The other evening I went to the British Library to hear Oona King deliver the second 26 Annual Speech. 26 is a membership organisation for writers which I co-founded six years ago, and our aim is to promote the value of writing – in business, in life, in all its diversity.
That’s why Oona was an appropriate choice of speaker. She’s now head of diversity for Channel 4 and was previously the Labour MP for Bethnal Green – a constituency where 79 different languages are spoken by residents. Oona famously lost her seat to George Galloway, notorious for being a cat on Big Brother. Did Oona’s defeat by an embarrassing and chubby moggy with a moustache mean that diversity and multiculturalism are dead?
“Multiculturalism is a fact,” Oona declared. With a white Jewish mother, a black American father, a grandmother from Glasgow, she embodies it. But her real subject, particularly for her audience, was the effect of diversity on creativity and language. It’s a field that has become a politically correct minefield, and one of the problems is that we haven’t yet found an acceptable language to fit the essential humanity that should go with the subject. So there’s an identity crisis afflicting the subject and individuals. Oona confessed to not knowing her real ‘constituency’ (not meaning Bethnal Green).
She told an intriguing story of being on the streets of Gaza during a riot. She was there on a parliamentary mission and suddenly realised that she represented a prime kidnap target. Because she was a British MP, because she could be seen as black (but the wrong sort) or even white, because she had an American father, because she was Jewish. But she does not define her identity by any one of these. So she is now officially, on forms and surveys, categorised by the term ‘dual heritage’ – ‘like something you find off the A53’.
There’s a positive aspect to all this. One interesting statistic was that 3 per cent of the English population is ‘mixed race’ but 30 per cent of the English football team. If you want to be a writer not a footballer, there are examples like Zadie Smith. But great writers embrace diversity in all its aspects because they reflect the reality of the world – young/old, healthy/unhealthy, rich/poor, happy/sad.
So, as writers, we need to welcome diversity not because it’s politically correct but because it creates better writing. And, as readers, the widest possible range of books will not only keep us entertained but help us become better writers too.
John Simmons is author of 26 ways of looking at a blackberry published by A&C Black.