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
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
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
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.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone