Posted by: biblioglobal | August 25, 2012

Questions of Authenticity- Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder

My boyfriend and I have an ongoing discussion about asking the question “Where are you from?” of people who seem like they might be foreign. Unless it’s in a context where you would ask anyone that question, such as meeting a new neighbor, I think asking people where they are from has the potential to make people feel like they are categorized as ‘other’, particularly if they are in fact American. My boyfriend, on the other hand, says “I’m from India. Why should I be offended if people ask about it?”

As I was reading State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, I came across the following passage about the protagonist whose father was Indian aloud to my boyfriend:

“Seeing her father gave her the ability to see herself, the comfort of physical recognition after a life spent among her mother’s people, all those translucent cousins who looked at her like she was a llama who had wandered into their holiday dinner. The checkers in the grocery store, the children at school, the doctors and the bus drivers all asked where she was was from. There was no point in saying, Right here, Minneapolis, although it was in fact the case.”

For a moment I seemed to have made a convincing argument. Then my boyfriend realized that the author of the book was in fact a white American woman. As far as he was concerned, this was just another oversensitive white woman talking about something she hadn’t experienced herself.

Regardless of the identity of the author, I do think the quote gives a good sense of why asking “Where are are you from” might be a rude question. But the conversation also made think more about questions of identity and authenticity while reading State of Wonder*. To begin with, there’s the fact that even though the novel is set primarily in Brazil, I decided not to count it toward my book-from-every-country project. I’m fine with reading non-fiction written by non-native authors, but I find myself reluctant to include fiction by authors who aren’t from the country in question even though the rules I made for the project would permit it. I think my justification that in non-fiction, a non-native author can offer an outside perspective and might observe things that someone embedded in a culture wouldn’t notice. But it the same not true in a fictional format? Why should a non-native author’s non-fiction be seen as more authentic than their fiction? I’m not sure.

Jaipur templeIn one scene, Mariana, the protagonist from the above quote, encounters some white tourists who are watching a dance performance by a local Amazonian tribe. I was struck how negatively Ann Patchett portrayed the tourists, as if the very fact that they were watching a local dance performance was exploitative. Tourism certainly can be exploitative, and in this case the dancers were children which adds extra room for concern, but is it necessarily wrong for white tourists to watch a local dance performance? Is it somehow different from the trip to the opera that occurs earlier in the book? I think it is possible to be over-sensitive about these things, or at least, I’ve fallen into that trap myself. When I was visiting India, I felt uncomfortable visiting temples. As someone who shared none of the beliefs, but came simply to admire the architecture and art I felt like I was somehow being disrespectful. But I feel no such qualms about visiting a European cathedral despite a similar lack of shared belief. I think it’s wise as an American traveling in less well off countries, it’s good to think carefully about your role as a tourist and the impact you might be having. But it’s also possible to take it too far and create what is in fact a double standard.

*To be clear, State of Wonder was a very good book- well-written and engaging. I’d definitely recommend reading it. This post about a specific set of thoughts related to the book, rather than a review of the book itself.

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Responses

  1. I am half South Asian and nearly half Irish-American, born and raised in the United States. I am asked, “Where are you from?” on a weekly basis, and I am asked, “Are you the nanny?” even more often if strangers see me with my children, who look more Irish than South Asian. The first question, merely asking where I am from, doesn’t seem rude on the surface, especially when people seem genuinely interested in my background. However, there is an underlying assumption that Americans “look” a certain way. I always say, “I am from Philadelphia, but my mother is Sri Lankan.” The second question, whether I’m the nanny, is much more offensive. There is nothing wrong with being a nanny, but I am offended by the assumption that children will look like their parents (which isn’t the case in interracial families like mine or in adoptive families) and possibly even an assumption that nannies are typically non-white women. Honestly, why do people even bother asking either of these questions? It’s none of their business.

    • Thanks for sharing your experiences and expressing them so clearly. (And for helping support my argument!) I can’t believe that people would ask if you are the nanny. Or I guess maybe I can believe it, but it makes me sad that people are so thoughtless. Hopefully they’ll learn from experience and not make assumptions about someone else. I think you might be less likely to get the nanny question here in the Midwest where nannies aren’t that common (at least in my experience), but more likely to get asked where you are from, particularly in less diverse areas.

  2. Great post! You raise a lot of interesting questions. My husband and I were just talking about the “Where are you from?” issue. We recently moved from a diverse part of the West Coast (where no one wondered where I was from because everyone was from everywhere) to an area full of “oversensitive white people,” which is a new experience for me. I’m finding that I prefer the open curiosity I used to experience in the Midwest to the avert-your-eyes shuffle that people do around here. They’re warm and friendly to my (white) husband and to the two of us together, but when I’m alone, I feel like I have a second head. By being so nervous about appearing racist, they end up making me feel less welcome than people who put their preconceptions on the table, get them out of the way, then treat me like anyone else.

    To make a long story short: I go back and forth on this question, but these days, I find myself agreeing slightly more with your boyfriend.

    • That’s an interesting perspective and one that hadn’t occurred to me. I can certainly see how being overly careful could end up leading people to be more distant and that that could actually be worse.

  3. Fascinating coincidences. One of my third generation Californian friends of Asian descent was just complaining about how often people ask her “Where are you from?”. As if that wasn’t bad enough, when she replies “San Jose”, they ask “No, where are you REALLY from?”

    No offense to Dr. Laser, but it seems analogous to asking a woman when the baby is due. If she is actually pregnant, it can be an innocuous question. If the extra few pounds she is carrying do not have different DNA, it is insulting.

    • The comments here are making me appreciate how common this experience really is. The “Where are you REALLY from?” follow-up is quite flabbergasting. I guess that’s why the character in the book just gave up and responded that she was Indian. (Which in turn caused other confusion.)

      I think your analogy is quite apt. To be fair to Dr. Laser (an excellent epithet, by the way), I think he would argue that sometimes a pregnancy is completely obvious and in that case it would be better to ask the woman about the baby than to artificially ignore it.


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