I hate reading books where every word that isn’t English is italicized. I feel as if the author is assuming that I am not intelligent enough to look up an unfamiliar word or that I am so content (read arrogant) in my knowledge that I cannot be bothered to learn something new. Learning words in another language to me is akin to opening the door to a whole other world. A world with different nuances and meanings than the one I am accustomed to. Who wouldn’t want that? Who wouldn’t want to learn more about another cultures and other traditions? It enriches my world and gives new meaning to my life when I have access to other lives, other experiences. It makes me feel connected to people in a way that is hard to describe. It’s about delving into something basic, so fundamental that it transcends words and language. But most of all it’s just so wonderful to realize that despite all the outward differences, the sounds and accents and appearances we are all ultimately connected to each other by love and joy and pain and suffering. So when I see a word italicized only because of its otherness, I feel as though a door is closing in my face. I feel as if I cannot truly connect. And that makes me sad.
I’ve spent my entire life with a hyphenated identity. I was born in Germany to a Pakistani mother and a Bangladeshi father. Technically Bangladesh didn’t exist when I was born. But Bengali nationalism in what was then East Pakistan was alive and kicking, strong enough to demand a country of its own until in 1971 it gained independence. And I gained a hyphenated identity. In Germany I was the “Indian”- German, then later in Bangladesh, the half-Pakistani and as an adult I am Indo-Canadian. It’s an interesting experience going through life with labels that others put on you, especially when they mean next to nothing to you. As a child growing up in Germany, I was very much aware that I was the other, simply because in small town Germany back then, ours was the only brown-skinned family. Later we moved to Bangladesh where I lived for the next seventeen years. In all that time I only knew a couple of other children whose parents were like mine, but it was not something that we talked about to each other. And although in Bangladesh my skin color was like everyone else’s, there was something intangible that separated me from them. My mother warned me not to speak Urdu in public, because Bangladesh was still nursing wounds fresh from a horrific war for independence from Pakistan. But as a child, this hatred for Pakistanis that simmered just below the surface was not within my grasp. I heard the taunts and jabs that were made at our expense, but I couldn’t understand the reasons behind them. But the feelings were the same. In Germany I was made to feel dirty because of my brown skin and in Bangladesh it was because of where my mother happened to be from. Either way it determined the way I saw myself. It took years for me to accept that none of this had anything to do with who I was. It had everything to do with the assumptions that people made about me based on my last name, my skin color, my religion. When I did realize it, I felt free. Finally, after years of carrying a burden that wasn’t mine, I was able to shed the responsibility of being acceptable. With this freedom came a brand new perspective. I realized that I didn’t necessarily embody the qualities that are automatically attributed to me.
My experiences in straddling cultures doesn’t end with me. I met and married a Hindu man from South India and as a result my children will forever be hyphenated. They will always be seen by some as half-Hindu and half-Muslim, by others as half-Bengali and half Indian, although the fact that they were born in Texas and I am not a full Bengali messes with the mathematics of their heritage. But the way I see it, the fractions add up to a whole and as long as they feel whole with themselves that’s all that matters. The rest is just semantics.
The other day I was thinking back to the stories I wrote as a child. I was about 7 years old and had moved from Germany to Bangladesh around that time. I had switched from reading my favorite Enid Blyton books in German to reading them in English. Although learning to speak and read in English changed many things for me, what didn’t change were the characters in those books. They were all still white. Every single one of them. I remember being fascinated with everything they did, the interesting food they ate, their traditions and lifestyles. I loved reading about their (mis)adventures and the trouble they got into. As a voracious reader I always enjoyed a wide variety of books, but still…all the characters were white. So it was not surprising that when I wrote my first stories the characters in all of them were also white. They all had names like Nancy or Tom, even though in real life I was surrounded by people with names like Hassan or Seema. It never occurred to me that my characters could be something other than white. They didn’t eat sumptuous Bengali sweets or biryani. They ate fine chocolates and fish and chips. They didn’t wear kurtas or shalwar-kameez. They wore jeans and t-shirts. None of these things by themselves constitute anything untoward at all, but when I look at children’s fiction today and what is available in terms of diverse characters, it saddens me to think that there are still thousands of children around the world who may never see themselves reflected in the stories they love to read. Or even worse, they may never think it possible that they could be super heroes who fight evil. Or that they may be the ones to save the world. It’s depressing. And it’s time for change.
Constance Burris over at constanceburris.blogspot.ca was yesterday’s host for Day Five of my blog tour with Diverse Book Tours. If you would like to check out some random facts about me and Realm of the Goddess please go to: