Remember your own childhood. Wherever you were you likely encountered people who were not like you. Were they other children? Were they most of the other children? Were they servants or people who lived on the other side of town? What did you make of them? What did they make of you? What happened then and how did it affect you today? These are the subjects of the reflective essays that make up this book.
How well does this book accomplish its goal of creating "a space -- a safe artistic place -- where those childhood moments could be share, questioned, analyzed, forgiven" (pg 5). And ultimately, of inspiring readers to pen narratives of their own? I think, very well.
Makhijani culled over 100 submissions to the 20 standout essays in this book. She is South Asian American, but she sought out essays from American women of all racial backgrounds. Essays that give us a glimpse of how the little girl who lived through that experience grew into the woman she is today. They are stories of strength, but also stories of shameful weakness that may, or may not, have led to subsequent strength. The essays are well-edited, and placed in an appropriate sequence. She does not impose her own world-view by going from sad and hurtful to light and hopeful. She allows each essayist to stand out for herself, to speak her own voice.
My favorite aspect of this collection was the unique mixture of stories that I felt reflected my own experience, and those that did not. While the book may be of more interest to American women, I think any reader who is intrigued by the title will find this a worthwhile read.
The authors are all experienced writers, most of whom hold Master's degrees or higher in writing. The majority of them are also engaged in teaching at universities or leading workshops. Many of these articulate writers lay bare the difficulty inherent in reflecting on the issues of race as it has impacted their own lives.
Besides the editor, there is one Indian American contributor: Sejal Shah is currently writer in residence at a university in Iowa. She has been published in a number of literary journals and in one other anthology. She is working on two collections of her writings: one of short stories and another of nonfiction essays exploring South Asian diasporic identity. Her essay, Betsy, Tacy, Tejal, Tib is one of the lighter and more humorous essays in the collection. It speaks of the author's memories of her childhood in New York State reading books where she could not entirely relate and alternates this with passages of a Nancy Drew/Sweet Valley High telling of her own childhood memories. There is some mention of her school interactions, but this essay dwells more on the lives of her Gujarati friends: girls and boys with whom she spent her weekends. What would it have been like to have a series written about them? The Gujarati Girls Go to (Hindu Heritage Summer) Camp is one suggested title. The essay brushes through many memories of her past before finally alighting on the thought of how different her now-self is from her then-self. I would have liked a little more depth and reflection on some of the things she brushes over, some more elucidation of how she is thinking now about those books. As an Indian American, I feel warm familiarity with some of the references: Reader's Digest rather than New Yorker, Hot Mix, and playing carom but I wonder what they mean to non-Indian writers and Shah gives us only passing help in understanding what they mean to her.
It is difficult to pick out my favorite pieces for additional commentary, because so many of them spoke to personal experiences that we share, however, the two that continue to come to mind are An apology to Althea Connor: Private Memory and the Ethics of Public Memoir and In Which I Wade. The latter essay examines the ambivalent feelings of the author as a young Jewish girl towards the African American maids that work in her home. Because of her own feelings about them as individuals, African Americans and members of another class; her memory of incidents that are normal for any child take on additional significance. We are all products of history whether we know the history or not. When not reaching across barriers of race and class we are participating in keeping them strong. Though she speaks for herself, her narrative has meaning for us all.
An Apology to Althea Connor lifts us out of the pleasant reverie set by other essays in the book. Just when the reader is thinking "how great to get some real stories from women and their experiences growing up", the writer gives us one such narrative, then brings the story into a whole new light that makes the reader think. In the first section, Traise Yamamoto recalls elementary school days with an African American girl that she befriends and with whom she shares conversations about race, racism, and systematic oppression and how to fight it. These conversations help her to understand the different treatment that she gets as an Asian girl in a mostly white school and have informed her politics to this day.
Initially, the reader thinks the Apology relates to not standing up for Althea when they were both young. Then Yamamoto introduces a fascinating twist. After writing the first section, she tracked down and sent a draft to the real Althea Connor (not her real name). Althea today is a leading conservative thinker who has associated with the leading conservative voices today. Yamamoto tells us that her reaction to the first section's memoir was angry and unambiguous.
She disagreed completely with my narrative of what had happened, in terms of both details and intensity. She questioned my memory, my motives, and my methodology. She averred that I no doubt had a right to my own memories, but that she did not wish to be the vehicle through which I worked out my particular and personal "problems".
Finally, "Althea" did not want her name associated with something that was far from her own memory of events. It is a breathtaking turn of events that sets off one of the most thoughtful sections of the book. What obligation to we have to others when we put personal memories into the public domain? This most scholarly work in the collection quotes from others who have considered these issues including David Mura and bell hooks in its final, thoughtful and thought provoking passage. What is the meaning of memory? What is its purpose in our lives today?
Book Description: An anthology of essays by women that explore through a child's lens the sometimes savage, sometimes innocent, and always complex ways in which race shapes American lives and families.
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