Thursday, September 29, 2005

When The Book of Dead Birds came out, I expected a huge debate about my decision to write from the perspective of a different ethnicity from my own. I suppose that was a bit presumptuous of me--the book didn't end up evoking any sort of huge response; it was just a blip on the radar, although it did receive a very warm reception from those who did read it. So, I was both surprised and not when Google Alert brought this to my inbox: my book is going to be discussed at the 2006 Conference of the Society for Muti-Ethnic Studies: Europe and the Americas in Pamplona. Here is the call for panelists:

Panel title: “Assuming Ethnic Identity in Autobiographical Novels”

Convener: Cathy Waegner (University of Siegen)

The young, white, upper middle-class author Gayle Brandeis has written a powerful first novel called The Book of Dead Birds (2003): She describes the painful path of the daughter of a Korean prostitute and an African American soldier, growing up in a racialized district in San Diego. The author has conducted intensive research in order to authenticate the settings, events, and references to Korean culture in her bildungsroman. In numerous interviews, however, Brandeis insists on the autographical, deeply personal impulses of her book with its first-person narrator.

What are the problems involved when an author assumes an ethnic mask, in this case a composite yellow/black one? Mere “literary minstrelsy”? Arrogant presumption on the part of the mainstream author? Perhaps even unethical?? Does the charisma of the first-person narrator fade when the ethnicity of the author is known? Or is the author's imaginative feat intensified for the reader? Which narrative strategies enhance the interface between autobiography and fiction? Do we in fact have to re-think notions of “the autobiographical”? How do texts like this affect general perceptions of racialization and the history of ethnic persons?
Ideally, contributions to this panel would, taken as a whole, present a range of ethnicities of both authors and masks.

Send abstracts by October 15, 2005 to Cathy Waegner (

I was expecting questions like this to rise up--I asked them of myself constantly as I wrote the novel--so I can't be too shocked or hurt by them. Still, I have to admit that it does sting a bit to think of someone calling my work "literary minstrelsy", calling my creative choices an "arrogant presumption." It was so hard for me to come to terms with writing this novel. Those who have read about the evolution of the book know how much I resisted writing about Ava and Helen; when they first came to me, I tried to encourage them to leave. I didn't think I had the right to write their story. I didn't want to be a cultural imperialist, didn't want to claim a story that was not my own. They were so persistent, though, and I finally had to honor them and the story they carried to me. The impulse to write their story was not autobiographical--the impulse to write the poem that ultimately led to the novel was autobiographical, but once I found Ava and Helen, the story no longer had anything to do with me, with my life (or so I thought. Once I finished writing the novel, I realized how much I had in common with Ava, how close she and I were in spirit. But as I wrote, I didn't feel that way at all, wasn't writing from an autobiographical urge; in fact, at first I tried to consciously distance myself by writing Ava in the third person. It was only when I had a high fever and had the experience of slipping under her skin that I realized I needed to write her in the first person. And that was very scary for me, very humbling. I resisted that at first, too, but the story seemed to call for it. And the story did come to life when I began to write in the first person--even though at the time I still didn't see much of myself in Ava.)

I am curious to know how Cathy Waegner came to define me as upper-middle-class. I suppose that label might fit my life now, but at the time I started to write the novel, Matt and I would be lucky to be considered lower-middle-class. And the few years right before writing the novel, we were well below the poverty line. I do admit that I grew up with a priveleged background (I remember in fifth grade or so, my friend Emily asked what class my family was. She said of her own family, proudly, "We're upper middle class." I had never even heard of class before, other than within a school building. When pressed, my parents told me we could probably be considered in the same category as Emily's family, but they seemed uncomfortable talking about it. I remember being relieved that Emily wasn't "higher" than me, but then I thought about all the people who are below "upper", and what their lives must be like, and I felt very guilty. My first twinge of class consciousness.) I've never seen my class labeled in public before, and it feels strange. But I do need to own up to my priveleged status, and how it might affect people's response to my work. And I need to not be defensive about this panel; I need to let people interpret my book, my motives, however they wish to. It is out of my hands at this point.

I doubt I'll have a chance to attend the conference in Pamplona, but it would be very interesting to hear the discussion that ensues...

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