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.
In 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.