What do we mean when we talk about representation? It’s a word and concept that looks like something different for every single one of us.
For me, the first time I felt represented by a book was two years ago – in 2017 – when I read The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi. In fact, the reason I was drawn to this book in the first place was because I had never read a book with a Bangladeshi protagonist before. At 21 years old, having the opportunity to read this middle grade fantasy novel meant everything to me. It’s funny how we often talk about diverse books and the impact they will have on the generations of children who will read them today, but we never seem to address how those same books will similarly affect the generations of readers who grew up without them.
Prior to The Gauntlet, I had read books that I could relate to on a cultural level and that in itself was empowering. At the time, that, for me, had meant representation.
Due to the lack of Bangladeshi protagonists when it came to desi young adult fiction, I cherished books like When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon — with an Indian protagonist — because I could relate to the characters’ experiences. From strict parenting to arranged marriages and the inability to speak your mother tongue, there are definitely similarities between the two cultures. But, sometimes, it feels as if we have normalised seeing South Asian cultures (and many other Asian cultures) as interchangeable to the point that we, ourselves, often settle for the bare minimum when it comes to representation.
Because we relate to these stories involving what appear to be universal desi experiences, we talk about them in terms of representation, and there’s nothing wrong or inaccurate about that. But it brings me back to the question which I asked at the beginning of this essay. What exactly do we mean when we talk about representation?
I’ve been privileged enough to have been able to read a few stories with Bangladeshi protagonists within the last two years, and it was through reading these stories that I came to learn the difference between relatability and representation. These are two words that I, ironically, often used interchangeably though they have entirely different meanings.
I can relate to most desi experiences, for example, but they don’t represent me. For me, representation is something you’ll only know and feel when you read it and it’s completely different from just relating to a story, which is why I call it a privilege.
Not everyone will have the opportunity to read a book with characters who share their exact skin colour or their cultural values or their language. But I hope, in the future, that these stories will come into existence so that every reader, no matter where in the world they are, will know exactly what representation feels like.
It’s important to note, however, that representation and relatability aren’t mutually exclusive. You can relate to and feel represented by the same story. Likewise, you can relate to a story and not feel represented, and you can be represented but not relate to a character’s experiences.
For example, in The Love & Lies Of Rukhsana Ali by Sabina Khan, I found representation in Rukhsana’s Bangladeshi heritage but didn’t necessarily relate to any of her experiences within the novel. On the other hand, in Yasmin Rahman’s All The Things We Never Said, I could relate to Mehreen’s experiences with her mental health alongside being represented as a British-Bangladeshi Muslim.
But again, it always comes back to the question of what do we mean when we talk about representation? It’s really hard to pinpoint an exact definition of the word because it’s so personal. And it’s equally important to remember that South Asians aren’t a monolith and therefore our experiences aren’t interchangeable and we need more than one story that represents us.
Young adult fiction is increasingly becoming a great reminder of that, in the way that Rukhsana’s experience as an American-Bangladeshi teen is entirely different to Mehreen’s experience as a British-Bangladeshi teen. Despite their cultural similarities, they each have their individual stories to tell.
Therefore, it’s needless to say that we need to keep pushing for representation in books, regardless of whether two characters already share a cultural background. If there’s enough shelf space for multiple stories with white protagonists then there’s enough shelf space for multiple books featuring Asian protagonists across the continent. We need to keep fighting for these books so that every reader can have stories they relate to, stories they feel represented by, and stories that do both of these things.
And it’s the stories that do both which are the most empowering, because there’s nothing quite like the feeling of seeing yourself represented on the page and thinking that you’re literally reading a story that is written about your life.
Augvocate for the Day
Nadia is an unapologetically British-Muslim writer and blogger. Since graduating with a BA in English Language and Literature, she now spends far too much time drinking tea when she’s not spilling it, watching documentaries and writing novels she will never finish.
This guest post is part of a month-long collaborative series called Augvocacy, which is shorthand for August with an advocacy. Essentially, this project aims to bring together like-minded individuals — be it bloggers, authors, or readers — in actively forwarding a particular advocacy. All contributors to this project are referred to as Augvocates — and each Augvocate will share their thoughts on my blog from the 1st day of August until the 28th. Find the rest of the Augvocacy 2019 posts here.
For this year, Augvocacy hopes to discuss and encourage the importance of amplifying Asian voices in books and in media. While this particular call brings attention to the oftentimes-ignored demand for more authentic Asian representation, it also aims to debunk the bigoted view that Asian cultures are a monolith and to shed light on the nuances of struggle, privilege, and identity within and across our own communities. Learn more about Augvocacy 2019 in this post.
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I’d love to hear from you!
🌻 What are your thoughts on Nadia’s post? Do you agree with her point that there are significant differences between relatability and representation?
🌻 Have you ever felt truly represented in a book or in any media content like a film? Or are you still forced to settle with the bare minimum of representation?
🌻 What specific stories or specific aspects of your identity or culture would you like to see represented in a book?