I’m not really one for multicultural novels, nor coming-of-age stories; but my syllabus this semester says otherwise. I’m taking a class called Black British Women Writers (where “black” refers to any marginalized race), and one of the novels I’ve come across is the 1996 autobiography of Meera Syal called Anita and Me. I did not have high expectations. I was blown away by how touching this book was.
Meena (the name Syal gives herself in the story) is a Pubjabi girl growing up in back-country England in the 1960s. At the time of the story, she is only nine – but Syal narrates with such wisdom and clever insight that the reader gets the best of both worlds, with amusing content and sophisticated writing. The story is as much about Tollington, the little town Meena lives in, and its colorful inhabitants as it is about the main character.
Like everyone else in the world, Meena spends her childhood feeling utterly out of her depth. She desperately wants to belong (a desire complicated by her skin color), and often finds herself tangled up in extravagant fantasies or outlandish lies. When she falls in with thirteen-year-old Anita – who wears a bra, knows how to curse, and heads a gang called the Tollington Wenches – Meena thinks she’s hit the social jackpot. But at home, there is another side of Meena, a girl who longs for the exotic India she has never visited. Her two loving parents (who completely shatter the stereotype of ‘overwrought immigrant’) go back and forth from being flummoxed at Meena’s antics, to deeply, deeply loving the little dreamer they’ve raised.
The comedic aspect of this novel is a huge part of what makes it so loveable. Meena gets into all kinds of trouble, and when the precocious little girl isn’t shaking things up in Tollington, she’s dreaming about it. Syal – both as a character and as the author – uses levity to bridge the cultural gap Meena faces by living in England. For instance, after hearing her parents sing beautiful Indian folk songs, eager Meena launches “into a rendition of ‘We Wear Short Shorts,’ complete with the gyrating dance routine I had seen Pan’s People do on Top of the Pops.”
This charming, hapless, well-intentioned character will win the hearts of any reader. Although I would say that this book is better-suited for slightly more mature readers (anything above sixteen or so should be fine), it is a delightful novel that is well-written enough to appeal to almost anybody.