Sunday, February 7, 2010

True Colors

I'm watching Arranged, a movie about an unlikely friendship between an Orthodox Jewish woman and a religious Muslim woman that develops as they navigate their way through arranged marriages. As I watch, I am captivated by the natural ease of their friendship and the common ground they find in each other. But the part I love about this film is the absolute reality it captures. I have met the bossy Shadchan, who pushes 'girls' to go out on dates with incompatible 'boys'. I have met parents who want the best for their daughter, but push her away in the process. And I have met Rochels, women who are frustrated by the Shidduch system and don't want to settle for Mr. Available. This attention to detail gives this film its authenticity and makes it believable. The director/writer of Arranged may not be an Orthodox Jew (or religious Muslim) himself, but with careful research, and the watchful eye of Yuta Silverman, the inspiration behind the project, Arranged captures the essence of hidden worlds with sensitivity and insight.

However, films like Arranged, A Price Above Rubies, and A Stranger Among Us, to name a few, raise difficult questions about depicting Orthodox Jews in mainstream media. These kinds of films are often critiqued for their inaccurate or unfairly critical portrayal of Jews, and for airing our "dirty laundry" in public. (Frankly, you don’t need to watch movies to see the worst in the Jewish community – just read the New York Times or Google "New Jersey, rabbi".) Literature written in the Orthodox Jewish community does not fill this void. Characters are flat representations of goodness and humility, plots are cliché and bland, and the writing style is horrendous. The community does not allow for flawed and human characters who are real and vibrant, and Jewish writers who dare to write about these pressing issues are criticized for being self-hating Jews. The joke, however, is on the Jewish community. Writers like Tova Mervis, Etgar Keret, and of course, Shalom Auslander, write with such keen understanding that must stem from their own Jewish identities, combined with a love of humanity. This brings us to the question of today's blog: How much depends on an insider's perspective or can compelling realistic fiction be written by outsiders? Do writers lose credibility when they are "others?" Or is it another kind of censorship to hold writers back from telling stories that are important to them, ones they might not have experienced themselves? How many moccasins must we walk in to really understand another person's culture and write about it convincingly? The winners of the 1973-74 Newbery Medals are both women who wrote powerful fiction about cultures unlike their own, and opened up questions about the nature of multicultural literature.

Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George, winner of the 1973 Newbery Medal, developed from George's own connection to nature, relationship with an Inuit woman, and communication with actual wolves. In her novel, she tells the story of Julie, a young woman who runs away to the Alaskan tundra to escape a miserable marriage. When I read this book as a child, I was outraged by the child-marriage that Julie endures, but as an adult, I was more affected by the message of the loss of the indigenous Inuit people, whose rich culture is at risk when exposed to gussak, or American, ways. While not Inuit herself, George is an advocate for treasuring their way of life and believes in many of the same values. Like Julie, she has a deep love and reverence for nature, a strong understanding of animals' habits and behavior, and an appreciation of the old ways of Eskimo life. While "the hour of the wolf and the Eskimo is over," by writing about their timeless culture, George has exposed generations of children and adults to a world whose story may have otherwise gone untold.

The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox, winner of the 1974 Newbery Medal, may have opened the discussion of the horrors of slavery in children's literature. While Amos Fortune, Free Man (1951 Newbery Medal winner) and I, Juan de Pareja (1966 Newbery Medal winner) touched upon this issue, their experiences with benevolent masters in (somewhat) comfortable settings did not depict the inhuman conditions on slave ships like Fox does. While some critics praise her frank portrayal of slavery, others find faults in her work. Fox has been criticized by black author Sharon Bell Mathis in the journal Interracial Books for Children for promoting “stereoptyoes about Africa and about Blacks in general.” Again, an author's own life can giver her credibility to write about a culture different from her own. As a child, Fox was passed from relative to relative after being rejected by her mother. Her childhood gave her firsthand understanding of abandonment, isolation, and loneliness. She then took all of her struggles and make them into art. Rather than sugarcoating the past, she exposed children to the truth, allowing them to see America at its worst and come to their own conclusions about slavery. Like Jessie, the narrator, who loses his ability to listen to music after being forced to make the slaves dance while playing his flute, our innocence - our childhood music - is lost when we are confronted with the harsh reality that we are all infected by the poison of slavery. Whether you are a fan of Fox or not, there is no denying that The Slave Dancer was part of the movement that opened the floodgates to create a culture of open dialogue about race in America. Works like Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry by Mildred D. Taylor (winner of the 1977 Newbery Medal), The Watsons Go to Birmingham: 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis (1996 Honor Book), and Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson (2006 Honor Book) are testaments that the conversation continues to evolve as we discuss race.

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