Roma Tearne: 'The success of serious novelists from the subcontinent makes it good to be an Asian writing in Britain'

The day before I left Sri Lanka, I went down to the beach at Mount Lavinia. There are three rocks close to the sand and, using a penknife, I carved my name on one of them. Roma Chrysostom, Colombo, Ceylon, Asia. The World. The Universe. I was a 10-year-old half-Tamil, half-Sinhalese girl on her way to the UK. What followed was not what I expected. Britain in the Sixties was not a place that had much patience with a girl like me living with my family in a depressed part of London. Long before I took my A-levels in English, I was aware that survival depended on the need to integrate into the life of my host country. So out went the Asian accent, the memories of frangipani, and all desire to wear a sari.

Even when I was in Sri Lanka, I had been an avid reader. I knew The Wind in the Willows long before I saw a willow tree. In Brixton, the discovery of the public library was like coming across a treasure trove, and I read everything I could lay my hands on. Slowly, as my teenage years progressed, I read my way through every 19th-century novel I could find, with a list dominated by Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy. Then I moved on to the French and the Russians, falling in love with Madame Bovary before empathising with Anna Karenina. Of Asian literature I knew nothing. When my father suggested tentatively that I try V S Naipaul, I shook my head, reluctant to revisit ideas of loss and memory.

With no role model or sympathy for the Asian migrant experience, and with a desperation to belong, I had no desire to play what I had heard called "the race card". One incident in particular confirmed that this was the best policy. At university, where I had gone to read English, I handed in an essay on Bleak House, only to be asked by my tutor who had written it for me. If you can write like this, he said, you would not be here. You would be at Oxford.

Giving up my emergent desire to become a writer, I did go to Oxford much later, but not to read English. Instead, I studied fine art. My paintings at this time were large, white abstracts. Why, asked my artist friends, did I use no colour? Why, when I had such a rich, exotic background, did I not tap it? The word "exotic" made me wince. It was, for me, merely a different word for "the other". I did not want to be "the other".

Picking my way through Eighties Britain, it would be years before I saw a change. Here and there, in the area of darkness in which I lived, bringing up my mixed-race children, I noticed a few lights rising like fireflies. It wasn't, however, a writer I noticed first, but the artist Anish Kapoor. But soon after, I began to find the writers. Rushdie, of course, and my favourite, Vikram Seth, whom I read and re-read. When Arundhati Roy won the Booker, I was overjoyed. And then there were others – Anita Desai, Narinder Dhami, Monica Ali, to name but a few. At a conference recently, a young Asian novelist announced that in this time of globalisation, he felt free to write about any place in the world. Memory and loss, the hardship of integration, these were all things of the past, he told me triumphantly. While I did not agree with him (the past and its memory shapes all our futures and will not simply go away), how wonderful it is that such a conversation can take place.

As I move into the writing of my fourth novel, I no longer feel that the issue of "playing the race card" is pertinent. Problems of race are as great as ever, but thanks to the sudden flurry of serious Asian novelists – many of whom are women – it could not be a better time to be an Asian writing in Britain. And best of all is the extraordinary, informed audience that this has in turn produced.



Roma Tearne's third novel, 'Brixton Beach', was published by HarperCollins in June

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on