As I may have mentioned a couple of hundred times before, I was born and raised in Fiji and only made my way to the vast land of Canada in 2001 when I was 17. My childhood and formative years were significantly different from those who were born and raised in North America and other first world countries. I lived on a sugarcane farm and my playground were the surrounding hills and fields. Sounds rather idyllic, does it not?
And it was. We didn’t have regular TV (programs started sometimes from 3 in the afternoon till 10 at night) and I didn’t know how to operate a computer until I moved to Canada so no internet. We had the radio but it was mostly turned on to the Hindi language station. You would think that isolated as we were, we would not an awareness of ourselves as “others.” That would have been impossible because being of Indian ethnicity and descended from indentured labourers brought from India, we were already “others.” However, in this context, I mean “other” in the post-colonial sense.
The literature we read, the stories and books given to us by our teachers and parents and anyone who loved us all featured protagonists who were white and lived in countries where there were four seasons and not the eternal summer that we understood. The weather itself made us wonder.
The books available most copiously to us children were by Enid Blyton: Famous Five, The Children of Several Different Farms, Mallory Towers, etc. etc. We read them and we were enthralled. Our tribe (I grew up with many cousins) was most fascinated by the different kinds of food present in these books. I don’t remember which boarding school series it was specifically, but there was one (or perhaps two) that contained midnight feasts where the girls would gather after lights out and by the illumination of lamps consume feasts of foods that were alien to us.
Scones? Cheese? We had heard of these but none of us had ever tasted them. Not even cheese (I remember the first time I had pizza, such a glorious experience). We decided to make our own midnight feast but once midnight rolled around (it gets very dark in the tropics), none of were very hungry and the food we had didn’t tempt us as much as the food in the books. (They kept on eating bacon or ham or some other derivative of and I remember one of us asked our parents for it. There was an awkward silence then.)
High teas we had, though not in the extravagant style of the children in Blyton’s books. Fiji was a British colony for some years and the traditions were retained even after Independence so every afternoon we had tea (or chai) and a snack (if we were lucky). But again, the food could not compare.
For us, since the food in the books was described as being almost akin to ambrosia, our perceptions of the fictional characters in the books changed. They became superior because they did not just have access to food like that but took that food for granted while we could only imagine and dream what the taste was like.
This brings me, very belatedly, sorry, to my point. It probably wasn’t the intention of the author or the people who gave us the books to read to create in us an awareness of our own inferiority but such is the pervasive nature of colonialism. Just like Disney perpetuates the idea of beauty in the blue eyed and blonde haired princesses, we were taught that the superior place belonged to those who had access to the type of food mentioned in the books. My experience is precisely the reason why diversity in children’s literature is so important. Several scholars have theorized about the importance of children’s literature to children’s developing abilities, the manner in which they navigate their daily lives, the way they cope with problems that may pop up (see Bettelheim for one). For children to be able to do all these things, it is necessary that they are able to relate to the protagonists and place themselves in the position of the protagonists – an impossible feat if they are, instead, learning their position in the hierarchy. Impossible, also, if there is no common feature between them and the characters in the books they read. A starving child in a third world country will not be able to relate to a child in a first world country.
And just as it is important that a child in the third world country finds someone they can relate to in a book, it is important that a child in the first world country read a book containing a protagonist they cannot relate to. So their perspective is widened. Diversity is important for many more reasons than the ones I have mentioned but I think my post is getting overly long so I shall wrap this up.
I bet you didn’t think of this when you saw the title but there you have it. I’d love to hear your thoughts/responses on this.