Stepping Out of the Box: Cross Cultural Identity Literature for Young Adults

With Patricia Dunn, Author of Rebels by Accident

Out of the Box, 2007, Rios

            I have a bone to pick when it comes to labels.  Labels even as seemingly harmless as “multicultural.” Maybe it goes back to high school, when I attended a prestigious prep school in New Hampshire.  On the first day I was there, I was told to attend a minority “mixer” so that I could make friends.  There were two maybe three Latinos at the school then and the rest of the “minority” group were African Americans, many of whom came from the South and segregated communities. (Later, I met Asians and a few other “international” students, but apparently they weren’t invited.)  I, on the contrary, grew up in an integrated, middle class section of the North Bronx where my friends spanned the spectrum of diversity—lots of Jews and Irish, Asian, Latino, Indian, African American.  Being thrown into an overwhelmingly chocolate brown minority mixer at the start of high school did not give me a sense of welcome, nor community.  I remember thinking:  Do I really have more in common with these kids over the mainstream/general population/majority kids who all went to another party?  Why is my friendship circle being chosen for me? 

            I understand that the intentions of the school were noble especially within the context of the time. In fact, many prep schools even today do this sort of “minority” grouping for networking & support and with positive results, I might add. But for someone like me who was raised in a diverse neighborhood  and attended an integrated school (back when diverse still meant many different groups together—including  whites), this specialized welcoming experience felt more like segregation to me.  It was that box-me-in, you-tell-me-who-I-amexperience.  It’s not surprising that I failed miserably at navigating that prep school’s racialized social terrain.  I had never compartmentalized relationship building that way, had never chosen friends by ethnicity or race.  I had been raised with the openness and freedom (a luxury now-a-days!) to choose relationships based on affinities…like all children should, you know—to be the out-of-the-box children we want them to be.  
            Likewise, some books are cornered off in the “multicultural literature” section of Barnes and Nobles.  This is boxing.  So is creating cultural specific labels on bookshelves at school or hosting a multicultural day when white kids look at the “others” to teach them something different rather than feeling like they too should explore the awesomeness of their unique identity.  Of course, in segregated schools, none of that matters. In some brown schools that I’ve worked in, they only teach multicultural books for the children. So while in Scarsdale or Chappaqua they’re still working to diversify their selections, brown kids in urban settings read almost entirely about minorities.  Doesn’t this type of “framing” our exposure to the literary experience limit a child’s thinking?  Doesn’t this perpetuate our mis-understanding of American identity? 
            It’s worthy to briefly mention here another term used called identity literature.  Perhaps this term has greater merit because it stems from Erikson’s definition of identity which is: making sense of and finding one’s place in an almost limitless world.[1]  Still, identity literature tends to segregate between “identity status literature” for whites and “ethnic identity literature” for non-whites.  Again, we have to be very careful with how we use language and labels—especially when it comes to education as a liberatory practice and literature.  We want both to be expansive and creative endeavors.  Schwatz talks at great length about how our understanding of identity and “identity literature” is limited because research hasn’t yet sufficiently crossed over race, class and levels of educational attainment.
            In contemporary US culture, young children are not only oriented by their own multiple cultures (racial, ethnic, age, gender and family, to name several), but also by living and learning within a socio-culturally conditioned world filled with many different conditions of cultural difference.[2]The contemporary child experiences early exposure to multiethnic perspectives and are often more adept at negotiating multiple perspectives and realities then they are given credit for.  In this way, traditional labels and schooling practices can “box” children into traditional groupings that no longer suit the needs of the contemporary child.  What new literature speaks to the contemporary students’ multidirectional, multidimensional, multilingual and multiethnic experience and how can we build upon it towards non-linear forms of critical thinking and subsequent agency in a global community?[3]

            Patricia Dunn, author of Rebels by Accident, wrote a young adult novel about an Arab-American teenager who is forced to travel to Cairo during the first days of the Egyptian uprising (to be released this summer, Alikai Press). Patricia is not Arab-American.  Seventeen years ago, Patricia converted to Islam, married an Egyptian and although she is currently divorced, finds herself raising an Arab-American Muslim son in Westchester county.  Interesting!  Patricia Dunn’s personal life reflects our contemporary, cross-cultural American experience in which we negotiate multiethnic perspectives and realities openly, critically and with compassion.  In this space, Patricia like many contemporary writers & educators (raising multi-ethnic, multilingual offspring), daringly steps out of the boxand into another person’s shoes.  Boldly and willingly through writing we can share our multidimensional nature and through this experience redefine our understanding of identity.  Patricia offers us Rebels by Accident, the story of Mariam (an Arab-American, Muslim teenage girl) who is on an adventurous yet emotional exploration of self in a time when teenagers globally are using social media and other expansive tools to step out the box and challenge stereotypical labels that persist on the inside and on the outside of oneself:  What does it mean to be a Muslim woman?  If “Jihad” means personal responsibility and doing what is right and just—then why does the media spin it as act of terrorism and war?  “Rebels” which I now fondly call Pat’s book, explores themes such as individual vs. collective identity, acculturation, political agency and the fierce, passionate intersection of all these things—especially for Arab Americans post 911—who are emotionally & spiritually tossed between two worlds, all of this through the eyes of a US born Mariam, set in the US and Egypt.
            It doesn’t surprise me that when talking to Pat who struggled for six years to get this story published (see Pat’s website to read more about this…) I learn that she writes for her son.  “I just really wanted to write a story that would make Ali proud,” she said.  “I also guess I was tired of seeing Muslim girls always being depicted in literature as being victims or saved by the West.”  Patricia, of Italian & Irish heritage, who was born and raised in the Bronx (yes, another Bronx girl!) grew up surrounded by first generation Italians who spoke and breathed Italian and looked at Patricia as the outsider, the “American.”  “Hearing a language other than English was always a part of my experience so when later I traveled in the Middle East, being immersed in Arabic was not so strange.”  If you get a chance to read Rebels by Accident, and I recommend this book for teachers who wish to engage in critical discussions about social justice and identity (upper middle/HS grades), you will see how Patricia skillfully uses the Arabic language and phrases, so that the reader understands the importance of language as an expression of culture. 
             “Ultimately, it’s a human story,” Pat says, “A teenager whose top priority is to fit in.  Mariam grows in the story, not wanting to be an outsider, doubtful of the beauty of her own heritage… Her best friend Deanna who has a facial disorder (she can’t smile) also is an outsider and together they learn that through connecting with something greater than themselves, they find self-acceptance and belonging.”
            Literature gives shape to all values that guide our way of viewing the world.  Early contact that children have with literature may be a great step in their education towards diversity and to an integration of diversity in the building up of their identity.[4]Following the rise of radical Islamic terrorists and 9/11, Arab Americans and Arab immigrants have often been the target of discrimination, as many Americans associate Islam with terrorism (McMurtie et al., 2001; Wingfield & Karaman, 1995).[5]Cross-cultural, multi-lingual, authentically “American” literature that meshes more than one culture, more than one language and even crosses borders has the power to build greater understanding  and inclusiveness around  the American diaspora.   Most of us no longer reside in just one box.  At the heart of agency is not only the bold declaration of a love for one’s unique self, but it’s having the courage to walk in someone else’s moccasins for mutual liberation, social justice and a relentless desire for global community.

[1]Schwartz, S. (2005) A new identity for identity research: Recommendations for expanding and refocusing identity literature, Journal of Adolescent Research 20 (3)
[2] Hyun, E. (2007). Cultural complexity in early childhood: Images of contemporary young children from a critical perspective, Childhood Education, 83(5) Research Library, pg. 261
[4]Da Natividade Pires, M (2011). Building identity and understanding diversity—Children’s literature and traditional literature potential in the school curriculum.
[5]Craft Al-Hazza, T. & Bucher, K (2010) Bridging a cultural divide with literature about Arabs and Arab Americans, Middle School Journal

One response to “Stepping Out of the Box: Cross Cultural Identity Literature for Young Adults”

  1. Shewrites Avatar

    thanks for the wonderful and thoughtful review.