Questioning Cultural Stereotypes Through Children's Books

Radhika Menon, Managing Editor, Tulika Publishers, in a journal on multicultural books in schools, at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2006

About forty years ago, from the 1960s onward, ‘multicutural’ books have been a mandatory category in any library in the developed countries of the world. At the time the change set in, it was cause for celebration among educationists, children’s publishers, authors and illustrators because what it implied was that the market was opening to books from other cultures. Until then, the flow of books had always been from west to east – mainly from the native English-speaking world to the rest of the world. Simply put, from the colonisers to the colonised.  Now at last, the flow would be reversed, making for a more democratic distribution of books. The world – at least the developed world – seemed poised for a silent revolution where books would cross borders. Children’s literature in the developed countries, which had always engaged with social issues and concerns, would now reflect authentic voices from multiple cultures, fostering a genuine understanding of differences. 

          Twenty years on, concerted efforts by publishers, educationists and policy-makers brought about some dramatic changes. Most publishers’ lists – in the developed world, that is – began to feature books about other cultures, both fiction and non-fiction. More and more authors and illustrators of different colour and nationalities were publishing books. Most books acquired a multicultural cast of characters. Picture books began to reflect culturally distinctive, ethnic styles of illustration. Names of people and places, once considered ‘odd’ and unfamiliar were no longer seen as being only exotic and unpronounceable. The publishing world had opened up and was no longer ‘white’ dominated – or so it seemed.

          Ten years back, when Tulika entered the world of international children’s publishing, we were confident that our books reflecting the contemporary cultural reality of India would, while addressing the needs of Indian children, offer a culturally distinctive range of books to English-speaking children everywhere. We were also confident that given the focus on multicultural books, there would be interest in translations of our books into European languages, as we were among the first specialised children’s publishers to emerge from this part of the world. We were, I must admit, starry-eyed about being part of a progressive and liberal culture that western children’s literature reflected. While the colonial experience had left India with an education system that stifled all creativity and energy in children’s literature, the socio-economic circumstances of the colonisers had created conditions for the growth of a vibrant body of children’s literature in their countries. Some of that reached us and many of us grew up reading nothing else but books from the west. And we loved it! Like all colonised countries, we too had only the western model to measure our efforts against, particularly in children’s publishing.

          A couple of international book fairs and interactions with international publishers soon dispelled our illusions. We realised that multicultural publishing was not about ‘crossing borders’ but about creating new ones – wider and more diffused, but borders nevertheless. For books from one culture to find acceptance in another, it had to fit into the pre-conceived notions of that other. Anything else was dismissed as being too difficult and unfamiliar, too ‘region-specific’. The reality, then, is that the focus on multicultural publishing has not translated into authentic and inclusive literature from all cultures. The reality is also that the parameters of what is acceptable in multicultural publishing are set by big, successful, western publishing houses – the rest of the world must follow unquestioningly. Interestingly, a similar situation is reflected within India too, with historical and socio-political factors adding their own complex dimensions. India is a large country of diverse landscapes and climates, where over 1500 languages are spoken by more than 4500 ethnic groups, representing a mix of racial types that have evolved over thousands of years, and practising many ancient religions broken into innumerable sects and cults. It was against such a backdrop that the British created, in the mid-nineteenth century, an administrative system and a centralised exam and textbook-oriented education system that could work only by promoting a pan-Indian, monolithic culture. This excluded the cultural experiences of a vast majority of the people. The over-arching, unified ‘Indian’ culture actually, finally, represented only the culture of the elite classes. The ruling classes, first the British and then the Indian, maintained hierarchies and power equations in society by creating powerful cultural stereotypes. All this was done primarily through the education system.

          The Indian Freedom Movement too used the concept of a pan-Indian culture in its struggle against British imperialism. This was a historic imperative and was used imaginatively and successfully by the leaders of the freedom struggle. Unfortunately the unity-in-diversity theme continues to be the basis of the education children receive in India even today, nearly sixty years after winning political independence from the British. And when this theme takes on a simplistic, didactic and moralizing tone in the course of being transmitted to children, the results are deeply damaging. 

          The disconnect between the education system and the reality of vastly different childhoods has posed different sets of problems at every juncture of modern Indian history. Today, when identities of caste, class and religion  are under tremendous stress, a monolithic pan-Indian culture only further divides and boxes in people. We see the repercussions of this phenomenon in every sphere – political, social, cultural, economical. India, often referred to as many Indias, is in many ways a microcosm of the world. Given the pluralistic nature of Indian society, multiculturalism is a way of life and has been for many centuries. And like in other multicultural societies, market and media forces have heightened pressures and tensions between groups belonging to different groups. In a developing nation with a vast population, the divide between the rich and the poor, the literate and the non-literate, the information-rich and the information-poor, creates new and dangerous kinds of social pressures. The resulting social and cultural ferment impacts on childhood in deep-rooted ways. Children grow up in a matrix of actual events, items of news, the orality of myths, the fantasy of cinema and the soapy social reality of television. The cultural stereotypes that emerge from these are reinforced through a rigid education system. In such a context children’s literature offers a valuable space for alternative narratives — narratives that will help children rethink their cultural identities and break free of linguistic and regional insularities as they grow up.

          But does this really happen? Do we understand the cultural reality that children are growing up in? Are we even aware that children are growing up in a particular cultural context? The question that confronts us as publishers of children’s books in India is: when we create books for children, which children do we address? The middle and upper middle class English-speaking children who go to school in cities and towns? Rural children who go to one-room, no-roof shacks with one teacher who almost never turns up? Working children who attend part time schools? Children who are discriminated against blatantly because of their gender or caste? And what of the children who lie outside the pale of education, or even the possibility of education?

          The discrimination against the large majority of underprivileged children in the education system begins with their invisibility in the texts they encounter in school. And if they are visible they are grossly misrepresented. Seen in this context, the definition of multiculturalism as an effort to reflect the real world of children from different backgrounds, or at least helping children find their own space in books, takes on a much more challenging meaning.

          Tulika’s effort over the past few years has been to present through texts and pictures in (at present) eight different languages, the different realities of children and young people across India. Through folk and contemporary stories, myths and legends, fiction, non-fiction and poetry, our books give children images of a pluralistic, diverse, multilingual India and therefore of the world. Oral folk genres like songs, stories, proverbs and riddles, and the arts and crafts that pervade every aspect of Indian life, create verbal and non-verbal environments that shape childhood experiences. In the largely non-literate societies in India, these experiences bring people together despite their many differences. The challenge to us as publishers is to create books that reflect both the uniqueness of cultural expressions as well as the universal elements in them.

          The problem here is that such books go against what is popularly accepted as Indian in India as well as outside it. They do not conform to notions of what is Indian, certainly not in the world of children’s books. When narratives are not linear and simple in the accepted western way of storytelling, they are seen as too complex and confusing for children. When the English language is used in the way it is spoken with all its distinctive Indianisms and sprinkled with words in the local language, it is seen as being difficult for children to follow. The power of words lies in the nuances of their use which is again very cultural. But what seems to be expected of multicultural books is a standardisation in the use of language. Even names of places on the map are avoided if they are not familiar in the west. For instance, Tulika’s book, Andamans Boy, about a boy’s adventures on the Andaman islands, was changed to Keine Angst vor Krokodilen (No fear of crocodiles)  in its German translation, as the Andamans was considered too remote a place for children to relate to! (It took the devastation of the recent tsunami for it to become, familiar, thanks to the wide media coverage.) Illustrations had to conform too, to popular traditional styles to be accepted as Indian. The decorative and the ornate, along the lines of miniature style paintings, are familiar and acceptable. The contemporary and graphic style of illustration used in one of our most popular books, Ekki Dokki, was difficult to accept because it was not seen as ‘Indian’. ‘We love the story for its Indian flavour but not the illustrations as they are not typically Indian’, was the response from western publishers. 

         Cultural biases are not confined to picture books and fiction but extend to information books too, as we discovered. Tulika’s book The Bhopal Gas Tragedy, on the world’s worst industrial disaster, was not thought appropriate by a leading publishing house in the UK which had a special list of titles about largescale human tragedies like the Holocaust and the Hisroshima bombing. The location of the tragedy obviously influenced the selection of a title for publishing. It is not so much the lack of sensitivity on the part of publishers as market dictates and educational policies which determines where they put their money.

          Looking at books about India popular in the west, it is not difficult to understand the  resistance to books that challenge familiar notions. The books are most often published in the west as part of a publisher’s multicultural list. Care is taken to see that the names are not too difficult to pronounce and story lines not too complex. Regional and linguistic  references are left out as it is believed they will confuse children. Retellings of folk stories and religious myths are shorn of all their multi-layered complexities and quirks. Popular festivals reinforce stereotypical images of a pan-Indian lifestyle. Contemporary stories are often about urban middle-class India. Non-fiction titles about India tend to take a tourist approach with photographs showing little girls and boys in traditional clothes, and typical festivals and  performances, never quite managing to move far from the image of the land of elephants and snake charmers. Such books, written without passion or knowledge and reinforcing stereotypes, only further widens the us-and-them-gap in young readers’ minds.

          For us in India it is difficult to accept the argument that children will not respond to the unfamiliar and the unknown because in pre and post-independent India a majority of the educated middle class grew up reading books from the west. The trend continues despite the Indian books in the market. Not just books in English, but translations of many European, Russian and Chinese language books were available to Indian readers even in the eighteenth century. The ability to accept and enjoy the unfamiliar world of books is perhaps an affirmation of India's plurality. Or so we thought — but things have changed dramatically in India over the last ten years. The pervasiveness of stereotypical cultural narratives that dominate the media and the educational system subsumes the reality of pluralism that has shaped Indian society over thousands of years.            A globalised, market-driven book industry has created a market dominated by bestsellers on the one hand and remaindered books on the other, especially in children’s publishing. Children’s books from multinational publishing houses, with their television and film tie-ins and merchandising, flood the market. The hunger for narrative in children is hugely exploited by an insensitive culture industry. Giant toy and media businesses continue to tap children’s need for narrative fantasies with unerring accuracy. Shorn of any relevant cultural relevance for most children, but with powerful appeal, the narratives have been completely globalised. And in countries like India where children’s book publishing as a specialized area is just emerging, creating culturally-rooted books that offer children an imaginative alternative presents a huge challenge.

          Paradoxically, as Tulika’s experience has shown, a new and chaotic market also creates the space for innovation and creativity! Tulika has just published a translation of the Swedish classic Pippi Longstocking in Hindi, a book that is likely to be read by children in Hindi-medium schools who are completely unfamiliar with the Swedish cultural mileu. The market for Indian children’s books is as yet not dominated by strait-jacketed trends as in the west; trends reflected in comments like – “this colour will not work on the cover, change the blue to pink”, or “wonderful text and pictures, but black and white won’t sell in our market.” Pippi Lambemoze sports a bright red cover with the picture of an obviously Scandinavian child sprawled across it; her adventures take place in quite ‘unfamiliar’ contexts, but we do not expect that to put readers off in any way.

          Having said all this and despite the limitations of multicultural publishing, there is a high degree of awareness about children’s books in the west because of the relatively higher status of children’s literature, and the academic credibility it enjoys. The high levels of skill and commitment of authors, illustrators and publishers have created a number of books about India, which are probably better in terms of production and design and very often in the writing and illustration than books published in India. But with all that they manage to be little more than well packaged products. The catch, as I mentioned before, is that these books created for the readers of that country, have a formulaic approach because of the need to conform to accepted notions of different cultures.  In the last couple of years, with the sudden spurt in children’s publishing, a lot of talented writers and illustrators are emerging in India too. But will these authentic voices be heard internationally?

         The problem we face — and I include people committed to children’s books in every country — is that the cultural stereotypes perpetuated by the media and the market are so dominant that it is difficult for even the most sensitive among us to recognise them as stereotypes! Only a willingness to set aside our pre-conceived notions will open our minds to books that reflect completely different ways of telling stories in words and pictures. The paradox is that it is the adults who engage with children’s literature in different ways who decide what children will be familiar and comfortable with. But children themselves, being ‘literalists of the imagination’, cross borders and categories freely if we allow them to.

          Dominant images of culture perpetuate a view of culture as a seamless, continuous, unchanging, unified entity. Everyday reality contradicts this notion every step of the way. Yet we seek out those very images to transmit to children through books and other media The challenge before us is to break away from our smug certainties, of either a homogenizing unity or unbridgeable diversities, and lead children into an understanding that the world is not made up of exclusive communities or nationalities, but of interconnected differences. Multiculturalism, then, isn’t a special category, or a special theme or a special view of history. It is a way of life we all share across borders.

           This brings us to the kind of books children need — books that explore language and images in new and exciting ways; books that reflect contemporary realities in all their ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity; books with text and pictures that reach out to the rest of the world with the confidence of cultural distinctiveness; books that include previously excluded cultural experiences of the marginalized and question class, caste and gender hierarchies; books in all languages and in translations; and above all books that can be active socialising agents without compromising on creative integrity.

          Children’s literature opens up challenging possibilities to create a fair and just world through good books. And good books are being written all the time in different places, in different languages and different voices. The key is to find those books and promote them as what they are — good books — and not as special categories of multicultural books. The key is to break the seal and enjoy the experience of reading.