The Chalk Circle: Intercultural Prizewinning Essays
Reviewed by Craig Reinbold
More PC, but also more realistic maybe, we as a nation no longer strive for alchemized homogeneity, but rather embrace (or at least endorse, for the record) real cultural diversity—so the new utopia is not a melting pot, but a salad bowl. But what happens when the vinaigrette runs into the mustard, the fish sauce oozes onto the apple, the feta tastes like fennel, and the iceberg, arugula, cabbage, bok choy, and chard begin to feel misplaced, confused, and alienated? What happens when these many cultures collide?
Such is the issue at the heart of The Chalk Circle: Intercultural Prizewinning Essays, an anthology edited to life by Tara Masih. Introduced by Japanese-American writer David Mura, each of these essays presents “a snapshot of America today—a country of unprecedented ethnic and racial diversity.” He writes, “In a few decades, this country will no longer be characterized by a white majority, and these essays can be read as attempts to grapple with this coming shift and to redefine what it means to be an American in light of this inevitable change.”
As the first black reporter working for the Salt Lake Tribune in its 122-year history, Samuel Autman confronts the racism inherent in his new city. Journalist Kelly Hayes-Raitt shares a moment, and an ice cream, with an Iraqi girl in a Baghdad market just months after the U.S.-led invasion—shares a moment, gives a hug, “and then I’m gone.” Toshi Washizu, an Issei, a first-generation Japanese-American, portrays grief as a bond that transcends borders. Christine Stark, of both European and Native American ancestry, struggles to accept an identity that she was raised to run from. Shanti Elke Bannwart discusses the possibility of forgiveness as “the descendent of Nazi ancestors.” Simmons B. Buntin leads us along a lyrical path from theism to deism to pantheism. And in perhaps the finest essay of the collection, Lyzette Wanzer dines at a ritzy country club and realizes that she and her waiter are the only African-Americans en scene. She suggests, in standout poetic prose, that “something is awry, off-kilter about there being only we two here, in Atlanta, just us two in a city like Atlanta, only we two here, just us two, and you serving me.”
In these pages, we’re allowed to revel in a real diversity of stories, and discover that there are no easy answers. These essays exude a realistic—and often troubling—ambiguity, an ambiguity inherent in the process of constructing a genuine intercultural identity. Intercultural being the choice word here.
Editor Tara Masih prefers intercultural, as “multi, to me, means many and separate. Inter begs to be more inclusive.” Intercultural, as in existing betwixt cultures, living with connections to so many cultures, but defined by no one culture exactly: interconnected, cultures interwoven, intercultural.
Each of the writers featured in this anthology are themselves cultural composites, writing from unique vantages, from the spaces between easily defined categories. To be intercultural then suggests an inability or unwillingness to be so easily typecast, means to unabashedly accept complication, to cultivate nuance, to engender greater cultural understanding not through platitudes, but through experimentation and interpretation and ambiguity: to make suggestions rather than statements, to fix ourselves and yet remain mobile, to seek answers and yet be satisfied by simply having posed the questions. The Chalk Circle hammers home that our cultural identities are becoming ever more difficult to pin down. And this—the collection suggests—is entirely okay.
Reviewing this book, it’s difficult not to want to throw my own intercultural story in the mix. Not my story, necessarily, but the story of a Brazilian girl I met once, in Japan, when she was seven. A tall, skinny girl with curly black hair. Her name was Paula.
Paula’s father invited me for a Sunday barbecue. They lived just outside Hiroshima, and their small town was a bastion of some 5,000 South American emigrants—some legal, many not—who worked in factories and in service and in schools around the city.
With the churrasco on the grill and the other adults lounging with a cooler of Sapporo, Paula and I spent the afternoon practicing handstands, trading capoeira tricks, and playing pick-up soccer in the street with some other neighborhood kids. She had been in Japan for three years, and spoke to me in a fluid mix of Japanese, Portuguese, and English, often switching between the three in a single sentence. I asked her if she was nervous about her family’s impending move back to Brazil. She shook her head, confused. Why would she be nervous, she asked me. “Brazil is my home.”
“Are you going to miss Japan, then? Are you going to miss your friends?”
“Of course,” she said. “This is my home.”
And this answer, I know, was not a contradiction, but an affirmation of her status as a consummate Third Culture Kid—intercultural to the bone.
Paula would be a teen now, somewhere in high school. And thinking of this anthology of intercultural essays, I wonder where her story is, what story here might reflect her experience. If The Chalk Circle comes up short, it is because this ultimately provincial collection depicts the U.S. as the hub of world cultures; every writer featured here is essentially United States of American by birth or residence, and this leaves me wondering about everyone else in the world, the East-Asian migrants to Dubai, the Palestinians in Israel, the Christians in Egypt, the Algerians who call Paris home, the Québécois in Canada, the Ukrainians in China, the Italians who somehow landed in Brazil, and the Brazilians who trek to work in Japanese industry, and so on and on. Where are their countless intercultural tales?
No, The Chalk Circle does not capture everyone’s story, and I suppose it never intended to. Maybe it simply couldn’t, being a book rounding out at a relatively slim 200 some pages. Maybe this is only the beginning, the first anthology of many, a fine start to an ongoing project. One hopes so. One hopes for more of this intercultural essaying.
Craig Reinbold is an assistant editor for Terrain.org. A onetime creative writing intern at Biosphere 2, his work appears in recent or forthcoming issues of The Iowa Review, New England Review, Post Road, Guernica, and a number of other more or less literary places.