ALAN v22n3 - The Diversity Connections Growing Up, Reaching Out: Multiculturalism through Young Adult Literature and Films

The Diversity Connection
Volume 22, Number 3
Spring 1995

The Diversity Connection

Ronn Hopkins, Editor
Norfolk State University, Norfolk, Virginia

Growing Up, Reaching Out:
Multiculturalism through Young
Adult Literature and Films


Gretchen Schwarz

The stories you read can transform you because they help you imagine beyond yourself. If you read only what mirrors your view of yourself, you get locked in. It's as if you're in a stupor or under a spell. Buried.

Rochman offers the observation above in Against Borders: Promoting Books fora Multicultural World (p. 11) . One can cite many good reasons for finding and using multicultural literature with adolescents -- to teach tolerance and fight prejudice; to prepare for life in the global village; and to celebrate diversity and artistry. However, good multicultural stories can also do more:they can aid adolescent development, imaginatively transforming the buried life of a narrow egocentrism into a broader and more meaningful life connected to the world of other people. Together with multicultural films, multicultural young adult literature can have a powerful impact on young Americans coming of age.

A large number of young adult novels, many by writers like Judy Blume or Hadley Irwin, continue to be centered on the concerns and problems of middle-class white adolescents. Likewise, films aimed at the younger audience (such as John Hughes' The Breakfast Club , 1985) center on such concerns as dating and sex, popularity, achievement in school or on the playing field, and conflicts with parents. More serious problems are also examined, from suicide and abuse to AIDS. Most of these stories focus the reader or viewer inward. The settings are familiar and the preoccupations are as contemporary as today'sT.V. talk shows. The feelings of American teenagers are explored in great detail. Certainly the thoughts and problems of the average American young adult must be respected by young adult literature.

However, growing up requires reaching out as well. Nilsen and Donelson discuss the impact of YA literature on adolescents and note that the last of Havighurst's Developmental Tasks is "assuming membership in the large community" (p. 41). David Elkind comments in his Editor's Introduction that,"For both (A HREF="#Piaget">Piaget and Erickson, the person does not become a true individual or personality until he has integrated his thoughts and feelings about himself into a total life perspective which expands beyond personal interest to the whole of mankind" (p. xv). Assuming an adult identity requires focusing on others and others' problems, too.

Multicultural stories can offer the young adult a perspective that expands beyond familiar personal interests to the lives and problems of those marginalized in our own society, to the experiences and issues of young people in other parts of the world, to past human struggles that influence the present. Immigration, war, genocide, poverty, oppression, and ignorance are world problems that deserve the attention of young people. The ordinary joys and triumphs of people who speak different languages and have different customs need attention, too. In a society that many critics find increasingly narcissistic, multicultural literature, in books and films, can serve as a needed antidote to nascent Yuppie Angst. The world is much bigger than our own white middle-class American introspections, even our own personal tragedies,and young people need to begin thinking about assuming roles in that bigger world.

One way of using multicultural stories in the classroom to broaden adolescent world views is through the thematic organization that Rochman uses in Against Borders . Rochman introduces themes, such as "the perilous journey" and"friends and enemies," themes that challenge assumptions and "unsettle us, make us ask questions about what we thought was certain" (p. 19). Yet reading "the archetypal stories across cultures connects us with each other," too (p. 13).Readers can learn something new, shaking off mirror vision, and yet can identify with people who are different. Multicultural units across the curriculum can be built around such themes, and these units can draw on a rich,largely untapped resource for the multicultural classroom: feature films, both American and foreign. Multimedia approaches increase student engagement. I will explore just two such possible themes and the films and books that teachers could use. The themes are "the costs of racism" and "caught between cultures."

Around the world racism and ethnic conflicts rage on. America itself continues to struggle with the effects of racism. A fine British film that explores the costs of racism is a A World Apart (1989), directed by Chris Menges. Although it contains some violence, most administrators should approve this film for classroom use. Set in South Africa in 1963, the action, based on a true story, is seen through the eyes of a twelve- or thirteen-year-old white girl, Molly, whose parents are active in efforts to overcome apartheid. The cruelties and injustice of apartheid are clearly drawn. In one scene, a white driver hits a black man on a bike and speeds on. In another scene, police break in and disrupt a party at Molly's home; it is illegal for whites and blacks to be drinking together. Molly values the black friends working at her home, with whom her parents work in their political struggle. She participates in their celebrations and is learning their language. Yet everything in her environment works against freedom and equality for black South Africans. Molly suffers the pain that racism brings to people she loves.

A great price is paid by those who fight apartheid, too. The effects of racism are complex. At the start of the movie, Molly's father must flee the country.Later Molly's mother, Diana Roth, a journalist played by Barbara Hershey, is arrested under the 90 Day Detention Act, which allows the white government to detain protestors without trial or charges. Molly's world becomes chaotic; her normal life with dance performances and swimming parties vanishes. Other girls taunt her at school. She is afraid for her parents. Diana seldom explains anything to Molly, confusing Molly even more. Molly angrily questions why her mother has devoted her life to work that tears the family apart. As Diana admits, it's all very unfair. Molly has extraordinary struggles to deal with as she comes of age in South Africa. The final chilling scene shows Molly and Diana at the funeral of their black friend Solomon while government troops surround them and fire tear gas. The immediacy of film is an important tool in a multicultural classroom. A World Apart is a powerful movie around which to center a study of racism, as well as making current events in South Africa more meaningful.

Several other films could also be used in a study of the costs of racism,including several foreign films with English subtitles. For example, Louis Malle's 1987 French film Au Revoir, Les Enfants . The film, set at a boarding school during World War II, explores the reactions of a young boy whose friend is discovered to be Jewish. The Jewish boy, along with the Catholic priests who have hidden him, is hauled away by the Nazis at the end of the film. The German film The Nasty Girl by Michael Verhoeven, 1990,explores the legacy of Nazi racism during contemporary times when a young woman is persecuted by her home town for researching and revealing the town's Nazi past. The 1992 American film School Ties , directed by Robert Mandel,explores anti-semitism in an American prep school, and Spike Lee's 1992 Malcolm X explores racism in America.

A number of excellent young adult books explore the costs of racism and could be used with A World Apart and other films. Following is a brief suggested list:

* Chernowitz by Fran Arrick (Signet, 1983). Explores anti-semitism in middle America as a school bully persecutes Bobby Cherno while his friends lookon.

* The Return by Sonia Levitin (Fawcett Juniper, 1987). Describes the escape of a black Jewish girl, Desta, from Ethiopia during Operation Moses,which saved 8000 refugees in a secret airlift from Sudan to Israel in 1984-85.

* Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor (Bantam, 1976).Cassie and her family maintain dignity and purpose while suffering from racism in the segregated South in the 1930s.

* Upon the Head of the Goat by Aranka Siegel (Puffin, 1994). Piri, a13-year-old Hungarian Jew, narrates this true story of racism and its effects in Hungary, 1939-1944, before her final trip to the concentration camps.

* Number the Stars by Lois Lowry (Dell, 1989). Living in 1943 in Copenhagen, Annemarie risks her life as her Danish family helps Jews escape the Nazis.

* Maus I by Art Spiegelman (Pantheon, 1986). In another medium used to recount the Holocaust -- comic books -- with the Jews as mice and the Nazis as cats, this compelling story is based on the author's family history.( Maus II follows this story.)

* The Road from Home by David Kherdian (Puffin, 1979). Veron Dumehjianis forced from her comfortable, close-knit home as the Turkish extermination of the Armenians proceeds in 1915. Based on Kherdian's mother's life.

* Wandering Girl by Glenyse Ward (Fawcett Juniper, 1988). In Australiain 1965 virtual slavery for Aboriginal women still exists on white farms.Autobiography.

* Zlata's Diary by Zlata Filopovic. (Viking, 1994). This best-selling diary of a lively, thoughtful young girl reveals costs of racism and ethnic cleansing in the present, as Sarajevo is reduced to the Dark Ages.

Viewing and reading stories of racism from around the world in such films and books will open the eyes of young adults.

Another dimension of multiculturalism, however, is the rapidly changing demographics in America today, where many young people are attempting to come to grips with their identities in a new country, as immigrants or first-generation Americans. They are often torn between their old culture and the new, their parents' world and their own. A relevant multicultural theme with which any young adult can identify is "caught between cultures." Peter Wang's 1985 film A Great Wall examines this theme with humor and warmth.Filmed in America and China, A Great Wall traces the adventures of a Chinese-American family who visits the "old country." When the father, Leo Fang, loses a promotion as director of the PC division of a San Francisco computer company because of racism, the Fang family leaves for a summer in China. The life of typical Beijing young people is also revealed as Leo's niece and her friends in China worry about courting and passing their college entrance exams. (The Fang's family and their friends in China speak Chinese with English subtitles.)

Most interesting is the son, Paul Fang, a sports-loving, easy-going, California college student. Leo and his wife, Grace, worry that Paul is already losing his heritage. They make Paul take Chinese lessons although he never learns to speak the language. Paul thinks his father is a racist because Leo would prefer that Paul date Chinese girls and Paul's girlfriend is a blonde all-American type. When Paul arrives in China, his relatives think he's a brash American who plays too much loud music. In one amusing scene Paul is shown playing touch football on the Great Wall. As Paul later tells Linda, his American girlfriend, he's too Chinese in America and too American in China. An entertaining film, A Great Wall looks at young adults struggling with identity across cultures.

Peter Wang's 1989 American Playhouse film Eat a Bowl of Tea also focuses on young people caught between cultures. A young Chinese-American couple's marriage almost disintegrates under the pressure from the older people's traditional expectations and desires for grandchildren. Other films that examine the clash of cultures include Red Sky at Morning (1970),set in New Mexico during World War II and starring Richard Thomas, and The Chosen (1982), from the Chaim Potok novel that explores the differences between an orthodox and a secular Jewish upbringing.

A brief suggested list of young adult books that deal with the"caught-between-cultures" theme and that could be used in conjunction with A Great Wall follows:

* Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez by Richard Rodriguez (Bantam, 1982). Autobiography in which Rodriguez deals with his alienation from parents and culture as he becomes successful in academe.

* Taking Sides by Gary Soto (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991). Lincoln Mendoza moves from the barrio to the tree-lined white suburbs. He is torn when his new basketball team faces the team and his friends from his old school.

* Black Ice by Lorene Cary (Knopf, 1991). Autobiography in which a young black woman from the streets of Philadelphia adapts to life in a private prep school in New Hampshire in 1971. The author is torn by the advantages of the education and the threatened loss of identity.

* Rising Voices: Writings of Young Native Americans selected by Arlene B. Hirschfelder and Beverly R. Singer (Scribner's, 1992). In letters, poems,essays, Native Americans, some of whom live in white boarding schools, express their feelings about their identity in white America.

* Walks Two Worlds by Robert B. Fox (Sunstone Press, Santa Fe, 1983).Clay Walker is a Navajo boy chosen by his people to go to a white school in Salt Lake City. He wants to fulfill his mission, but he prefers the old ways.

* Where the Broken Heart Still Beats by Carolyn Meyer (Harcourt, Brace,Jovanovich, 1992). Based on the true story of Cynthia Ann Parker, a white girl captured by Comanches. When forced to return to white Texan culture, she never adjusts and dies a broken woman.

* The Gift of Sarah Barker by Jane Yolen (Puffin, 1981). Raised in a Shaker community among a religious group that forbids sex and marriage, Sarah Barker and Abel Church are a young couple who must choose between "upbringing"or "entrance into the World."

* More than Meets the Eye by Jeanne Betancourt (Bantam, 1990).Chinese-American Ben resents the attention given by Elizabeth, the smart, white girl he would like to date, to Dary Sing, a Cambodian refugee girl. Things are complicated further by parents and prejudice. Assimilation and identity are major themes.

* Children of the River by Linda Crew (Dell, 1989). Sundra, a "good Cambodian girl," struggles against family expectations when she wants to date Jonathan, the blue-eyed American boy who likes her, too.

Multicultural young adult literature and films hold the potential for opening up the world to young Americans, and by opening up the world, the self, too, is enlarged. Rochman describes life constrained by only the inward view:

When I lived under apartheid, I thought I was privileged -- and compared with the physical suffering of black people I was immeasurably well-off -- but my life was impoverished. I was blind, and I was frightened.... Groups like Ladysmith Black Mambazo were making music right there, and I couldn't hear them. I didn't know that in the streets of Soweto there were people like Nelson Mandela with a vision of nonracial democracy that would change my life.... I didn't know anything about most of the people around me. And because of that I didn't know what I could be. (p. 27)

To grow up, adolescents need to learn to reach out. Educators can take advantage of the growing body of multicultural young adult literature and a number of films, both American and foreign, to aid adolescent growth into adulthood.

Works Cited

Nilsen, Alleen Pace and Kenneth L. Donelson. Literature for Today's Young Adults . HarperCollins, 1993.

Piaget, Jean. Six Psychological Studies . Trans. A. Tenzer. Ed. David Elkind. Vintage Books, original published in 1964.

Rochman, Hazel. Against Borders: Promoting Books for a Multicultural World . American Library Association, 1993.

Gretchen Schwarz, a former high school teacher of English and German, is an assistant professor at Oklahoma State University, where she teaches young adult literature.