I thought I’d shake things up this month with my report on what I have been reading and writing. Instead of a few words on Facebook, a whole blog post. I need to work thoughts out.
In June, I took a good hard look at my GoodReads shelves. Not many Black authors. Though I do have quite a few on my literal bookshelves. So I substituted white books with Black books in my GoodReads challenges and in my TBR cart (which is now filled through ’til March 2021).
These were fabulous reads:
I bought a couple of books:
- Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko
- Black is the New White by Nakkiah Lui
Reserved some others from the library for July reads:
- The Confession of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins
- The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré
- The Drover’s Wife by Leah Purcell
- After Australia ed by Michael Mohammed Ahmad
- Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Slotted into my TBR books I already own:
- Swallow the Air by Tara June Winch
- Swing Time by Zadie Smith
- Talking to my Country by Stan Grant
- Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke
Reading and listening to Other voices than the white ones that just confirm my implicit cultural biases has already had an effect on my worldview. It’s like when I would visit Perth for holidays and be constantly startled by the ‘whiteness’. I am getting the same sense of WTF? watching TV where I didn’t before (oh my god The Gilmore Girls), reading novels. It’s not the colour, but omission — it is complete blankness when I know there are other stories in those same spaces.
To give some context, I have worked most of my career in Bangladesh and in Aboriginal organisations or on Indigenous issues. I KNOW some of these stories at close-hand. Too close, in the case of the constant grieving and rage from reading the personal files kept by the State Government “Aboriginal Protectors” on the Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people under the Acts.
Consuming Black fiction has been like putting on glasses with a new prescription.
As a writer, the voices that are heard preoccupies my thoughts. Everything I write — for potential publication — is into the space created by the critical conversations on Own Voices representation and cultural appropriation. The manuscript I am working on for the ASA Award Mentorship Program is set in colonial Calcutta (Kolkata), and DID feature a Bengali storyline. But it isn’t the main storyline — that belongs to a memsahib. Perceptibly, my mentor asked why I had made my main character unlikeable (quite apart from the fact this is the only type of protagonist I can write). My answer related to what I see as a glamorisation of historical fiction. He said that no one thinks the Raj was a good thing, so there is no need to state Empire=bad. Readers ‘get’ it.
But I don’t really think so. I see too many commercial historical novels set in colonial climes, where the setting is ‘exotic’ and the colonials’ lifestyle is aspirational. My favourite scenes in my manuscript were the ones from the Bengali woman’s POV, set in the village. They represented the Bangladesh that I experienced.
Now that storyline is gone. Because ultimately it was an Own Voices thing. I hung onto those scenes out of maybe good intentions, but it was never my place to write them. And I was given two choices: flesh out Nisha’s storyline or cut it.
I am left in a bind, however, as I certainly do not want to write a “hashtag” NotAllMemsahibs ‘white-saviour’ type of character. Flora’s not Mother Theresa, though she may think so in her own living room. India will need saving — from her meddling. The dilemma… I need to make her likeable, and portray the ugliness of the Raj. She has to reflect on her complicitness — in an historically accurate way — while also do absolutely nothing about it. (But go back to her own country.) This was something I attempted in The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge — Lily gains flickers of understanding of the issues facing the Aboriginal characters that her life intersects with, while also shrugging her shoulders at the effect she can make.
That was then. This is now.
So what is making it to my shelves?
More Black books.
More historical manuscripts, but never again with a non-white perspective.
A line from my favourite June read The Offing by Benjamin Myers, is when the white, male author character reflects on his writing career:
“And so the books kept coming, admittedly to a dwindling readership, but they always made it to the shelf. And that is what matters.”
That sung to me. Perspective about one’s writing career is what matters.
I want to keep making it to the shelf. Writers — despite their devaluation by the government — shake up the picture, write into blank spaces, make a reader reflect on their role and stake in wider issues. (The reason why they’re devalued.)
And I am excited that I will be making it to a virtual shelf this month, with the publication of a short story in an online magazine. Details to follow.