I was extremely fortunate to attend an on-site book launch/book club meeting for the amazing Gurjinder Basran and her book, Everything Was Good-Bye. Hosted by Chatelaine Books and Penguin Canada, the event allowed readers (and bloggers!) the chance to meet Ms Basran and to discuss her book in preparation for its launch as the April pick for the Chatelaine Book Club. We were extremely fortunate as the author herself had flown in from BC for the event, and was available for a Q&A with the attendees.
There isn’t much need for me to discuss the blow-by-blow details of this great event – for a great recap of the evening please see the lovely Just a Lil Lost or the equally fun Nicole About Town , except to say that it was just as much fun as these ladies make it out to be. What made this event so special for me were the fascinating conversations that developed from the Q&A session, especially around the topic of why young women of different backgrounds tend to shy away from reading books about their own cultural heritage. Someone brought up the phrase ‘cultural annihilation’, or the ability to ignore your own background in order to blend in, and it really struck a chord with me.
As I’ve mentioned before, I work in an extremely diverse middle school. It could even be said that I am a cultural minority, and I am highly conscious of the fact that my students’ reading needs are as diverse as their backgrounds. Many of my students are expected to read certain books by their parents, and they are often shy about branching out. Other students are bolder and strongly reject books that might remind them of their own cultural upbringing, preferring stories of different cultural backgrounds. When I try to recommend particular books to these students they tell me that they have “heard it all before” and that “there is nothing interesting about [their] culture that they would want to read about. Most recently, I suggested the wonderful book “The Tiffin” by Mahtab Narsimhan to a group of students of South-East Asian decent. They politely read the back, and then returned it to me, telling me that the story ‘wasn’t different enough’ for them, and that it seemed like their parents’ or grandparents’ story.
This saddens me more than I can say.
Despite all the advances that we are making in broadening our students’ horizons and exposing them to varied media in order to make more informed choices, our students are still self-limiting. Perhaps it is the trials of adolescence, but many of my students – past and present – seem to be working strenuously to deny their cultural heritage. I’m not saying that they are making right or wrong choices; that’s a personal decision, and one that needs to be made by each individual on the basis of their own individual needs. What I mourn is the lack of opportunity for exploration. These students seem to be denying a piece of what makes them who they are, and they appear almost afraid to read anything that might be written by someone that has had comparable experiences. It’s funny, as they have no trouble reading about the generic teenaged angst issues of grades, social traumas, and personal growth (and let’s not discuss the whole paranormal/dystopian devotion). However, when it comes to connecting with their culture, they are determined not to face it and want the generic “North American” experience instead.
How, then, can we change their opinions?
There was some great discussion about this at the book club meeting; author Gurjinder Basran suggested that the immigrant voice is woefully underrepresented in Canadian literature, despite being such an integral part of our national culture. I would agree with that; we need more books that are well written without being earnest or preachy in order to share common experiences, bothe specific to each individual culture, and those that unite the immigrant experience. While we have a number of incredible authors in this country who speak to their own experiences growing up, it can be difficult to get these books into the hands of students without direct hand-selling.
The general consensus around the table that evening was that you couldn’t escape your cultural background. It isn’t necessarily something that may define you, but you do need to know and revere your background in order to be open to new things.
Basran’s acknowledged that the story presented in Everything Was Good-Bye was not her personal story, but rather “…it connects us to our lives, and it part of us, but it is not our entirety”. I think that’s part of the problem with my students; they are uncomfortable with connecting to aspects of the story because they seem so intimate at times, and they don’t know how to recognize that their experiences are only part of what will make them who they will become.
I had the opportunity to ask the author my own question – namely, what advice would she give to my students (particularly the girls) who are facing the struggle between their cultural past and their desire to fit in. Basran’s advice to my young readers was to be authentic to themselves, but to still make their own choices in life. I like this advice, because I think it’s a great motto for all stages of adolescence – that time when kids are struggling to define themselves by who they are and what they are not.
This is a battle that won’t be won easily; however, I look forward to wading into the next skirmish, books raised high and determined to promote the best voices from everywhere to my students.
Many, many thanks to Chatelaine Books and to Penguin Canada for the opportunity to attend this event, and for the chance to meet and talk with this great Canadian author.
Do you have any suggestions for great reads with strong immigrant voices for Middle School and Young Adult readers? Leave them in the comments below!