Why demanding diversity in storytelling is a good fight

It's vital to see more people who look, speak, think like us, in the stories we read

By Saba Karim Khan

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Published: Thu 3 Feb 2022, 11:25 PM

At the start of this year, armed with fresh gusto to raise readers, my husband and I introduced a bedtime ritual: to share a story with the girls and let them retell it. Halfway through the second page one night, my younger daughter interjected: “Why do none of them look like me?” She inquired with genuine bewilderment. Despite years of experiencing, reading, writing about inequality, race and power vortexes, neither of us had a compelling answer. A few minutes later, her older sister solved the mystery: “Because of the colour of our skin.”

This trivial night-time exchange turned into an unexpected trigger, setting off a chain reaction to realise how much we had internalised, how little we questioned, how passively we consumed information, stories, events. Why didn’t we see more characters who looked and spoke like us? Why did our bookshelf disproportionately boast titles with keywords limited to “hard country”, “failed state”, “most dangerous place in the world”; illustrations of Jack and Alice, countryside farmlands and red-bricked cottages? Why was I reminded, even before I attempted my own novel, that the probability of publishing as a non-white citizen, residing in a non-western country, was ridiculously low? Because lack of diversity in stories is real; a marginal improvement, but the skewness remains stark.

Living in the Gulf, what we see around us is different — and you can’t help get drawn to the syncretism of this place. Yet, when students enter the classroom, they consume academic material which dilutes that diversity. From children’s literature to school curriculums and university syllabi, authentic representations of race, religion, gender — characters that don’t offer tokenism — are a pipedream. Despite the lip-service offered by diversity committees, minority groups are “data”; researching, writing about them becomes a giant experiment, often producing the usual tropes: failed, unworldly, veiled thus oppressed, a comic sidekick, or worse still, the bold, free-spirited “ninja in sneakers”, newly liberated by the saviours — it hammers home how much work remains to be done.

Why is diversity in literature important? Why do our five, 15- and 25-year-olds need exposure to knowledge produced in different places by different people? Why do we crave unusual stories which don’t window-dress minority characters as coincidences or punctuation marks? Because stories are prisms, vulnerable mediums to share differences, enter minds, shape perspectives; the closest we get to experiencing and interpreting worlds we may never visit, encounter people we may never meet. They affirm or debunk stereotypes about communities reduced to news tickers.

This makes the monopolisation of stories a risky proposition; the worldviews of millions of people are in the hands of a privileged few. This also means there is trepidation holding “unconventional” storytellers back from entering the arena. In a recent Writing Workshop I conducted, aspiring Emirati female writers spoke of the fear of being judged, of not finding traction, “of being in a place one is not supposed to be in” — you’re scared even before you’ve started.

Fear, frustration, fatigue, paralysed my own writing from taking off for years — until that luminous moment when I realised storytelling could be as much reclamation, as it is catharsis and creativity. If everyone thought, what change will my tiny brick bring, it’ll produce exactly that uneventful outcome: nothing will change. For the envelope to be pushed, eventually torn, more of us need to flip that outlook and say, what if each of us starts small, places “one brick at a time”, could we eventually build an architecture that rings in change?

The terrain, admittedly, is still unchartered, yet select role models are treading this path; the Zindagi series, Churails, by British-Pakistani director Asim Abbasi, was a significant step towards punctuating lop-sided storytelling. Rafia Zakaria’s book, Against White Feminism, another trailblazer, takes the cannon head-on. Their successes offer hope — the road is being cleared, but there’s a long way to go.

So, what can we do to start

small, start straightaway?

· To speak: At some point, for things to shake up, anger must turn into action. We need more voices at the table —from South Asia, Africa, Central Asia, elsewhere — whether it’s a WhatsApp note, correcting a colleague or defending a thesis, speak about you, own it without being embarrassed or apologetic. Cleanse the complexes.

· Say no to the cookie-cutter: Producing cut-up dolls or caricatures, adding one minority character for voyeuristic pleasure or to tick a diversity statistic, doesn’t help. We need to normalise minority presence, explore their full, messy range of blacks, whites, greys, dial down the exoticism quotient.

· Give the bookshelf and watchlist a facelift: Preserve existing titles, there’s value in them still, but also seek out books, films, travel shows that diversify the range for yourself and for 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 catalogue. 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 potential to validate our own journeys and instill empathy about those whom we view as “different”; simultaneously, they hold power to indoctrinate, condition, decide who, what constitutes “normal”— sharpen “othering”.

For far too long, we have surrendered that superpower — now, all this time later, reclamation won’t be without a fight; but this is a good fight.


Saba Karim Khan is the author of Skyfall, released by Bloomsbury and works at NYU Abu Dhabi

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