Multicultural Backlash?

By Rukhsana Khan

Multiculturalism in children’s books has been a trend for a while now. It’s been a number of years since I wrote my last article on multiculturalism in children’s books, I thought it might be a good time to revisit the topic especially in light of a recent incident.

For the longest while I’ve sensed a sort of resentment, almost a backlash among mainstream authors.

Some say that a lot of the books that pass for ‘multicultural’ these days are not multicultural at all. In fact they’re ‘unicultural’ in that they deal with only one culture and provide almost a showcase for that culture.

Others say that the term ‘multicultural’ is misleading because it is actually used to refer to other cultures in particular to ‘non-white’ cultures and yet each of us comes from a culture.

A truly multicultural book would show the interaction of characters from multiple backgrounds, multiple cultures, and how they get along or clash.

Call me an optimist, but I think more and more we’re headed towards a world where the cultural background of the author does not matter. It is the work itself that will stand on its own merit. This is the ideal for which we should be striving.

No better way is it exemplified than in the book The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. Keats captured so well the beauty of this little boy’s wonder at snow, that for years I assumed he was black like the boy in the story. As children’s writers, that’s what we should be aiming for; that kind of colour blind apolitical masterpiece.

I belong to an author discussion group, and when I was asked to present at a couple of teachers’ conferences on the subject of diversity in children’s books, I naturally appealed to the group for help in making a list of children’s authors from various cultures.

One of the authors, a wonderful advocate for getting children reading, asked if I wanted to highlight only authors that were from the various cultures they wrote, or was I planning to include white authors who’d written about those cultures too.

Since I’ve had such bitter experiences with authors writing about Pakistani and Muslim cultures, I opted for culturally specific authors.

I know there are some excellent authors who’ve written very responsibly about other cultures, but it would take too much energy on my part to weed through them for ‘quality control’, so I went the easy route and stuck to authors writing about their respective cultures.

Well, some of the white authors on the board were quite put out. One in particular, who’s had scores of books published over a career spanning decades made the point that ‘multicultural’ was a very poor label to describe multicultural books because it excluded the ‘multiple cultures’ she often wrote about ie Jewish and Scottish.

The fact is Jewish and Scottish cultures are considered mainstream. I guess ‘multicultural’ in fact refers to anything that isn’t ‘mainstream’.

Thirty years ago there's no way I could have gotten stories about Muslims or South Asians published unless I changed them to more 'normal' characters.

As a Canadian I've even been asked to change the setting of a story from Canada to America because it's more 'identifiable'.

There are definite trends in publishing that have absolutely nothing to do with the quality of a story. Right now there is a need for multicultural books, especially books about Muslims and Islam whereas folktales are a very hard sell. It wasn't always that way and it won't always be that way. There will come a time when the market for Muslim stories may become saturated and folktales are back in vogue. These are just the vagaries of the business.

When I first got published I sensed a sort of resentment among authors at a Canadian professional organization I attend. When I finally, after eight years of slogging, got up to announce my book I saw some folks in the audience nod at each other and murmur something. Later on, I over heard what they were murmuring, "multicultural--that's why she got published".

It really stung. So much so that I pushed and strove and wasn't happy till I'd at least five books published, (one of which was not multicultural) just to prove that it wasn't a fluke. I wanted to show that I got published because I'm a good writer.

The irony is that the one non-multicultural book of mine has done the least well. This happened because it's competing with all the other non-multicultural books, and there's nothing distinctive enough about it to make it stand out.

That's fine. I've accepted that. For good or ill I've been relegated to the multicultural niche.

As a kid I'd always hated the word. It seemed so politically correct. It was like they were sticking us in a corner and saying, "Okay, you got your spot, now stay there and be satisfied."

And so I sit in my little multicultural corner and do my best, and then lo and behold, my corner is starting to have the spotlight shone on it. It's getting awfully bright, and all of a sudden instead of being a wallflower, publishers are filling out my dance card and I actually get to waltz now and then.

And now other authors who write Scottish or Jewish stories and aren't 'marginalized' are coming to the multicultural corner and saying, "Scooch over, we're multicultural too."

Of course they are! But the whole purpose of creating that "multicultural corner" was to address a need; to deal with the marginalized, the cultures who get short shrift, who aren't represented well. These cultural groups have kids who attend schools but don't have stories to validate their existence.

There are so many facets of life where I'm still a wallflower. I still have the cards stacked against me.

Somehow, through no merit of my own I was born at a time when in this aspect of my life, my culture actually benefits me.

I've done nothing to deserve that. It's a fluke of timing. I've come to accept and recognize that. It's not fair, but it's the way it is. And I'll accept the advantage for what it's worth.

It helps cancel out a lot of the stings and rebuffs I've suffered all my life.

As for mainstream authors who may resent me for having a niche, a corner they can’t tap into, I figure it’s their problem, not mine.

Ultimately whether there’s a multicultural backlash or not, I’ll keep slogging on because quitting simply isn’t an option. There are too many stories in me itching to get out.

This article is copyrighted by Rukhsana Khan and cannot be transmitted or produced without her express written permission.