I believed readers only wanted trauma stories from writers of colour. Then I became an author

I can’t pinpoint exactly when I started imagining myself in the stories I read but I know it was at a young age. Some of the first books I really connected with were Sweet Valley Twins, a US series about blond, blue-eyed twin sisters who lived a very middle-class white life I could barely picture. I knew on some level that I wouldn’t exist in their community, where there was no suggestion of cultural diversity. But I wanted to, so in my daydreams about the twins and their world I added an Indian girl to their friendship group.

Even as a child I knew that the onus was on me to stretch my imagination to include myself; it was not on the writers to incorporate diversity in their stories in the first place.

As I grew older I started seeing more diversity in literature. Suddenly, Indian authors both in the diaspora and within the nation were attracting huge attention: I devoured Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, a huge hit in 2000, was another favourite. But even as I revelled in reading about characters who at least looked like me, I was aware that these stories were all exploring trauma, and the difficulties linked with the characters’ cultural identities.

I was reading about diverse characters but still not reading a diversity of stories, which puzzled me for a long time. Why was it that white characters I read about could traverse genres – lighthearted, serious, sad, funny, romantic, historical – but when a book was about racial minorities, especially those set in western countries, they were mostly about trauma: trauma of racism, of displacement and of cultural conflict?

As I started to write my own books, I internalised this as an indisputable fact: readers were only interested in the experiences of people like me if we were traumatised, not triumphant. Diverse characters were only interesting when they overcame adversity; diversity must be fundamental to the plot to be justified.

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Writers of colour were troubling this narrative, stories that explored the complexity of our experiences were being published – but what cut through to a mainstream audience were stories that hinged on difference. Like Saroo Brierley’s memoir Lion, which tells the story of his birth into poverty in India, his adoption in Australia and eventual reunion with his birth mother. Or even The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota, which follows young Indian migrants trying to forge a life in the UK, despite racism, misogyny and poverty dogging their steps. These narratives are seeped in difference from the status quo in the countries where they reached massive audiences. But they were so far removed from the mundanity of my life.

Is it so unimaginable to white readers that characters of colour could have lives similar to theirs, I wondered. I wanted to read about diverse characters simply existing in the world, where their cultural background was just one part of their identities. When sitting down to write, I found myself searching for a story interesting enough to engage a white audience. To be successful, I assumed, I needed the majority to love my work – and why would they read about diverse characters without something salacious or shocking to lure them in?

Then I read Laurinda by Alice Pung and saw the complexity I was yearning for. Pung’s characters are dealing with the struggles so many migrant families have when trying to carve out a foothold in a new country but they are not defined by that experience. They have depth and that felt true to many culturally diverse Australians I knew.

Laurinda was also a huge success. There was a way, I realised, to tell our stories with hope, humour and strength to match the trauma and challenges. I sought out more of Pung’s work. I found Kavita Bedford’s Friends and Dark Shapes, which follows a young woman of Indian heritage coming of age in a Sydney share house, trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life while grieving for her father. It is a story about growing up, loss and falling in love with a city; the narrator’s heritage is just one part of her. It was what I had been searching for – the ordinary life of a person of colour.

The stories we read often become the stories we tell ourselves. I don’t think it is due to a conscious lack of interest that many white readers don’t come across diverse narratives with the frequency I do. Rather, when there are so many authors writing for white audiences, it follows that exposure to other stories is just less likely. For so long I told myself that I needed to lean into salacious extremes to make minority characters interesting to the majority. But I am heartened by the writers of colour who are not doing that. And I no longer have to imagine myself in the books I read.

  • Zoya Patel’s novel Once a Stranger is published by Hachette Australia ($32.99)