Bali Rai breaking down the barriers
In the last six years I have worked in roughly forty schools per annum and each time I visit a new one I have the same feelings.
Mostly I'm tired because I've had to get up early to catch a train from Leicester, but my lack of sleep (I do my best writing in the early hours) is more than made up for by the excitement I feel about meeting yet another group of young adults.
I love doing school visits. For me they are just as much a part of the life of an author as sitting at a desk and tapping away or attending non-school events, usually complete with something that passes for wine.
Often I'm asked to talk about issues surrounding cultural diversity in publishing and multiculturalism, both areas that I am keenly aware of. I don't mind this – for me the urge to become published always had less to do with seeing my name on a book cover and more to do with spreading a message. And that message?
Books can and must be for everyone – regardless of their background. In fact I prefer to work with young people who aren't readers. They are always the most challenging and getting a response from them seems all the more satisfying.
It's not always easy to convince a roomful of sullen boys that books are for them too. Much as I did at their age, they point out that the books they are given do not reflect their lives, their hopes and their aspirations. Talk to any class of inner-city ethnic minority kids, and they'll ask where they are in these books that I love so much.
The same is true of white, working class youngsters. That's when I open one of my novels and read. The response is mostly one of shock (at the bad language, no doubt), followed by rapt attention. This isn't because I'm the best writer or speaker out there. Far from it. It is because the books that I write try to reflect the true nature of multiculturalism - the ‘real' world in which these young people live and love.
The response is the same wherever I go, whoever I talk to. Nothing gave me greater pleasure than the response I got from a roomful of white Scottish pupils engrossed in my reading of (Un)Arranged Marriage back in 2001. I was talking about issues that had no direct bearing on their lives, yet they could still relate to them. They were curious, they asked questions. They got involved in a debate about the very nature of what it means to be British. Brilliant!
I talk, too, about cultural diversity. And I'm aways brutally honest. People like me are very rare in the publishing world, at any level. It's not just that I'm under the age of forty, Asian and writing books. I'm male, and more to the point, I come from an inner-city background, with no formal writing courses of any description under my belt.
I don't even do grammar well. I leave all of that to my lovely editors. Oh, and I can't spell. And once the young people I talk to see that I really am just an ‘ordinary bloke', as one girl put it a few years back, they mellow out and open up and get involved, which is the whole point of my being there.
For me, cultural diversity isn't just about culture or colour or religion or whatever. It's also about changing the culture of publishing so that it isn't strange or remarkable that a novel has as its central characters British Asian teens, for example.
I long for the day when the colour and culture of the characters is no longer held up as a step forward. Instead, it will hopefully become nothing to write home about - an acceptance of different lives, different backgrounds, not just in terms of the characters, but the writers, illustrators and editors too.
A truly diverse publishing world which can only lead to more people becoming involved in these wonderful things called books – at whatever level, and most importantly, as readers.
My aim in visiting schools is to get young people reading. Whether through the Q&A sessions or through creative writing. And I don't care who I talk to or where it is. As long as I can get them thinking about books as something unique and brilliant, that'll do for me.
Lately I've also been engaged in long political debates with young adults, due to the publication of my latest book, a non-fiction title called Politics-Cutting Through The Crap. I know that there is a debate about what constitutes reading and I'm firmly of the belief that as long as young people are reading that's what matters most.
The response to my politically oriented sessions has been tremendous. Lots of excited young people wanting to talk about what they think. Seeing a book as something that will inform them, educate them. Make them angry, even.
So, whether I'm talking about cultural diversity or multiculturalism, deflecting questions about the size of my feet or teaching young people the art of writing creatively, I have to say that my greatest inspiration is the inspiration that talking to these people gives to me.
School visits – I love them. I'd do a hundred a year if I could!