The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Bali Rai

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Bali Rai

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Summary: Killing Honour is an honest and hard-hitting look at a controversial issue by one of Bookbag's most trusted teen authors. We were delighted to interview Bali Rai.
Date: 25 May 2011
Interviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy

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Killing Honour is an honest and hard-hitting look at a controversial issue by one of Bookbag's most trusted teen authors. We were delighted to interview Bali Rai.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

Bali Rai: I see young adults who want to be challenged and entertained by what they read. They're not a particular race or sex – just regular teens, some of whom have been put off reading in the past. I also see adults – those who understand that fiction about younger people is often as entertaining as the stuff in the adult market. My readers cover a wide age-range.

  • BB: What inspired you to write Killing Honour?

BR: The story was inspired by the concept of 'honour' and how it affects women in the UK and further afield. What drives honour-based violence and murder? There have been a few instances of this issue in my extended family too – which also prompted me to write. I was quite angry as I wrote it and many real life cases influenced what I wrote.

  • BB: Why did you choose to write about killing honour rather than about an honour killing?

BR: It's about the very concept of honour. We know that honour-based abuse and killings occur but often don't understand the reasons why. I wanted to explore those reasons. I wanted to show where these ideas/actions come from and how they can affect families. Outsiders often blame religion but I've always known it's a cultural phenomenon – one that exists in certain sections of the community I come from. To excuse abuse or murder using the concept of 'honour' has always seemed odd to me. Where is the honour in beating your wife or sister just because they choose to live by a different moral code? To me that's dishonourable and I chose to write the novel because of that belief.

  • BB: We thought Sat was a very courageous character - never giving up in his search for what happened to his sister, despite threats of violence from one side and family disapproval on the other. Is he based on anyone you know?

BR: Sat is a strange one. His happy-go-lucky attitude at the beginning could be based on any similar British teenage boy. Once the story really kicks in however, he changes. His thoughts from this point are basically mine. I put myself in his shoes, at his age, and thought about what I would do in his place. I've faced plenty of disapproval from sections of my family over the years, so that wasn't too hard to portray. His reaction to the threats of violence was based on his own personality. When I developed him, I knew that he would stand up, despite being scared. His love for his sister, and his desire to protect her, even after she had vanished, would see to that. I am obsessive about my characters and letting them decide the course of action in a story based on their personae. Sat is just another example of that.

  • BB: You emphasise some of the ways in which Sat's father and brother are not "good Sikhs" - they eat meat, smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol. And yet they are completely rigid when it comes to the concept of family honour. Do you find this hypocritical?

BR: Absolutely. It’s something that I've also explored in (un)arranged marriage, Rani & Sukh and The Last Taboo. Again, there are many examples of such hypocrisy in my own extended family and I've always reacted against it. Many British Punjabis excuse their actions using the Sikh religion, yet most have no understanding of what that religion teaches. There's no forced marriage or honour-based violence advocated by Sikhism. Those things are cultural and extend across religious or state boundaries. I guess it's one of the common factors that drive me to write certain stories.

  • BB: Is Britain truly multicultural?

BR: Physically – yes, although a lot of people overstate how many non-white Britons actually live here. However too many Britons don't really understand the concept or perhaps many over-analyse it. As a product of multicultural Britain, I didn't even think about it as a youngster. My circle of friends, whatever colour we were, had no choice. We just got on with it. We didn't write sociological papers about multiculturalism or give lectures on it – and this is perhaps where that over-analysis comes in.

The second issue is about integration and what the concept should mean (in my opinion). Successful integration of new communities is always the goal in this country but we don't ever get it right. We don't encourage participation in modern British life, and the existence of honour-based violence and forced marriage prove that. People who move here should be given a clear set of guidelines about what is and isn't acceptable. Non-English speakers should be encouraged to learn the language and given the opportunities to do so. And above all, for the 'honour' problem – the rights of women MUST be protected and override any concept of cultural or religious sensitivity. We have laws in the UK and anyone who comes to live here must abide by them, regardless of their race, religion, culture etc.

For me we've got the practice of multiculturalism wrong – or our leaders have. They preach that we're all different first and have a few things like being British that bind us together. For me, it's always been the other way round. We're British first and then we have differences and you can be what you like in the UK, as long as you respect our laws. It's a small but vital difference in approach in my opinion.

  • BB: What makes you write for teenagers rather than adults?

BR: I don't even think about the difference if I'm being honest. I wouldn't even say that I write for teenagers. I write about them, which, for me, is different. I enjoy my characters being on the cusp of adulthood and everything that brings (or doesn't). I also feel strongly that there is still not enough writing about real British teens that talks to them honestly. I write the books me and my mates would have read, given the chance. We were constantly annoyed at not being represented in fiction. Nowadays, although things are better, that lack of representation still holds. If you're from an ethnic minority or the white working class, you're still not really in the books – not the ones that sell anyway. It still feels as though it's normal to write about middle class youngsters but an 'issue' when you tackle the rest. That's something that I don't like. To encourage reluctant readers, most of whom aren't middle class, we have to represent them too. This is where issues surrounding bad language etc come in. My teen characters are real – warts and all – and I feel that can sometimes hold my work back. It doesn't stop me from writing though!

  • BB: What would you say to a teenager hoping to become a writer some day?

BR: I would say that practice makes perfect is one of those clichéd adages which really hold true. To become a writer you must work at it. I've met so many would-be writers who say they can't find the time to start their story. Those people probably won't achieve their goals. You have to just get on with it. You should also read as much as you can. For me, a great writer is also a great reader – you can't have one without the other. You will need a thick skin and a realistic outlook too. Research the business of publishing, look at what is being published, read/watch author interviews and try and find your own voice. You'll never be the next J K Rowling and that's not a bad thing – you should want to be the next 'you'. Get in touch with agents if you have something you feel happy with and don't stop at the first hurdle. And, most importantly, have fun.

  • BB: What would be your desert island book?

BR: That is such a difficult choice. I have so many favourite books that people have stopped asking me that question because I take so long to answer! For today, it would be 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – a book that continues to astound me, despite my having read it numerous times. It's so rich and vibrant that I would happily read it again and again.

  • BB: What's next for Bali Rai?

BR: I'm taking a detour away from reality-based British stories and into the realm of horror. The idea is to take a classic Western plot and set it in a dystopian Britain that is run by neo-Nazis and demons. Add the feel/atmosphere of manga and graphic novels and you're nearly there! It's completely different to most of my writing and I'm having a lot of fun with it. After that – who knows?

  • BB: Ooh! Dystopian fiction is right up our alley. We can't wait to read it! Thanks so much for the interview, Bali.

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