Writing Crossing Cultural Borders-An Introduction to a new blog series

This week’s guest post comes to us via Emily Jiang. Emily Jiang is a poet, writer, & composer. She is the author of Summoning the Phoenix, illustrated by April Chu, and published by Shen’s Books, an imprint of Lee & Low.  She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Saint Mary’s College of California and a BA in English from Rice University. For the next several months, we will be cross-posting occasional blog posts by Emily. The entire blog series can be found at Emily’s website, www.emilyjiang.com. This is the introduction to her series.–J.L. Powers

There’s been a lot of interesting discussion on the internet about the dearth of new multicultural books being published in the United States.  While I agree that we definitely need to publish more diverse books to reflect the growing diversity of our population, I’m also curious as to what has already been published, the kinds of multicultural books available to our children, and what we as readers and writers can learn from what already exists.  This has prompted me to revisit, revise, and update a blog series I wrote with Renee Ting called “Crossing Cultural Borders.”

This will be a weekly blog series, with a new post up every Monday, which I now call Multicultural Monday.  While Renee and I did perform some research, I acknowledge that we cannot catch everything. Your recommendations and constructive comments are welcome.

Also, to clarify a few terms:

1) “Americans” will refer to citizens of the United States.

2) ”People of Color” or “POC” means “not white.” Some POC can pass for white, but they are still POC.

Writing Crossing Cultural Borders – the Inspiration

When I was in the 6th grade, I read Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James Houston, and it changed my life. This slim book is a memoir of Jeanne’s experiences while her family resided in the Manzanar internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II. Farewell to Manzanar was a huge influence for me because it was my first and only school-assigned book written by an Asian-American about a uniquely Asian-American experience. Though Jeanne is a second/third generation Japanese-American and I am a first-generation born Chinese-American, I delighted in reading a story about an American girl who looked just like me.

Several years ago I had the opportunity to actually meet Jeanne Wakatuski Houston and James Houston in person. While fighting extreme jet lag from my Florida trip, I made my way to the Foothill Writers’ Conference and attended the Houston’s session entitled “Writing Crossing Cultural Borders.”

The first speaker to arrive in the room, James Houston was a tall, lanky White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) gentleman who was born and raised in California but has roots in the state of Texas. When he found out I grew up in Dallas, Texas, he joked that we could be related. Speaking extemporaneously in a laid back manner, James was an interesting contrast to his wife, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, a petite Japanese-American woman with long, wavy black hair and a big, wide smile. Jeanne spoke softly, but with fire.

James Houston kicked off the session by listing four kinds of stories that cross cultural borders:

  1. Stories of immigration
  2. Stories of Americans traveling to another culture, where their senses of selves are tested
  3. Stories featuring ethnic minority Americans within America
  4. Stories about a specific ethnicity/culture written by authors who are not originally from that ethnicity/culture

Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston opened discussion by reading her personal essay discussing multicultural America through her experiences. My personal interest was sparked when she described America as transitioning from the traditional melting pot model, where immigrants shed their other culture to assimilate into America, to the more contemporary mosaic model, where immigrants and their children retain and celebrate their cultural heritage, especially in food and language. Because there were writers from Germany, Switzerland, and Denmark attending the session, Jeanne also pointed out the fact that typically we think of multicultural Americans as people of color, but European who immigrate into America are also torn between two cultures.

I left their session extremely inspired, and I wanted to apply their categories to children’s literature, since all the examples James Houston listed were from adult literature.

We will be exploring books grouped under the following topics here on my blog:

  1. Stranger in a Strange Land: Americans Traveling to Other Cultures
  2. Becoming American: Immigration Stories
  3. The Hyphenated American Experience: Voices of Americans Who Are “The Other”
  4. Writing What You Don’t Know: Creating Characters and Stories Outside of One’s Ethnicity and Culture

The scope of multicultural literature for children in the United States is so broad that I had to really narrow down the topics. While comments about all types of multicultural literature are welcome, the focus for this blog series will be realistic, narrative-driven, U.S.-centric books written by predominantly English-speaking authors, which is already a huge list.  Also, the focus of this blog series will be on multicultural books that are traditionally published, since much of the internet commentary was also centered around publishers’ obligations to multiculturalism.

Many of these books I will blog about I’ve read myself, but some of them I found in a library database (Novelist K-8) or listed in this book: Crossing Boundaries with Children’s Booksedited by Doris Gebel. Also, my collaborator Renee Ting will contribute several articles based on her over ten year’s experience as a multicultural children’s book publisher.  Special thanks to Claudia Pearson for some book recommendations.

We want to know what multicultural books you have read.  We want to know about your multicultural experiences and your thoughts.  Please feel free to comment

Emily Jiang is author & composer of Summoning the Phoenix, a collection of poetry and prose about modern children playing traditional Chinese musical instruments, illustrated by April Chu & published by Shen’s Books, an imprint of Lee & Low, forthcoming Spring 2014.

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