It just keeps coming up, even in a Children’s Lit. course. You’d think it’d be all about lollipops and rainbows, oh not so. Well, in truth I actually expected it. It is called “Theorizing Children’s Literature”, after all…of course it’ll cover Race and Culture. The most provocative topic we’ve encountered so far is that of authenticity. How exactly does a multi-cultural piece become authentic? Must the author belong to the particular culture s/he depicts? Must the piece be utterly devoid of stereotypes and generalizations? The professor would have us say yes to these questions, but I’m having a hard time believing her. I mean, don’t all stereotypes contain a bit of truth in them? We listen to Margaret Cho’s stand-up routine and some of us find a sense of commonality with the family she presents, however caricatured or stereotyped it may be. This strange sense of commonality is the reason why we laugh—we identify with these characters, we understand her comedic anecdotes, regardless of her embellishments, regardless of the fact that we should be offended.
In order for a work of art to be successful, to be profound, and worthwhile, it must be accessible to a substantially large audience. Ergo, the artist must render it in some general form, so that many people can understand it, be touched by it. So, what’s wrong with using stereotypes? Don’t they serve this function? I know that liberties can be stretched and abused when it comes to representing any culture, but must we be so critical of every children’s book that uses even the tiniest hint of a cultural stereotype? It’s always such a fine line. How does one successfully publish a children’s book that both presents the cultural figures as real individuals, and as members of an identifiable group? How can an artist generalize without being offensive? What is “authentic”?
I’m looking right at these four boxes sitting in my living room—an aberration tainting an already foul-looking apartment—and I’m thinking: “Damn, ‘Fight Club’, sure was a kick ass movie”. I know, the association’s a bit tenuous. It’s like this dream I had the other night about chewy ice cream…it simply doesn’t make sense. Well, at least not immediately. Remember that part where Edward (never “Ed”, or so it’s stated in the September issue of Esquire) Norton bemoans the “single-serving” life? Well, that’s what came to mind as I fixated on the cardboard mountain in front of what would otherwise be a nice view of the very large tree that covers my very ugly apartment building. I thought, “Shit, why unpack? I’ll be outta here in about 10 months anyway,” and suddenly the awareness of my single-serving and impermanent life dawns on me (ray of light centering all around, with angels harmonizing n’sync-style in the background…hmm…perhaps not).
I’ve moved around most of my life: from birth to 10 years old I was shoved around between three different households in the Philippines, at 10 I moved to Glendale, CA, at 12 to Palmdale, then shortly to Santa Clarita, then to Folsom (moved around within that town three times), and the tea-cup ride ends here in Berkeley (at least for now). What surprises me is that, despite this nomadic history, I still look forward to a future of itinerant living, as I’m sure a lot of people out there do. There are so many aspects of such a life that aren’t that appealing—lack of roots, stability, and a strong, readily accessible support system, the tiresome and inordinate amount of packing and unpacking, the pain of finding a reasonably priced pad (complete with heating system, convenient laundry machine access, and distance from anything “ghettofied”)—yet I always feel this progressively growing antsy-ness.
This penchant for mobility seems to invade my personal relationships as well. I keep discovering that there’s only so much time I can spend with any one person. I can’t understand if the trouble lies with me or with everyone else (ah…deny, deny, deny). I do believe that there should be at least one person in your life that you’d wish to spend every waking moment with, but I get this creeping sensation that, even in the best case—if I were to find someone captivating enough to have me forever riveted—I’ll still have my four boxes waiting, unpacked, ready for the next trip outta there.
For some time now, our society’s been quite concerned with individuality. We’ve got the Dr. Pepper slogan asserting: “be you, do what you do!”; the Cotton commercial presenting a motley cast of personalities, each reveling in his or her own distinctive cottony radiance; hell, even the army (the epitome of conformity and mindless submission, of “yes sir”/”no sir”/”I am your monkey, mold me as you see fit, sir”) has changed its catchphrase from the time-honored “be all you can be!” to “an army of ONE”—not only boasting an ideal sense of unity, but craftily speaking to our youth’s high regard for individual potency and influence. In a flash, individuality’s become a trend. Anything with the slight coloring of conformity or conventionalism is viewed askance, deemed malevolent, shirked like the itchy, staticky, wool sweater that your mother mistakenly threw in the dryer.
Stop and wonder with me for a minute…is there such a thing as too much individualism? To some degree, can’t social norms be beneficial? Lets take a man, a real loner who shall go nameless (there will be none of the pretend kind here), who currently goes through life as an extreme individual. He doesn’t follow conventional rules of social interaction, nor does he cultivate the skills necessary to maintain human relationships. He has deeply internalized the values of individualism. In true individualist fashion, he genuinely believes that he is completely self-sufficient, and that he need not please anyone but himself; hence, he doesn’t see the point in empathizing or sympathizing with others, because after all, he doesn’t need these people to satisfy any facet of his life. So, here is, utterly alone (a status under which he’ll likely remain), yet disturbingly unfazed, because his acute individuality renders him unable to conceive of what’s missing. His radical uniqueness, what would seem positive and appealing in our society, isolates him to an overwhelming degree.
The daily barrage of calls to arm ourselves with our uniqueness is striking. “Just be yourself” is the general remedy for all of today’s social ailments, but I assert that this excessive and persistent campaign can prove harmful, for it promotes an unhealthy, self-imposed estrangement from society. The dictates of social norms, the conventions that propel us to act in certain ways with certain people, strengthen our relationships. Without them perceptions and experiences fall flat, emotions stay undeveloped, our potential as human beings becomes stunted. Humans are social creatures, and too much individualism may eventually deprive us of what makes us social. If such a thing were to occur, what will we become?