by LAUREN CODLING
AN award-winning novelist has emphasised his passion in helping to increase the representation of South Asians in fiction, as the second book in his highly anticipated fantasy series released last month.
Taran Matharu is the author behind the hugely successful series The Summoner, an epic fantasy trilogy. Since its initial release, the book has been published in 15 territories and has been named as a New York Times bestseller. Last June, Matharu launched his second epic fantasy series – Contender. Described as a mix between The Hunger Games and Jurassic Park, the second book in the trilogy was released last month.
The release of the Contender series was extra exciting for Matharu, as he focused on a South Asian protagonist called Cade. In his previous published work, his main character was white. The 29-year-old admitted this was a deliberate move as he knew “it was very hard to get a book published which didn’t have a white protagonist.”
Nowadays, he believes publishers actively seek diversity so he felt comfortable in creating a main character of ethnic origin. It was a big moment for Matharu, who admitted he could not recall any South Asian characters in the books he read as a child. “When I grew up, the only South Asian character I ever read was in (Yann Martel’s 2001 novel) Life of Pi,” he told Eastern Eye. “So, I wanted to help give South Asian kids across the UK, and indeed, the world, a book with a hero that looked like them.”
He added: “It was really nice to put some of my culture and my upbringing into a character because it almost felt like it was something I’d been resistant to do for a while.”
Although he wrote as a child, Matharu’s professional writing journey began at the age of 22. He began submitting chapters of The Summoner series on Wattpad – a writing platform which aims to publish new-user generated stories. The narrative followed teen Fletcher, who can summon demons from another world. He later travels to the magical Adept Military Academy to be trained in the art of summoning.
Sharing samples of his fantasy series on the platform in 2013, Matharu initially only had limited feedback from other users. In the first few weeks, he only had one regular reader – an individual from Indonesia – who would leave a review of each chapter.
“(His feedback) and the fact that somebody was enjoying it was enough to keep me going to be honest,” Matharu said. As he was writing the book, Matharu travelled to Australia for a backpacking holiday. As he was travelling in “some pretty remote locations”, he admitted the internet connection meant he was unable to access it as often as he would have liked. Even so, he managed to upload one chapter a week.
It was only when Matharu returned to the UK that he realised how The Summoner series had exploded in popularity. In less than four months, it had had one million reads. In five months, it had reached two million.
“It really began taking off and I realised I needed to start taking things a bit more seriously,” the author recalled, adding that he was soon contacted by journalists who were interested in the book’s sudden popularity. Wattpad also asked if they could feature The Summoner on their homepage – an unusual move, as typically they only publicise finished novels.
“That was an interesting big step for me,” the London-based author remarked.
Describing The Summoner series as a mix between Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Pokemon, Matharu attributes their popularity to a love of nostalgia. “When I look back to the early 2000s, I think all the kind of things that made those popular books, films, TV shows and video games popular are encapsulated in The Summoner series – this idea of a fantastical world, a magical school and multiple fantasy races,” he explained.
Asked where his interest in the fantasy genre came from, Matharu attributed it to his time at school. Besides his brother, he was the lone South Asian boy at his school and faced racial bullying. The experiences drew him to question where racism came from. In the fantasy books he read, Matharu began to see the conflicts between fantasy races as a metaphor for conflicts in reality. However, occasionally, he would read fantasy where this conflict did not exist.
“I always found that strange because I felt if a mild of difference in skin tone or culture or religion can cause such a horrific conflict in our world, why in a fantasy world where you’re literally a different race, do people seem to live harmoniously?” he said. “The way I see it is that fantasy books are often a mirror that you hold up to reality through metaphor and I thought that those kinds of books were quite a warped mirror.”
When growing up, Matharu said he sometimes struggled to feel connected to certain fiction and films due to a lack of representation and diversity. He believes young people should have role models to look up to – in entertainment, and reality.
“If you never see yourself represented, it almost feels like you’re a visitor in that space,” he explained. “I think young people seek out role models, and while often it is with their parents or their teachers or celebrities, I also think people seek them out in fiction. And I think people are drawn to people with similar backgrounds, similar appearances, and similar gender. I think having that diversity is really important.”
Contender: The Challenger by Taran Matharu is out