As an applicant for a Creative Writing MA degree at two renowned London universities, my Pakistani nationality wasn’t an issue at any point. In fact, diversity and versatility were encouraged as valued attributes. I went through the screening process all applicants go through, which includes a submission of their portfolio to date, followed by a one-on-one interview with the course co-ordinator himself. Having been through that process at not one, but two UK universities, and having been granted admission to both, it was then the simple matter of choice. I wasn’t just proud of myself for having secured a place, but was profoundly thrilled at having had the opportunity to fulfil my life’s ambition of becoming a qualified writer. Time hurled by amidst a kaleidoscope of criticisms, workshops and tutorials. During the initial assessment, I was informed by my tutor that I could expect somewhere in the region of a C+ to a B-, and that I should be happy about that, because a B grade for me would be the same as an A for a native speaker. Although the use of the word ‘native’ did strike me as odd at the time, I was nevertheless happy about the assessment, as I was told I should be. Could I really get a B? Could I really be as adept at my skill as a native speaker? As it was, I couldn’t. The lowest grade I got was a B+, with the rest all being A grades, including for my dissertation. Well, well, what was I to do? Could I now consider my writing ability to have surpassed that of my English-speaking peers? Of course not, I couldn’t dare; but wait, isn’t that what I’d been told during my assessment? No, no, that assessment was obviously meant to help me feel better if I didn’t get good results. Not to land me on Cloud 9 if I did.

I was up for a distinction, and couldn’t wait to jump into my career as a writer! I started applying for jobs over the Internet. As it happened, I came across an ad for an internee copywriter. Perfect, I thought to myself. That’s just what I need. I skimmed the page in excitement, until a phrase jumped out and held me paralysed for a few insignificant ticks of the clock. It was a phrase I hadn’t expected to come across in my wildest dreams. In retrospect, that was my naivety, for I was to come across it quite frequently during the next few weeks of my job search: Only native speakers may apply!

Do you see what I was up against? I mean, I could gain a distinction, my thesis could be recommended for publication by my tutors, I could graduate top of my class, but heck, I couldn’t become a native speaker, not in this life, at least. I wasn’t up against my skill and my craft; I wasn’t even up against my nationality (as if that makes it any better). I was up against my ethnicity, the very ethnicity that had given me a voice in the first place. 

So this is what racism feels like? It was a new feeling for me, having heard about it, read about it, but never having experienced it till then. In fact, I was the one standing up for the British traits of fairness and integrity, and telling friends and family that people who experience racism probably don’t make any efforts to fit in. Well, those ads were about to open me up to a different dimension to Englishness.

One of the ads was decent enough to demand some sort of a standard even for native writers: ‘This is a job for native English writers, and good ones at that.’ At least Englishness isn’t the only thing that’ll land you this job. Whew, what a relief! Another one, however, was quite precise about its need to preserve the English language by not letting it into the hands of aliens: ‘You have to be native English – please don’t apply if you are not, even if you think that you can write to a native standard.’ Well, considering that many of my English peers couldn’t tell their ‘it’s’ from their ‘its’, I applaud this company for their apt selection criteria. Some ads out rightly asked: ‘Are you a native English speaker?’ while others were kind enough to point out that ‘Natives will be preferred but this is no hindrance for genuinely skilful writers.’ I’ll tell you, it’s definitely a hindrance for me. First you tell me that my ethnic origin is somehow of relevance to my writing ability, and then you bring skill into the equation? Somewhat of a paradox, at least to my non-native mind.

Racism aside, this, for me, stank of utter and complete Imperialism. Do those drafting the ads honestly feel that there aren’t any English-language writers who, if not better at English than well, the English, would at least come up to the native standard? The British may not need to learn a new language when they go to a different country, but believe it or not, those countries have people who speak English for a reason, especially if they were previous colonies of the Raj. That reason is the pull of the English language and the status of authority accorded it ever since the colonies were first occupied. There’s nothing absurd in that argument, since the English language itself borrowed heavily from its French rulers.

Reality is that private schooling in a country like Pakistan not only surpasses state schooling anywhere in the world, but is compatible with all other private schools, even those in Great Britain. So to those like me, having received the highest standards of education in English, the whole native-or-otherwise debate appears to be quite presumptuous.

To those of you who think I’m over sensitising a meaningless scenario, let me ask a simple question. If you were to apply for a job as a makeup artist, based on a skill you knew you possessed, and instead of being judged on that skill, you were to be judged on a completely unrelated, insignificant attribute that you had no control over, like beauty, for instance, would you call that ridiculous or not?

I understand the need to have perfect grammar and punctuation to land a writing job. But who says native writers don’t need their work to be checked for errors? Every industry that’s involved with writing, be it publishing, literary agencies, newspapers or magazines, all have editors. Yes, believe me, even native writers need their work to be edited, and at times re-edited, to make it error-free. However, going by these ads, the same editing licence can’t be granted to non-natives.

A writer is a writer; either he has it or he doesn’t. If I were to recruit a writer, the first, and probably only, thing I’ll ask for is a sample of their writing. If that fits the bill, heck you’ve got the job, be you from Cameroon or Togo! And as a writer, that’s the only bar I wish to be held up against. Ask me for a piece of my work relevant to the job you’re offering me, then judge that on pure merit, skill, spelling, grammar or whatever else you’re looking for in a writer; unless your agenda isn’t recruiting but racial profiling.


About MariemAsif

A worshipper of words. Have a distinction in MA Creative and Professional Writing from Brunel University, London. Working on my novel.

Posted on December 8, 2011, in ethnic communities, native writers, Pakistan, Racism, racism, writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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