Once upon a diverse time
I teach story writing to a class of eight-year-olds. Every day, we gather and discuss in great detail subjects such as unicorns, magic socks, alien spaceships, furry monsters and, of course, fairies. Almost every little girl in my class wants to be a fairy when she grows up. Complete with wings and glittery dresses.
We were working on a character-building activity this week and I asked the class to use adjectives to describe this mythical creature. "Fair," said one girl. "Blonde hair and blue eyes," said another. "Thin, and her name is Wendy."
"But why can't her name be Huda or Zoya? Or Lakshmi? Why don't we create a fairy with brown eyes and dark curly hair and skin the colour of chocolate?" I asked. Silence permeated the Zoom call. This was a particularly relevant question in this classroom, because everyone was of Indian descent.
As a young Indian girl who spent most of her childhood reading, I was brought up on stories of marmalade and pudding, and picnics in the meadows, Julian and Anne, and Jo and Bessie.
I distinctly remember going to London in 2005, and for the first time in my life - at the ripe old age of 20 - tasting ginger beer for the first time.
Ginger beer. This combination of letters that, over two decades of reading, had transformed into an almost magical drink - a sip of which would allow me, this ordinary Indian girl, the chance to be like one of the Famous Five. Somehow, the picnic baskets that they filled with eggs and bread, and butter and lemonade looked nothing like the food on our table at home. I realised in that moment what years of reading these stories had done and wished that someone had spoken of the humble daal-chawal with as much of a sense of romance.
Why is it so important though? A story is a story after all; how much damage can a blonde fairy do? I dare say, a lot. I find that stories have the incredible power of allowing us to construct our own personal narratives. As we live our lives, we are, in parallel, constructing the script of our own stories, with all the twists and turns of a Netflix show. Stories help us make sense of the world. Stories help us give meaning to what is happening around us.
When stories tell us, from a young age, that we must look and be a certain way to be accepted, we slowly start to let go of the things that make us different and cling to things that make us like everyone else, everyone we read about.
My point is: as we expose our children to stories in the form of books and films, let us make a concerted effort to help them see a future for themselves where they don't have to morph into something they're not.
It starts with telling stories of all kinds, from around the world, where heroes happen to be on wheelchairs or fairies don't always look like Tinkerbell. Seek these stories out and tell them to your kids, and where you cannot find them - make them up.