Some of the talks that happened on the first day of the UAEBBY’s conference took a good long look at how Arabs were depicted in western stories and vice versa. Many celebrated authors and activists from the Arab world were concerned about the exclusion of ‘The Other’ – meaning people from other countries, cultures, ethnicity – in stories that originate from the region. They were of the opinion that the AW must open up to the ‘larger’ world, and include others in their children’s literature, so that children are aware and accepting of cultures outside their own.
I wondered about my own country, the land of more than an estimated 850 ‘mother tongues’, mine being one, and how ‘the other’ is depicted in our children’s literature. I realized that even in our children’s literature, there is hardly the presence of characters from outside our own society or community. However, being largely bilingual – at least those of us from in Kerala and other parts where English is as present and dominating as Malayalam is/was – we were exposed to the ‘larger’ world from childhood. Maybe to a fault at that, because I remember growing up with the vague notion that all female protagonists were fair and had golden hair, and had names like (apart from those of the fairy tale heroines) Amelia Jane, Alice or Betty.
At this point, I’m reminded of a TED talk I had listened to once, where a Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke about ‘The Danger of a Single Story’ – how what she had read as a child had influenced the way she wrote and thought.
This is the other extreme, where you identify more with ‘the other’ than your own.
Two sides of the same coin, yes, but at the core, the message remains the same – our literature has to open out for our minds to do the same.
Growing up on large doses of fairy tales (closely followed by equally large doses of Mills and Boon romances) would have given me a skewed notion of the world, not to mention a permanent inferiority complex about my very Indian looks, had it not been for the countless ‘Poombaatta’, ‘Balarama’, Target, Tinkle and Amar Chitra Katha that I used to devour as a kid and M.Mukundan’s, M.T. Vasudevan Nair’s and countless other Malayalam novelists’ books that were as ethnic as they were broad-minded.
By adulthood, I had been able to achieve a reading habit that crossed linguistic and cultural borders, and now I realize that I had been extremely fortunate in that, because it had a lot of say in shaping me and my approach to the world. My world, the physical one, must not have extended to more than 25 kilometers each way till I was in my twenties, but the world inside my head has always been measured in square light years (you astrophysicists out there, pardon me). Growing up, the very same habit helped me break a lot of prejudices that I’d never have been able to otherwise. As pompous as it sounds, it did give me a ‘global perspective’, to whatever extent I have it today.
So yes, we need literature – and a whole lot of it. Transcending all physical and cultural borders. We need it for our sake, for our children’s sake. It’s not just the Arab world or any other region that needs to open up – it’s the collective minds of the people in those regions. And that includes you and me.