• The Ayesha Dean series. (Supplied )Source: Supplied
All children deserve to feel that they could be the heroine of a story.
Melati Lum

30 Apr 2019 - 9:54 AM  UPDATED 30 Apr 2019 - 2:20 PM

I remember the first time I ever felt embarrassed about my ethnicity. It was in the playground, in my first year at school. We’re talking early 1980s, Adelaide. It was a time when any non-white person stood out like a sore thumb. Two boys with mischief in their eyes came up to me chanting, “Chinese, Japanese, what are these?” You may be familiar with this little ditty. You know, the one where one’s fingers are used to slant the eyes for the first part, then one’s own nipples are pointed to for the ending?

They ran off, laughing, leaving me bewildered and confused. It was just a joke, wasn’t it? I asked myself. Should I laugh along with them?

I did laugh, just in case anyone was watching. It was the accepted thing to do. But on the inside, I was hurting. It was the first time I was strongly aware that I was different to the others.

That same year, I was also, once, the most popular girl in the playground. The reason? – “Muslim bread.” All the kids knew I was Muslim, and I’d brought flat bread in my lunchbox. Nobody else had flat bread. That’s why it was “Muslim bread,” and everybody wanted some. I don’t blame them. It was delicious.

I learned a lot that year. The main thing being, yes, I do look different on account of my Malay/Chinese ethnicity, and yes, I am different, due to being the only Muslim in my class. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t make lots of friends and ‘fit in’ somewhat.

When I was a bit older, I got into reading books. There was no such thing as Netflix or YouTube in those days. And anyway, my siblings and I were only ever allowed to watch one TV program of our collective choice, vetted by parental approval of course. So, I discovered many new worlds with books. I enjoyed imagining myself as the heroine, although, in the back of my mind I always knew that was totally unrealistic. I mean, I looked nothing like any of the main characters in the books I read. The heroines were always beautiful and white-skinned. Same went for the hero or love interest. There was rarely any reference to an Asian person, let alone a Muslim. But that was the norm. I didn’t expect to see people who looked like me reflected in books or media. We were almost invisible.

It’s only now I realise how much of an impact it had on me to not seeing people who looked like me reflected in books I loved reading.

It’s only now I realise how much of an impact it had on me to not seeing people who looked like me reflected in books I loved reading. An Asian character could only ever be a nerdy social pariah. A female Muslim could only ever be oppressed and wanting to escape her religion. If a minority character didn’t fit one of those tropes, she wasn’t worth writing about.

I don’t matter enough to be the heroine of a story. That’s the underlying message exposed to a child’s mind when the leading role is never taken by someone who looks like you.

I started writing the Ayesha Dean series for children because while the publishing world is starting to embrace diversity, there still aren’t enough books out there where the lead character is a strong, brave, compassionate, female Muslim who’s relatable to children of today. Young Ayesha Dean is best friends with fellow Australians, Sara Isa, who is of Christian Lebanese background, and Jess Walker, who sports blonde hair and blue eyes. Together, the friends travel to Istanbul, where the first novel is set, and more recently to Seville, Spain, where they encounter mysterious happenings they just must solve.

When I get feedback from both Muslim and non-Muslim children telling me they loved reading Ayesha Dean because, “it was exciting!” and they could, “relate to the characters,” I feel extraordinarily happy.

It seems to me, the next generation of readers will be exposed to a variety of different cultural experiences.  No matter what background, they’ll have a greater chance of seeing themselves reflected in the books they read. This is promising, because all children deserve to feel that they could be the heroine of a story.

Melati Lum is a criminal lawyer and author of the Ayesha Dean series. Her second book, Ayesha Dean – The Seville Secret, is available online. You can follow Melati on Twitter @MelatiLum

I created a children's book heroine who looks like me
This book is my love letter to all the little girls like me who need to see that they too can make it to the moon.