Overcoming Obstacles to Reading With Bali Rai

A few months ago I wrote about a lack of relatable characters being a major obstacle to reading. (Read it here: http://creatingwithkohla.com/wordpress/?p=301 Just a few days after I wrote this post I had the pleasure of meeting the talented Bali Rai at the Leicester Writes festival. He spoke so passionately about the issue of reading and the obstacles to reading faced by some children that I knew it would not be difficult to persuade him to give an interview on that subject.

Bali Rai was born in Leicester in 1971 to a migrant family. He identifies as British Asian and states that he is proud of the multicultural heritage of his home city. He wrote his first stories while at school and, after a few years living and working in London, signed up first with an agent, and then a publisher. His first novel – written whilst working in supermarkets in London – (Un)arranged Marriage – was published in 2001. Since then his books, centred mostly around the multicultural community he grew up in, have won many awards and even been part of the GCSE curriculum.

unarranged marriage

As I had hoped Bali agreed to give an email interview with very little effort on my part. His words on this subject are extremely powerful and I feel that the best representation of his passion and drive is simply to publish the interview unedited and in it’s entirety. I make no apologies for the resultant length of this post. This is a man who is passionate about giving equal opportunities to all children through reading, and who rightly recognises that children from some sectors of society are disadvantaged by the reading culture – or lack of it – in their communities, in a way that other children are not. He is also a man working incredibly hard to fix this disparity in the best way he knows how – by writing books these children actually want to read – and then encouraging them to actually pick up those books. I have also been furnished with a list of great projects seeking to encourage reading in young people that will form the basis of a second post.

Find out more about Bali Rai on his website: http://www.balirai.co.uk/#!/home

Bali Rai’s books can be purchased through his amazon author page: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Bali-Rai/e/B0034NU38E

Q1) What are your first memories of reading as a child?

My first memories include being taken to the local library by my dad, who couldn’t read in English himself, and being given picture books. I loved The Cat in the Hat and things like that. I also remember reading big non-fiction books about Vikings and ancient Egypt too. I still love reading about History now – so those early days were very formative.


Q2) When did you realise that you were part of a social group that was under-represented in literature and what impact did this have on your reading and writing?

It began to dawn around the age of eleven, at which point I was reading two or three books a week. I wanted to find stories about people like my friends and me and they weren’t there. It was just a long succession of middle and upper class white kids, or American kids at high schools etc… There were a few books about characters from India and other places (Come to Mecca by Farrukh Dhondy springs to mind) but nothing about BME or poor white kids from inner cities. That lack of diversity made me write my own stories. It was the kick-start I needed to think about plugging the gap myself.


Q3) What impact did you see this having on your class mates? Did their responses differ from your own?

A few of my friends saw what I did, but most just got on with it. To be honest, the vast majority of my teenage friends were non-readers. They weren’t even reluctant – they just did not read. As adults, I’ve asked a few why this was the case, and the responses are very similar. Reading and books were for “other people” and about “other people”. They didn’t feel as though they belonged to any culture of reading. I get the same responses from school pupils nowadays too – the ones who don’t read.


Q4) What impact did your family have on your reading experience?

My family didn’t read. My parents were Indian immigrants hampered by their lack of education and literacy. Beyond them, I had maybe one or two older family members who had books at home, but they were academic texts. There was no culture of reading in my family, to such an extent, that many of my cousins thought me odd for always having a book on the go.


Q5) Who was it who first made you believe that you could write the books that were so obviously missing from your school library?

My biggest early influence was Sue Townsend. Her Adrian Mole books were set in Leicester and more real than anything I’d ever seen before. She wrote about the kind of people I saw everyday, in school and out on the streets of my home city. It was like being whacked in the head with a mallet. When I found out about her background, her influence grew greater still. That this poor, working class woman had overcome life on a sink estate in Leicester to become a literary star seemed amazing (and it was). She was my literary hero and role model in a way that other writers I read (Roald Dahl, Douglas Adams, S.E Hinton etc…) could never be. I knew her children, and got to know her too. By the time of her sad passing, we were friends and I am gutted that she is no longer around. The first time we met properly, I was thinking about what I might say and she took me aside and told me that she knew all about my career, and that her grandchildren loved my books. I was so shocked that I just went red and said “Er, yeah.” She was a special human being.


Q6) It is sometimes said that you should write the stories only you can write. Do you think that someone without experience of growing up in a working class multi cultural area could write books to engage children from those backgrounds?

I think that statement is party true. There is a level of authenticity that comes from real experience that just isn’t there otherwise. But that shouldn’t stop writers from trying. The late, wonderful Mal Peet once told me that he hadn’t researched his book, Keeper, by actually visiting the area of Brazil in which it is set, and I was amazed. The same can be true of working class, multicultural areas of Britain too. The key, as writers, is to look beyond lazy stereotypes and at the human beings behind the headlines.

I am constantly annoyed by middle-class comedians, for example, who co-opt stereotypical “street” language and culture for their tired, stale jokes. The ones who create characters with back-to-front caps on, or working class white girls with attitude, who wear shell suits etc… Those people wouldn’t know authentic if it stabbed them in the eyeballs. And they don’t care either. They’re sneering at working class, multicultural Britain. They don’t believe that a cabbie can be as educated as them, or that BME girls in trouble at school can also be very clever or huge readers.

As writers, we need to be better than that. It is possible for someone without first hand experience of multicultural Britain to write about it. But, it’s also important to realise that there are hardly any Teen/YA books about multicultural, working class characters actually written by people like me, who come from those communities. There are more books around at present about US high school characters than about real inner city British teens. Modern British literature is still white and middle class, at all levels. So, in effect, to have more diverse books, we need white, middle class writers to move out of their comfort zones and write about lifestyles they did not lead themselves. The alternative, of course, is to publish a more diverse range of writers, especially those from British BME or white, working class British backgrounds, and in all honesty, I don’t expect that to happen any time soon. Diversity is a buzz topic, discussed constantly. But nothing actually changes within the industry. I think British children’s, teen and young adult publishing is LESS diverse now than ever, particularly when it comes to race and culture, and to social class.


Q7) Is it important that authors and books are becoming more diverse?

I’m not sure that they are, if I’m honest. There are certainly more books about certain “minorities” around, which is very welcome. There’s been a big push to get more LBGT fiction out, for example, and that’s awesome but we need more such fiction. BME Britons make up 14% of the UK population, as a second example. But what percentage of narrators/central characters are BME in the books published in the past five years by UK publishers? One per cent? Half of one per cent? It’s certainly not much more than that.

The reality of publishing in 2015 is US books, about US characters, making the big waves in terms of sales. It’s about TV and Film tie-ins, and selling British authors to the US, if they are “suitable” for the US market. YA and middle grade, as age-ranges, are completely American. It’s also about celebrities having books written for them, and getting all the shelf space and promotional tables at Asda, Tesco and Waterstone’s etc…

At the same time, what background do these more “diverse” characters come from socially? Are they poor, working class, BME or disenchanted? Or are they just more middle class white kids, many of whom are now American high school kids? I’ve nothing against US books per se – I read crime fiction constantly and 70% is from the US – but how much of a helping hand does US culture need? It’s already omnipresent in our cultural lives. And which US kids are we reading about? Is it black teenage males like Trayvon Martin being shot dead because of their race? Is it Latino teens in gangs or South Asian teens working in petrol stations and corner stores, with immigrant parents? Or, as usual, is it white kids?


Q8) Have you seen a change in the attitudes of agents and publishers as your work has become more successful?

Haha – I’d love to say yes, but that would be a lie. The attitude towards me, personally, has changed, but I don’t think my being published opened up a wave of new BME talent being signed up. My agent has always been brilliant, and she and I understand each other completely. Penny knows why I write, and what I want to do, and how I want to achieve my goals. I’ve also had some very brilliant editors over the years too – people who truly get what I’m trying to do.

But, I still don’t think I get anywhere near the same respect as a writer as my white counterparts. I’ve been doing this for nearly sixteen years now, and the books I’ve had most success with are the ones that are about British Asian characters in very obvious British Asian settings. Whenever I’ve tried to move on and do something different, I’ve been challenged and my work questioned. Fire City is just one example. Many people told me that it wasn’t my “usual” thing. But why should I have a niche? Does Patrick Ness have a niche? Does Alan Gibbons?

I write about multicultural Britain – not particular races or cultures – the WHOLE thing. Yet I am expected to write about British Asians first and foremost. And in being pigeonholed, my work has been almost ghettoized, in my opinion. Certainly within the industry anyway.


Q9) What impact do you see your books having on young people when you do work in schools?

Schools and events are very important to me. I do a massive number every year, and I see first hand the big impact that truly authentic multicultural books have on certain readers. I mean those who don’t read or are very reluctant. Pupils who live in poorer communities, who don’t have a culture of reading, whose parents are the same, and where education is often seen as a necessary evil rather than a stepping stone to a brighter future. Add the BME/EAL pupils in our cities and towns, and those people are the ones I’m writing about on the whole. I’ve lost count of the number of pupils who tell me they didn’t read until they read a book of mine. That’s not meant to denigrate any other writers (and there are others whose names I hear alongside mine in such schools) it’s just a statement of fact, taken from my vast experience of school events.

It isn’t about race or culture either. I’ve had as many white pupils say the same as those who are BME. Essentially, books like The Crew, The Gun or The Last Taboo are completely different to 99% of the books they come across. I don’t do “authenticity”. I am genuinely, authentically from the same background as these pupils – inner city, multicultural and poor. I don’t make an effort to write that way – it’s the only way I know. The grittiness is a reflection of the life I led as a youngster, and the lives of many of my friends and family. If I’m a tourist anywhere, it’s within the London-centric, white, middle class literary world of UK publishing. Out in a regular comprehensive, in inner-city Manchester, for example, I’m right at home.

Encountering people that reflect their own lives or the lives of their friends, in a book they borrowed from their school library, usually shocks the pupils I meet. They don’t feel that literature is ever about people like them, so even those who are readers did what I did, which is to read predominantly about middle class, white kids. When they “discover” something different, they are very enthusiastic. That is an effect that should not be understated. Seeing books as something that belong to you, too, is a huge stepping-stone in creating new readers from those most averse to reading. Alongside other writers, I want to represent the unheard voices in British society. I think that is part of the reason I’ve become so popular in schools – that and the swearing, of course!


Q10) How important do you see reading for pleasure as being to young people?

Totally, completely, utterly important. So important, that denying young people the right to books, to libraries and to librarians, is a form of abuse – and I make no apology for that statement. It is a simple fact that those who read for pleasure, on top of an education, will do better in life than those who do not. When you deny them that chance, you narrow their choices and willfully disallow them the chance of a truly great education.

Why we still have to convince people of this is maddening. And, why education policy is not written with reading for pleasure at its core is beyond me. It beggars belief. If you know a young person, and you love them and want them to have a better life, get them to start reading. Whatever it takes…


Q11) What steps do you think those who work with young people can take to help encourage them to read for pleasure?

Firstly, we must forget about our own tastes/choice. I can’t stand Twilight, for instance, but that doesn’t mean I won’t suggest it to someone who is interested and is just developing a love of reading. What we, as adults like, means nothing. Fiction, non-fiction, newspapers, magazines, comics, graphic novels etc… Give them a wide range of reading material and ask them about their interests, and then make matches.

Secondly, understand that there is a huge difference between a child from a wealthy background who doesn’t read much, and those from poor families, or immigrant families. The poorer pupils, and those with immigrant parents, are most likely to be severely reluctant and to have no connection to reading as a cultural form. Many will never have owned a book, or have library cards. Some are also far more likely to face serious issues outside of school, and we MUST be honest about that. Hungry pupils, tired pupils, scared and frustrated pupils, those who face horrendous lives at home, or whose parents impose “cultural” barriers on their participation in wider society – these are the kids I’m talking about. They will be more in tune with the gritty stuff, the stuff that some people frown at, full of challenging situations and bad language. I regularly use hard-hitting novels to challenge the preconceptions of young people from this group, many of whom think all books are boring. Examples other than my own include Kevin Brooks’ Road of the Dead, Anne Cassidy’s Looking for JJ, Malorie Blackmans’ Boys Don’t Cry, and Darren Shan’s Demon Apocalypse.

Reluctant pupils from wealthier backgrounds DO know what reading culture is, in my experience, which is a big head start. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t as important, or that the same techniques won’t work. But we should understand that there are differences and that these will play a part. It’s easier to change a pupil who comes from a home with books in than one who doesn’t understand the value or need for books at all.

Thirdly, make it challenging and fun. Look at the wider issues raised by books like Hate by Alan Gibbon’s, or whatever you decide to use. Read to them, and pick the most challenging parts, rather than censoring them. Get them to recreate the blurb, make their own, alternate covers, and partner up with older, confident readers. Be brutally honest about the life chances of those who read well versus those who do not. Help them to create their own stories, with themselves as the narrators. Get some comic software, and let them make their own. There’s so much more I could add.



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