I posted recently about how well an author must know their characters. Much of my time since has been spent trying to make mine authentic. I’m nearing the end of a first draft of a novel set in multicultural London. My story follows five families, but only one reflects my own heritage. I’m pressing ahead with this, because although there are increasing numbers of wonderful books exploring the experience of specific individuals and communities, there are not yet enough that show us together, looking at how we all participate in and contribute to our institutions, our schools, hospitals, local government, commerce,the arts, sport, the media. Post Brexit, it’s essential to depict our cities as the relatively successful melting pots they had begun to be. By that I don’t mean to belittle the disadvantages experienced through racism, class or poverty. But in the UK, compared to some parts of world, I think we were, pre Brexit, tentatively moving in the right direction in terms of rights and opportunities for all. (If you don’t have a right in the first place, how can you defend it?)
But – please don’t say I told you so – I’m now realising how much more I have bitten off than I can perhaps chew. It’s all very well thinking I can write about a Punjabi heritage family because I taught classes with at least 25% such pupils for over twenty years. The difference now is that instead of them entering my classroom (and as we all know, everyone sheds something of themselves when they enter a classroom, for their own self preservation), the direction is reversed. I want full access to their homes and their thoughts.
It’s quite a leap. For example, consider their back stories: content I may not end up even putting on the page but which must be verifiable if my characters are to be rounded and believable, more than just stereotypes or caricatures. I can imagine the childhood of my white UK character, and that of her parents and even grandparents, through a lifetime of my own cultural knowledge.I know enough about everything from which magazines each generation read, what the biscuit tin looked like, to what would have been a special treat or horrendous setback. I know so much I have the luxury of discarding most of it, selecting only what fits best.
But of my Punjabi family’s back story I know very little. I can trace their route to the UK. I can work out roughly at what point they were able to take on a mortgage, the location of the nearest gurdwara, and which generation received what in way the way of education. But in what ways does their daily lived experience differ from or match my own? Their choice of furniture, the way they move around their homes, how much privacy their children have, how they feel about Brexit and Trump, Bake off and Bollywood? It’s as though they had drawn their window curtains to stop me peering in.
A place of very little knowledge isn’t a bad point of departure. It means everything I find out is a bonus, could influence the plot, colour my decisions and the reactions of my eventual readers. It also means BEWARE! I’m tempted to use every small fact that comes my way. But I must pick and choose, when I have enough material, just as I would for the others. I mustn’t get fixated on one website, read just one book, ask only one person. I need a cross section, to check and cross check, and maybe, as I would for any character, go for the fact that’s atypical, the feature that doesn’t follow the crowd. My characters aren’t going to be interesting just because they’re Punajbi, Somali or born in Hong Kong.They still have to be eccentric, lovable, martyred, in poor health, artistic, bigoted, comical and sometimes unpredictable.
The alternative path, with less risk of getting anything wrong, also risks making them too bland. Michael Rosen, in an otherwise very positive review of Peter in Peril, about a Jewish child growing up in Nazi occupied Budapest, says: “my only slight quibble is that the family are de Jewified.They have nothing cultural or religious marking them out.” But what marks them out must be correct. I received a lesson today, when in answer to my question a helpful Punjabi reader told me my Punjabi grandmother would be “very unlikely” to have behaved as I said she had as a young girl. My first reaction was irritation: now I have to alter my plot, dammit. It also affects my grand finale. Second reaction: whew! Thank goodness I asked. There are only so many mistakes an author can make before a book sinks into the one star mire.
Therefore I’m humbled by and grateful for the offers of help I’ve had from Punjabi and Gujarati people, some known to me from work and others complete strangers, alerted to my needs following a chance remark to a helpful book blogger – please do look at her Bookalicious-traveladdict blog here. Yes, by all means, said the friends she contacted on my behalf, do email us your questions! Here you are – the answers by return! Anything else you want to know, just ask! The generosity with their time and thought is very, very much appreciated – all to help out an author they hadn’t heard of two days ago. Book bloggers have received a bashing in some places recently: let me put on record that to a woman (they’re mostly but not all women, and unpaid) the bloggers I know have given practical, prompt, generous and efficient help whenever I as an author have asked them for anything.
So onward we march, my heroine and I. The word count hasn’t increased much, but the quality of the words has. I think I’m ok now for sources to flesh out my Indian heritage families, but if there are any UK born Somalis out there, or anyone who is of Hong Kong Chinese heritage and bringing up a child in the UK now, I would be very pleased to hear from you. Who knows what havoc you could play with my plot?
©Jessica Norrie 2017