Friday, July 15, 2011

T.G.I.F.: Maurice Lim Miller & Family Independence Initiative

This morning I read an article in the New York Times about a unique program, the Family Independence Initiative, which is, in their own words:

"a national center for anti-poverty innovation that over this last decade has demonstrated that investing in people’s strengths and initiative delivers stronger, more sustainable and cost effective outcomes for working poor families."

As I read the article, a name recurred throughout--Maurice Lim Miller, the person credited for creating Family Independence Initiative, which began as a research project (inspired by then Oakland mayor, Jerry Brown) to make families be the drivers and leaders of figuring out the resources that they needed to get themselves out of poverty. The NY Times article and the website for FII describes their goals and process in detail -- but it was this description of Lim Miller that left me intrigued:

"Lim Miller, whose mother was an immigrant from Mexico who worked multiple jobs to support her children, had previously spent 22 years building Asian Neighborhood Design, a youth development and job training program, for which he was honored by President Clinton during the 1999 State of the Union address."

Intrigued by someone with a Mexican immigrant mother, the surname "Lim" embedded in his name, as well as his work with Asian Neighborhood Design, I decided to google Maurice Lim Miller, and this is what I found.

Maurice Lim Miller's parents (father, Chinese, mother, Mexican) crossed the Mexican border in the mid-1950s so that Miller could be born a U.S. citizen, and then they crossed back into Mexico. But at the age of 2, Lim Miller's parents had split, and his mother moved him and his older half-sister to Northern California. Insisting that Lim Miller got to college to get their family out of poverty, he received an Engineering degree from U.C. Berkeley, worked at Union Carbide, and then was drafted and was shipped off to Viet Nam. It was there that Lim Miller (who identified strongly as Mexican but who, because of his Asian features, was never fully accepted by the Chicano community) began to understand what it meant to be an Asian American:

“Being in Vietnam politicized me about being Asian,” he said.“I was pissed off all the time having to defend myself as an Asian.”

When he returned from Viet Nam he began working in political activist organizations in Chinatown and then got involved with Asian Neighborhood Design and eventually helped to develop Family Independence Initiative.

[If you want to read a full description of Lim Miller's life, google his name and find the pdf file for Asian Neighborhood Design's report]

For more on Lim Miller and FII, click on this link to hear an interview with Crosscurrents on KALW News and click here for the transcript of the interview with Holly Kernan.

Maurice Lim Miller literally personifies what it means to be a Mixed Race American. And Family Independence Initiative empowers families and individuals to make the best decisions for themselves--to be the drivers and leaders of their own success. And for that both are deserving of the T.G.I.F. award--because it is a truly Great and Impossible Feat to empower people to solve their own problems and to recognize that people who are living in impoverished circumstances aren't perennially marked by their poverty but, instead, can help one another find ways to strengthen themselves and each other.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Why is a mixed race character in this white novel?

So I'm back after a 2-week stint at the Project Narrative Summer Institute at Ohio State University. For any humanities or even social science scholars out there who are looking to deepen their understanding and appreciation of narrative theory/narratology, I highly recommend PNSI. It was an intense 2 weeks--I feel like my brain expanded in a myriad of ways--and I am hopeful that the things I learned and the relationships I developed with my fellow PNSI seminar members will be long-lasting.

But I digress.

The above explains my lack of blogging over the last 3 weeks (I came back a week ago but needed a week to decompress after such an intense experience) and why I have been thinking about certain narrative elements in the fiction I'm reading. In this case, why the race of certain characters is either pronounced/announced or muted/invisible/assumed.

The book in question, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender, is a story that I quite liked. In fact, I got to a certain point in the narrative where I couldn't put it down but simply had to keep reading it until I found out what "happened" (so to speak) to the main protagonist, Rose Edelstein, the first person narrator of Bender's novel, whom we are introduced to on the eve of her 9th birthday and whom we follow through her young adulthood over the course of more than a decade. The central conceit of this work of magical-realist fiction is that Rose can taste the emotional life of all the people who handled the ingredients that comprise a dish. In the case of the title food--the lemon cake that her mother prepares for Rose tastes hollow and full of emptiness, and every subsequent meal that her mother makes reveals the same flavor of unfulfilled promise and quiet desperation that her mother's perky exterior masks but that Rose's newfound taste buds discern.

However, my quibble isn't with the premise (which I accept--along with the other fantastical elements woven into this realist novel) but with the introduction of the character George--the best friend to Rose's older brother Joseph:
"He was Joseph's best and only friend. George Malcolm: half white, half black, with messy tousled hair, rumpled and tugged between kind of curly and extremely curly. Once, a year or so before, he'd been at our house and he'd pulled out a lock of his hair and used it to teach me about eddies and helixes. It's a circular current into a central station, he'd explained, giving me one to hold. I pulled on the spring." (31)

Then there's this description, much later in the book:

"The nurse, a black woman with a perfectly shaped nose and red-tinted hair, said he was getting tested at the moment by a specialist but that I was welcome to wait." (286)

In both these accounts, the "blackness" of these characters does not seem to have anything to do with their function in the novel. With the exception of George using his hair to demonstrate a helix (and one can imagine that nearly anyone with curly hair could have produced this type of demonstration), his mixed-race status is never dealt with again. In other words, in terms of what he is doing in the novel (and George actually does a lot--he is a major-minor character, if you will) George's race or racial difference from Rose and her family is never a question, a point of contention, or important from the perspective of plot or character development. It's simply a non-issue. Similarly, the race of the nurse in this brief sentence seems a non-starter--she appears on two pages of the novel, and her race apparently has no impact on her function as a nurse or her interactions with Rose or any other character.

Which brings me to the issue of racial difference. How do I know that Rose is white or even is Rose white? Her race, like that of most characters in the novel, is never announced. Indeed, the only two characters who are racially marked are George and the unnamed nurse--all other characters, major or minor, are never noted for their race--although Rose does reveal that her father's family is Jewish. So to the degree that we read and understand Jewishness as a type of racial category--as a type of whiteness--then Rose does, in fact, announce her family to be white.

Yet even her father's Jewishness is not pronounced or seemingly has anything to do with family dynamics, background, characterization, or plot. It simply seems to be a piece of information that, at some point, Rose shares with readers in her first person narration--in the same way that she informs us that George is mixed-race and that the nurse is black.

So why does Bender do this?

In a novel set in Los Angeles in our contemporary period, it seems very odd that her book isn't populated with more people of color--particularly Asian American and Chicanos/Latinos.

[Aside: although Bender doesn't specify an exact date, there are computers and the internet towards the middle-end of the novel, so my best guess is that it opens sometime in the mid to late 90s and closes in the first decade of the 21st century--the great thing about setting the novel in LA instead of NYC is that you don't have to put in a reference to 9/11 or the twin towers if you don't want to--your periodization can remain ambiguous.]

But even if Rose and her family live in a very white neighborhood (which seems to be the case), the fact that whiteness is the default setting--the universally taken-for-granted identity--the identity that need not be named--remains a point of annoyance for me. Rose's best friend--her neighbors--her class mates and teachers--are not racially marked and thus I think most readers assume that they must be white--a point emphasized through the way that Bender has clearly marked George as mixed-race within the first 6 chapters of the book. The fact that she goes to the trouble to mark the nurse as black, even though her blackness seems to do nothing for the narrative, again highlights the seeming racelessness of all other characters--a racelessness we are to see as synonymous with being white.

Which is a problem. To believe that whiteness is a universal--that it is a form of racelessness--is a HUGE problem in our day and age when trying to understand the ways in which people of color are racialized and the ways in which racism operates--because this IS one of the very subtle ways that racism operates--as a form of normalizing certain races (white) and emphasizing difference for all others (the non-white).

I did like The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake--and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a good summer read, particularly if you like quirky magical-realist novels (although it has an air of melancholy to it--so don't pick it up expecting a light-hearted read). But I am disappointed in Bender's bow to convention (which I'm sure she didn't even realize she was doing) by marking some characters race but not all. Which makes me, particularly sad.