex in Mumbai, India? Or one who works in the rice paddy fields of China, or resides in a palace in Nigeria?
Not too many of you, I imagine.
Isn’t it strange that in a world teeming with a smorgasbord of races, cultures, and nationalities, the ‘white-narrative’ is considered the standard narrative while stories about all other cultures are considered ‘diverse’? Studies say only 10% of the world’s population is ‘white’ and yet multicultural stories have remained in the background.
There is the assumption that a story with white characters can be enjoyed by anyone regardless of their race, culture, or nationality, but the reverse—a story with non-white characters—is not relatable to the white audience and can only be enjoyed by that particular race or culture mentioned in the story. The idea that if the characters and setting don’t match the reader’s appearance or background then the book won’t resonate with them is confounding to me. If that were the case, I would’ve only read a couple of books, if at all, throughout my childhood.
I’m amazed at the times a ‘well-intentioned’ person has said that my novel about a girl from India who embarks on a magical quest to find her brother would be perfect for their son’s friend who is Indian or for their neighbor’s daughter who comes from an Indian family. I usually reply with a smile and say that their son, daughter, and any of their friends, South Asian or otherwise, would enjoy my book if they enjoy reading fantasy books. Because that’s the important part: My book is a fantasy adventure with characters who happen to from India in the same way there are fantasy adventures with characters who happen to be from America.
Born and raised in India and being a kid in the Nineties, every single book I read had white characters who lived in Western countries and ate foods I hadn’t heard of let alone tasted in my younger years (raspberry cordial, liniment cake, ginger buns, treacle tarts), and yet to my formative and curious mind, these foods sounded delicious, the places exotic and dreamy, and the characters felt like my best friends.
Childhood experiences surrounding family, friendship, discovering one’s identity, navigating school and the trials of growing up, experiencing one’s first crush, dealing with complex emotions like grief, loss, death, as well as the exhilaration of traveling to fantastical lands and being heroes are themes every young reader can relate to. Why then must one look like the characters on the cover of books in order to enjoy reading or relating to them?
In a world that has been brought closer together by movies, TV shows, the internet, and travel, it is disheartening to see this prejudice persisting in the book industry against books with non-white characters from other cultures. The idea that these books are ‘exotic’, ‘othering’, and perhaps ‘tools to educate’, makes me feel like we’re missing the point. After all, isn’t everyone ‘different’ in the eyes of another?
As a kid, when I’d visit my neighborhood library, the librarian would peer over her desk and ask me what I was in the mood to read next—was it a mystery, a fantasy, a voyage across the seas, a high-school drama, boarding school adventures? At home, I’d curl up with the book or sneak into the back bench at school hiding it in the pages of a boring textbook, relishing the prospect of escaping into new worlds and meeting characters with foreign names like Gilbert and Nancy. I dreamed of playing with them in the snow or roasting marshmallows over a crackling bonfire.
I marveled at the way their mothers dressed and how their grandmothers who wore skirts or even pants snuck them candies while mine wore salwars or sarees and snuck me ladoos.
I seemed so different from them and yet I understood them, and they understood me.
Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables taught me to be a girl who shouldn’t be afraid to speak her mind and stand her ground. She taught me it was a marvelous thing to learn big, lovely sounding words and to have an unbridled imagination. My heart broke as I yearned for her to find a family like my own to love her. When I was twelve, she helped me understand the butterflies I felt in my stomach when I was around my first crush because there was no way I could tell my mother about it!
These books and these characters became my refuge, my escape, my own little adventure. Through them I lived and I learned, I laughed and I cried, and without knowing it I learned to embrace others who were different from myself. I learned to sympathize with situations I hadn’t yet experienced and empathize with those that I had. Never did it cross my mind that I shouldn’t be able to relate to them because the color of my skin didn’t match theirs, or the festivals they celebrated weren’t the same as mine.
Books have the uncanny ability of being your best friend and your kindest teacher. They help you understand and navigate situations you might’ve gone through yourself or would have never imagined possible, they make you meet all sorts of people in all sorts of places giving you a lesson in anthropology, sociology, and history. They teach without being didactic about the most important life lesson of all: People might look, speak, and live differently than you, but we are all unified by the human experience.
Wouldn’t you agree that the world is a wondrous place because of its plethora of cultures, people, languages, foods, traditions, and festivities all bound together by values of family, friendship, and love? Why must we then divide ourselves in the eyes of the young and impressionable by suggesting that a different color, culture, or community, separates us? Instead, let us rejoice in our uniqueness and find the similarities in our differences!
To agents, editors, teachers, librarians, and parents, I have but one plea: Be the change that broadens the horizons of your young readers, opens their eyes to different people and cultures, and nurtures them to better understand their friends and peers, so when they set forth into the melting pot that is their world today, they will flourish and thrive while being more welcoming, more empathetic, and kinder people.
I am testament to the fact that reading outside my culture and my community fostered my love for books and the different perspectives they represent. If you give it a chance, the same will work the other way around.
Payal Doshi has a Masters in Creative Writing (Fiction) from The New School, New York. She was born and raised in Mumbai, India, and currently resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with her husband and two-year-old daughter.
She loves the smell of old, yellowed books. Rea and the Blood of the Nectar, the first book in the Chronicles of Astranthia series is her debut middle grade novel.