Beyond the Secret Garden? ‘In Times of Peril’: Britons, Asians, Muslims

Part three in Darren Chetty and Karen Sands-O’Connor’s series looking at representations of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic voices in children’s books.

Ever since Inigo Impey itched for an Indian image in Peter Piper’s Practical Principles of Plain and Perfect Pronunciation (1819), British children’s literature has expressed a fascination (sometimes a horrified one) with the people of South Asia. Writers such as G. A. Henty described the picturesque villages of the ‘Mohammedans’ with their mosques and the ‘Hindoos’ with their temples, even as the white, Christian Briton carefully remained separated from them (see, for example, In Times of Peril: A Tale of India, first published in 1900). Sara Crewe, in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess (1905), saw the Indian servant Ram Dass as a kind of good magician, but this was an exception; most non-Christian people of colour in British children’s fiction were depicted at best as inscrutable, and at worst a threat to the white Briton’s life and way of life. This depiction continued even after World War II, when many Hindus and Muslims from India,

Pakistan and the Caribbean came to Britain to find work. Perhaps the most egregious portrayal of non-Christians from this time is in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia stories, where the dark-skinned Calormenes worship an idol-god called Tash (a very common way for white Europeans in the 19th century to depict Hindus was to show them as superstitious idol-worshippers), about whom the Calormenes always declare, ‘May he live forever!’ Several critics, including Muslim critics like Imran Ahmad, have noted that the Calormenes declaration recalls the Muslim response to the use of the prophet Mohammed’s name, ‘Peace be upon him!’ The final book in Lewis’s series, The Last Battle (1956), has the ‘good’ Narnians, white- skinned and following a Christian-like religion, fighting the dark- skinned Calormenes because they reject the religion of Aslan.

By the 1970s, British writers could no longer keep South Asian Muslims and Hindus (not to mention Sikhs) at a distance; due to ever-increasing migration, these groups were now a part of Britain too. But how they were viewed in children’s literature depended on who was doing the writing. White writers often highlighted the separation of British Asians from everyone else. Jan Needle’s My Mate Shofiq (1978) detailed the awkward friendship of a working- class white British boy, Bernard, with a British Pakistani, Shofiq – but throughout the novel, Shofiq is isolated and racially abused, and even Bernard talks about Shofiq and his home having ‘the curry shop smell’ (35). Tony Drake’s Playing it Right (1979) centers on a multiracial cricket team, but the only Asian (a Sikh) on the team is constantly singled out; the white boys want to fight him and the ‘West Indian’ boys try to get him off the team. Isolation of the British Asian character and misunderstanding about his culture or family mark both these books. However, Farrukh Dhondy’s short story collections, East End at Your Feet (1976) and Come to Mecca (1978) demonstrate a unity between people of colour; in the short story ‘KBW’ from his first collection, graffiti advocating Keeping Britain White was aimed at a Bangladeshi family. Dhondy, who was a member of the British Black Panthers, embraced the concept of political blackness that unified Black British and British Asian people against white racism. Dhondy’s stories, unlike the stories by white writers, do not just mention religious affiliation; they discuss specific aspects of Islam and Hinduism. Dhondy’s British Asian characters are not mysterious entities for white Britons to fetishize or reject without ever learning anything about them, but central characters in their own right.

Although Dhondy and other writers in the 1970s and 1980s allied Black Britons with British Asians, children’s literature throughout the 1990s continued to mark the British Asian as different and isolated, especially from white British counterparts. White characters continue to claim ‘normal’ and ‘British’ for themselves, and British Asian characters are ‘strange’ and ‘foreign.’ Jamila Gavin’s characters Kamla and Kate (1997) are best friends, but that doesn’t stop white British Kate from telling British Asian Kamla that her house ‘smells funny’ (4) and refusing to eat anything but chocolate biscuits at Kamla’s house. And while Gavin uses Kate’s initial reluctance as a way to show how learning about another culture can help friendships to grow, Kamla still must do most of the work of explaining herself to Kate – she cannot just exist in her difference.

12 Books for Keeps No.230 May 2018

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