Electric, authentic tales of Asian life;Children's books

22nd May 1998 at 01:00
FATTY RATI. By Angela Jariwala. PARDESI. By Angela Jariwala. ASIAN TRIANGLE. By Sailesh Ramakrishnan. Mantra Biljee. pound;5.50 each

SORRELLE. By Millie Murray. Women's Press Livewire. pound;4.99

Young British Asians have found a literature of their own and everyone else should try it, argues Rifat Malik.

Bijlee is the Hindi word for electricity, and an apt name for an eclectic series from the South Asian specialists, Mantra. The series allows mainly Asian writers to explore, celebrate and de-mystify British Asian teenagedom. For a 20-something-year-old like myself, weaned on a surreal combination of Jackie and Jane Austen, this sounds a somewhat post-millennial notion.

These books are all the rage among bright Asian 14-year-olds, and should be in every school library. Although they are not all "high literature", these minority voices should be brought to the attention of readers of mainstream teenage fiction for their authentic, insightful and intelligent exploration of the race theme - in all its permutations - and their accessible and streetwise writing.

These qualities are all evident in Fatty Rati, Angela Jariwala's story of a likeable but insecure 16-year-old, who is convinced that her weight is responsible for all life's miseries, including poor exam results and lack of friends (particularly boyfriends).

But Rati is the victim of double-barrelled prejudice - fattism and racism. Doing A-levels at college, she is spoilt for choice between the insults of the "junior BNP Wallahs" and the internecine bigotry of the Asian trendies' "innit" posse. Spurred on by the comically prosaic maxim that "slim girls always manage to land on their feet somehow" and by unrequited infatuation for a fellow student, Rati decides to shed her excess mounds. The result is a cautionary descent from obsession to eating disorder.

Jariwala over-states the comic touches but shows she is adept at delving into the teenage female psyche, something that also shines through in her first novel in the Biljee series. Pardesi (Foreigner) is a raw but polished account of a young girl's search for emotional and physical security after she is cut off from her family and friends.

Having been discovered in a compromising position with a boyfriend, she is at the mercy of his less-than-sympathetic relatives. Her feelings of isolation and frustration at her community's individual and communal hypocrisy is well conveyed, as is her journey to independence.

Jariwala's writing is involved, energetic and linguistically frenetic, slipping back and forth from English to Hindi (there is a glossary for the uninitiated) while maintaining its colloquial cred. However, both books suffer from laissez-faire proofing and editing.

A slicker, though more light-hearted, story can be found in Sailesh Ramakrishnan's Asian Triangle, in which a hapless but hungry young Asian hack unravels the mysterious link between a series of suspicious deaths, an unidentifiable deadly virus and the cut-throat technological race for advanced virtual reality computer games. An enjoyable caper that indulges in male wish-fulfilment as our intrepid reporter dodges bullets to save the day and get the scoop - and the girl. Woodward and Bernstein eat your hearts out.

Asianblack prejudice is interestingly explored in Millie Murray's Sorrelle, a sort of junior Mississippi Masala-cum-Romeo and Juliet in which African-Caribbean Sorelle embarks on a relationship with Arun, a Ugandan Asian boy.

This is an intelligent novel with a sedate pace. It is written very much from a black perspective, while trying to display an understanding of Asian culture. Murray's message, that infighting among minority communities only gives succour to the real oppressors, will strike a chord, but it is slightly undermined by the book's largely unsympathetic and stereotyped characterisation of Asians.

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