Jacqueline Woodson’s beautiful If You Come Softly, the novel we have been reading together here at 3 Sisters Village this October, is a modern day interpretation of Shakespeare’s most famous play, a romance between an African American Romeo and a white Jewish Juliet. Simultaneously, it is an exploration of race and racism in modern day U.S. society. (see previous posts here and here for further discussion of issues of race and representation in the novel)
At first glance, this set up -- of Black and White ‘star crossed lovers’ -- suggests a country whose racial profile is necessarily one of fixed, distinct categories. People who are Black or White, this or that. Yet, as a country whose very President is multi- and not mono-ethnic, modern day America is increasingly a place of multiple ethnic heritages rather than singular ones.
In Woodson’s novel, it is the character of Carlton, Jeremiah’s Mercutio, who represents multi-ethnic identity. Carlton’s mother is white and father is Black, and he is the one to whom Jeremiah turns when he realizes he is falling in love with Ellie. Carlton is, in a sense, the moral touchstone to Jeremiah and Ellie’s romance, who realizes that interracial relationships “happen” and “ain’t the worst thing in the world.” (89) And although he’s a minor character, without him, the novel would suffer from a sense of racial anachronism. Carlton’s presence reminds the reader that multi-ethnic families and multi-ethnic characters are a reality in our vibrant society. And while couples like Jeremiah and Ellie may still face racist challenges from family, friends, and even strangers, they are no longer a complete anomaly in our ever-shrinking world.
And now that I’ve been looking around, I’m realizing that multi-ethnic characters are popping up everywhere in children’s and YA literature. So I thought that I would suggest a few other titles with multi-ethnic characters and call out to you, the readers, to share with us some of your favorites.
In Veera Hiranandani’s The Whole Story of Half a Girl, the primary character is Sonia Nadhamuni, a half Indian and half Jewish American girl. As the title suggests, this novel deals with multi-ethnic identity in a fairly explicit way.
Yet, in other YA novels, such as The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin, characters simply ‘happen to be’ multi-ethnic, such as Mara, who also has an Indian American mother and a white father.
And then there’s the fantastic middle grade novels of Lisa Yee, like Bobby vs. Girls, (accidentally) novels about the fantastic character Bobby Ellis-Chan – a character with a Chinese American mother and white (ex-football player!) father.
Or how about debut novelist Mike Jung, whose Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities includes characters such as Polly Winnicott-Lee, a girl with multiple identities in more ways than one (she’s a secret superhero and multi-ethnic!).
Then there’s Tofu and T. Rex by Greg Leitich Smith, the story of militant vegan Frederika Mulchison-Kowalski, and her travails with her Japanese-Polish-German-American (and carnivorous) cousin Hans Peter.
I’m sure there are many more such books with multi-ethnic characters, and I would love to hear about some of your favorites. I suppose the other questions left to ask are: are these books including multi-ethnic identity in a meaningful way? Are the various cultural heritages of these characters adequately represented? Or are such characters stripped of their rich ethnic particularity – in other words, are the novels simply giving a nod to inclusion/multiculturalism without a real acknowledgement of the rich joys and complexities of being multi-ethnic? Alternately, is multiple ethnic identity dealt with as too much of a ‘problem’?
Novels – particularly novels written for children and young adults – are a part of how we as individual readers and we as members of a society understand our present selves and imagine our future worlds. Multi-ethnic characters are a critical part of this present and future, and I’m delighted to see them coming to life in such vibrant children’s and YA novels.
Sayantani DasGupta is a physican and writer, originally trained in pediatrics and public health, currently a faculty member in the master’s program in narrative medicine at Columbia University and the graduate program in Health Advocacy at Sarah Lawrence College. She teaches courses on illness and disability memoir, and narrative, health and social justice. Sayantani’s scholarly work in the field of feminist health science studies, most recently looking at transnational surrogacy, what’s been called the Indian ‘wombs for rent’ phenomenon. She is a widely published and nationally recognized speaker on issues of narrative, health care, race, gender and medical education. She is the co-author of The Demon Slayers and Other Stories: Bengali Folktales, the author of a memoir about her education at Johns Hopkins, and the co-editor of an award winning collection of women’s illness narratives Stories of Illness and Healing: Women Write their Bodies.
"Thing about white people," his father was saying,"...they don't know they're white. They know what everybody else is, but they don't know they're white." He shook his head and checked in his rear view mirror."It's strange."
..."You don't think there's one white person in this world, Daddy," Miah said now, "somewhere--who's different? Who gets up in the morning, looks in the mirror and says, 'I'm white so what am I gonna do with this--how am I going to use it to change the world?'"
In the meantime, since writing a rather detailed critique of New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof’s Half the Sky at Racialicious.com I’ve been thinking about how race is handled in other settings. Primarily, I’ve been thinking about the notion of the ‘bridge character’ or the responsibility of a multicultural story to build a ‘bridge’ for outsiders.
You see, in answer to a critique of his reporting style, which sometimes features white outsiders going to ‘help’ in Asian or African countries, Kristof answered in this youtube video that this choice was purposeful. Although it might play into stereotypes of “black Africans as victims” and “white foreigners as their saviors,” Kristof suggested that “One way to get people to read…is to have some sort of American they can identify with as a bridge character.”
Which of course begs the questions – who are the people we want to be doing this reading? And why do they need a ‘bridge’ into a compelling story – simply because it’s about non-Americans or people of color? (And don’t immigrants, and people of color in general, always have to do such ‘bridge-making’ in their day to day lives anyway?)
So I guess what I want to grapple with here is if literature bears a similar burden. Do ‘bridges’ need to be made between readers and stories about characters that aren’t from their countries or cultural backgrounds?
In Woodson’s If You Come Softly, one can imagine the ‘bridge’ between the story and the reader might be the Shakespearean play itself. That perhaps it is ‘easier’ for some readers to enter this (potentially frightening/inspiring of defensiveness) story about racism and police brutality because the overall plot – about star-crossed lovers – is one that is so culturally familiar. In addition, both of her characters aren’t of color, one is white and Jewish and one is African American. Their very romance is an act of bridge-building as it were, between two seemingly disparate experiences and worlds. In this way, Woodson’s novel potentially parallels the experiences of readers into her story.
Yet, much of Woodson’s work does not do this. Locomotion, After Tupac and D Foster, or even her stunning picture book Show Way, based on Woodson’s own family history of enslavement, are wonderful pieces of literature simply because they are so unapologetically set in their own cultural spaces. Like other fantastic writers – from Salman Rushdie, who peppers his novels with Indian English-isms and obscure cultural references, to Junot Diaz, who explains, and doesn’t explain, Dominican American political history in his writing – Woodson simply lets the strength of her stories carry the reader into potentially unfamiliar worlds. She doesn’t expect that every reader needs to, or can, enter her story in the same way. And I don’t think this detracts from her stories ‘working,’ or, in a broader sense, doing important cultural ‘work.’
In writing, and submitting my own middle-grade fantasy novel based on Indian folktales, I’ve faced these same questions. Although I’ve found a brilliant and lovely agent who believes in the work as much as I do, the process was not an easy one. Some of the feedback I got at early stages of the submission process was sometimes about this idea of creating a ‘bridge’ between the (non Indian) reader and an unfamiliar cultural context and unfamiliar set of stories. It is the tension between ‘explaining’ and ‘not explaining’ things like religious contexts and cultural history – not dissimilar to the ‘world building’ that a writer of, say, Lord of the Rings like fantasy might face to explain the made-up rules of his or her novel’s context.
(To which I always wanted to say – I’m writing about Indian people, here, folks. Not hobbits or elves!)
Ultimately, I think (and hope!), good stories are bridges in and of themselves, and the less explaining we do, the more we respect our readers. But I still struggle with the issue. Would Woodson’s novel be as easily received by a wide set of readers had it not reflected Romeo and Juliet in its plot structure? What if the ‘Juliet’ character had not been white, but rather, Latina, or Asian? How does one invite any reader – but particularly, a mainstream reader -- into an unfamiliar world, and make sure they stay?
One answer might be that mainstream readers don’t need to stay if they don’t want. There are enough pieces of literature out there for them. This literature is for kids who don’t see themselves in other spaces, for kids who want to finally read about a character ‘like them.’
But I’m not sure that’s the entire answer.
I actually would like to believe that one critical reason for publishing more wonderful multicultural children’s and YA literature is to accustom mainstream readers to building their own bridges into unfamiliar contexts. In the same way that I, as a young reader of color, had to make a significant leap to identify and affiliate with fantastic (yet culturally unfamiliar) protagonists like Laura Ingalls, Nancy Drew or the characters of Jane Austen, might not mainstream readers also learn to enter unfamiliar stories? Might not a generation who grows up learning this skill be less needy of journalistic ‘bridges’ (like the ones that Kristof describes) later in life? Might they not more easily affiliate with others unlike themselves?
Can learning, as a child or young person, to affiliate with characters culturally unlike you make a world of more tolerant, ‘bridge-making’ adults?