Hazel Rochman: Against Borders

While sprucing up my Books Between Cultures presentation for the upcoming American Library Association's annual conference in New Orleans, I stumbled across this brilliant article by Hazel Rochman. I loved her reminder that no single hyphenated voice has the corner on an ethnic group's experience:
Maxine Hong Kingston, who wrote the classic memoir The Woman Warrior, complains about “the expectation among readers and critics that I should represent the race. Each artist has a unique voice.” She says, “What I look forward to is the time when many of us are published and then we will be able to see the range of viewpoints, of visions, of what it is to be Chinese-American.” Phoebe Yeh, a children’s book editor at Scholastic, says that she is a reader before she is a Chinese. Cynthia Kadohata says that “being Asian” is not the focus of her writing: “a writer has no special obligation to his or her race unless such obligation resides in the heart.”
In a great story, we experience commonalities that transcend individual cultures -- family, friendship, honor, duty, coming of age, betrayal, desire, sorrow, triumph, joy, suffering. As we bond with an individual in the story, we might learn about customs, cuisine, history, and geography, but all of that is secondary. According to Rochman, the best books focus on the personal and the particular:
The way they (build community and break down borders) is not with role models and recipes, not with noble messages about the human family, but with enthralling stories that make us imagine the lives of others. A good story lets you know people as individuals in all their particularity and conflict; and once you see someone as a person — their meanness and their courage — then you’ve reached beyond stereotype.
She ends the article with a marvelous quote that I'd like to put to music and sing from the Fire Escape: "Reading makes immigrants of us all. It takes us away from home, but, most importantly, it finds homes for us everywhere."