WIKIPEDIA COMMONS

Every time I pick up The God of Small Things, a novel by Arundhati Roy, I am hit by that same inexplicable knot in the bottom of my stomach which I felt in the tranquillity of a Tuscan countryside villa. I was on a family holiday when I first read it and recall feeling vaguely lost, surrounded by a family I adored but didn’t feel right around. Roy’s novel connected dots that were lurking far out of my reach: an irreconcilable duality partially resolved by a story that encapsulated everything whilst remaining entirely other. It was fiction at its best, utterly relatable yet entirely transformative.

Set in Ayemenem in Kerala, The God of Small Things tells the story of two twins Rahel and Estha, whose lives were ripped apart by familial tension and political turbulence. The narrative jumps between their childhood and their reunion as young adults, circling in on the “little events, ordinary things, smashed and reconstituted” which changed everything.

I remember being captivated by Roy’s creation of a language, one that was so completely her own, that managed to be so evocative, magical and haunting. My expectations for what narrative should be were overturned. Yet it was Roy’s ability to make the lives of her characters seem both mystical and familiar which affected me, strangely reflecting my own relation with my family on that holiday and prompting me to think of the other half: the half of my family that I could picture in the Ayemenem House. This was something which was so similar, yet so other from myself.

“My reaction was incoherent, and my love for Roy’s story instant”

I closed the final page of that book. I cried. Then I picked it back up and reread it twice over before the end of my trip. I was desperate to work out why it had impacted me so; the half-familiarity of the novel seemingly reflected my own relationship with my identity as a mixed-race British Indian woman. Among many other things, the novel deals with the influence of the ex-colonial rulers upon India, and events occur because of the visit of Sophie Mol, the mixed-race cousin, who dies shockingly, out of place in the land of her father. Somehow the alienation and confusion of Roy’s characters made sense of my own struggle with a world where I felt at home in neither side of my identity. It’s a common feature, certainly among my mixed-race friends, of never quite feeling able to claim ownership of either side of one’s identity, of feeling alien everywhere. Reading The God of Small Things evoked that same guttural sensation. My reaction was incoherent and my love for Roy’s story instant.

TWITTER: SHAKESPEARE & CO.

So often people discuss the importance of seeing oneself reflected in literature, yet such debate often feels abstract and removed: an intellectualised version of the catharsis I felt. For people of colour, the experience of recognising even a fraction of your own life, and a life that is exclusively yours, can be incredibly emotional and one that – until the ripe old age of 17 – I had never experienced. It may not seem old, but contextualised in a world where people of colour are marginalised, stereotyped or made into accessories for the white man’s narrative, the effect was, and still is, profound.

In 1997 The God of Small Things won the Man Booker Prize. Perhaps it is a symptom of being a Cambridge student that external intellectual validation is so important, but Roy’s triumph became mine. She had written a story I had never read before, and it had been accepted as great writing by arguably the most prestigious English literary prize in the world. Great writing demands humanity and complexity, something so often denied to the narratives and lives of people of colour, and seeing oneself reflected in a novel with such accolades was, quite frankly, profoundly exciting. The Indian woman who won the British literary prize further spoke to a newly burgeoning pride and simultaneous struggle with who I was; the book had been accepted as part of a canon of modern literary greats and somehow seemed to reconcile my struggle with my cultural inheritance. Solidifying in my mind was the notion I could be both Indian and English, but still entirely me.

For better or for worse, the Booker Prize holds an important role in modern literature in determining what stories are deemed worthy, literary and readable, while also increasing access to such narratives. The inclusion of the stories of people of colour across the globe is therefore hugely important in creating a sense of shared humanity, especially given the lack of any form of diversity in the canon of English literature. However, while the Booker Prize itself has improved over the course of its history (the last two winners being black), capacity for authors of colour to capture the public imagination as writers of literature remains a major challenge.

“Finishing The God of Small Things for the third time that week, I was ready to do anything”

In an article written recently for The Guardian, Claire Hynes emphasises the lack of recognition that writers of colour, particularly those not from the West, gain from the general public; a Royal Society of Literature study showed that of 400 authors named by 2000 people as writers of literature, only 7% were from black or Asian backgrounds; indeed, research by The Bookseller magazine showed that an author has a greater chance of making the bestseller list if they are called David than if they are BME.

There is a constant dull hurt felt when your story isn’t ever told, remains unrecognised or is brushed aside into the category of ‘ethnic minority fiction’. We become faceless, lacking the subtlety of humanity often only given to our white counterparts, fearful that only our stereotypes permeate society’s mainstream. The joy of seeing some aspect of myself represented in respected fiction was only so great because it had never happened before.

Finishing The God of Small Things for the third time that week, I was ready to do anything. Someone a bit like me had transcended the label of ‘world literature’; they had become ‘acclaimed’, a bestseller, my cross-cultural heritage which had so often seemed something to battle against became a source of power and pride. The recognition of BME art in its own right is hugely impactful for those who do not see themselves reflected in literature very often. Such steps could also do something for a sense of shared humanity which is much needed in this modern world

Sponsored links