That’s a long title. The challenge of writing British-Asian characters is almost the challenge of writing a new kind of human being, a new kind of character. Because they’re at the juncture, the confluence of major cultures (with lots of sub-cultures thrown in). Stir into this bubbling cauldron the history and legacy of East and West. Like it or not they’ve been locked into a relationship since the first traders and merchants ventured east, followed by the not-so glorious colonialists. At the very least – it’s complicated.
Being at the conjunction of cultures forces British-Asians to think far more consciously about ‘Who am I?’ ‘What am I?’ ‘What do I believe and why?’ ‘What do I accept and what do I reject?’ The very stuff of drama, doubt and conflict – in fact the very stuff of fiction.
British-Asians have to think about, consider and evaluate, different kinds of moralities, religions, and loyalties. What is convention and tradition, and what really constitutes right and wrong, justice and truth? In essence they have to work out their own value system and philosophy, work out the right way of being human. The quest which forms the heartbeat of literature.
‘To be or not to be?’ asked Hamlet. Was he going to be his dead father’s instrument of revenge? Was he going to continue the cycle of violence as his father’s ghost was urging him to? Did justice really lie in the plunging of a dagger into his uncle’s heart? Was it moral to avenge a murder with another murder? Hamlet is thrown into the heat of others’ conflicts, ambitions and vengefulness, wracked by grief, conflicting loyalty and love. Young Hamlet is tasked with the greatest burden: to decide the truest nature of justice. And asked to exercise worldly knowledge he’s too young to possess: to work out what he owes and does not owe to others, what is duty and proper responsibility, to distinguish between deception, true friendship and love. In essence, to work out his own ethics, value system, and the right way of being human. But of course it ends as a tragedy, because he’s in the midst of a battling family, social strictures, demands and expectations. Alas, poor Hamlet.
In general, British-Asians don’t have to deal with such tragic circumstances, but they are often caught in the midst of battling family hierarchies, parental and social demands. There have been the terrible cases of honour killings, forced marriages and the denial of choice. It’s very easy to talk about the philosophical, moral and progressive opportunities provided by being in the heart of two cultures, but equally, for far too many people, it’s a cause of pain and suffering. Parental expectations, social and religious traditions, are the hardest to question and withstand. Formidable barriers to working out the right way of being human.
In my view, writing British-Asian characters means having to dig deep, and dig into every branch of existence, to write characters that are complex and compelling in themselves, who cover the range from hero, heroine, to villain and everything else in-between. Themes and questions aren’t just about the choice between saris and skirts, between one God or another, between one way of life or another, but about the search to be human. In addition, for me as a writer, it also means having to formulate certain rules for myself: for instance, I never use the device of broken or Pidgin English to indicate that my character is speaking in a different language. Such devices make the character appear unintelligent or immature, and detract from their role in the novel. Their speech will depend on ‘who’ they are as characters, it may be sophisticated or simple, coarse or intellectual, but it’s my job as a writer, to convey to the reader they’re speaking in another language. That’s part of my craft and I’m working on it. And that other thing too – the right way of being human.