Witness to a Year: Diverse Book Challenge-July
July is over halfway through the year. The days are no longer getting longer, but unfairly shortening once again. July is when the corn needed to be knee high, back before fertilizers and altered seeds made the measurement a mark too easy, somewhat unfairly, to hit.
Like all the other months in the year, July has a fourth day. But only on the fourth of July do we capitalize the number to mark the anniversary of history, a word broken, but also broken open as one author said, to mark a story much more and much less than truth. I feel the same about definitions, but where does that leave history’s witnesses, much less my own memory.
“Professor Wiesel often quoted a Hasidic saying: ‘Forgetfulness leads to exile, memory to redemption’.” (21)
I can laugh at the idea of exile, not as an experience, but as a means of division. For ten years in Guatemala, I was apart from my own nation while I attempted to be a part of another. Yet, in that period of time I cared more about the small year marks as ear marks than I ever did living within my native borders. My dog and I ate hot dogs each 4th of July. I hadn’t eaten a hot dog since I had returned to the U.S. four years ago until I participated in a walkathon for a Latino support organization. Despite, the two year old emphatically waving an American flag while her mother coaxed her to eat lunch, it must be said, that I only ate it to be a part of their community, not my nation’s.
“Nationality: the country to which a person is citizen.”
As adulthood lengthens, my grip to the educator refrain of “you don’t need to know everything, you just need to know where to look it up,” buzzes around my eardrums like mosquitoes that keep me away from fireworks.
On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century* rings true, “Be a patriot. . .A nationalist. . . ‘encourages us to be our worst, and then tells us we are the best.’ In contrast a patriot ‘wants the nation to live up to its ideals, which means asking us to be our best selves.’”
I attended the parade and fireworks the first year after I had returned, perhaps to somehow reaffirmed that I must have missed a part of myself. Was it a part of my best self? Now, I think this supposed piece was not missed, but more an act of redesign. The kind where you take a part electrical devices only to fix them with parts left over. My greatest joy on the 4th this year were not fireworks in the dark sky, but books about women with dark skin and fireworks inside.
In a Foreign Land
At least six months ago I watched a documentary about the Eugenics movement from 1915-1920. I have a series of shocking notes, some history, some quotation. They are shocking to read as a present kind of past. My mind replays a sitcom line Friends where Ross’s jealousy of Rachel’s fashion colleague flared. Chandler lightly quipped, “My time machine worked!” From his lips it was funny. The lines my eyes read are solemn.
The Nordic gene is newer and can’t fight “old” Native, Jew or Mediterranean ones.
Fitter Families for the Future Firesides Contests at county and state fairs.
Impoverished individuals determined to be mentally defective, shiftless, feebleminded and so sterilized so that “only healthy seed must be sown”.
Still, despite not being able to isolate wings on fruit flies, scientists believed that “moron” was a genetic characteristic they could. Fifteen million people were determined unfit. The fabrication of GMOs must be based on the same premise. Poor Margaret Sanger had to endorse “old white cranks who science has passed by” simply to raise support for birth control and bring women control to their own reproductive systems.
I pick up the newspaper and read about local states disallowing forms of abortion or abortion all together in the name of protecting children and then just below another, about lack of sanitation at centers where immigrants are being held. The night air pounds, sometimes lightning, others gunpowder smashed from tubes in the same fluorescent colors of fungicide. The air searches for balance. My ears throb.
“Could be scar tissue,” a coworker had offered.
“All your ear aches as a child.”
Again Chandler laughs, “My time machine worked!”
I give the paper back to my dad, folded. He rocks next to me and confirms, “You know what my dad would have said?”
I sigh. There are a myriad of characteristics that could have solicited that reaction.
“You’re dating who?!” He shakes his head. “Does any of this make you think about your roots?”
I know he’s asking about my Jewish identity, not the Nordic one on his mother’s side.
“It does. It makes me disappointed in myself. That because of my name and the way I look, that I could hide. That I haven’t stood up enough for that identity.”
On the 4th of July I throw my limbs apart in an attempt for thick air to cool them. My book rests on my bed. I read that the Statue of Liberty was born in Egypt. On the fifth of July, an unrecognized date, I read that the Native Americans “negotiated” for their reservations and “Americans” chose treaties because paper was cheaper than bullets. I hope that words will not be as cheap.
Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild is another attempt to understand an identity that I feel like I could understand if I truly acknowledge where I live and where I came from, at least halfway. This author speaks of the “deep truth”, the narrative that is felt so down deep that it is perceived as truth, even when it isn’t, in fact, true. The author primarily traces public policies, economic endeavors and environmental realities through varying degrees of right wing political lenses, some rose, some bifocal, some broken. The characters made my heart break for them, for their stories and their situations. I can understand their reasons but not condone their actions. Still, it calls to mind the original moment when not yet labelled “Americans” lost America and the reality of how one suddenly becomes a strange in their own land.
Map of Salt and Stars by Zeyn Joukhadar is the story of two girls living eight hundred years apart—a modern-day Syrian refugee seeking safety and a medieval adventurer, Rawiya, apprenticed to a legendary mapmaker. After Nour loses her father to cancer, her mother moves Nour and her sisters from New York City back to Syria to be closer to their family. In order to keep her father’s spirit as she adjusts to her new home, Nour tells herself Rawiya’s story of her quest to map the world. Nour and her family are forced to choose: stay and risk more violence or flee across seven countries of the Middle East and North Africa in search of safety—along the very route Rawiya took. Nour is a child with no memory of Syria. Of her family, she is the one who very much feels in a foreign land. Finding Miracles by Julia Alvarez is a similar coming of age story where the protagonist is and is not the identity of the world in which she lives at the same time. Alvarez’s main character, Milly, is an American teenager living in Vermont. She meets Pablo, a new student at her high school. He forces her confront her identity as an adopted child from Pablo’s native country. Alvarez makes the unique choice never to name the country. As a result of their relationship, Milly discovers the story of her birth intertwined with the story of her country.
How to Make an Apple Pie and See the World by Marjorie Priceman easily redefines the phrase “as American as apple pie” in this picture book. Her story somehow tells me own through the journey of a young girl who finds each ingredient for her apple pie in its original place of origin. And, as a good friend and fellow lover of books told me, you know a book is good if it includes a map. This one does.
Diverse book reads blog posts applied to my own life
A Hebrew Lesson (Plan)
It’s In The Mail
Shiny Paper and Apple Skins
Dia de los Muertos: When Foreign Feels Like Home
*quoted from Don’t Label Me: An Incredible Conversation for Divided Times by Irshad Manji
Alvarez, Julia. (2006). Finding Miracles. Laurel Leaf: New York.
Burger, Ariel. (2018). Witness: Lessons from Eli Wiesel’s Classroom. Houghton Mifflin
Joukhadar, Zeyn. (2018). A Map of Salt and Stars. Atria Books: New York.
Priceman, Marjorie. (1994). How to Make an Apple Pie and See the World. Dragonfly Books:
Russell Hochschild, Arlie. (2016). Strangers in Their Own Land. The New Press: New York.