Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Bridge Characters in Multicultural Children's/YA Literature

Last week, I finished Jacqueline Woodson’s breathtaking If You Come Softly – a novel that is, among other brilliant things, a modern interpretation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, with a white Juliet and African American Romeo. I wrote about some more general thoughts on race in the story here at 3 Sisters Village last week.

In the meantime, since writing a rather detailed critique of New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof’s Half the Sky at I’ve been thinking about how race is handled in other settings. Primarily, I’ve been thinking about the notion of the ‘bridge character’ or the responsibility of a multicultural story to build a ‘bridge’ for outsiders.

You see, in answer to a critique of his reporting style, which sometimes features white outsiders going to ‘help’ in Asian or African countries, Kristof answered in this youtube video that this choice was purposeful. Although it might play into stereotypes of “black Africans as victims” and “white foreigners as their saviors,” Kristof suggested that “One way to get people to read…is to have some sort of American they can identify with as a bridge character.”

Which of course begs the questions – who are the people we want to be doing this reading? And why do they need a ‘bridge’ into a compelling story – simply because it’s about non-Americans or people of color? (And don’t immigrants, and people of color in general, always have to do such ‘bridge-making’ in their day to day lives anyway?)

So I guess what I want to grapple with here is if literature bears a similar burden. Do ‘bridges’ need to be made between readers and stories about characters that aren’t from their countries or cultural backgrounds?

In Woodson’s If You Come Softly, one can imagine the ‘bridge’ between the story and the reader might be the Shakespearean play itself. That perhaps it is ‘easier’ for some readers to enter this (potentially frightening/inspiring of defensiveness) story about racism and police brutality because the overall plot – about star-crossed lovers – is one that is so culturally familiar. In addition, both of her characters aren’t of color, one is white and Jewish and one is African American. Their very romance is an act of bridge-building as it were, between two seemingly disparate experiences and worlds. In this way, Woodson’s novel potentially parallels the experiences of readers into her story.

Yet, much of Woodson’s work does not do this. Locomotion, After Tupac and D Foster, or even her stunning picture book Show Way, based on Woodson’s own family history of enslavement, are wonderful pieces of literature simply because they are so unapologetically set in their own cultural spaces. Like other fantastic writers – from Salman Rushdie, who peppers his novels with Indian English-isms and obscure cultural references, to Junot Diaz, who explains, and doesn’t explain, Dominican American political history in his writing – Woodson simply lets the strength of her stories carry the reader into potentially unfamiliar worlds.

To read the rest of this essay please visit 3 Sisters Village!

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