BAME Representation Done Right
A saying goes that “it’s important to name our visions as often as we do our wounds.” But it is hard to find books that represent stories from diverse backgrounds, and even harder to find those that do it well. These rare gems are the types of books that foster and solidify self-identity for readers whose voices have not been heard. Books can be a window to another world, and a book that accurately portrays another culture encourages greater global social cohesion. Here we celebrate books that resonated with us.
The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf
I chose The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf because it was set in a historically significant period of Malaysia. The plot follows Melati, a Malay schoolgirl who has Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), trying to reunite with her mother during a racially aggravated riot. On 13 May 1969, a riot occurred between the ethnic Chinese and Malays after an election where a Chinese-majority coalition took some parliamentary seats. Some people took matters into their own hands: Malays gangs hurt the Chinese, Chinese gangs hurt the Malays and caught in between was anyone in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many civilians were hurt or killed.
In the opening chapters, I related to the Malaysian-ness of the setting – the language and the mention of familiar places and food. Racism is not new to me; however, I was unprepared by Hanna Alkaf’s truthful portrayal of graphic violence during the racial riots. I was also deeply moved by the kindness shown between civilians of different races as they hid from the riot.
The taboos of mental illness within the Malaysian community is weaved into the narrative; Melati’s OCD is thought to be djinn possession. There was strong opposition to seek professional help due to shame and fear of imprisonment in mental institutions. The strength of Melati’s character shines, as, in her silent struggle against OCD, Melati persisted in her search for her mother by learning to open up and trust in her capabilities.
This book has been described as unapologetically Malaysian, and I can’t agree more. I felt that the book was written for me, explaining to me the racial history Malaysia is grounded in, through the eyes of someone with which I could relate.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
In my family’s native Cuba, a Communist country whose national identity is tied to the egalitarian fiction of “mestizage”, the realities of colourism and African heritage are often swept under the rug. Ghanaian-American author, Yaa Gyasi, refuses to shy away from those realities in Homegoing, choosing instead to trace exactly how we have arrived at the present moment.
The basic premise is simple: sisters, Effia and Esi, are separated at birth where one is sold into the slaving system of the Cape Coast Castle, and the other marries the British soldier who mans it. As these two go on to parent estranged lineages, Gyasi covers a dizzying range of characters between the Gold Coast and Harlem. Perhaps, however, that is the novel’s power: its main story is that which is between the stories of unsuspecting family members. Nodding to W.E.B Du Bois’ famed theory of “double consciousness” and the fragmentation of black personhood under the West’s regime of racial violence, Gyasi makes her broken characters the product of a broken history.
But, ghostly déjà vu and echoed details between the lives of estranged cousins spell hope. The existence of a post-national connection, or spiritual motherland independent of space and time, affirms an alternative. What really sold me on Homegoing is how Gyasi tries hard to provide an explanation, or perhaps even meaning, for a past so painful it seems illogical. She insists upon the existence of something palpable, even when it is elusive.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Americanah provided me with an invaluable perspective on race relations, not only with the traditional white and black dynamic but also between different cultures within the African diaspora. The book tackles a myriad of difficult and often taboo subjects, such as the plight of illegal immigrants, the sometimes mutual fetishisation within interracial dating and the somewhat corrupt nature of West African governments.
Due to the combination of there being so few black authors, mixed with the issue of “black culture” being perceived as being synonymous with African-American culture (despite the vast global population of black people being African), Americanah is a much-needed exploration of what it is like being an African amongst African-Americans. Adichie completely shatters the widely held belief of a shared “black” consciousness in the treatment of the two main characters, Ifemelu and Obinze. Both experience vastly different trials in their pursuit of a better life west and, thus, Acichie perfectly summarises the difference in race relations for those residing in Britain versus America.
As a Nigerian-British woman, every aspect of this book spoke volumes to my soul, from the exclusionary nature of other black people to the suffocating one-upmanship of white liberals in their pursuit of political correctness. If there is one thing that the publishing industry and society as a whole should take from this book, it is that black people are not a monolith and should never be represented as such.