The Multicultural

In 1984 Oxford University Press brought out ‘Stories From South Asia’, an anthology I edited, which was intended for use in secondary schools and colleges. The term ‘South Asian’ can cause confusion and is sometimes muddled up with Southeast Asia; it covers what would otherwise be termed ‘the Indian subcontinent.’ This was not writing for young people, but a collection of short stories, and extracts from novels, autobiographical writings, and poems, some written in English, but many in translation. Over the next few years, and ocasionally since then, I published articles and book reviews of South Asian writing, principally poetry, in various journals including Wasafiri, PN Review, and Poetry Review.

In 1973 I had joined the English Language Service in Waltham Forest, in East London. We were teaching ‘English as a Second Language’ – which admittedly doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as English for Peacekeeping Purposes, the poet James Sutherland-Smith’s official designation in Belgrade. Our original brief was to teach English to recently arrived school students. The team had been set up under special government funding in the late 1960s, along with the West Indian Supplementary Service, known as WISS, which catered for children from the Caribbean. A ‘deficit model’, especially in the case of the latter, which by the 1980s was giving rise to much fractious debate. By degrees the two teams were merged into something called The Multicultural Development Service. The process of merging and internal debate that accompanied it – what exactly were we about – mirrored, and in many cases anticipated, the twists and turns of this issue as it has proceeded ever since.

The trouble is that the term ‘multiculturalism’ is tossed about without as a rule any attempt to define it. Time and again the 'm' word crops up in articles and columns, often accompanied by the word 'well-intentioned', with its patronising connotation "you naive soft-headed fools", but one is left to infer what the word actually means to the person using it. This gives the 'debate' an odd, Alice in Wonderland quality. If a word is used often enough it acquires, simply by virtue of repetition, an aura of meaningfulness and it becomes embarrassing to admit that you are perhaps the only person who doesn't know. The teacher who said to me years ago "I don't have any multiculturals in my class" didn't mean children brimming over with the spirit of multiculturalism; he simply meant the ones who weren't White. To a great many people the expression “Britain is a multicultural society” appears to mean simply the fact that there are now many people of different cultures residing here, and as such it has nothing to do with what 'multiculturalists' were up to. So far as I can see it only really means anything insofar as it is translated into a series of specific actions. I contributed an article ‘What is Multicultural’ to the online magazine nthposition, at where I attempted to sort out my own ideas on the subject.

Anyway in schools this debate led among other things to a demand for ‘widening the curriculum’ and at our centre we built up a library which included a lot of literature from the Indian subcontinent, written in or translated into English but not generally available in this country, as well as a wide range of books on varieties of language, sociology, history of minority communities and other topics. We also had a publications programme which I was in charge of and which published my rather grandiloquently titled ‘A Teacher’s Guide to South Asian Literature’, as well as children’s stories in dual text – another part of our brief was to promote the teaching of ‘mother tongue’ or, as ILEA came to designate then, ‘heritage languages’, a term that could do with some deconstructing.

Something I got interested in was the autobiographical texts produced by children, often startlingly moving and powerful writing. I wrote about this in an article published in The Reader. ‘Settler communities’, I wrote there, ‘are understandably cautious about revealing potentially awkward or embarrassing aspects of their community’s lives, but these school students are remarkably frank and open about often very intimate personal experiences. It is a curious thought that school students are obliged to be writers – to be poets, autobiographers and writers of fiction. After all they have to go to school, and the school is obliged by law to deliver the national curriculum, and these writing activities are part of the curriculum. The autobiographical writing they do – and a piece of autobiography is part of the requirement for the GCSE coursework folder – is very much about taking possession of their experience as settlers and as such can constitute a declaration of identity. But, going into that empty classroom, what I wonder is, what happens to all this writing? Some of it will be collected and kept at home and eventually, I daresay, be turned out, and what is not collected by the students will in the end have to be thrown away by the school.’ Some of this material should perhaps be archived, representing as it does a particular moment in our post-colonial history.

At the same time I was helping to run the South Asian Literature Society This was established by another ‘ESL’ teacher, Ranjana Ash, in 1982. The idea was to spread knowledge of South Asian writing to a wider audience. We organised day conferences, lectures and lots of readings. In the event it has to be said that SALS events attracted a mainly Asian audience. I certainly became more and more aware of just how much writing there is available in English that never finds its way over here. A lot of writing in different South Asian languages gets translated into English for the benefit of Indian readers from other language groups. There’s a tendency to pride ourselves on our receptivity in this area, but in fact it’s an uneasy relationship characterised by multiple silences and omissions.

My ‘Stories from South Asia’ went out of print a long time ago, a fact that OUP omitted to tell me at the time or I would have taken the opportunity to stock up with some more copies – dealing with OUP was very much an arm’s length affair. And the Multicultural Development Service? The special funding was reorganised in 2002, the year I retired from teaching. And the library that had been built up over the previous thirty years or so was dispersed in a haphazard fashion over a period of a few days . . .