An editor I know got a disturbing phone call recently. She was interested in publishing a young adult coming-of-age novel about an Irish Catholic girl and had sent it to a paperback house to see if they might want to buy those rights. The paperback editor, I am told, was disturbed. She loved it; though neither Irish nor Catholic, she was very moved by the story. Her boss, though, turn edit down. "Irish Catholic is not multicultural," she was told with the force of a papal bull. When I heard this story and thought of the Jewish, black, and Latino high schools I went to -- in which there was nothing more exotic than Irish Catholics -- I realized it was time to tune up the old word processor and try to define exactly what "multicultural" means to me.
In a way, the paperback house can be forgiven its foolishness: they were reporting what they find in the market, not what they believe to be true. And, in reality, many reviewers, librarians, teachers, parents, and teenagers do confine the "multi" in "multicultural" to third world, non-white, "oppressed" people. Sometimes they grant a variance for Appalachian poor whites, or for Jews from 1939 to 1945, or -- in a triumph of ideological prestidigitation --women. The fact that "third world" is now a meaningless term, that "white" erases differences as fatal as Catholic and Protestant Northern Irish (not to speak of Serb and Croat), and that the line between oppressed and oppressor shifts radically when, say, you consider what to write about female circumcision, somehow eludes the monitors of ethnic purity.
This view of multiculturalism is a political position, not an aesthetic or educational one. It seeks literature that will, as one advocate argued at a recent NCTE meeting, challenge the dominant power structure. If one views the world as made up of a hegemonic, gendered, racially and economically dominant power structure and its victims, then it is of utmost importance to have literature by the victims. Their voices serve to undermine a ruling ideology and supplant it with a new one; the guarantee of the "authenticity" of their voices is their membership in the groups they write about. The politics of oppression divides the world, and "multi" comes to mean "other than dominant."I have a far more radical view to propose. If they split the world into black and white billiard balls, I seek to free the subatomic chaos within both.
Within all of us are stereotypical patterns and inversions of them. We have traits similar to others of whatever set of groups we fit and resistances to them; we both incarnate and transcend the set of characteristics we fit on a census sheet. It is that personal, fluid yet at times explosive, maelstrom that literature can capture. The "multi" in "multicultural" is, at its best, the many selves within each of us, not our melanin count or epicanthic folds.
Our curse in children's books is to get intellectual trends about ten years behind the times. On this one, let's take a quick leap ahead. Some very interesting writing on race, identity, and literature has come from the pen of Harvard professor Kwame Anthony Appiah. In his brilliant In My Father's House (Oxford, 1992), Appiah makes a startling claim. Though he was born of Ghanaian and English parents and is very deeply grounded in the literature not only about but of Africa, he states boldly: "there are no races" (p. 45).Wading through the biological literature, he shows that there is as much genetic variation within anything called a race as between any two such groups. If there is no single set of physical characteristics in a race, how can history have acted on particular groups of people in any defining way? The only possible answer is that race is established by the prejudices of those who seek to define themselves against it. You were black if you had to sit in the back of a bus or live in a township. You are white if your literature is not "multicultural." But this conclusion immediately means that race depends on who experiences it, and that means it is as personal as sexuality or imagination. Of course, prejudice and oppression do exist, but they act on each of us as individuals: it is that personal experience that leads to the best literature.
We are all on dangerous margins these days, especially young adults. Whether we recently immigrated to America and have to balance traditional ways and media-induced options or we have been planted here for generations and find new peoples and ways either enticing or threatening (most likely, both), we find our identity changing daily. My best friend is from India. When he is around his relatives, his accent becomes more and more sub-continental -- which infuriates his Canadian/Indian wife. An author I know went to Korea to find her roots: she came back certain only of her rootlessness. She is Korean but unable to live in Korea; American but not like the images she grew up seeing; Korean American but having to define daily what that means. It is this dangerous, shifting, uncertain world of multiple allegiances that is the heart of multiculturalism. It honors younger readers by not confining them. Let me explain how.
There are three distinct kinds of multiculturalism; and, though they share similar terms and apparent concerns, they are mutually exclusive. The nature of bipolar politicized multiculturalism was exposed by a recent debate in a journal for professional historians. The contentious issue was whether whites should be allowed to teach black history. Think of the circuit that establishes: only people who belong to a group can write about it, or teach it. Should people of other groups even be allowed to read about it? Why? If they read, they may identify, grow curious, seek to become expert, seek to communicate their knowledge, seek to -- gasp -- write or teach about it. What of people of intermarriages: do they get a variance? What degree of racial purity is required to listen to the music of another culture? What if, like Don Byron, a black Protestant jazz musician plays Jewish klezmer music? Is that good or bad? Authentic or unauthentic? In the name of authenticity, political multiculturalism turns the reader into a receptacle of ideology, not a creative mind.
The equally damaging reverse form of multiculturalism is the "it's-a-small-world-isn't it," "we-are-the-world" brand. This belief paints a picture of other cultures as a series of nicely dressed dolls in quaint native dress all endlessly and tiresomely proving the point that, "Hey, Juan is just like me. He loves his parents, goes to school, and wants his favorite team to win. But oh that pesky sister Juanita, she's a pain." This form of writing flattens out the very dire, and real, conflicts among and within people, mimicking authenticity by turning the world into a mall. It insults readers and ultimately makes them less interested in other cultures. One of the virtues of political multiculturalism is to expose the poverty of this form of bland earnestness.
The version of multiculturalism I favor is intensely curious about all cultures in all of their ambiguous, complex, self-contradictory splendor. It glories in new perspectives, other experiences, different expressions -- not for their political or moral value, but for their human depth. And for that reason, it opens the field to gifted writers of any background. Talent, not the exploded category of race, is its pole star. Authenticity means depth, insight, communicative value, resonance, rigor, care. In that way, it gives (to use a slightly altered sixties phrase) "all power to the reader." The reader is the crucial actor ignored, or patronized, by the first two forms of multiculturalism.
Recently the novelist Edmond White made exactly this point in a New York Times Op Ed (12/21/93) piece based on a talk he gave to a Gay and Lesbian group. "What counts for me," he explained
Pouring ethnically pure, or ethnically bland, literature into student vessels turns education into catechism. The multiculturalism I favor corresponds to and thus frees the many voices in the reader. It encourages her to explore all of her selves: the master and the slave, the male and the female, the black and the white. For that reason, I am as eager to include Irish Catholics in my roster of multicultural experiences as I am Holocaust victims, Namibians, and Latino Americans. After all, for all I know I may have a little Jesuit, or (I wish) Joyce, in me.