Debby Dahl Edwardson
The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that by the year 2020, white people will be a minority in this country. What this means, among other things, is that increasing numbers of people will be checking that new box on the census labeled “multiracial.” People no longer required to identify themselves as of one race only will increasingly identify as multiracial.
What does this say about the search for self, the very stuff of young adult literature? Given the nature of our changing demographics, I think it’s safe to say that the search for self will increasingly involve navigation between cultures. It will increasingly require us to be truly multicultural, able to comfortably wear different cultural lenses in different situations. It’s not about race, ultimately; it’s about culture and cultural alliance.
I think we are slow to understand the implications of this, despite the fact that most of us are well enmeshed in the nitty-gritty of it in our own lives. Our spouses, children, relatives and in-laws reflect many different races, many different cultural identities. We write from the heart of it, as it were, and should be better able, by now, to shift cultural lenses as matter of course.
Moreover, we should understand why the ability to do so is important, even imperative, in an increasingly multicultural world. But we don’t. We still seem to subscribe to the idea that we are inevitably migrating towards a one-size-fits-all mass culture. As writers, we seem to assume that this is where young people are headed and so we are often seen racing after it with all we’ve got.
I have a problem with this. Even though the new mass culture now sports a variety of colors, it’s still largely homogenized. Regardless of the politically correct names we give it, it’s still the melting pot.
My take may be partly generational and partly situational, of course. I’m of the generation that fought for civil rights and I live in the heart of an indigenous culture that’s about as remote as it gets from the centers of mass culture, a place that holds the distinction of being the northernmost spot on the north American continent, accessible by air only—no roads in, no roads out—and a place not terribly interested in the melting pot.
And yet the tentacles of mass culture touch here, too. It’s in the books at the grocery store, in the movies everyone’s talking about and in the ubiquitous TV, the honored guest in everyone’s house.
I’m trying to puzzle out what this means from a variety of angles. I’m decidedly not trying to “preserve the purity” of anybody’s culture, including my own or my own so-called adopted culture.
I understand that when one culture comes into contact with another there is an inevitable melting, a blurring of the lines that happens naturally and is good, even healthy. It leads to new understandings, innovation. But when a massive monolithic culture comes into contact with smaller distinct cultures there is a steamroller effect that tends to negate understanding and is not at all healthy. I see myself, as a writer, trying to stay the steamroller.
I always find myself on the edges of conversations that from my perspective reach into the heart of lens shifting. These are often conversations regarding books about Native American cultures. Cultural insiders will review a book, saying something like, “an XXXX child would never speak that way to an elder.” The cultural outsider says, “oh, come on—are XXXX children perfect or something?”
No, not perfect, but where there are firm cultural norms, people never break with them unwittingly, the way a cultural outsider would. Even the ways in which we protest “norms” are culturally proscribed. This becomes an issue only when a writer doesn’t recognize the need to shift cultural lenses and assumes that everyone acts in relation to the writer’s own cultural norms. We call this ethnocentrism. It often comes from members of the dominant culture, so enmeshed in their own way they tend to think their perspective is culturally neutral: "I don’t have an accent! You do."
I guess I’m saying that if you don’t know how to switch lenses you shouldn’t write about other cultures. Hell, if you don’t know how to switch lenses you shouldn’t even try to write about other genders. I listened once, to an adult male recalling how he felt totally inarticulate as a teen, how the things that were going on inside his head and the things that came out of his mouth rarely seemed to match. Having known a number of teenaged boys intimately, this felt really authentic to me and explained a whole lot of things. I took notes.
To write in today’s world, lens shifting is paramount. That’s my take. Maybe it always was. And I don’t really believe that it is useful these days to speak of "cultural insiders" and "cultural outsiders" or of "borrowed" or "adopted" cultures. We are all immersed in multiple cultures.
What exactly do the terms "borrowed" or "adopted" mean to those, such as myself, who have lived within their “adopted” cultures longer than they have lived within their own birth cultures? Or to those straddling, by blood, two or more cultures?
Twenty-five years ago I found myself in an odd position, reporting, as a young white public radio reporter, to an audience that was 90 percent Inupiaq. My white boss sent me to a workshop on minority news reporting. What did minority reporting mean to me, I wondered, reporting in a region where I was the minority?
Blessing’s Bead (FSG, 2009), a novel clearly rooted in Inupiaq history, features a beautiful young girl who, when you get right down to it, looks more white than Inupiaq. She has dark hair, but…. is this another white-washed cover? Should I reject it and use it as a forum to speak out on the issue? Hey, it might sell books!
In fact the girl on the cover of Blessing’s Bead is not white—she is biracial—part white and part Inupiaq. Her Inupiaq name is Aaluk, the same name as one of the characters in the book.
She’s my daughter.
In terms of cultural identity, she strongly tied to both of her cultures.
Hers is the face of the future.
Let’s go there, shall we?
Here’s one for fun. My new novel, My Name is Not Easy (Marshall Cavendish, 2011), is about the boarding school experience of Alaskan Natives.
No, that’s not a particularly fun topic. But a few years ago a funny song about boarding schools went viral throughout Native Alaska and was emailed all over the place by boarding school alumni. The late Vincent Craig, an Navajo musician and comedian, had us on the first line of his song, "Indian Alien"—have a listen, thinking about lens shifting.
The "video" below is sound only--no pictures; Debby received permission from Vincent's son Dustinn for us to share the song in this post.
My Name Is Not Easy is a finalist for the National Book Award.