biracial literature #3: the finding-identity-by-going-on-a-literal-journey trope

I’m heading back into the realm of biracial literature again, after reading some other stuff for awhile, both because it continues to interest me and because I’m now about 90% certain that I am going to spend my summer researching this to the point of being able to write, and hopefully publish, a scholarly paper on the “genre.” So this, and other books I already wrote about, is something I may go back and look at over the summer.

This is a new YA book called Black, White, Other: In Search of Nina Armstrong by Joan Steinau Lester. I would throw it more on the lower end of YA, for its language, treatment, and plot. Most simply, it’s about a 15-year-old biracial girl, Nina, in Northern California whose black father and white mother are separating. Her father is going on a sort of back-to-Africa kick, and Nina is beginning to become cognizant not only of racial difference itself, but also her privilege, assumptions, and appearance when she rides the bus through the black section of town to get to her father’s apartment, when she finds herself angry at her mother for trying to relate to Nina’s feeling of ostracization and discrimination, and when she begins to branch out from her white group of friends but then realizes that everyone expects her to choose either the white group or the black group. At the same time, there is a parallel story through the frame of a novel-in-progress written by Nina’s father about his great grandmother, Sarah, who escaped slavery. Nina begins to identify strongly with Sarah’s journey and struggles, and there’s an inkling that Sarah might actually be biracial, too, so we get the parallels with being biracial and told to choose, and being biracial by way of being the product of master-slave rape. Nina becomes totally overcome with feelings of guilt (it’s hard when you’re friends with people whose ancestors were slaves with your ancestors but also you’re friends with people who owned people like, again, your ancestors might have, etc. etc.) and confusion, and that is coupled with trying to comprehend the result of the Oakland fires and the portrayals of looters by the media.

I guess I’m a bit early when I call this a trope in biracial narratives, but it’s certainly a YA trope: if you’re trying to figure yourself out, get yourself literally thrown into a journey, get found or find yourself, and then find yourself metaphorically. When Nina can’t take it anymore, she decides to run away to a friend’s house in San Luis Obispo. Of course, long before she gets there, she ends up wandering through San Francisco, running away from a social worker, and sleeping in a park. By the time she finishes reading Sarah’s story, though, she’s ready to go back home, face the music (literally–she makes up a rap about being mixed), and tell her friends that she’s not going to choose one parent’s racial identity over the other.

On the one hand, I think the somewhat ridiculous runaway story, especially when it comes with an allknowing homeless woman and an overly helpful social worker and a cliche moment of clarity, cheapens the psychology of the novel. And that’s too bad, because Black, White, Other is really great at getting into the head of a teenager who has to deal with regular high school stuff through the lens of choosing an identity (funny how everyone lets you experiment with your identity if you want to go goth or preppy, but you’re never allowed to “experiment” with your race if you’re mixed), understanding the social contexts of racial issues, and confronting one’s own prejudices (Nina is visibly uncomfortable when she goes to her dad’s neighborhood, but she also gets really angry when she’s with her mom because she feels like she hasn’t earned the right for life to be so easy), and learning how history affects the present. I can understand the journey thing precisely because it’s a trope, and tropes happen because they’re easy and because they make sense. But do I think it was a little cliche? Yes.

Still, I was ultimately really impressed and intrigued by the first person narration, because it felt so real. It was confused, it wasn’t apologetic, and it flip flopped. It was also petulant and teenagery. And I could really see Nina working things out in her head.

Also, some things I noticed that liken it to The Latte Rebellion by Sarah Jamila Stevenson: what is it with Norcal and biracial teen stories? Interesting… Also, another vein I’m interested in investigating this summer is how YA biracial stories seem to focus a lot on these teens becoming activists or sort of spokespeople for their cause. And now calling it a cause makes me think of this post which I commented on (though the conversation sadly never continued), and it makes me wonder if this is a cause at all, and if it’s worth fighting for, and what it is that’s being negotiated.


5 thoughts on “biracial literature #3: the finding-identity-by-going-on-a-literal-journey trope

    • Well, I guess “a lot” is a bit of an overstatement, because I was thinking mostly this and The Latte Rebellion. But out of titles I’ve been compiling in anticipation of reading them, it looks like Nothing But the Truth by Justina Chen Headley (I think I read it when it came out, when I was in high school) is at Stanford U, Kim Kimi by Hadley Irwin takes place in Sacramento, so close-ish to the Bay, Raggedy Chan by Camille Picott is in SF…. I’m still working on a master list of books to read and consider for my research, but those are some that have been recommended to me/that I found through lit journals.

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