Culture Zone; Crossing The Great Divide

‘Where are you from?” It’s a pretty familiar question, an icebreaker of sorts, meant to elicit a simple response and to keep the conversation driving toward commonality and connection. Unless, of course, where you’re from conflicts with what you look like. Then the question is more pointed — coded — a falsely casual way of asking not who but what you are. And for a growing number of people living in America’s post-integration miasma, What am I? is the question that’s being asked, debated, turned over, chewed upon and spat back out again.

Nowhere is this clearer than in a number of novels — some recently published (Danzy Senna’s ”Caucasia”) and some scheduled to appear in the coming months (Ruth L. Ozeki’s ”My Year of Meats,” Nicole Mones’s ”Lost in Translation” and ”The Farming of Bones,” by Edwidge Danticat). These are but a few of the offerings from a new generation of mostly female writers exploring cross-cultural experience. In ”Lost in Translation,” a young white American tries to discover herself through a vain attempt to ”become” Chinese; in ”My Year of Meats,” a half-Japanese, half-white TV producer searches for vestiges of small-town America, and in ”The Farming of Bones,” a Haitian woman struggles to survive in the Trujillo-dominated Dominican Republic.

Margo Jefferson, writing about ”Caucasia” in The Times, used the term ”cultural mulatto” to describe people like Senna: those who stand at the gnarly intersection of more than one ethnic identity, trying to pick and choose which elements from which cultures they want to hold on to while being told by society that they can be only one all-encompassing thing. And it is not just in fiction that writers are addressing these issues: next month Pantheon will publish a collection of essays titled ”Half and Half: Writers on Growing Up Biracial and Bicultural,” whose contributors include Lisa See, Indira Ganesan, Meri Nana-Ama Danquah and Julia Alvarez.

These writers are not telling stories of quiet desperation. On the contrary, they are quite loud about the damage inflicted on them by society’s expectations. They are, by and large, trying to forge an identity that reconciles the basic human desire to fit in and yet to remain separate, distinct, special. As Alvarez puts it in ”Half and Half,” reading the fiction of writers like Maxine Hong Kingston and Toni Morrison, she ”began to see that literature could reflect the otherness I was feeling, that the choices in fiction and poetry did not have to be bleached out of their color or simplified into either/or. A story could allow for the competing claims of different parts of ourselves and where we came from.”

This literature, though, isn’t just concerned with personal issues of assimilation and self-identification. It also taps into larger anxieties over America’s sense of itself and its place in an increasingly global and homogenized society, one that through intermarriage is moving ever closer toward a nonwhite, monochromatic race (or so the theory goes), and that through the march of commerce in the form of strip malls and superstores is beginning to look ever more the same.

In ”My Year of Meats,” for example, it is America’s heartland that is exotic and marginalized, and not the biracial main character, Jane Takagi-Little. Six feet tall, she consciously makes herself into a freak when she lives in Tokyo, dying parts of her hair green and speaking ”men’s Japanese.” She describes herself: ”Polysexual, polyracial, perverse, I towered over the sleek, uniform heads of commuters on the Tokyo subway. Ironically the real culture shock occurred when I left Japan and moved here to New York, to the East Village. Suddenly everyone looked weird, just like me.”

Looks — weird or otherwise — and to what extent people are defined by them, are at the heart of ”Caucasia,” where skin tone and hair texture vary profoundly (one biracial sister looks white, the other looks black) and create nearly unbridgeable fault lines within a family. In ”Lost in Translation,” in which the protagonist has left Texas for Beijing to escape the legacy of her racist father, love and attraction are intimately tied to ethnic aspiration.

A recurring theme in ”Half and Half” is the way the pressure to assimilate — to seem, if not to look, white — becomes internalized. David Mura, a Japanese-American, writes of a time when he considered it flattering to be thought of as white. Meri Nana-Ama Danquah, who emigrated from Ghana in the 1970’s, recounts the attacks of ”verbal ‘kindness”’ she experienced at the hands of whites: ”Their branding came in the form of adjectives, not nouns — special, exceptional, different, exotic. These words, which flowed so freely from the lips of teachers, parents and fellow students, were intended to excuse me from my race, to cage me like some zoo animal being domesticated; these words, I realized years later, were intended to absolve those white people from their own racism.”

To be sure, biracial and bicultural identity issues are trendy right now, and the book business is infected with the same me-too-ism that plagues Hollywood and the record industry. The danger, of course, is that as soon as a form of expression becomes a marketing category, publishers rush to fill the slot, without a particularly good idea of what actually makes a book worthy. And, as always, there is legitimate cause to worry that those outside the mainstream will have a hard time finding a place for their work. But the staggering diversity of voices — Vietnamese, Japanese, Indian, West Indian, African, Latino, white — being published throughout this year is encouraging. And there are certain truths these hybrid writers articulate, truths that used to be part of the secret history of colored folk, that can only benefit from getting out.

Diane Cardwell is an editor of the magazine.


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