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Teaching Multicultural Literature: A Workshop for the Middle Grades

Engagement and Dialogue: Julia Alvarez, James McBride, Lensey Namioka, and more Authors and Literary Works

Julia Alvarez: Biography & Works

Biography

Julia Alvarez was born in New York City in 1950, and soon afterward, her family returned to their native Dominican Republic. Her father was a doctor who became active in the resistance movement against the dictator General Rafael Trujillo. When Julia was 10 years old, after a coup attempt on Trujillo made their life in the Dominican Republic too dangerous, the family fled to settle permanently in New York.

Ms. Alvarez writes novels, essays, poetry, and children’s books. Much of her work is based on the themes of growing up in a dictatorship and adjusting to life as an immigrant. “I think of myself very much as someone who is putting together different kinds of worlds and a different understanding of language from having those two worlds,” she told Salon.com. “America’s a place where worlds collided and languages and experiences collided.”

How the García Girls Lost Their Accents is the author’s best-known novel. Told in a series of vignettes, it relates the story of an immigrant family with four daughters living in exile in the Bronx and trying to adapt to life in America. Library Journalcalled it “a rollicking, highly original first novel.”

In the Time of Butterflies tells the story of the courageous Mirabal sisters, who challenge Trujillo and are brutally murdered by his forces, an event that leads directly to the dictator’s own assassination. According to Kirkus Reviews, “Alvarez’s voice … is grounded in realism yet alive with the magic of everyday human beings who summon extraordinary courage and determination to fight for their beliefs. As mesmerizing as the Mirabal sisters themselves.”

In her collection of essays, Something to Declare, Alvarez gives a nonfiction treatment of many of the events and themes she has covered fictionally. For example, “I Want to Be Miss América” describes the Alvarez family’s reaction to watching the contest and some of the cultural and racial issues it raises for them.

Julia Alvarez is a summa cum laude graduate of Middlebury College. She earned an M.F.A. degree at Syracuse University and attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, one of the country’s premier literary institutions. Ms. Alvarez has been teaching for a quarter of a century at such institutions as Phillips Andover Academy, the University of Vermont, George Washington University, and Middlebury College.

 

Work

“I Want to Be Miss América”

The Miss America pageant has been one of America’s most enduring rituals. Mid-century, in the golden age of the Bert Parks years, the country looked on breathlessly as 50 poised, yet nervous teenage girls vied for the crown in an Atlantic City hall, bringing high drama to the dying days of summer. Every year on Miss America night, millions of girls across the land watched and dreamed of their own chance to be on the runway. In their New York City apartment, the four Dominican American Alvarez girls watched and dreamed too. But for them, it wasn’t quite the same.

There they stood, fifty puzzle pieces forming the pretty face of America, so we thought, though most of the color had been left out, except for one, or possibly two, light-skinned black girls.

There they sat, four onlookers who knew that no matter how hard they might try to iron their dark, curly hair and to cover their olive skin with foundation, they would never be able to “translate our looks into English … mold them … into Made-in-the-U.S.A. beauty.”

In her essay, Julia Alvarez conveys the isolation she and her three sisters felt — their sense of apartness from the rest of America. Even though they were “glad to be here” and had immersed themselves in their new culture, this yearly drama of the beauty pageant accentuated the feeling of foreignness they couldn’t shake.

In this bittersweet memory, the sweet part is family togetherness. “Once a year, we all plopped down in our parents’ bedroom, with Mami and Papi presiding from their bed.” The Alvarez family did not swallow the spectacle uncritically. “There were homely girls with cross-eyed smiles or chipmunk cheeks. My mother would inevitably shake her head and say, ‘The truth is, these Americans believe in democracy — even in looks.'” Their father joined in too: “He would offer insights into what he thought made a winner. ‘Personality, Mami… Personality is the key.'” But his daughters noticed his choice in contestants reflected a different standard. “‘Ay, Papi,’ we would groan, rolling our eyes at each other.”

Alvarez reflects on a later time that would be more inclusive of immigrants, but says it came “too late. We had already acquired the habit of doubting ourselves as well as the place we came from. To this day, after three decades of living in America, I feel like a stranger in what I now consider my own country… There she is, Miss America, but even in my up-to-date, enlightened dream, she never wears my face.”

 

Gish Jen: Biography & Works

Biography


Novelist and short story writer Gish Jen, a second-generation Chinese American, grew up in Scarsdale, New York. A Harvard University graduate, she also received an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

The Washington Post called Gish Jen “a sharp and witty observer of the immigrant experience — of the Chinese Americans that populate her work, certainly, but of immigrants in general.”

Her first novel, Typical American, introduced the Changs, young Chinese immigrants who turn themselves into what they once disdained as “typically American.” The book was a New York Times notable book of the year and a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle award. In the sequel, Mona in the Promised Land, the author continued to probe her themes of ethnic identity and cultural identity. “Mona Chang offers a first-person record of her life from 1968, when she is in the eighth grade, to adulthood,” observes Kirkus Reviews. “Woven through Mona’s often witty narrative of her adolescence, of her struggles both to fit in and to stand apart, of her first hesitant experience of passion, is her determination to live outside both the expectations of her parents and the blithe stereotypes of society.” Gish Jen also published a collection of eight short stories titled Who’s Irish?: And Other Stories.

“You sort of wonder who really feels unequivocally American,” Gish Jen said in an interview with television journalist Bill Moyers. “Many, many people are subject to this feeling of slight estrangement… In my experience, if you claim America, no one will dispute your claim. No one’s going to hand it to you, but if you say, ‘Well, this is mine,’ no one is going to stop you either. And that’s been very empowering for me.”

The New York Times called The Love Wife, Jen’s novel about the Wong family, “a big story: a story about families and identity and race and the American Dream, a story about how one generation deals with the expectations and the hopes of an earlier generation.”

Gish Jen’s stories have been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Yale Review, and numerous anthologies. “Birthmates” was chosen for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike. Stories such as “What Means Switch” and “The White Umbrella” have appeared in anthologies for young adult readers. Jen has been awarded grants by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Radcliffe Bunting Institute, among other organizations.

Author Works

“What Means Switch”

Mona Chang’s fictional Chinese American family follows the same course that writer Gish Jen’s real family did — living in working-class Yonkers, where they were scorned, then moving to the more upscale Scarsdale, which accepted them. “Here we’re like permanent exchange students,” says eighth-grader Mona. “We’re not so much accepted, as embraced. Especially by the Jewish part of town… Pretty soon I’m getting popular for a new girl.” She adjusts seamlessly to their boys-and-dating talk. In this generally humorous story, her classmates’ mothers seek Mona’s approval by inviting her over to taste-test their Chinese cooking.

Cultural tension comes with a twist here. “I come in late … to discover there’s a new kid in class. Chinese.” But Sherman Matsumoto is not Chinese, he’s Japanese, and Mona isn’t any better than her white classmates at telling the difference. As the story develops, Mona’s mother reacts angrily when Sherman playfully places a picture of a Japanese flag on her refrigerator door.

Mona is perplexed by Sherman. He and the school authorities seem to think that she should be his shepherd, though they don’t even share a language. Sign language fills the gap. The other girls want to know, “Are you going steady?” Mona wants to know, “Are Sherman and I in love?” There is much discussion among the girls about getting to first base or second base. Mona wonders if brushing shoulders with Sherman counts. Sherman’s questions are different. Is Mona Jewish? Is she American? She explains that you are American if you are born here — or you can switch. Sherman is bewildered.

Soon they decide they are in love, but Sherman has to go back to Japan. In their farewell encounter, brushing shoulders gives way to kissing, and then discussion of who should switch — she to Japanese, or he to American, as Mona suggests.

Tina Yun Lee: Biography & Works

Biography

Tina Yun Lee is a writer and actress whose one-woman show, My Mom Across America, premiered with HERE/Lincoln Center Theatre’s American Living Room series. The show was featured on BBC radio, which called it “a story full of humor and painful misunderstanding.” It was published in the anthology, Echoes Upon Echoes: New Korean American Writings. Lee’s second show, How to Ride Roller Coasters, a comic portrait of her father and how her family copes with the scary hairpin turns of his illness, premiered at the Korea Society.

Lee is a graduate of Yale University and received her M.F.A. in fiction writing from Sarah Lawrence College.


In My Mom Across America, Lee explores the tensions of the mother/daughter relationship, which in her family are exacerbated by the additional tensions between Koreans who are first- versus second-generation Americans. “The story is full of humor that is gentle and generous but also probing,” says Bryan Aubrey of Arts & Culture. “[Her] relationship with her overbearing mother, who wants her to be a lawyer, not a writer, is a constant exercise in bridging the chasms of age and outlook.” When Tina is offstage, talking to schoolchildren, she almost echoes her mother’s pragmatic thinking: “I love acting and I love writing, but it’s so hard to make a living from it that most artists I know do something else for money. So it doesn’t feel like a real job, like being a lawyer. I feel like this society is not necessarily built for artists … it’s very hard to be an artist.”

In school, Lee developed an attitude toward being Korean that was guaranteed to raise eyebrows at home: “I went to a school that was predominantly Jewish and Italian, so being Korean was kind of weird. And it’s only as an adult, after graduating from college, I’m becoming more interested in it.” In the play she says, “When I was a kid, my two biggest fears in life were dogs and being Korean.” Her fear, it turns out, was about what other Koreans would think because she couldn’t speak Korean.


In the end, Lee’s comedic orientation calls for easy resolution of her problems: “I can’t regret any embarrassing experiences because I use them in my stories, so they’re positive anyway, even though I feel completely humiliated in the moment.”

Tina Yun Lee’s work has also been published in Kalliope magazine and The River City Journal. Lee has appeared in numerous theater and film productions.

Work

My Mom Across America

My Mom Across America is Tina Yun Lee’s autobiographical one-woman show, which cleverly navigates the rocky shoals of the mother/daughter relationship. Yet it’s not just mother/daughter tensions that are at issue here, but first- versus second-generation immigrant concerns as well.

Tina (also called Yunny by her parents) is a self-deprecating and ironic Korean American woman in her 20s who is getting her M.F.A. in fiction writing. From her parents’ perspective, this is all wrong, of course: “My mother has asked me to go to law school, since, God, I think my first day out of the womb … she keeps at it … she mentions it without knowing it. ‘Mom, so what’s the capital of France?’ ‘Law school! Oh, sorry, did I say again?'”

Lee says her two biggest fears are dogs and being Korean. She doesn’t speak Korean and is always afraid of encountering a Korean who will try to converse with her. “I am a fake Korean… When I went to college, I told everyone I was Jewish.” But somehow, her mother, who is clearly losing the law school battle, manages to lure Lee into a family trip across Canada, which turns out to be an all-Korean (and Korean-speaking) bus excursion. In Lee’s deft hands, the consequences are both comic and touching as the generational tug-of-war unfolds.


A change of heart on either part is probably too much to expect, but by the end of the trip, Lee has at least gained some wisdom for the inevitable future hurdles of the continuing mother/daughter relationship. “What is the big deal about mothers and daughters?” she wonders. “I guess it’s because mothers identify with their daughters. They’re trying to rewrite their history with you; that’s why it’s so important that you end up with the right career, the right partner, the right weight, the right hairstyle. Sometimes, I wish I could trade in my title of daughter. Life would be so much easier if I could be demoted to niece, or aunt or even distant cousin. There’s too much pressure with the daughter part.”

Khoi Truong Luu: Biography & Works

Biography

Khoi Truong Luu was born in Sai Gon, Vietnam in 1972, and came to America when he was seven years old. He has said that because of the Vietnam War, he lost “my father, my homeland, my roots, my childhood innocence, and parts of my sanity.”

Luu’s stories and essays have appeared in Not a War: American Vietnamese Fiction, Poetry, and Essays; Once Upon a Dream: The Vietnamese-American Experience; and Best New American Voices: Fiction by Today’s Most Innovative and Original New Writers.

He was coeditor of Watermark: Vietnamese American Poetry and Prose.Watermark is simply some of the best writing from a new generation of writers in America,” says Russell Leong, editor of the UCLA Amerasia Journal. “Eloquent, funny, poignant — the writing goes beyond war — taking us into the towns and fields of America.”

Luu’s personal essays have been taught in courses on American studies, Asian American literature, and Vietnamese literature at a dozen universities, including Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania.

Khoi Truong Luu received his A.B. from Harvard and his M.A. in creative writing from Boston University.

 

Works

“Family Ties: Exposing the Lighter Side of the Vietnamese American Experience”

In 1995, Khoi Truong Luu put together this informal collection of “reflections, observations and anecdotes.” He recalls how, when he came to America at age seven, he “longed to be a true ‘native.’ … Now, ironically, painfully, I’m trying to return to my roots, and sometimes I wish I were a ‘real Vietnamese.'”

As a jumping-off point for his musings, he uses a remark from another Vietnamese American editor, Huy Thanh Cao: “Somewhere along the way, I realized that to be Vietnamese means to endure.”

Says Luu, “most Vietnamese people … would acknowledge that suffering and enduring are, indeed, dominant themes of our national experience and character … but must endurance be coupled with perpetual sorrow?”

Luu thinks not, and thanks his family for giving him “my dignity, an ironic sense of hope and, believe it or not, my sense of humor.” He suggests that the Vietnamese expatriate community look beyond the Hollywood treatment of their native country in Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, and other films, “and stop for a second and appreciate some of the light-hearted and less-solemn aspects of the Vietnamese American experience.”

Luu follows with a series of vignettes, the first about his grandmother, “an incredible woman, full of love, energy and life. I’ve seen pictures of her from the 1930s when she was a beautiful young woman, adorned with French makeup and elegant clothing… At present, she is part of a rare breed: a 70-something Vietnamese semi-actively learning English.” Luu tells of finding her, motionless, in the middle of the night, after she’d fallen down the stairs and broken her hip: “I saw fear in her eyes.” Yet, “three months later, she was back on her feet again — cooking, cleaning, laughing, spreading joy and inspiration everywhere she went.” In 1992, Khoi Truong Luu’s grandmother became a citizen of the United States.

Luu also shows a different facet of “family.” His Aunt Nga was an electrical engineer at Motorola, which has a big family picnic each year. “I observed one important cultural difference: I think the American notion of inviting your family to a company picnic means nuclear family, but of course we brought out the whole clan: uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, cousins, grandparents, grandchildren — the whole family tree. We were the largest family there, hands down.”

“What a Country!” is what Luu calls his story about a middle-of-the-night call from Uncle Tuan, who was new to America and house-sitting at Auntie Nga’s. “‘I’m sorry to wake you up, but I have something here for Auntie Nga. You wouldn’t believe this, but she just won ten million dollars!’ I tried to explain to him about junk mail, how it was all a hoax, how some American companies will do anything to grab your attention through correspondence. But he insisted: ‘It says right here in big, black letters. Nga Ly is the recipient of ten million dollars.'”

And what could be more American than a top-ten list? Luu’s “Top Ten Ways to Become ‘More Vietnamese’ for the Twenty-Something Generation” includes this Asian American staple: “8. Enroll (in order of parental preference) in: medical, law, engineering, dental, or pharmacy schools. Do not become a creative writer.”

Luu concludes, “The road remains long and arduous, and I’ll need more than a silly Top Ten list as a guide. But I think as long as I keep my sense of humor, I should be okay. Laughter, they say, is the best medicine.”

James McBride: Biography & Works

Biography

James McBride enjoys a rich creative life as both a well-regarded writer and an accomplished composer and jazz saxophonist.

McBride is best known for writing The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother. This combined biography of his mother and memoir of his own life has struck a chord with the reading public, earning more than two years on the New York Times bestseller list.

It’s ironic that his mother’s story is now so intimately known to readers across the country. When McBride was a boy growing up in housing projects in Red Hook, Brooklyn, his white, Jewish mother was unusually secretive about her life. As a child, James made periodic stabs at discovering the background of his obviously white mother. “When I asked her where she was from, she would say, ‘God made me,’ and change the subject… Answering questions about her personal history did not jibe with Mommy’s view of parenting 12 brown-skinned children.”

Eventually McBride broke through the wall. Through conversations with his mother and additional research, he was able to construct a poignant and memorable portrait.

McBride found that his mother had been born in Poland to an Orthodox Jewish rabbi and his wife. Life was never easy for Ruth Shilsky. The family immigrated to America, where they moved around a lot in the early years, before settling in Virginia. Her father abused her and was generally difficult. She moved to New York after high school, and married African American Andrew McBride, a leather maker and aspiring musician who was known by his middle name, Dennis. He started his own church, and Ruth enthusiastically converted to Christianity. They had eight children. James was the last, born after his father’s death of cancer. Ruth later married another black man, Hunter Jordan, and had four more children.

In The Color of Water, James McBride interweaves this maternal history with a vivid portrait of what it was like to grow up in Ruth’s chaotic household, where religion and education were the two great verities. He paints an indelible picture of the indomitable character who was his mother, who had to barrel through poverty every day of their lives. “It wasn’t that she forgot who we were, but there were so many of us, she had no time for silly details like names. She was the commander in chief of my house,” acting “as chief surgeon for bruises (‘Put iodine on it’), war secretary (‘If somebody hits you, take your fist and crack ’em’), chief psychologist (‘Don’t think about it’), and financial adviser (‘What’s money if your mind is empty?’).”

James’s birth rank buried him deeply in the insignificant middle of the family of 12 children. “It was kill or be killed in my house, and Mommy understood that, in fact, [she] created the system. You were left to your own devices — so you thought, until you were at your very wits’ end, at which time she would step in and rescue you.”

McBride was 14 when his stepfather died. Ruth slid into a long daze of grief, and James went on his own emotional slide. His grades plummeted. He started drinking, using drugs, shoplifting, and flirting with other petty crime. He eventually regained his equilibrium and went off to Oberlin College, “because they had a great liberal arts school, a conservatory of music, and most of all, scholarship money.” He followed up with a master’s degree from the Columbia School of Journalism. Like his 11 siblings, James McBride went on to have a successful career. He was a staff writer for The Washington Post, People Magazine, and The Boston Globe, and has also written for Essence, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times. McBride has written fiction as well. His historical novel, Miracle at St. Anna, portrays black soldiers during World War II who are stranded in a remote Italian village between their commanders and the German Army.

James McBride’s creative gifts extend beyond literature to the field of music. He has developed a talent he inherited from Dennis McBride, the father he never knew. McBride plays the saxophone, and has written songs for Anita Baker, Grove Jr., Purafe, Garry Burton, and even the television character, Barney. “You can say things in music that you can’t say verbally or as a writer, and in some ways they have a deeper impact. Songs are in many ways the lighthouses of your life.” His awards include the American Arts and Letters Richard Rogers Award, the ASCAP Richard Rodgers Horizons Award, and the American Music Festival’s Stephen Sondheim Award.

 

Work

The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother

James McBride and his 11 siblings were raised by a mother who shrouded her own early life in mystery. McBride’s father and stepfather were both black men, but the boy knew his mother looked different. “When I asked if she was white, she’d say, ‘I’m light-skinned,’ and change the subject.”

In The Color of Water, McBride relates the remarkable story he finally extracted from his mother. Born in Poland in 1921, she became Ruth Shilsky when the family immigrated to America. As McBride reveals his mother’s early life and the story of his own upbringing in alternating chapters, Ruth Zilska Shilsky McBride Jordan emerges as an American original.

Her Orthodox rabbi father “was nobody to fool with,” Ruth said. “He was hard as a rock.” He hauled his family all over the Northeast until moving them to Virginia, where he opened a grocery store. Her mother was a gentle woman, disabled by polio and badly treated by her husband. Ruth’s life as a young Jewish girl in the South was dismal. She was isolated, unpopular in school, required to work long hours in the store, and abused by her father.

After high school Ruth moved to New York, where she married a black man, Andrew Dennis McBride (known as Dennis), who was an excellent leather maker and a talented musician. “My family mourned me when I married your father,” she told James. “They said kaddish and sat shiva. That’s how Orthodox Jews mourn their dead.” Ruth and Dennis lived together happily, much of the time in a Brooklyn housing project. She converted to Christianity, and Dennis went to divinity school and opened his own Baptist church.

James McBride, the youngest of Dennis’s eight children, never knew his own father. Dennis died of cancer before the birth of his youngest son. James thought of Ruth’s second husband, Hunter Jordan, “as Daddy … he cared for all of us as if we were his own.” Ruth had four more children with Hunter, so the family had an even dozen children. Fortunately, Hunter Jordan was in synch with Ruth’s insistence on “education and church.” Her child-rearing model, as James characterizes it, “represented the best and worst of the immigrant mentality: hard work, no nonsense, quest for excellence, distrust of authority figures, and a deep belief in God and education.”

On a day-to-day basis, life in the McBride-Jordan household was challenging. “My brothers and sisters were my best friends, but when it came to food, they were my enemies. There were so many of us we were constantly hungry, scavenging for food in the empty refrigerator and cabinets. We would hide food from one another, squirreling away a precious grilled cheese or fried bologna sandwich.”

The food shortage was evidence of the family’s unrelieved poverty. Ruth Jordan’s concerns were not materialistic, and housekeeping was not high on her list of important values to foster in her children. “Our house looked like a hurricane hit it. Books, papers, shoes, football helmets, baseball bats, balls, trucks, bicycles, musical instruments were everywhere and used by everyone.”

James muses on his mother’s contradictions: “White folks, she felt, were implicitly evil toward blacks, yet she forced us to go to white schools to get the best education. Blacks could be trusted more, but anything involving blacks was probably slightly substandard. She disliked people with money yet was in constant need of it.”

In 1966, as a nine-year-old, James inevitably took notice of Black Power, which was highly visible in his neighborhood in New York. “Malcolm had been killed the year before and had grown larger in death than in life. Afros were in style. The Black Panthers were a force.” But because of his unusual family configuration, his view was different from that of most African American boys: “There was a part of me that feared Black Power very deeply for the obvious reason. I thought Black Power would be the end of my mother. I had swallowed the white man’s fear of the Negro, as we were called back then, whole.”

In The Color of Water, James McBride offers a complex and individual description of racial identity within a particularly rich historical moment in the United States. At its core, this memoir is a moving dedication to a mother who was always a woman of fierce integrity. She paid no heed to what the world might think of her, and concentrated, laserlike on her brood of 12. Her single-mindedness paid off. All her children went to college — most earned graduate degrees — and are established in professional careers. James had a successful career as a newspaper writer before writing the book, and has also thrived as a musician in recent years. Ruth herself graduated from Temple University with a degree in social work when she was 65.

Lensey Namioka: Biography & Works

Biography

Photo by: Mike Bennett, Liberty Studios

Lensey Namioka is a prolific writer of books for young adults and children. She is best known for the Zenta and Matsuzo Samurai series, tales of adventure and terror that chronicle the exploits of two 16th-century samurai warriors.

Namioka was born in Beijing, China, and came to America when she was nine years old. She attended Radcliffe College and the University of California at Berkeley, where she studied mathematics. Her husband, a college math professor, was born in Japan. The Namiokas live in Seattle, but Ms. Namioka has lived and traveled all over the world.

Half and Half is about Fiona Cheng, a girl whose mother is Scottish and father Chinese. Fiona is forever trying to figure out her identity, and to sort out the situations that come with her mixed heritage. Can a Chinese girl dance the Highland Reel with her Scottish grandfather?

In An Ocean Apart, a World Away, 16-year-old Yanyan dreams of becoming a doctor, a rare possibility for a woman in China in 1921. The solution is to go to school in America. When her Chinese boyfriend visits and wants to marry her, Yanyan must make another life-changing decision. “The gentle romance, the unusual historical setting, and the strong female character each contribute to the book’s appeal, but its special strength is the voice of the narrator,” observes School Library Journal.

Namioka has won many awards for her work. For instance, Ties That Bind, Ties That Break was named one of the American Library Association’s 10 Best Books for Young People, and also won the California Young Reader Medal and the Washington State Governor’s Writers Award. Namioka has also written travel books about Japan and China.

 

Works

“The All-American Slurp”

Readers of Lensey Namioka’s story can both feel the pain and embarrassment of the Lin family and be amused by their tentative efforts to adjust to perplexing Western eating customs. At a dinner party given by their welcoming neighbors, the Gleasons, the first obstacle is raw celery. How to remove the strings discreetly so as to avoid getting them caught in their teeth? “Z-z-zip” sounds come from the four Lins. The teenage daughter, who narrates the story, suddenly realizes, “There was dead silence except for our zipping. Looking up, I saw that the eyes of everyone in the room were on our family.” The next danger zone was the dinner table itself — heaped with food, but not surrounded by chairs. The Lins pulled up their own and sat down, only to be apprised of the concept of a “buffet.” Abashed, the family retreated for the rest of the evening.

Other things were going well for the Lins. Their English was improving, and they were learning how to dress “American.” Mr. Lin received a promotion, and decided to take the family out for an elegant dinner. But the dining-in-public demons were summoned again. “As any respectable Chinese knows, the correct way to eat your soup is to slurp.” In the decorously quiet dining room of the Lakeview Restaurant, the “shloop, shloop, shloop” of the Lins brought conversation to a dead halt. It was an indelible episode of embarrassment for the Lin daughter/narrator. “Even now, I turn hot all over when I think of the Lakeview Restaurant.”

But later the Lins were able to regain the culinary high ground. When Mrs. Lin included the Gleasons in a dinner party, it was quickly apparent they didn’t know the first thing about eating a proper Chinese dinner. Meg had been “taking food from a second dish before she finished eating her helping from the first!” Mrs. Gleason dumped the rice from her bowl to her dinner plate, and then mixed everything together “the way you mix sand, gravel, and cement to make concrete.” Mr. Gleason chased a pea around his plate with chopsticks, and finally picked it up with his fingers. “He really did! A grown man!” Seeing her daughter’s reaction, Mrs. Lin sent a subtle signal. “I understood the message: The Gleasons were not used to Chinese ways, and they were just coping the best they could. For some reason I thought of celery strings.”

Later, when the daughters went to the Dairy Queen for dessert, it was revealed that on certain occasions, even Americans can slurp their food. As Meg was finishing her milkshake, “She pulled hard on her straws and went, ‘Shloop, shloop.’ ‘Do you always slurp when you eat a milkshake?’ I asked, before I could stop myself. Meg grinned. ‘Sure, all Americans slurp.'”

Naomi Shihab Nye: Biography & Works

Biography

Born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1952 to an American mother and a Palestinian father, poet Naomi Shihab Nye seems able to feel at home almost anywhere in the world. She lived in old Jerusalem for a time, and then settled in San Antonio, Texas. For the U.S. Information Agency, Ms. Nye promoted international goodwill through the arts on assignments to the Middle East and Asia. She assimilates the voices of her Mexican American neighbors into her work, as well as the perspectives of Arab Americans. Naomi Shihab Nye calls herself a “wandering poet.”

She was just seven years old when her first poem was published. She has gone on to create many collections of poetry, including Different Ways to Pray; Hugging the Jukebox; Yellow Glove; Red Suitcase; Fuel; Come With Me; Words Under the Words: Selected Poems; and A Maze Me.

Nye specializes in poetry that takes inspiration from small things and everyday events. She has a long-standing habit of keeping a notebook “because I wanted to remember everything. The quilt, the cherry tree, the creek. The neat whop of a baseball rammed perfectly with a bat. My father’s funny Palestinian stories.”

Nye also gives people who find poetry intimidating something to think about in the ALAN review:

“Anyone who feels poetry is an alien or ominous force should consider the style in which human beings think. “How do you think,” I ask my students. “Do you think in complete, elaborate sentences? In fully developed paragraphs with careful footnotes? Or in flashes and burst of images, snatches of lines leaping one to the next, descriptive fragments, sensory details?” We think in poetry. But some people pretend poetry is far away.

Ms. Nye’s honors include several Pushcart Prizes, a Lavan Award from the Academy of American Poets, the Paterson Poetry Prize, and the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award. The American Library Association has awarded her numerous citations. She has been a Lannan Fellow, a Guggenheim Fellow, and a Wittner Bynner Fellow (Library of Congress). She has appeared on PBS specials about poetry, The Language of Life with Bill Moyers and The United States of Poetry, and is a regular columnist for Organica.

Naomi Shihab Nye writes essays and children’s books, and does poetry translations as well as music and poetry recordings. She has also written a novel, and has edited many anthologies. She is a graduate of Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.

 

Works

“Half-and-Half”

You can’t be, says a Palestinian Christian
on the first feast day after Ramadan.
So, half-and-half and half-and-half.
He sells glass. He knows about broken bits,
chips. If you love Jesus you can’t love
anyone else. Says he.

At his stall of blue pitchers on the Via Dolorosa,
he’s sweeping. The rubbed stones
feel holy. Dusting of powdered sugar
across faces of date-stuffed mamool.

This morning we lit the slim white candles
which bend over at the waist by noon.
For once the priests weren’t fighting
in the church for the best spots to stand.
As a boy, my father listened to them fight.
This is partly why he prays in no language
but his own. Why I press my lips
to every exception.

A woman opens a window — here and here and here —
placing a vase of blue flowers
on an orange cloth. I follow her.
She is making soup from what she had left
in the bowl, the shriveled garlic and bent bean.
She is leaving nothing out.

Copyright @1998 by Naomi Shihab Nye. Reprinted from Fuel by Naomi Shihab Nye with the permission of BOA Editions, Ltd.

Key References

Black Power Movement
The Black Power movement stemmed from and was concurrent with the civil rights movement, and strove to unite and mobilize blacks in the United States. The ideas and goals of the movement varied greatly, from creating a group consciousness based on history and heritage to gaining economic and political power and independence for blacks. The term “Black Power” was first popularized by Stokely Carmichael, who reorganized the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee so that blacks would have more power in the organization. Other organizations, such as the Nation of Islam, of which Malcolm X was a leader, and the Black Panther Party, used the ideas of the Black Power movement in the political and economic arena. And individuals, such as Harold Cruse, influenced literature, music, and other arts with their ideas about the importance of Black Power to black culture.

Miscegenation Laws
Laws against interracial marriage had been enacted as early as 1661 in Virginia. Many states adopted similar laws over the years, and laws ensuring that mixed-race children became slaves or indentured servants. Later, in the mid-19th century, the pejorative term “miscegenation” was coined from the Latin words for “mixing” and “race,” and the concept of “eugenics,” the “purification” or “improvement” of the white race, was formed. These ideas about race and purity led to more and even stricter regulations forbidding interracial marriage and restricting immigration throughout the first half of the 20th century. By 1950, approximately half of the states had banned interracial marriage. However, in 1967, the case of Loving v. the Commonwealth of Virginia went to the Supreme Court, which decided that laws prohibiting interracial marriage were unconstitutional. Eventually all state constitutions that had made interracial marriages illegal were amended, and in 2000, Alabama, the only state in which interracial marriage was still illegal, repealed its law. However, there are still many social obstacles and barriers that make it difficult for two people of different races to marry.

Authors Resources

Julia Alvarez

Works by the Author
Listed below are selected works by the author.

Alvarez, Julia. Before We Were Free. New York: Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2002.
Adolescent Anita de la Torre must face her fears and flee a dictatorship with her family.

—. Finding Miracles. New York: Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2004.
Milly Kaufman is adopted and taken out of a war-torn country. This novel tells the story of Milly’s journey to find her identity, and how she tries to reconcile what she learns with what she knows.

—. How the García Girls Lost Their Accents. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin, 1991.
Four sisters flee the Dominican Republic and adjust to life in the United States in this series of stories told in reverse chronological order.

—. How Tía Lola Came to Visit Stay. New York: Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2001.
When Miguel’s Aunt Lola comes from the Dominican Republic to help his family in Vermont, Miguel learns to appreciate her different views and lifestyle.

—. In the Name of Salomé. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin, 2000.
This novel tells the story of revolutionary Salomé Ureña, the Dominican Republic’s national poet at age 14, and the contrasting story of her daughter Camila, who dedicated her life to teaching Spanish at Vassar College in New York.

—. In the Time of the Butterflies. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin, 1994.
In this fictional version of history, Alvarez tells the tale of the Mirabel sisters through their adolescence, adulthood, and involvement in the Dominican Republic’s revolution.

—. “I Want to Be Miss América.” In Something to Declare, 37-44. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin, 1998.

—. The Woman I Kept to Myself. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin, 2004.
Alvarez’s collection of poems explores themes of cultural difference in her personal experiences.

—. ¡YO! Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin, 1997.
In this follow-up to How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, Yolanda García, her friends, and her family members take turns narrating the story, which paints a vivid picture of Yolanda and her experiences as an immigrant in the United States.

Further Readings About the Author

Books

Authors and Artists for Young Adults. Vol. 25, ed. Thomas McMahon. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998.
An entry about Julia Alvarez offers biographical information as well as information about her works and career.

Notable Hispanic Women. Book 2, ed. Joseph M. Palmisano. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998.
This article discusses Julia Alvarez’s experiences growing up and coming to the United States, as well as some of her works.

Websites

Julia Alvarez
http://www.juliaalvarez.com/
Julia Alvarez’s personal site gives information about herself and her books, and a list of articles about her works.

Las Mujeres — Julia Alvarez

Julia Alvarez


This resource about notable Latina women provides a short biography of Julia Alvarez.

Periodicals

Barak, Julie. “‘Turning and Turning in the Widening Gyre’: A Second Coming Into Language in Julia Alvarez’s How the García Girls Lost Their Accents.” MELUS (Spring 1998):159-76.
This critical analysis of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents connects Alvarez’s stories with her own expereinces.

Hall, Catharine. “Bilingualism and Identity in Julia Alvarez’s Poem ‘Bilingual Sestina’.” MELUS (Winter 2003):125-43.
Hall discusses the role of bilingualism and identity in Alvarez’s writings.

Rich, Charlotte. “Talking Back to El Jefe: Genre, Polyphony, and Dialogic Resistance in Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies.” MELUS (Winter 2002):165-82.
In this critical analysis of In the Time of the Butterflies, Rich describes the techniques used by Alvarez to provide insight into the personal and emotional lives of the Mirabel sisters, the historic figures on whom the novel is based.

Gish Jen

Works by the Author
Listed below are selected works by the author.

Jen, Gish. The Love Wife. New York: Knopf, 2004.
Carnegie Wong marries Janie, whom Mama Wong refers to as “Blondie.” When his mother dies, Carnegie and Janie think no one else will interfere with their marriage until a “cousin,” whom they believe Mama Wong sent from her grave, comes into their lives.

—. Mona in the Promised Land: A Novel. New York: Vintage, 1997.
Mona Chang deals with the trials of adolescent life while also negotiating the cultural conflict between her Jewish faith and Chinese heritage.

—. Typical American. New York: Plume, 1992.
When three immigrants come to the United States after the Communist Revolution of 1948 in China, they pursue the American dream, battling personal obstacles and familial tensions along the way.

—. “What Means Switch.” Atlantic Monthly (May 1990):76-80.

—. “The White Umbrella.” In Home to Stay: Asian American Women’s Fiction, ed. Sylvia Watanabe and Carol Bruchac. New York: Greenfield Review Press, 1990.
This story depicts the experiences of two sisters at their piano lessons on a rainy day.

—. Who’s Irish?: Stories. New York: Vintage, 2000.
In this series of short stories, Jen writes about the illusion of the American dream and the realities faced by people of many different backgrounds.

Further Readings About the Author
Books

Lee, Rachel C. The Americas of Asian American Literature: Gendered Fictions of Nation and Transnation. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.
Lee critically analyzes the works of Asian American writers, including Gish Jen, to show the relationship among nationality, ethnic identity, and gender.

—. “Gish Jen.” In Words Matter: Conversations with Asian American Writers, ed. King-Kok Cheung, 215-32. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2000.
This collection of interviews with 20th-century Asian American writers features an interview with Jen, who discusses the themes of her writing and her image as an Asian American writer.

Periodicals

Furman, Andrew. “Immigrant Dreams and Civic Promises: Testing Identity in Early Jewish American Literature and Gish Jen’s Mona in the Promised Land.” MELUS (Spring 2000):209-36.
In this critical article about identity, Furman examines the interplay among perceptions of ethnic identities, inherited identities, and multiculturalism, looking to Jen’s book, Mona in the Promised Land, for examples.

Lee, Don. “About Gish Jen.” Ploughshares (Fall 2000):217-22.
Gish Jen shares her experiences growing up Asian American and becoming a recognized author.

Matsukawa, Yuko. “MELUS Interview: Gish Jen — Asian Perspectives.” MELUS (Winter 1993):111-20.
In this interview, Jen describes her motivations and influences as a writer and discusses her novel Typical American and her short story “What Means Switch.”

Satz, Martha. “Writing About the Things That Are Dangerous: A Conversation With Jen.” Southwest Review (1993):132-40.
In Satz’s interview, Jen discusses her novel Typical American, as well as issues of race, ethnicity, gender, and education.

Tina Lee

Works by the Author
Listed below are selected works by the author.

Lee, Tina. How to Ride Roller Coasters.
In this play, Lee compares her experience dealing with her father’s illness to the ups and downs of a roller coaster.

—. My Mom Across America. In Echoes Upon Echoes: New Korean American Writings, ed. Elaine H. Kim and Laura Hyun Yi Kang. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003.

Further Readings About the Author

Periodicals

Pucci, Anthony. “Echoes Upon Echoes: New Korean American Writings — Young Adult Review.” Kliatt (January 2004):27.
Pucci discusses the anthology Echoes Upon Echoes, and singles out Tina Lee’s work, My Mom Across America.

Khoi Truong Luu

Works by the Author
Listed below are selected works by the author.

Luu, Khoi Truong. “Family Ties: Exploring the Lighter Side of the Vietnamese American Experience.” In Once Upon a Dream: The Vietnamese American Experience, ed. De Tran, Andrew Lam, and Hai Dai Nguyen, Riverside, N.J.: Andrews McMeel, 1995.

Luu, Khoi Truong, Barbara Tran, and Monique T.D. Truong, eds. Watermark: Vietnamese American Poetry and Prose. Philadelphia: Asian American Writer’s Workshop and Temple University Press, 1998.
This collection of works is by and about first- and second-generation Vietnamese Americans.

James McBride

Works by the Author
Listed below are selected works by the author.

McBride, James. The Color of Water. New York: Riverhead, 1996.

—. Miracle at St. Anna. New York: Berkley, 2002.
In this story set in World War II Italy, McBride writes about four soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 92nd all-African American division who are trapped between two enemies, the German Army and their racist American officers, and who encounter miraculous phenomena in their plight.

Further Readings About the Author
Books

Contemporary Black Biography. Vol. 35, ed. Ashyia Henderson. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2002.
An article about James McBride includes biographical information as well as critical information about his works.

Periodicals

Base, Patrick Henry. “First Person Singular.” Essence (February 1, 2002):82.
This short article provides a summary of James McBride’s Miracle at St. Anna.

Websites

African American Literature Book Club: James McBride
http://authors.aalbc.com/jamesmcbride.htm
This Web site includes a biography, reviews of McBride’s books, and a transcript of an interview with the author.

James McBride
http://www.jamesmcbride.com/
Author and musician James McBride’s personal Web site includes information about his work, links to interviews and articles, and audio clips from his musical recordings.

Lensey Namioka

Works by the Author
Listed below are selected works by the author.

Namioka, Lensey. “All-American Slurp.” In Visions, ed. Donald Gallo, 35-41. New York: Delacorte, 1986.

—. April and the Dragon Lady. Orlando, FL: Harcourt/Brace, 1994.
As 16-year-old Chinese American April Chen struggles to define her identity, her white boyfriend and her decision to apply to mining college come in direct conflict with the values and expectations of her more traditional Chinese grandmother.

—. An Ocean Apart, a World Away. New York: Delacorte, 2002.
This novel tells the story of Yanyan, a 16-year-old girl from China who overcomes obstacles to study at Cornell University in the United States. When she falls in love with a young Chinese diplomat, she must make the difficult choice between marriage into a life of travel and adventure and staying at school to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor.

—. Den of the White Fox. Orlando, FL: Harcourt/Brace, 1997.
In this blend of historical fiction and mystery, two samurai enter a village to find that the villagers are uneasy and untrusting and that a powerful spirit may haunt the area.

—. Half and Half. New York: Delacorte, 2003.
This is a story about Fiona, half Scottish and half Chinese, and her struggle to find her true identity.

—. The Samurai and the Long-Nosed Devils. Boston: Tuttle, 2004.
In 16th-century Japan, samurai protect two foreigners who are being harassed by the warlord’s enemies.

—. Ties That Bind, Ties That Break. New York: Delacorte, 1999.
Set in the early 20th century, this novel tells the story of Ailin, a young Chinese girl who breaks with such traditions as foot binding and arranged marriage, and whose courage enables her to lead an unconventional life as an independent Chinese woman.

—. Valley of the Broken Cherry Trees. Portland, OR: Blue Heron, 1995.
Two unemployed samurai try to discover who is defacing cherry trees in this story that depicts 16th-century Japan and its political unrest.

—. White Serpent Castle. Boston: Tuttle, 2004.
Two samurai explore the mystery of a lord’s daughter who threw herself into a castle’s moat and changed into a serpent.

Further Readings About the Author

Web Sites

Lensey Namioka’s Web Site
http://www.lensey.com
Lensey Namioka’s personal Web site gives information about her books as well as her personal life.

McGuire, Paul. “HK International Literary Festival: Lensey Namioka.” Asian Review of Books (March 9, 2003).
http://www.asianreviewofbooks.com (see Archives: 09/03/2003)
This article discusses Namioka’s unique style of writing and the ways she brings her personal experiences to her stories.

Wakan, Naomi. “Lensey Namioka.” Paper Tigers (July 2003).
http://www.papertigers.org/interviews (see Archives: Lensey Namioka)
Naomi Wakan summarizes an interview with Lensey Namioka and discusses her childhood, immigration, education, and writing.

Naomi Shihab Nye

Works by the Author
Listed below are selected works by the author.

Nye, Naomi Shihab. Different Ways to Pray. Portland, OR: Breitenbush, 1980.
Nye’s first collection of poems explores similarities between different cultures.

—. Habibi. New York: Simon and Schuster Children’s Publishing, 1997.
Liyana and her Arab American family move to Jerusalem, where Liyana falls in love with a Jewish boy, Omer, and faces tensions between Palestinians and Israelis.

—. “Half-and-Half.” In Fuel. Rochester, N.Y.: BOA Editions, 1998.

—. Hugging the Jukebox. Portland, OR: Breitenbush, 1984.
In Nye’s second collection of poems, she explores the perspectives of ordinary people from different countries.

—. Mint Snowball. Tallahassee, FL: Anhinga Press, 2001.
The short narratives in this collection describe Nye’s encounters with a variety of people, from cab drivers and small-town restaurateurs to fellow travelers.

—. Never in a Hurry: Essays on People and Places. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996.
A series of essays that reflect on the people and places Nye has come across in her life.

—. 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East. New York: Greenwillow, 2002.
In response to the events of September 11, 2001 and the effect they had on people of Arab descent, Nye gathered her poems about the Middle East and being Arab American in this collection.

—. The Space Between Our Footsteps. New York: Simon and Schuster Children’s Publishing, 1998.
More than a hundred poets from the Middle East are represented in this collection, along with some paintings.

Further Readings About the Author
Books

Contemporary Authors: New Revision Series. Vol. 70. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 1998.
This book offers information and critical writings about Naomi Shihab Nye and her works.

Contemporary Women Poets, ed. Pamela L. Shelton. Detroit: St. James Press, 1997.
This volume offers biographical and bibliographical information about Naomi Shihab Nye, as well as a critical essay about one of her works.

Web Sites

NOW with Bill Moyers
http://www.pbs.org/now/transcript/transcript_nye.html
In this interview with Bill Moyers, Naomi Shihab Nye discusses being Palestinian American, the tensions and history of the Middle East, her family, and her poetry.

Workshops