ALAN v27n2 - Standing on the Border: Issues of Identity and Border Crossings in Young Adult Literature

Volume 27, Number 2
Winter 2000

Standing on the Border: Issues of Identity
and Border Crossings in
Young Adult Literature

Donna Niday and Dale Allender

Introduction: Border Studies and Self Identity

During adolescence, young adults often question, "Who am I? How do I see myself? How do I fit into the world?" While an identity struggle may be prevalent throughout life, adolescence seems to accentuate self-probing questions. When teens have a bicultural or multicultural heritage, self-identity questions can become even more complex.

To examine this issue, we have encouraged our secondary students and university pre-service teachers to explore the identity theme in young adult literature from a cultural studies context. Young adult literature and literary study continue to evolve into an increasingly dynamic and complex field; students can explore, analyze, and reflect upon young adult literature using the concepts derived from a cultural studies perspective.

Border studies theory began when post-colonial and cultural studies theorists explored the complex political and cultural exchanges occurring along the United States and Mexican border ( Anzaldua 3 ; Gomez-Pena 43 ; Grant and Ladson-Billings 34 ). This theory has grown to encompass the dialogue and cultural exchange among groups of people from different ethnic, racial, and cultural backgrounds ( Grant and Ladson-Billings 35 ). Border studies theory further develops what multicultural theorist James Banks refers to as "multiple acculturation," the incorporation of different heritages into the identity development process ( 239 ). While conventional multicultural theory tends to emphasize individual cultures, border studies examines the intersection of cultures and the resulting effects. This borderland can be viewed as a new territory for exploration, or what Root calls a "significant frontier" ( xiii ).

From border studies theory arises the term "border crossings," coined by Anzaldua ( 77 ), which refers to moving across diverse borders such as race, gender, or geography. Maria Root offers four possible ways of thinking about border crossings. First, individuals can bridge borders by having both feet in two groups. According to Root, the former concept of "straddling two worlds in a one-foot-in, one-foot-out metaphor … fractionalizes the multiracial person's existence" ( xxi ). By having both feet in two groups, the person can be wholly immersed, respected, and accepted by two cultures simultaneously.

Second, Root says the individual can shift foreground and background identities to cross borders defined by race and ethnicity. At various times, a person with a bicultural or multicultural identity or background may wish temporarily to emphasize or highlight one background while de-emphasizing another in what Root calls "situational ethnicity and situational race" ( xxi ). Root describes the situation--for instance, living in a particular environment--as sometimes influencing or creating a temporary emphasis of one culture over another.

Third, Root discusses the individual who "decisively sits on a border, experiencing it as the central reference point" ( xxi ). Just as Root describes the border between Mexico and the United States as a third country, she says that some individuals self-designate themselves in the "other" multiracial category, not defined by the typical five-race listing on many forms ( xxii ). These individuals wish to invent a new or revised identity.

Root designates a fourth area as camping in one cultural group "for an extended period of time and mak[ing] forays into other camps from time to time" ( xxii ). She states that this instance is not one of changing loyalties but merely of adapting to one's personal needs, saying that "people might change ways of identifying themselves over their lifetime" ( xxii ).

In the following analysis of young adult literature characterization, we explore self-identity struggles using the four types of border crossings described by Root. True to young adults and young adult literature, the central characters also often experience other complicated issues, in addition to racial identity development. In our exploration of young adult literature, we chose to focus specifically on those issues that originate from border studies theory and relate to Root's identity paradigm.

Border Crossings in Young Adult Literature

The use of a border studies analysis provides teachers with a framework in using young adult literature to help students reflect on their own and others' self-identities. We will explore how young adult books might be characterized by one of Root's categories.

1. "One can bridge the border by having both feet in both groups" ( Root xxi ).

Young adult authors may depict characters as having both feet in two or more cultural groups or living in two cultures simultaneously. In Dori Sanders' Clover, a ten-year-old African-American female protagonist bridges a border in her daily life, living in an African-American culture with her aunt and uncle during the day and an Anglo culture with her widowed stepmother, Sara Kate, in the evening.

While exploring her identity, Clover experiences contradiction. Her Aunt Everleen informs her: "You know how white women are. They want you to brag on 'em all the time. To tell them you love 'em. They don't care whether it's the truth or not" ( Sanders 59 ). On the Anglo side, Clover overhears family members encouraging her stepmother to leave the African-American community. Clover questions her cultural identity as she lives in this precarious predicament.

While recognizing her own and her stepmother's feelings of isolation, Clover longs to feel close and accepted. She thinks of what she'd like to say to Sara Kate, but "the thoughts stay in my head--stay tied up on my tongue." She then realizes, "Maybe my stepmother has the same fear I have, a fear of not being accepted" ( 100 ). Even though she sometimes internally aligns herself with her stepmother, she is not yet ready to make an external gesture. Seeming to teeter at the edge of her border crossing, at times Clover wants to plant both feet solidly with her stepmother.

Eventually Clover finds a connection and comfort with her stepmother. She says, "They say when two people live together, they start to look alike. Well, Sara Kate and I have been living together for a long time, and there is no way we will ever look alike. But in strange little ways, we are starting to kind of act alike" ( 130 ). However, when Clover rebels in teenage-like fashion, her aunt and stepmother unite their maternal roles. Clover is content and happy to be recognized and supported by them, admitting, "Secretly I'm kind of glad that they both care enough about me to make me do the right thing" ( 177 ). With this incident, Everleen, Sara Kate and even Clover recognize that the values interladen in parenthood cross racial boundaries.

As Sara Kate finds a home in the African-American community, Clover allows herself a dual identity with membership in two worlds. The social environmental border, which has been internalized up until this point, becomes more externalized as both Clover and Sara Kate openly and overtly acknowledge and accept their relationship. By seeing worth in both her Anglo and her African-American family members, Clover allows both of her feet to be planted firmly in two cultures. Rather than having one foot in and one foot out, she can live simultaneously in both.

2. "Another border crossing highlights the shifting of foreground and background as one crosses between and among social contexts defined by race and ethnicity" ( Root xxi ).

While some characters with a bicultural and multicultural identity or background can live in duo cultures simultaneously, others shift from one to another as they highlight one culture while de-emphasizing the other. In Maureen Wartski's The Face in My Mirror, the central character, Mai, temporarily shifts one cultural identity to the foreground and another to the background. When Anglos spray-paint her in the face and deface her locker with racial remarks, Mai reconsiders her identity as an adopted child in an Anglo Midwestern family. When she sees her family reflected in a mirrored doorway, she recognizes that they are a " … family of redheads and one definitely Asian girl" ( Wartski 8 ). She recalls her feelings as a bicultural child, telling herself, "Admit that you wished you looked like your American serviceman … " ( 10 ), and her inner voice informs her, "You've always been different and always will be" ( 16 ). Even though her adopted mother tells her that "different is good" and that she has a "rich cultural heritage," she wonders about her own identity ( 24 ).

To know her Vietnamese-American self better, Mai spends the summer in Boston with the family members of her deceased mother. While she dislikes working in her family's Vietnamese restaurant, she values her aunt's desire to bring more family members to the United States. When her aunt describes the family's history as boat people and camp refugees, Mai begins to appreciate the underlying strengths of her Vietnamese family.

By focusing on her Vietnamese heritage, Mai discovers a sense of interconnectedness. First, she finds wisdom when an elderly Vietnamese man tells her that "Memories and stories are like spiderwebs" and that "we are all interconnected with the greatest of all spiderwebs … [by being] a small but still significant part of this great universe" ( 90-91 ). Second, when she looks in the small hand mirror which had once belonged to her birth mother, she tells herself, "I am Mai Jennifer Houston, born of Mai Hongvan, child of Vivan and Leo Houston, sister to Liz and David, citizen of the United States, member of the world, and a small but important part of the universe" ( 184 ). With this statement, Mai indicates her acceptance of her dual heritage, appreciating both her Vietnamese heritage and her Anglo-adopted family.

Mai's summer in Boston permits her to explore and value the Vietnamese culture. By shifting her Vietnamese heritage to the forefront and her Anglo heritage to the background, she learns about her family's history and admires her aunt's strong value system. She realizes that she can appreciate both cultures and that she can take pride in her individual identity.

3. "In yet a third interpretation of the border, one decisively sits on the border, experiencing it as the central reference point" ( Root xxi ).

A third way of viewing the stance of characters with a bicultural or multicultural identity or background is by seeing them as individuals who sit comfortably on their borders and create for themselves a new identity. In Heartbeat Drumbeat by Irene Beltran Hernandez, Morgana sits on borders provided through the heritage and traditions of her Mexican father and Navajo mother. In the first chapters Morgana participates in a Navajo funeral ceremony alongside Eagle Eyes, a Native American-Anglo young man. Seeing Morgana against the backdrop of Eagle Eye's dual identity allows readers to realize more clearly Morgana's ability to "sit on borders." During a Mexican American celebration Morgana actually changes her physical proximity, moving from her father's Mexican friends on the lawn to her mother's Navajo friends in the kitchen. Sitting on the border, she literally moves back and forth between cultures.

Morgana begins to realize the need for a new identity when her dying mother tells her, "Just remember that you are both Navajo and Mexican; you have a dual heritage. Follow the path of your destiny with your chin unquivering and your head held high, no matter where it leads you" ( Hernandez 88 ). These words upset Morgana who responds, "Mother! I'm a person that has a foot in two different cultures and I'm not totally accepted by either race" ( 89 ). In return Morgana's mother gives her a new option, inventing a new self, saying, "Times are changing and you belong to a new generation of young people. You are Navajo and Mexican--both proud races … We are alike, both survivors" ( 89 ).

In planning their wedding, Morgana and Eagle Eye realize that they are starting a new life together as a married couple and are inventing their identity. This complex struggle for identity and Morgana's resolution to become a newly invented self provide a vivid example of a character with a bicultural identity or background who is able to sit comfortably on the border.

4. "In the last border crossing, one creates a home in one 'camp' for an extended period of time and makes forays into other camps from time to time" ( Root xxii ).

Root addresses a fourth type of border crossing as camping in a culture. In The Window by Michael Dorris, the protagonist, Rayona, moves between her divorced parents, a mother who is a Blackfoot and a father who is African-American. When her mother checks into an alcoholic rehabilitation center and her father declines to take her into his home, Rayona briefly camps with two foster families, first in the Anglo culture and then the African-American culture. Finally, her father sends her to live for a month with his mother, who surprisingly is Irish. During these three brief camping situations, Rayona learns more about other cultures and about herself.

Each brief camping experience leaves permanent, indelible marks on Rayona. She learns to define and understand herself by sojourning for short times in Anglo and African American cultures before returning to her original Blackfoot home. These brief experiences allow Rayona to recognize and value each of her multiple heritages.

Classroom Implications

Teachers can use Root's four ways of viewing border studies as a way of exploring young adult literature. Understanding or framing one's thinking in terms of border studies theory can provide a unique way for readers of young adult literature to view how characters with a bicultural or multiracial identity or background might develop their identity. As would be expected, many books do not fit precisely into one of Root's four categories but often cross borders among the categories. Just as the term "border crossings" implies that characters may move across cultures, many young adult novels may explore more than one of Root's four areas. Students could determine whether a particular young adult book would share one or more of Root's border studies perspectives.

In addition, students could examine other elements of border studies, including the following three areas: cultural consciousness, the need for inventing a new culture ( Gomez-Pena 43 ), and the importance of externalizing realizations about identity. Some of the characters with a bicultural or multiracial identity or background in these four novels discuss their physical identities. Within the first chapters, the protagonists often describe skin color and tone metaphorically and equate physical appearance with self-concept. For instance, Mai looks at her mirror reflection and tries to define herself. The characters usually do not wish to live in a color-blind world; instead they see an acknowledgment of skin color as being important to their own self-identity. Cornel West espouses a similar philosophy when he states, "We can never fall back on the myth of color blindness even as we transcend race in our quest for humane ends and aims" ( Williams 1 ). The characters with a bicultural or multiracial identity or background in these young adult novels view color as a significant part of their lives and they attempt to invent new, rich metaphors for color. Teachers could define for students the current theories of "melting pot," "salad bowl," and "kaleidoscope," could ask students to discuss color-blindness versus color-awareness, and could work with students in creating new metaphors. Then students could apply the concepts to the particular young adult novel being studied.

Second, teachers could explain the border studies concept of inventing a new culture. Some theorists, such as Root, champion the need for people with a bicultural or multiracial identity or background to create their own identities. While some people think in concrete terms of the need for a racial category on governmental forms of "biracial or multiracial," others think in more abstract forms of the need for creating a new sense of being, a new identity. Rayona must redefine herself in terms of her Anglo grandmother, and Morgana must create a unique self with elements from both cultures. These characters wish to recreate themselves, not only for the exterior world, but more importantly for how they internally view themselves. Using this concept, students could discuss the character's identity for a particular piece of young adult literature.

Third, teachers could ask students to examine the internalization and externalization of thinking about racial issues. Externalizing internal thoughts creates another way of exploring the self-identity of bicultural and multicultural characters. Several of the characters experience sudden racial confrontations, such as when Mai has paint thrown in her face. This crisis event causes the character to externalize her internal knowledge that she is physically different. Similarly, Clover acknowledges the communication problems lying between herself and her stepmother. By admitting that she has a fear of not being accepted, Clover brings to the surface the conflicts in her heart. With this externalization, the characters begin to understand the past, the present, and possibly the future, which might mean that each creates a new or revised identity. By examining the internalization and externalization of the characters' thoughts, students could discuss whether the recognition and voicing of conflict creates a turning point in the story. The protagonists in these young adult novels have found a sense of self either by accepting a dual heritage, moving back and forth between cultures, creating a new identity, or experimenting with other cultures.

By using Root's four ways of examining border crossings, teachers and students can begin to explore the self-identities of characters living on the border. Teachers can also provide a framework for students to create an in-depth analysis of characters and to examine more closely how protagonists resolve the identity questions of "Who am I? How do I see myself? How do I fit into the world?" By viewing how others discover new ways of being, students of all ethnicities can begin to externalize their own coming of age and self-discovery.

Works Cited

Anzaldua , Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Book Company, 1987.

Banks , James. Multiethnic Education: Theory and Practice. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1994.

Dorris , Michael. The Window. New York: Hyperion, 1997.

Gomez-Pena , Guillermo. Warrior for Grigostroika. St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1993.

Grant , Carl A., and Gloria Ladson-Billings, eds. Dictionary of Multicultural Education. Phoenix, Arizona: Oryx Press, 1997.

Hernandez , Irene Beltran. Heartbeat Drumbeat. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1992.

Root , Maria P. P., ed. Multiracial Experience: Racial Borders as a New Frontier. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1996.

Sanders , Dori. Clover. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1990.

Wartski , Maureen. The Face in My Mirror. New York: Fawcett Juniper, 1994.

Williams , Patricia J. Seeing a Color-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.


Donna Niday is an Assistant Professor of English at Iowa State University.

Dale Allender, The University of Iowa, is Associate Executive Director of the National Council of Teachers of English.

Reference Citation: Niday, Donna and Dale Allender. (2000) "Standing on the Boarder: Issues of Identity and Boarder Crossings in Young Adult Literature." The ALAN Review , Volume 27, Number 2, 60-63.