From #WeNeedDiverseBooks to the recent #dontselfneglect, Twitter campaigns to encourage diverse voices in writing are gloriously active right now. This is awesome! I am delighted that there is a push to recognise the value of diverse voices in fiction and the benefits this has for wider tolerance and acceptance of all folks, just being who they are.
But I struggle with this recognition in my own writing and, from browsing the #dontselfneglect hashtag, I’m not alone.
So, I’m going to tell you a little bit about me – more self-disclosure than I’m usually comfortable with – and I’m going to try to explain why participating in conversations about authenticity and diversity in writing is so difficult for me.
Who am I?
If I had to describe my identity, I would say I’m a bisexual, Christian, mixed-race, cis woman. However, I would shy away from describing myself as a woman of colour or LGBTQ, even though I am both of those things. Why is that?
Woman of colour?y
My father is from Sri Lanka and my mother is from Norfolk. I grew up in Devon. There is not a lot of diversity in Devon. At primary school, I was one of three “coloured” children in my class – which is a fairly high percentage, actually. (I use the word “coloured” here not because I currently embrace it or endorse it, but it was the only word I had at the time. I only started correcting my mother on her use of it about two years ago.)
I didn’t have much exposure to other people of colour. My main cultural experience was visiting my father’s family in London. Southall was a revelation to me – for once, I was not the minority on the street. I loved to wear South Asian clothes and I would bring them home for my friends to dress up in, like fancy dress costumes. We had a tradition we called “Indian Christmas”, where we would all wear my clothes and my dad would cook curry for us, before we watched a Tamil movie (with subtitles, of course) and play Carrom. I tried to learn Tamil once or twice, but didn’t get very far, and it is a source of shame to me.
When I tried to interact with South Asian culture, it didn’t always end well for me. I went into a boutique looking for a nose stud and I was stared at for my short hair, my Western clothes, my ignorance. Before my cousin’s wedding, I was criticised by a complete stranger for not waxing the hair on my arms. I often felt rejected by that side of my culture.
I didn’t struggle with much racial harrassment as a child. I was called “muddy face” when I was about 6 and I was called Paki once or twice in senior school. I get a lot of people asked where I’m from, or about my heritage. I have been asked about my religious beliefs, or what kind of wedding I had. I carry a fear of harrassment. My husband (who is white) doesn’t understand why I don’t want to go to a football match, or to certain pubs in town. I fear prejudice, even though it has not formed a large part of my experience.
My sexuality is a different kettle of fish. I didn’t know any LGBTQ people when I was growing up, not in person. I did, however, have a broadband internet connection and total immersed myself in fandom. While I have talked before about the problems of gay stereotypes in fanfiction, it exposed me a lot of diverse people, attitudes and opinions. The internet was my education, and stopped me making a tit of myself when I finally met gay men at university.
But I’m also religious, moreso as a teenager than I am now, though I still believe in God and Christianity. When I started to recognise my attraction to women, I panicked. I didn’t know what to do. I sought out the support of a minister I knew, who helped me work out some of my fears via email in a very supportive and validating way. I’m so grateful to him for that outlet.
Yet I have never had a relationship with a woman. In total, I have had one relationship, with the man who is now my husband. If you’re looking for diversity in my dating life, you will not find it. I have never been harrassed because of my sexuality, but then I have only disclosed it to people I trust. I didn’t tell my mother until last year.
When I participate in conversations with other people of colour or members of the LGBTQ community, I feel like a fraud. I don’t have significant battle scars, I don’t feel regularly marginalised or excluded, and I am extremely privileged in terms of my nationality, education and financial situation. When I hear people talking about encouraging diverse voices, I don’t think of me.
I find it easier to talk about my identity in terms of achievements and choices, things that I’ve done rather than things that were given to me. I am a doctor. I am a writer. I am a wife.
I find it far easier to write about Cardiff, a city I lived in for five years, than about the Anglo-Asian experience, what I’ve been since I was born. “Other people know more about this than you”, I think. “Shut up and write about mental health or Wales or murder. If you write it, you’ll only get it wrong.”
I want to tell you that this is all nonsense, because of course it is, but it’s very difficult to shake. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I don’t feel like a person of colour or LGBTQ. And therefore I don’t feel like I have a “POC voice” or an “LGBTQ voice”. BUT I do feel pressure to include people of colour and LGBTQ characters in my work, because I should be out there, doing something about this – and I want to! I want so badly to write them, but I also want to do them justice.
If you write it, you’ll only get it wrong.
It’s an ugly feeling. I don’t have any answers, by the way – if you’re reading this and feel like me, I’m afraid I have no idea what the solution is. Because my voice is important and I want to be heard, and I want to tell other people’s stories, the ones that aren’t heard.
But, if you do feel like me, I want you to know that you’re not alone. You’re not a fraud. Your voice is your voice, and you need to use it and not try to be anything else. For me, that’s not trying to be “more Asian” or “more queer”, because I am who I fucking am.
I’m going to try to be more “me”. I would encourage you all to do the same.