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Cia Mangat started Zindabad Zine to honour and elevate the work of young writers from diaspora cultures. For South Asian Heritage Month, she shares how books helped her negotiate her identity as a South Asian girl growing up in the UK.
Growing up, I was lucky enough to live near a library with a well-stocked children’s section - I miss spending Saturday afternoons slowly scanning the shelves for the books I wanted, turning over their plasticky covers in my hands to read their blurbs, and handing the stack to my mum to scan for me, since I wasn’t yet tall enough to peer over the librarian’s desk myself.
Much like Nimesh in Lantana’s Nimesh the Adventurer, I loved how reading meant I could teleport from the 207 bus route home to a jungle, or a pirate ship, or a maharaja’s dinner table, and be back by the time my mum tugged my hand as we reached our stop.
Reading meant escaping to a pure fantasy world for me, sometimes one that aligned with a white girlhood that I knew I could only ever observe from afar in real life. I remember spending hours immersed in the world of the Rainbow Magic series, following the adventures of blonde fairy friends with alliterative names like ‘Ruby the Red Fairy’.
Like any other kid in the later 2000s I too made my way through dozens of Jacqueline Wilsons and yet never spotted a main character that looked like me. Still, I pictured myself one day with cropped hair, dozens of rings on my fingers and a stack of bestselling books to my name. When we wrote stories in English lessons, my characters always had white names and European features, too.
I think reading became properly meaningful to me, though, when I realised that, if I looked hard enough, I could find books where the characters’ worlds resembled my own, rather than purely serving as a fantastical escape from my brownness.
Discovering Narinder Dhami’s Bindi Babes in my library was nothing short of life-changing for me: the series follows three Punjabi girls growing up in Britain and the interfering Auntie who moves in with them. I loved how Amber, Geena and Jazz weren’t just presented as nerdy, submissive Indian characters - they were the coolest girls in school, yet Narinder Dhami emphasised their own emotional depth.
Bindi Babes helped me to articulate the feeling of being Indian, but not in the same way that my cousins back in Chandigarh were - there were plenty of characters in there with recognisably Indian names, but identities that extended beyond their brownness without erasing it. Being a member of a diaspora means that your identities overlap and create new, unique ones.
From Nimesh the Adventurer written by Ranjit Singh and illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini, Lantana Publishing 2018
I’m too old for the kids section at my library now, but books, reading and writing are still very much a huge aspect of my life. As a teenager, I graduated to the poetry section on the other side of the library and discovered even more poets with backgrounds like - and unlike! - mine.
Now, I study English at uni. During my first year, I decided to start Zindabad Zine, a magazine showcasing the poetry, essays, and art of people around the world who identify with ‘diaspora’, like me.
Zindabad Zine issue 001 (left) and issue 002 (right), which is releasing on the 20th of August
Since I’ve published the first issue, themed ‘diaspora???’, I’ve been lucky enough to receive dozens of messages from both writers and contributors about the joys of seeing a space for diaspora experiences in particular. Although the diasporas Zindabad platforms are so diverse that they may seem totally unrelated to one another - issue 001 included pieces from diasporas all across Asia, Africa and Europe - I believe that we do all have things in common, and that there are valuable things we can learn from listening to one another.
Come to think of it, maybe my excitement at seeing the character of the Auntie I was so familiar with represented in Bindi Babes explains why I chose the theme ‘Aunty Issues!’ for the second issue of Zindabad, which will be releasing on the 20th of August.
Check out the wonderful adventures of Nimesh the Adventurer below!
Nimesh is walking home from school. Except…there happens to be a shark in the corridor. And a dragon in the library! And why would crossing the road lead to the North Pole? A fun-filled story about a little boy with a BIG imagination.
Derby Children's Picture Book Award 2019 shortlist
'The perfect picture book example of how to celebrate inclusion in modern Britain' – The Independent
Cia is a student from London, currently studying English at the University of Oxford. She is a Foyle Young Poet, Barbican Young Poets alum, and editor of Zindabad Zine, a magazine showcasing the art and writing of people who identify with ‘diaspora’.