We are delighted to introduce author Savita Kalhan who discusses her new and intensely thought-provoking novel, That Asian Kid. Part gripping thriller, part ethical dilemma it's an utterly absorbing view into power, control and contemporary teenage life. Here Savita talks about her influences both as a reader and as a writer.
Growing up as an Asian girl in High Wycombe in the sixties was challenging. My family was poor, my parents were very strict and traditional, and my mother was completely illiterate – in her own language as well as English as she never had the chance to go to school when she was growing up. We couldn’t afford to buy books, but for my parents education was synonymous with books and reading, so they made every effort to take me and my siblings to the library once a week. Education was the key to achieving success and financial security; it was also the key to overcoming prejudice and racism.
Very quickly, the library became our safe place, our haven. It was where we discovered the many worlds and possibilities outside of the four walls of our home and the strictures and pre-conceptions of Asian children in our schools. We couldn’t change our colour or our background, but we assimilated as fast as possible because not to do so would have consequences. We tried to make ourselves as English as possible.
I read voraciously – my first and abiding love was fantasy. The Narnia books and The Hobbit will always hold a special place in my heart. But I read every book I could lay my hands on in the children's library. In all that time, I never read a story by an Asian author, and I never came across an Asian character. Because there were none. So I never thought I could ever be a writer. How I ended up becoming a writer is another story. But my experiences have inevitably informed what I write, both with The Girl in the Broken Mirror and That Asian Kid.
The Girl in the Broken Mirror explores the themes of identity, culture clash and the patriarchy that exists in Asian communities, where girls are often treated as subservient second class citizens. Through the main character, Jay, the book also deals with the trauma of rape, the feelings of shame and being at fault in some way, and also the long journey to recovery. I wanted to provoke discussions in classrooms about respect, boundaries and consent, which, judging by the horrific figures collated by the NSPCC, both girls and boys need to talk about in a safe environment. The book is not graphic and it is sensitively told because I wanted it to be accessible to teenagers. I am always mindful of who I am writing for, but I strive to be honest.
That Asian Kid is a very different story. It’s the story of Jeevan, a fifteen year old boy growing up in Britain today. He is third generation Indian. His parents and grandparents would have gone through much the same experiences as my parents and me. He’s got great friends, enjoys school, but he is a bit of a smart-aleck, which gets him into trouble with one particular teacher.
He is walking home from school, taking the shortcut through the woods, when he sees two teachers. He ducks and hides when he sees that it’s his favourite teacher and his least favourite teacher, the one he feels has been unfairly marking him down. They’re talking about him, so without pausing to think, he presses record on his phone. And then the teachers get it on, and the camera is still recording.
Jeevan now has a radio-active video on his phone that feels like a ticking time-bomb. He’s caught in a moral dilemma. As tempted as he is to upload the video on social media, Jeevan knows that it would be wrong to do so. He knows that two wrongs don’t make a right. But as the situation between him and his teacher escalates and with expulsion looming on the horizon, Jeevan’s struggle to do the right thing becomes compromised when matters get taken out of his hands.
Ultimately, That Asian Kid is about one boy’s struggle against the abuse of power by a figure in authority – hard enough for an adult to deal with, much harder when you’re a kid.