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Wednesday
Oct172012

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 Racialicious.com 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. She doesn’t expect that every reader needs to, or can, enter her story in the same way. And I don’t think this detracts from her stories ‘working,’ or, in a broader sense, doing important cultural ‘work.’  

In writing, and submitting my own middle-grade fantasy novel based on Indian folktales, I’ve faced these same questions. Although I’ve found a brilliant and lovely agent who believes in the work as much as I do, the process was not an easy one. Some of the feedback I got at early stages of the submission process was sometimes about this idea of creating a ‘bridge’ between the (non Indian) reader and an unfamiliar cultural context and unfamiliar set of stories. It is the tension between ‘explaining’ and ‘not explaining’ things like religious contexts and cultural history – not dissimilar to the ‘world building’ that a writer of, say, Lord of the Rings like fantasy might face to explain the made-up rules of his or her novel’s context.

(To which I always wanted to say – I’m writing about Indian people, here, folks. Not hobbits or elves!)

Ultimately, I think (and hope!), good stories are bridges in and of themselves, and the less explaining we do, the more we respect our readers. But I still struggle with the issue. Would Woodson’s novel be as easily received by a wide set of readers had it not reflected Romeo and Juliet in its plot structure? What if the ‘Juliet’ character had not been white, but rather, Latina, or Asian? How does one invite any reader – but particularly, a mainstream reader -- into an unfamiliar world, and make sure they stay? 

One answer might be that mainstream readers don’t need to stay if they don’t want. There are enough pieces of literature out there for them. This literature is for kids who don’t see themselves in other spaces, for kids who want to finally read about a character ‘like them.’

But I’m not sure that’s the entire answer.

I actually would like to believe that one critical reason for publishing more wonderful multicultural children’s and YA literature is to accustom mainstream readers to building their own bridges into unfamiliar contexts. In the same way that I, as a young reader of color, had to make a significant leap to identify and affiliate with fantastic (yet culturally unfamiliar) protagonists like Laura Ingalls, Nancy Drew or the characters of Jane Austen, might not mainstream readers also learn to enter unfamiliar stories? Might not a generation who grows up learning this skill be less needy of journalistic ‘bridges’ (like the ones that Kristof describes) later in life? Might they not more easily affiliate with others unlike themselves?  

Can learning, as a child or young person, to affiliate with characters culturally unlike you make a world of more tolerant, ‘bridge-making’ adults?


Sayantani DasGupta is a physican and writer, originally trained in pediatrics and public health, currently a faculty member in the master’s program in narrative medicine at Columbia University and the graduate program in Health Advocacy at Sarah Lawrence College. She teaches courses on illness and disability memoir, and narrative, health and social justice. Sayantani’s scholarly work in the field of feminist health science studies, most recently looking at transnational surrogacy, what’s been called the Indian ‘wombs for rent’ phenomenon. She is a widely published and nationally recognized speaker on issues of narrative, health care, race, gender and medical education. She is the co-author of The Demon Slayers and Other Stories: Bengali Folktales, the author of a memoir about her education at Johns Hopkins, and the co-editor of an award winning collection of women’s illness narratives Stories of Illness and Healing: Women Write their Bodies.

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Reader Comments (3)

That is an important question. Especially since for many children that is the most intimate contact they will have. We have to hope that the empathy and emotion that literature can evoke will be strong enough to open hearts and minds to all of humanity.

Wednesday, October 17 | Unregistered CommenterTammy

Excellent post. I really like the term "bridges" for some reason. It really encapsulates a complex issue.

Friday, October 19 | Unregistered CommenterGabrielle Prendergast

thank you for your comments, Tammy and Gabrielle, I hope that the post points to the broader social justice goals of children's literature... I had the honor of hearing the writer Bruce Coville speak on this issue earlier this week, more here: http://storiesaregoodmedicine.blogspot.com/2012/10/childrens-literature-as-social-justice.html

Friday, October 19 | Unregistered CommenterSayantani

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