Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Multicultural Favorites

Inspired by our read this week (which is all about Eskimos and Indians), Alex and I have decided to tell you about our favorite books that have a main character of a different ethnicity.  There were a lot of books I was considering for this post, but inevitably, I decided to tell you about The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
I know it's a cumbersome name, but it's a great book.

This book was Diary of a Wimpy Kid before Wimpy Kid was a thing.  Plus, it MUCH better written.  There are comics intersparsed with story and the main character, Junior, is much smaller than his friends and school-mates.  He also has disabilities from too much fluid in the brain as a child, making him even more of a target.  However, he has a friend, Rowdy, who protects him.

The big controversy with this book is that Junior decides to leave the reservation and go to a rich, all white school.  He does it to better his education, but a lot of Indians resent him for it.  Even his best friend, Rowdy, doesn't understand why he's going.

It also says a lot about the social norms of Indians on a reservation.  They're expected to never go anywhere, most of them becoming drunks and dying at an early age.  Both of Junior's parents are alcoholics, though his mother has been sober for awhile.

My favorite part of this book was probably the illustrations.  As you can see below, some of them are very poignant.  They make incredibly social commentary, without really trying hard.

I just liked the writing in the book, how much of an insight you get into reservation life and, also, the fact that it's largely based on Sherman Alexie's life.  

My multicultural favorite is The Arrival by Shaun Tan. It is a silent (wordless) graphic novel published in 2006.

The Arrival tells the story of a man who leaves his family behind in their poor town to cross the wide ocean and seek a better job in a country that is completely foreign to him. He does not speak the language there, and so the book does not give us words, to help us identify with the alienated feeling the man has in this strange and unfamiliar land.

I like that Shaun Tan built a majority population that none of his audience could possibly identify with, because they aren't even human. Anyone who picks up this book can understand how the protagonist feels, because none of us would be comfortable in that place.

I also think graphic novels are a great way to approach multicultural literature, particularly when there is a more obvious language gap. (Not necessarily between author and audience, but between the protagonist's minority group and the majority they are trying to conform to.) This example takes it more to the extreme, with no words to help you understand what's going on. You must interpret confusing things (such as unfamiliar customs, foods, dress, manners) as an immigrant who doesn't speak the native language must struggle to understand them.

Not to mention... the illustrations are just beautiful. Look at these:

Much of multicultural literature (especially in America, where the chasm between the expected "melting pot" and the reality of the "salad bowl" - where different cultures coexist but remain distinct - is emphasized) discusses the sense of the "other," usually in a way that is central to the plot. The protagonist (who is Chinese or black or Jewish or Russian or anything other than an English-speaking white American-for-many-generations person) senses that he/she is not like the people around him/her, and the differences seem insurmountable. Usually, the protagonist makes a friend from the majority group - or someone who bridges the gap in some way (perhaps someone who has already figured out how to find similarities with the group at large and demonstrate that common ground, not differences, should matter more) - and everyone learns a lesson about how the "other" or anything foreign/alien to them is not necessarily bad. The Arrival doesn't throw this lesson in your face like so much multicultural literature does, and I like that. It just expresses the feelings brought about by a particular type of experience.

I haven't read Shaun Tan's The Lost Thing, but it seems to bear mentioning. It is about an unusual creation that is lost in the city and nobody will help it find its owner. It shares some themes with The Arrival (mainly the problems that come with being a "stranger in a strange land") and is also beautifully illustrated.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post today. Most of the multicultural lit that I've read is about Jews. One of the most interesting examples is "The Chosen" by Chaim Potak. Its mainly about the friendship between two boys, but also covers the broad evolving differentiation between Hassidic Jews and Modern Orthodox Jews in America right after the war, when Israel first becomes a country.