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Review: Seventy years of struggle & achievement – Life stories of ethnic minority women living in Wales

02 Jan 2022 6 minute read
Seventy years of struggle and achievement: Life stories of ethnic minority women living in Wales edited by Edited & Selected by Meena Upadhyaya, Kirsten Lavine & Chris Weedon

Katherine Cleaver

“Seventy Years of Struggle and Achievement: Life Stories of Ethnic Minority Women Living in Wales” is a satisfyingly large, heavy book with the portrait of a striking and strong woman staring at you from the cover. It says, quite clearly, that this is a book that will change the way you see the world.

Each story is a true story, a reflection on the life of a woman who has changed the world. Women that you may never have heard of but who you ought to know. The book is a selection of memoirs that give voice to the voiceless, shows what self-belief can do, how to inspire and how to create your own path. They are a group of women who have defied the odds and created a future.

Each of the forty stories is written in a strong female voice, no voice is identical, but each story hangs together because each has fought to get where she is.

The idea for the book was born from a lack of Asian women at the Welsh Woman of the Year Award, and in 2010 the Welsh Asian Woman of the Year award was launched. From that original ceremony Prof. Meena Upadhayaya expanded the project to include all ethnic women which resulted in the Ethnic Minority Welsh Women Achievement Organisation.

The forty stories in book are the forty finalists who have been shortlisted for those awards, woman who have overcome barriers including racism, language and cultural issues. Wales is a multicultural society, but these stories are an insight into the trials some of them have faced within it.

Everybody is important

Hilary Brown states that everybody is important. She tells her story in a matter-of-fact voice that shows no bitterness. She simply states that her mother would destroy all cultural heritage brought into the house and how the Catholic school in which she was enrolled set low expectations for her because of the colour of her skin.

She does not dwell on the harshness of such judgments but just simply states the facts, such as her mother throwing her out when she tried to contact her father, before moving to Tiger Bay, becoming pregnant at seventeen and describing the poverty in which the family found themselves. Instead, she focuses on the love of her family and being a mother.

After her last child was born Hilary went back to college to do a Sociology course and volunteered in and around Barry, which led to a job with the Citizens’ Advice Bureau. She specialised in immigration law, which was recognised, and other organisations started to send her work.

She speaks plainly about the racism within the law and how she eventually set up her own business. She has become an advocate for those who had suffered in the Windrush scandal. For me this story has stood out as someone who not only overcame her own obstacles but who takes pride in helping others.

She states at the end of the piece that she never wants anyone to feel they are alone and unable to reach out. That everybody is important.

Inspiration & struggle

Meena Upadhyaya was born in India with five siblings. She went to a boarding school and then onto university where she had an arranged marriage. Meena’s voice is strong and assertive. She doesn’t dwell on the negative but mentions, rather, how her life led in a different direction upon arriving in Edinburgh.

She sensitively bridges the differences between Indian and Western culture by writing how she was not given permission from her husband to work but was allowed to study for an MSc. After the MSc and the birth of her daughter, Meena moved to Cardiff, following her husband’s career.

She began her PhD in Cardiff, and in her writing, you can feel the happiness that the small family experienced. Then Meena’s husband unexpectedly died. She explains in the memoir how it devastated both her and her daughter, completely changing their lives forever.

Meena decided to stay in the UK and finish her studies. She then began to change the world; she threw herself into her work in order to escape the grief of losing her husband. She downplays her achievements and, in her writing, makes them appear normal, but you can’t help but realise that she was able to impact all our lives, both through her genetic research and how she supports ethnic minority women. Her story is one of inspiration and struggle.

Meena acknowledges that her life has been a twice as hard due to her status as an immigrant, as well as language and cultural barriers. She has faced gender and racial discrimination but thinks that integration is the key. That she is a Welsh Indian and as such can be seen as a role model for both the ethnic and Welsh community. Her last words are to never give up.

These two stories are just two of many. If you are looking for a book to inspire, then look no further. The book has stunning photographs so not only are you reading the words from each woman, but you can also see them and accept their stories into your life.

Seventy Years of Struggle and Achievement has made it into my small library, and I know it will be one I pick up and read over and over. Especially when the days are a little darker than they ought to be.

Whether you are young and starting out in your career, in the middle or toward the end, this is a book that will make you want to push a little harder and reach just that little bit further.

Seventy years of struggle and achievement: Life stories of ethnic minority women living in Wales is published by Parthian and can be purchased from your local bookshop

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