Showing posts with label Malaika Rose Stanley. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Malaika Rose Stanley. Show all posts

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

10 - Malaika Rose Stanley on mixed heritage

My PhotoI once had editorial feedback that said, "It's not very likely Adil would have a cousin named Katie - could you change her name to something more Indian?

It's intriguing that whilst children's publishing is much more aware of ethnic diversity than it was when I was young, it still lacks awareness of mixed race families as an important part of our society.
I'm clearly not the only one with whom this resonates, because out of well over a thousand posts on this site over the last four years, the tenth most viewed - and one which attracted a lot of comments including a number from readers who don't often comment here - was this thoughtful, provocative, and ultimately affirming piece from Malaika:
Black, White and Just Right - Malaika Rose StanleySee you at 10.00am for number 9!

Thursday, 8 March 2012

FACT OR FICTION? by Malaika Rose Stanley

It’s sometimes hard for anyone to raise the issue of cultural and racial diversity in children’s publishing without being accused of being misguided or misinformed, of over-reacting or being too politically correct – or even of having a chip on their shoulder.

This post is therefore something of a cop-out. It is simply a list of things I have read or heard over the past year related to black authors and/or children’s and young adult books with black characters.

I ask you to make your own mind up about whether they are statements of fact or fiction and what, if anything, needs to change – and invite responses about how we might go about it.

  •  There is no bias, discrimination or racism in children’s publishing.
  •  There is a limited demand for books by and/or about black people.
  •  There are more children’s books about black people than by black people.
  •  Even the most positive reviews of black authors often compare them either to other writers of the same racial background and/or to white writers.
  • If publishers already have one or two black authors they are less motivated to find others.
  • If publishers already have one or two successful, high-selling, prize-winning black authors, they are looking for others in exactly the same mould.
  • Books with black people on the cover do not sell well.
  • White readers do not relate to books about black characters.
  • Very few manuscripts by black writers are submitted to editors and agents.
  • Many of the manuscripts submitted by black writers are not of publishable quality.
  • Most of what children read in books is controlled and written by white people.
  • The qualities of a good story are universal.
  • Books about black characters are mainly aimed at black readers and do not have the same broad appeal as books about white characters.
  • The ‘crossover’ appeal of black writers is limited.
  • The number of black senior commissioning editors reflects the overall population.
  • All writers have a responsibility to create stories that reflect the lives of all children.
  • Books with black characters always focus on the issue of other.
  • There is no such thing as a children's/YA writer who just happens to be black.
  • There is no such thing as a children's/YA writer who just happens to be white.

My next book, Spike and Ali Enson in Space – which is about green people – will be published on 30 August 2012.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Vocare & Pascho - Malaika Rose Stanley

A couple of months into my RLF Fellowship at the London College of Fashion, I mentioned to a friend how much I was enjoying it. It reminded me of how much I love teaching – the chance to make a difference in a pupil or student’s life, to share in their learning and help them reach their full potential. Teaching, I declared, was my vocation. She was surprised. To be honest, I surprised myself. Where does my writing fit into this? Is it just a job; another career I’ve moved into or is it something else entirely? I’ve been thinking about the answer to this question – a lot.

As a bossy little girl, press-ganging my friends into an audience to listen to the poems and stories I’d written, I was often told by adults that I would probably grow up to be a teacher. There was certainly never any mention that I might grow up to be a writer. I don’t think that early ‘encouragement’ pushed me towards a teaching career, but I did train and work as a teacher for many years. The genuine encouragement came from a careers advice teacher at the FE college where I was hurtling towards a job as a shorthand-typist or, at best, a private secretary. She stood over me while I filled in the university clearing house forms and – by happy accident – found my vocation as well as a fulfilling and relatively well-paid career with great holidays. She was everything a good teacher should be – inspiring, challenging, supportive – and she made a huge impact on my life. I owe her a huge debt of gratitude, although to my sadness and shame, I no longer remember her name.

At the risk of sounding conceited, I believe I was a good teacher too. I honed my bossiness into the ability to encourage – OK, push – my students to be the best they could be and I hope some of them remember me positively.  I remained in education until I was eventually promoted to a job for which I was not suited and which I loathed. Budget management just wasn’t my thing – and I bolted.

Although I had always written in my spare time, I came to writing for children as the result of another great teacher and another happy accident. I was enrolling for an adult education class in French when I saw a noticeboard covered with the cover proofs of the books published by authors and illustrators who had attended Elizabeth Hawkins’ Writing for Children course. I enrolled for both classes, but ditched French by half-term. Over the next two years, first in the class and then in the follow-up workshop, I wrote my first published children’s book, Man Hunt. I love writing – I love inventing and spending time with my imaginary friends, the heart-pounding unpredictability and sense of surprise, the independence and freedom to do anything and go anywhere, all while I’m still in my pyjamas.

Gradually though, despite all these attractions, I found myself drawn back to the ‘classroom’ – tutoring, training, special needs support – until serious problems with my health eventually forced me out again. Since then, I believe I have established the ideal balance for me. I write full-time but I still teach when I can – through school visits, workshops, etc – and yes, most recently, that RLF gig...

So – back to my original question – if teaching is my vocation, where does that leave writing?

The words vocation and passion both have religious connotations. Vocation comes from the Latin word vocare, meaning ‘to call’ and refers to an occupation to which a person is drawn or for which they are particularly suited, trained or qualified. Passion comes from the Ancient Greek verb πάσχω (pascho/pas'-kho) meaning ‘to suffer’ and is the term for a very strong feeling or affinity towards someone or something – an intense emotion of enthusiasm and desire.

I certainly have huge enthusiasm and a strong desire and I feel incredibly fortunate to have found such a rewarding second career – but I still wonder if it’s that element of ‘suffering’ that clarifies what writing means for me. I barely scrape a living, so it’s definitely all about the love rather than the money and the writing I’m most proud of has often been fuelled by past wounds and tragedies and emotional pain. Even on a practical, day-to-day level, I am sometimes so fearful and obsessed with whether I’m doing it right or doing it well enough or with just getting something down on the page that I forget to eat or take a walk and I neglect my relationships. It’s a glorious cliché, but I suffer for my art like every other writer, perhaps – maybe like you – and l still feel compelled to keep on doing it.

Spike and Ali in Space will be published in September 2012 by Tamarind and Dance Dreams will follow in February 2013.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

BLACK, WHITE AND JUST RIGHT - Malaika Rose Stanley

Mixed-race people have existed ever since our ancestors first set out to explore and wage war - and today, the UK has one of the largest and fastest-growing mixed race populations in the western world. Partly this is because of the greater number of people who choose to define themselves as mixed-race on census forms and elsewhere and partly as the result of more mixed marriages and relationships and more blended, adoptive and step-families.

The BBC’s recent Mixed Britannia series told some of the stories behind the headlines and statistics and stirred up quite a few personal memories of my own. As a result, I decided to try and compile a list of children’s and YA books which feature mixed-race and mixed heritage main characters and I began by asking friends, colleagues, social network contacts and UK publishers to let me know what’s out there.

I didn’t particularly want to politicise the idea but, of course, it is political. For some people, racial mixing represents the hope and positivity of a multicultural society whilst for others, it undermines national and cultural identity.
Simply asking the question raises some tricky issues because the mixed-race (or bi-racial, multi-ethnic, mixed heritage or whatever you want to call it) experience is so varied and complex. Whether someone chooses to identify themselves – or the characters in their books – as mixed-race depends on who’s asking – and why. Is it The Office for National Statistics, a National Book Week event organiser or the British National Party?
Self-definition is crucial and in my experience, physical appearance, familial influence (or lack of it) and racism all affect how mixed-race people identify themselves and this can change at different points in their lives.

For me, as the daughter of a Jamaican father and an English mother, I sometimes felt rejected because my skin was too fair and my hair was too straight and sometimes because my skin was too dark and my hair was too frizzy. ‘Mixed-race’ was definitely preferable to the labels of half-caste or coloured that I had dumped on me as a child growing up in care in the 1960s – and to the names I got called at school and in the street.

In the 1970s, complete with my Angela Davis style Afro and radical pan-African and feminist politics, I was shouting it loud: I was black and proud! I was black and beautiful too, although my skin colour was actually rather more beige.

My sons were born in the 1980s and that was when I realised that the lack of diversity in children’s and YA books had persisted from my childhood to theirs. Racial identity has never been the problematic issue for them that it once was for me, but we still had to search hard to find kids that looked like them in the pages of books and it was one of the reasons that I started writing myself. My sons are now both in ‘mixed’ relationships – one with a beautiful young Hindu woman and the other with a beautiful young woman of Irish and Jamaican descent. And if I’m ever lucky enough to have grandchildren, they’ll need books too.

Of course, most families encourage their children to be proud of their cultural heritage, but what happens when, for whatever reason, children do not have access to these family connections?  What happens when mixed-race and multi-ethnic children do not see themselves reflected in books – except possibly as the ‘best friend’ or ‘trusty sidekick’ or in gritty tales of so-called social realism and the tortured search for identity? Where is the magic, the romance, the comedy?

As the mixed-race population has increased, in the media at least, ‘brown is the new black’. Mixed-race people have been appropriated as the supposedly more acceptable and less challenging face of diversity. But that’s not the whole picture. Although mixed-race people are highly visible in some spheres of life – we can model haute couture, win F1 Championships and BAFTAs, and even become the President of the United States - in some fields like educational policy, we are often ignored. Is the same true in children’s and YA publishing?

I contacted the publicity departments of 18 UK publishers – and heard back from only three! Sadly, one of these had no books with mixed-race characters, but OUP sent Catherine Johnson's Face Value - a murder mystery set in the London fashion world - and Barrington Stoke sent James Lovegrove’s The 5 Lords of Pain – a series of fast-paced stories about saving the world. So let’s hear it for models and gangsters and for martial arts, magic and demons from hell! Of course, I have to mention Tamarind – publisher of several picture books and middle grade fiction titles with mixed race characters, including my own Spike and Ali Enson – a story of inter-planetary alien adoption.

I am grateful to everyone who took the time and trouble to let me know about their own and other people’s books: Sarwat Chadda, author of Devil’s Wish and Dark Goddess, featuring ‘bad-ass’ hero, Billi Sangreal; Catherine Johnson, screenwriter and author of ‘enough books to prop up several tables’ including the historical Nest of Vipers and the contemporary Brave New Girl; Eileen Browne, illustrator of Through My Window, now back in print but first published in 1986 when ‘it was the first ever picture book in the UK – and the USA! - about an interracial family, where ethnicity wasn’t part of the story’; Zetta Elliott, author of A Wish After Midnight and networker extraordinaire; and so many others, too numerous to mention.

I hope the final list, now hosted by Elizabeth on the Mixed Race Family website (click here), will be a useful resource for families, children’s centres, schools, etc. Many of the books are quite dated and many are US publications which may be less easily available and less reflective of the British experience, but I felt it was better to leave people to make their own choices and draw their own conclusions. I am happy to correct errors, add omissions and include new publications.

It’s a short list – and not in a good way - but in the end, isn’t quality always more important than quantity?

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

IN YOUR OWN SWEET TIME - Malaika Rose Stanley

Do you write fast – or slow?

I have to admit that I am very slow. It’s not because I don’t have a routine or a good work ethic or that I’m an ill-disciplined procrastinator. Whatever else I do, I write (almost) every day and I can work to precise word-counts and meet tight deadlines when I have to. But when I don’t have to, I write slowly.

First, I have to dream my way into a story, carefully feeling my way as I go. Then I have to write a detailed plan – not that I ever stick to it - but just so I have something to refer to if I lose my way. Even when I’ve actually started writing, I edit and re-write my work as I go along – seemingly against the advice of every writing expert on the planet.

They argue – with the indisputable support of a handy mathematician or calculator – that even if your word count is only 500 words a day, at the end of a year, you will have written the first draft of a novel – or two!

Of course, this approach ignores the days spent editing when your word-count ends up as a minus number and the days spent doing research or background reading or publicity or visiting schools or – heaven forbid – playing Scrabble, drinking wine and catching up with friends. As far as I’m concerned though, it all counts.

Am I alone? Surely, I’m not the only person who lives life – and writes - slow.

My latest novel, SKIN DEEP, was published on 1 September 2011 by Tamarind/Random House. The next one will be along in 2013.