When Claret Press suggested my tagline should be ‘Stories for the Global Reader’ , I froze for a moment. It became obvious to me – that is what I had been writing since 1998 when I started freelance journalism but doing it unconsciously .
I began reviewing exhibitions and pitched ideas to the arts editor. Why did I chose to pitch Qu Leilei’s Everyone’s Life is an Epic , exhibitions on India at the V&A and Africa Remix at the Hayward Gallery as well as The History of Pub Signs at Banbury Museum ? Scrolling through a folder of my features it struck me how international were my choices .
In 2007, I started the 10 year castaway series in which I sent interesting people with a link to Oxford to my mythological island of Oxtopia. It soon looked different to anything else in The Oxford Times . The castaways came from five continents and had almost every shade of skin tone and every shade of religion and none and locally they were Town ,Gown and County . Connecting those is the theme of this lecture I gave to Oxford Tour Guides .
Why are my three novels set in China and the USA , Oxford and India and London and West Kenya and yet anyone who reads them knows instantly that they are authentic? Brushstrokes in Time wouldn’t have been possible without Qu Leilei but why did I spend ten years researching and writing a book set in China and why is Sculpting the Elephant which is much closer to my own life set in Oxford and India?
I was born in Luton and my father worked at Vauxhall Motors. Every Saturday from the age of seven I walked one and a half miles to and from the central library. My book choices were eccentric for my age. I read Enid Blyton’s Famous Five but I also picked up non-fiction books on India and China . They made me curious and open minded. Unusually in the sixties I married a man of colour .
When our eldest son Justin was six months old there was a knock on the door of our Handsworth (Birmingham) home. A reporter from The Daily Mail wanted to question me about my marriage. I am usually a hospitable person but I didn’t ask her in. She asked me how my parents had reacted to me marrying ‘an Indian’. The implication in her voice was that they should have disowned me. I replied that ‘I didn’t marry an Indian, I married Atam.’ She didn’t like that response and left. Her feature was published and among her victims were a so called mixed race couple we knew well. When I read the way she sensationalised their marriage, I realised that I may have been young but I had been wise.
Atam went on to do his PhD in Quantitative Genetics. I learned that everyone of us –even twins are unique . My life has taught me that for the important things in life we have more in common than what separates us. When you see your fellow human being as just that – your fellow human being – you react with empathy. If you see someone of a different gender, religion race or colour as different to you as separate as ‘other’ , then it is hard to accept that they have similar feelings and needs to you .All around the world you find two reactions to the stranger. Sometimes it is welcome and hospitality and sometimes it is fear and hostility.
I’m currently blogging and writing poems on Walls and Bridges Labelling people is like erecting a wall and building bridges is about connecting – it’s like shaking hands. My first castaway was Christopher Brown the then director of the Ashmolean. I admired him and I knew I was right to admire him when he reorganised the collection under the theme of Crossing Cultures Crossing Time . Before that all the departments were in little boxes as if ideas did not spread from East to West and West to East – suddenly the story was all about CONNECTING. That is what I love doing. I love connecting people in person and through my writing .
This three day workshop Polly Biswas Gladwin and I organised for the Shakespeare in Oxford project shows what can happen when you bring together young people of a huge variety of background who have never met before but manage to get them talking to each other. In this case a ladder is the bridge .
https://vimeo.com/123886243 Joe and Zara