The Truth About Multicultural Stories
I’m tired of people saying Islam is a religion of peace. Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims. They hate us for our freedom. We’ll let them build mosques here when they let us build churches in Mecca. They don’t love their children. Raghead, haji, paki, towelhead, camel jockey, savage.
It’s a tweet or a blog post or a reply-all email. It’s on the news, it’s on the train, it’s on the lips of the stiff-haired woman at the cocktail party. It’s on the Facebook wall of someone close to me.
In a secret and shame-filled moment, I wonder, if I had not married a Muslim man and converted, what I might have said.
I can’t know for sure. I can’t be certain I wouldn’t have looked at a woman in a headscarf and seen oppression instead of someone who very possibly is making the same choice students at my Seven Sisters college made, the ones who didn’t want to be judged for their looks or who refused to indulge gender normative styles of dress—women who did not find bikinis particularly liberating—and who therefore covered themselves in their own ways with crew cuts and flannel shirts and baggy jeans and facial expressions that dared you to judge them.
I can’t be certain I wouldn’t have consumed news stories about honor killings and imputed the specific to the whole, or that I wouldn’t have hoped the parents of “their” children would “go back to where they came from.”
I cannot know.
But I did marry a Muslim, and convert, and I do have Muslim family and friends and acquaintances. Because I know some Muslims, I do not hate all Muslims.
When I try to think back to the first book I read that discussed a culture other than mine, I get stuck on The Color Purple, even though that would have been in high school. Is this possible? That before I was fifteen or sixteen, I had not read a single multicultural book?
I think this is possible.
And even though I grew up in a fairly homogeneous Midwestern town and am willing to concede that might have played a role, I am still dismayed to realize that the reason I read Alice Walker’s epistolary novel is because my mother owned it. No teacher assigned it. No librarian suggested it.
In college, I majored in American history with a concentration in African American studies. And so of course I read Toni Morrison and James Baldwin and Alex Haley and even Terri McMillan.
But what did I read of Muslims? Even at Smith College, I know it was nothing.
But Smith did not do nothing. It was at Smith, with its commitment to diversity and its strong international student program that I had a “little sister” in my senior year who was a Muslim from Kuwait. She introduced me to Ethiopian food before I was a vegetarian, when I was still a “picky eater.” I gave her my copy of The Color Purple. By graduation, I loved her like she was my little sister. From that point forward, I said she was one of the nicest people I’d ever met. Decades later it is still true.
Because of Smith, because of her, in that interstice between graduating from college and meeting my husband, whenever someone said something negative about Muslims, I had something to check it against. I had Jawaher, and so I knew better than to believe that “the entire Middle East should be blown up because they can’t govern themselves,” as the checkout man at my drugstore in New York City blithely said the first year I lived there after law school.
I did not know the exact population of the Middle East at the time, but I tried to imagine the inhabitants of a single neighborhood or a town or a state being blown up, and I could not.
I tried to imagine Jawaher and her family being blown up, and I walked out of the store without buying my Tylenol and Q-tips.
I knew better, because I knew.
I understand that multicultural fiction does not exist simply to speak truth to bigotry. And still this is, for me, part of its importance. It is not as good as actually knowing someone, but it is close. If you love Celie or Shug or Kimbili or Sethe, I believe you are going to have a harder time seeing African Americans as “other.” If you experience the love between Jack and Ennis, it is exponentially more difficult to see love between gay people as different from love between straight couples.
Of course, these are often also big, beautiful, breathtaking stories with stunning voices and plots and characterization. But my heart clings to this: It is harder to hate a group of people when you know people from that group.
This is my truth.
This is why I bristle at “best” lists that include mostly western, white, male authors, dead or alive. It’s why I cried when I heard Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” and wished for it to be required viewing. Because I believe ideas can transform. That a story can heal. That knowing means not hating.
In this context, I wonder about the reading habits of public figures, especially those who are in a position to affect policies and laws and lives in accordance with their particular worldviews. I read that Bill Clinton’s favorite books include Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, and I nod my head. I see that Hillary Clinton claims as favorite books Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club and Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, and I am not surprised. I do a search for George W. Bush’s favorite books and find an article in The Wall Street Journal in which Karl Rove insists the then-president is an avid reader. Leaving aside my suspicion of anyone who needs a friend to come forth and prove that he reads, I scan for what he reads. Most of it appears to be non-fiction, which is understandable for any political leader. Still, I can’t help but wonder if the former president has ever read any novels by or about non-majority people that stirred his spirit and moved his heart.
It is, of course, not just George W. Bush. Has any politician, in any political party, who supports targeted assassinations or drone strikes read Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist? Has anyone calling for a “decisive” attack on Iran read Mahbod Seraji’s Rooftops of Tehran? Have any of the political operatives attempting to turn back the clock on voting rights, including challenging the 1965 Voting Rights Act, read Hillary Jordan’s Mudbound?
Would it matter?
There is intimacy involved in the act of reading a novel. By entering both the world and point of view of a fictional character, readers feel like they “know” that character. But whether we tell our stories in rich, fictional narratives, or in personal interactions, there is no guarantee that commonality will triumph in meaningful ways.
Recently, I learned about a female U.S. soldier with stage IV breast cancer and a wife and a daughter, who, perfectly reasonably, wanted her spouse to get benefits if the disease she was fighting took her life. She begged for an audience with John Boehner, who supports the policy that denies benefits to same-sex spouses, because she thought if he knew her, he would understand. She thought if she explained her concern for her spouse, he might change his mind.
Instead of meeting with her, Speaker Boehner sent a staffer. And though the staffer listened and said he sympathized, he indicated that the Speaker would not change his position.
Knowing her was not enough.
I also recently learned that people who know me quite well will still casually slur the religion I converted to, the faith-based space in which I am raising my children. They are tired, they say, of people insisting Islam is a religion of peace. They feel that “true Americans” are at war with Muslims. They reflexively conflate my faith with terrorism. They do not seem particularly concerned about hiding any of this from me.
Knowing me is not enough either. Whatever bulwark Jawaher provided for me, I do not provide for some people who love me. My faith in the power of stories other than my own is also shaken. My truth, it seems, is not true.
Possibly, I have been too hard on myself, and on literature. I wonder if I am asking too much of multicultural books, if I’m making them carry too great a burden. If I should just let them be stories, like all of the other stories. If I should just let myself be a person, like all of the other people.
Agendas are tricky business, and there is more to The Color Purple than making the racist woman at the party see the error of her ways. There is more to me than making someone stop engaging in anti-Muslim bigotry.
And still, this is also my raw and ragged truth: I hope that one day we’ll both be enough.