February 02, 2009

Guest Blogger Sherri L. Smith: On Passing & Identity

Today we welcome back young adult writer Sherri L. Smith to Finding Wonderland! Sherri is the author of Lucy the Giant, a novel about a tall girl from the immense state of Alaska who tries to lose herself and her past in the wilds -- and finds out what it means to have someone care enough to find you. Lucy's story was Sherri's first novel, and one of our all-time favorite Under Radar Recommendations.

Sherri's other novels include the 2009 Louisiana Young Readers’ Choice Award nominee, Sparrow, and last summer's MG novel, Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet. This month we celebrate Sherri's newest release, Flygirl, which hit bookstores just last week, and received a starred review from Booklist.

Passing. People of one ancestry or ethnic group being able to pass for another. Where does the phrase even come from? Once upon a time in the days of slavery, African American slaves who traveled away from their owners were required show passes to anyone who asked for them, to assure that they were on legitimate business. People who were not questioned, who were light enough, due to the blending of their genetics with those of the master's family, were said to be able to "pass." And from a long ago and ugly place we come up with a word that is alive and well today.

When Sherri told us the topic of her book, we gave a little twitch. Passing -- is a loaded word, and not really a topic that gets talked about much in "polite society." And certainly not in a novel for young adults!

Obviously, "passing" was a great big deal in the Jim Crow days, because African Americans were legally not allowed to do a whole bunch of things. People anxiously protected the status quo because most of the time, society prefers to tell us who we are, instead of letting us decide for themselves, so that there's some kind of stability. The full force of the law came down on those who tried to rock the boat and choose for themselves. It could have cost Ida Mae her life to pass for white -- but let me not give away any spoilers! Instead, let's let Sherri talk!

When Tadmack and Aquafortis invited me back to Finding Wonderland, we exchanged more than a few emails geeking out over the shared backdrop of our latest novels—my Flygirl and Tadmack’s forthcoming Mare’s War are both set during World War II with African American heroines. We commiserated over the amount of research required, and what it was like to imagine the experience of a black woman in a Jim Crow world, never mind a segregated military. What we discovered is that we could go on for hours talking about race and identity. What it means to be a woman in a man’s world, what it means to be a black person in a white landscape. And it got me thinking about what our characters had to give up in order to be who they become during the course of our novels.

In Flygirl, Ida Mae Jones is a young black woman, the daughter of farmers, who learns to fly on her daddy’s crop duster. When the war comes, her brother enlists, and she finds herself, in a time of rationed gasoline, faced with the chance to fly again by volunteering for the Womens Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). This was a non-military program that trained women to fly Army planes in the United States—everything from towing targets for artillery training, to ferrying and testing new planes to be shipped overseas—all in order to “free a man to fight,” as the propaganda posters said. The catch is a big one, though—no blacks allowed. Ida Mae, thanks to her father’s side of the family, is light-skinned enough to pass for white. Her mother warns her against such a path—it could cost her her safety if she is found out, and her family if she wishes to stay on the “white” side of life. But Ida is young. She can only think of the immediate future, of a need to do something to help end the war. And so she leaves her mother, her grandfather, and her little brother behind. She changes the way she talks, the things she says, and she becomes, in all outward appearances, a new woman. A white woman.

T: This is such a great hook to the story – readers are interested already on many levels. Can she do it? Is it right to do it? Will she get caught? Perhaps for an African American reader, there’s an even greater drama. This is The Betrayal. This is the thing so many people are taught is The Great Evil. In stories passed down, in books, in old, old movies, this is what is known: you don’t “act White” you don’t “talk White;” you’ve got to “represent,” even if you have no clear idea what any of that is supposed to mean. The court of public opinion is in session, and if you’re not careful, you may find yourself held in contempt. But to choose to accept that part of her ethnicity that is not African American, and to choose to embrace that part... Wow. That is unimaginably heavy, indeed, at least for that time period.

Nowadays, we’re okay with letting, say, the sitting president of the country choose to identify with a specific part of his ethnic identity.


AF: This IS a great hook into a story with a provocative theme—one that has the potential of making readers of any ethnicity think more deeply about our history and about what a struggle it can be to have to make a deliberate choice about how we portray ourselves to the world.

In thinking about it further, I strongly feel we need stories like this, stories that help us not to forget the more painful parts of our racial history, or, to paraphrase what George Santayana said, we might risk repeating it in some less flagrant but still insidious way—especially at a time that, some opine, is somehow "post-racial." The idea, maybe, is to go forward aware of our histories, regardless of whether we choose to "represent" or not, whether we identify with one history or another.

It’s easy to leave where you come from. Just jump a car, hop on a bus or an airplane with a one way ticket and never go back. It might be hard. You might miss it, but once you’re gone, you’re gone. How, on the other hand, do you leave behind who you come from? The fact that you have your mother’s smile, and her way of shaking a finger when you’re angry. The way you walk like your dad, shoulders squared against the world, but a roll in your step like you’re always on vacation. How do you change or deny the fact that you and your grandmother both love to dance? How do you forget that knock-knock jokes always make you and your little brother laugh? I don’t think you can leave those parts of yourself behind. To do so is an act of great violence. It’s suicide. Self-immolation. Or, more precisely, it is surgery. Sharp, exacting, and without anesthesia.

T: It’s erasing yourself.

AF: Yet don't we all want to exist on our own terms, independent of that "who," that "where," at the same time that we're part of them? How much of that self-separation is a mask, an illusion?

I suppose at first that the rewards this surgical removal of self gains you act as a painkiller of sorts. The euphoria you feel breezing past the “members only” signs. The knowledge that you sit at the big table now, that you are looking out of the windows of the same big houses you used to stare into so longingly. You have become the face on the movie screen. That might ease or mask your pain.

But it must wear off. Everything does. Can it console you in the middle of the night when all you want is your mother’s cool hand on your fevered brow, when you are sick and feel hopeless and alone? You have money now, position, power. You can hire a chef to make the same soup your mother would have made you. You can even pay someone to sing the same songs to you. But would the recipe, would the lyrics give you away? You have traded a child’s solace for your new position. And you can never trade it back. Not evenly. Not equally. You might lose your new role one day, but the old one is definitely gone forever.

T: Well, to a certain extent, every one of us who leaves home to grow up walks away from a place, a role, a set of clothes that has grown too small and too confining. We lose our place because we become too big for it – we allow ourselves to grow. But if we’ve chosen to grow in the direction of the dominant culture, that's so different, because we have chosen. But does that always mean that there would be no place for us within the minority? I guess historically, the answer would be... yes.

AF: And what if even the less visible, but no less fundamental, choices of identity—your aspirations, your goals, the ideas you hold most dear—also separate you from where you came from? What if the assumptions and judgments of your family, of the culture you chose to leave, build an invisible wall just as much as the choices you've made?

On the flipside, how do you forgive someone who has traded your love for brighter lights? You might. If it’s your child, you might forgive them anything. If it’s your friend, you might take pity when they come home. But how do you forgive yourself, if you are the one who has crossed the line? I cannot imagine. And imagination is my trade.

T: The question few people ask is whether or not there needs to be forgiveness -- or, whether or not there was any wrong done except in the legal sense, during the Jim Crow era. The sense of moral outrage that people had over this was, in part perhaps because there was a Line, a broad line between the races that strictly divided ‘have’ from ‘have not’ and ‘can’ from ‘cannot.’ Would people truly have issue with someone “acting White” or “choosing White” if there were not still social and monetary consequences for doing so? Does the privilege of the majority actually exist without the subjugation of the minority -- I mean, isn't deciding one group of people is better basically a game you play, based on who you decide not to like? It's very much like a playground game, with no real right/wrong, rhyme/reason, and when the whistle blows, the reality of the game dissolves. Which brings up the question of if there is a kind of moral obligation for a person who can go either way to embrace the minority culture, or else be considered a bad person?

AF: Another question: If you embrace one of your cultures, does it automatically entail a denial of the other(s)? I believe we have a tendency to assume that's still so, because in previous eras—e.g., in the Jim Crow era—it did mean that in a very real way. But now, the idea of the "dominant culture" is a little more complicated than simply "white culture." Maybe that means there's some room for variation, and room to keep what once had to be denied.

My mother passed away a little over a year ago, and my father passed just this last November. More than ever, I am constantly reminded of the pieces of them that make the whole of me. Why I read what I read, why I speak in the cadence I do. Who gave me that favorite sweater—what did they know about me that would make it my favorite? Why I feel about the world the way I do. Some of it is unique to me, I suppose, but so much of it is given to me by my parents, and their parents and so on. Our personalities are our inheritance. So, then, how do you walk away from who you come from when they are encoded in your DNA? If Ida Mae marries a white man, will she still worry that their first child’s skin will be dark like her mother’s, or her brothers’? Will the baby’s heritage show itself in the genes? Or just in a familiar smile, a way of laughing that twists Ida’s heart because it sounds like the brother she left behind?

To always be afraid that some of your “self” might be showing—what kind of a life is that? It’s a life so many people have lived, by choice or by necessity. I know at least two people who discovered only after their mothers’ funerals, that their mothers had been secretly Jewish. I know a boy whose oldest sister is in fact his mother. A charade that the entire family played for years. I only learned the truth when the boy was whining one day and called his sister “Mommy.” The middle sister, my friend, pulled me aside later to explain. And it was never mentioned again. And then there was the former acquaintance who believed himself to be securely in the closet, unable to remember the drunken cocktail hour during which he outed himself (in very unfortunate language) to his bosses. (It did not matter to them that he was gay, but the manner in which he told them… and the entire bar, left something to be desired.)

T: That is such a tough way to be outed -- when you stumble and do it to yourself. A woman I knew had a child with a man of Mediterranean ancestry, and did not let that secret go until her son had children of his own, and her grandchildren had a genetic disorder common to people of Mediterranean ancestry… there really is no way to walk away from who you are, when it is encoded into your DNA. And even if the secret is mostly kept, when it is discovered, that same explosion occurs sometimes, as those who thought they had a right to know the secret of your true self feel ultimately betrayed.

What does it cost to be “sister” to your son or your nephew? What does it take to deny that you ever gave birth? What does it mean to hide your faith, your heritage because the people you move among, work with, the people you marry might despise you if they knew the truth? Clearly, for at least one of the above people, the pressure was too much, and the secret burst forth like steam erupting from an overheated engine. Imagine, then, the pain of holding the truth in for the rest of your life.

AF: It's quite interesting living where I do, in a rather large town that still, in many ways, retains many small-town characteristics. There are still milieus where I keep quiet about the Pakistani heritage I get from my father—especially over the past eight years—and about the fact that, yes, he is a Muslim. And I feel like, on a day-to-day basis, I AM passing—for somebody Latina, maybe, or Mediterranean, or just somebody with a really dark tan. Being mixed does mean that sometimes, even if you don't mean to, you're hiding something about yourself simply because it's not immediately apparent.

Now, some of you are thinking, “I could never do such a thing.” Those of us who believe we are too righteous, too proud, too much our selves to pass as anything other — what are we lying about? How are we passing?

Some days, I’ll walk down Rodeo Drive and put my nose in the air, walk into a shop like I own the place because, for all the shopkeepers know, I’m a millionaire. Sometimes I pretend I’m waiting for someone because I don’t want to look like I’m alone at the bus stop as the sun goes down. And once, in college, I allowed a friend to tell people I was in a recovering alcoholic because I didn’t want to drink at a party and everyone was so insistent that I should. It wasn’t my idea, but I didn’t deny it once it was said. Small transgressions? Maybe. Not with the weight of cost that racial, sexual or religious passing implies, perhaps, but it gives a taste. The frisson in the spine, the tiny terror of being found out. The fear of being discovered a fraud by either side of the line you’ve crossed. (The rehab rumor earned me whispers and sympathetic nods—and a sense of guilt. I did not drink in college—it would be like falling off the wagon and suddenly I found I had an example to set.)

Now imagine that that terror never leaves. That it grows, that it wraps itself around the base of your brain and calls it home to stay. It can’t unmake who you come from, only force you to suppress it time and time again. And then, I wonder, do you eventually suffocate? Or does only the part of you, the secret, the offending detail, die?

T: A difficult and poignant question, which reminds me of another question asked by the poet Langston Hughes. "What happens to a dream deferred?"

Keeping who we truly are a secret must cripple in so many, many other ways. Passing for reasons of race, gender, class, or ethnicity is historically depicted tragically in literature and film -- and nowadays, it's played in an exaggerated way for laughs, but few people explore it seriously, and even fewer in YA literature. Sherri, I really appreciate that you kind of climbed out there on a limb and wrote about this -- from a historical perspective, which allows us to both consider our distance from the past, and to think about our identity within the context of our own times.

AF: Yes--and we're honored that you chose to stop by and share your thoughts with us. Thanks!!

A discussion guide for Flygirl is available on Sherri's website.

Continue on the Flygirl: Mostly Virtual Blog Tour!

Read Sherri's funny interview at The Five Randoms,
Find out what she's looking forward to this month at Bildungsroman,
Next Monday, stop by The YA YA YAs for a thoughtful Q&A, and then wind up the tour with Shelf Elf on the 13th.

After that, Sherri's off to Hedgebrook, for two weeks with no phone, no worries, and someone else to make the coffee. Sounds like a well-earned writing retreat to us! Congratulations!


Charlotte said...

Thanks so much, all three of you, for the great discussion...which has left me with much to think about and a strong desire to read Fly Girl!

tanita✿davis said...

SO very glad you've enjoyed it! We always have really great discussions with Sherri.

Anonymous said...

Hmm. Hi TadMack, hi Aquafortis and Charlotte. I've enjoyed the questions you ladies have raised today. I just wonder at the silence from your usual readers. Did we bite off more than anyone else wanted to chew today? I get the sense that either Groundhog Day is a national holiday or there's an uncomfortable, throat clearing silence in the room. Readers, prove me wrong! What's your take on identity? I really would love to know.

Jules at 7-Imp said...

Charlotte's right -- so much to think about, and on account of it being midnight, I'm not capable of an articulate thought at the moment. But I have to quickly add: This is one hell of a booktalk. Gonna go find my copy now.

Lenore Appelhans said...

Very interesting topic and one I really hadn't thought of much until I read Flygirl last month.

Sara said...

Superb interview. I'm thinking back to when my great-grandparents changed their too-Polish surname when they came to the U.S. And how as a Northern Catholic, I had to pass in the Evangelical South. And how I've been assumed to be "conservative" because my husband's in the military and thus, been privy to jaw-droppingly insulting rants about "liberals." Even the fact that I once pretended that we owned a TV comes to mind.

Can't wait to read this.

Jules at 7-Imp said...

Now it's morning, and I have coffee, so I'm very much awake.

I'm going to tack on to Sara's interesting points here my own kind of having-to-pass: Being a rather confused and agnostic/spiritually-searching person in the South. I grew up here, too, and I *still* feel closeted about it (except, obviously, online). I don't pretend to go to church, but when people ask me about it, which inevitably happens around here when you meet someone, I point out that I was raised Methodist, married in the Episcopal church, and "looking for a new church," even if I'm really not doing the latter at the moment -- all instead of just saying the whole truth and nothing but the truth, that I don't know if church is really for me.

For this reason, I totally get what Sarah means when she says, "even if you don't mean to, you're hiding something about yourself simply because it's not immediately apparent."

Really interesting discussion. Again, wonderful booktalk (but is that a geeky librarian term? It occurred to me last night after I typed it that it might be)

GoodTam said...

So glad this discussion was posted and can't wait to read the book. I found this interview fascinating and very timely, in light of current events in our new administration.

Race will ALWAYS be an issue in this country (US) as this country was was built on race. Accepting your ethnicity in any time during our history led many to have to choose between going "mainstream", if they could get away with it, or hating themselves for not being able to.

Sadly, people still call those they feel who act a certain way "too ethnic" or trying to "act white"...and this is 2009!

Kudos for shedding light on a touchy topic. I hope more people join in the discussion. This is an important topic which gives us a lot to think about.

tanita✿davis said...

Re: passing religiously - Passing goes the other direction as well -- trying to pass as someone who doesn't care one way or the other about God, because the friends around you are openly contemptuous and think you're insane -- that's no easier, and unfortunately, too.

I think the antithesis of happiness is having someone try and tell you who/what you are. If only we could leave each other alone, there would be no such need for pretense...

Sarah Rettger said...

Wow, ladies, what an amazing conversation. (And I'm joining in late because I'm still catching up after being out of town - why did people have to write such great stuff while I was in Salt Lake?)

I had my own "reverse-passing" moments in college, where I was active in some Latina student groups, worked for the Latina advisor, spoke Spanish with a Puerto Rican accent - but was a US-born white girl.

I never claimed I was Latina, and whenever someone asked I managed to come up with a short answer that didn't make me sound like too much of a freak - but I never went out of my way to identify myself as non-Latina.

It was, at that point, how I found my community.

Anonymous said...

First time to this blog,GREAT topic that must be talked about in all aspects. My maternal grandmother (Ukrainian)was ostracized by her family for marrying a Sicilian-oh my goodness, "not even a regular Italian" (1929). They in turn were horrified when their eldest daughter, my mother, married a Jewish man (1950). If we don't talk,and write,we won't learn. Can't wait to read the book!

Sarah Stevenson said...

Thanks, Sarah and Anonymous, for stopping by to comment! It really is a great, thought-provoking book--but also just a really absorbing story.

Andromeda Jazmon said...

Great discussion! I am definitely looking forward to reading the books now.

I am white mother to three sons: one white and two African American. I am wondering how my youngest sons (who are Black) will grow into their identities as Black men with a white mom and (mostly) white family. I can only wonder what transitions they will have to make as Black men moving between cultures and communities. I hope I can manage to give them enough resources and significant relationships in a wide community to give them the tools they will need. I spend a lot of time thinking and studying and talking about what that means for us as a family. I think they have many potential losses and gains anyway I look at it.

Saints and Spinners said...

I'm coming in late because I'm behind on my blog reading. However, I did just request Flygirl from the library. I was so glad to read this conversation and the comments.

tanita✿davis said...

Sarah R.: It's important not to allow others to define us. No matter where you come from originally, these people feel like family -- and so they are. End of story, to my mind. Others may struggle with that, but if they struggle, they are obviously not in your family group, which makes their opinion a lot less important.

cloudscome: I agree that your sons have many potential losses and gains, but the scale tips in favor of gains. They have you, when they might have had no one, and you will teach them acceptance, and they will learn on their own what it means to be a person of one nation made out of many.

Neesha Meminger said...

Wow, I can't believe I haven't come across Sherri's work before! Thank you so much for introducing her to me. This interview with her sharp insights and thoughtful perspective is enough to send me running to buy her book. I can't wait to read it. Thank you, ladies!

tanita✿davis said...

Neesha -- so glad you found this. Sherri is a true friend of ours, and an amazing writer. Lots going on in that brain of hers!