We live in a multicultural world, so it’s great when that’s reflected in literature. An increasing number of books have characters of different races and ethnicities interacting — often on a more equal basis than they might have interacted in older fiction.
(Actually, some older fiction also has surprisingly decent multicultural aspects amid the many false assumptions of white superiority, which I’ll get to later in this post.)
But the multicultural interactions in relatively recent literature are hardly always nirvana. There is love and hate, open-mindedness and narrow-mindedness, harmony and conflict, understanding and lack of understanding. Racism continues to often rear its ugly head, even as some characters are more enlightened than their ancestors might have been.
I just read Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, which is not only funny as hell but has an amazing mosaic of characters. Among them are Samad, a brilliant but insufferable Bengali Muslim from Bangladesh whose best friend is a white Englishman (Archie) who’s married to a black woman (Clara). The variety of cultures depicted in the mostly London-set novel is exhilarating, even when it’s more like a clash of cultures.
A later Smith novel — the compelling On Beauty — finds much material to mine in the marriage of an African-American woman (Kiki) to an insecure/annoying white professor (Howard) from England who’s teaching in America, and how that couple relates to another couple: a Trinidadian (Monty) who’s a professor in England, and his ill wife (Carlene).
Plus, in both On Beauty and White Teeth, it’s fascinating how the children of the main characters become (sort of) Americanized or anglicized. The immigrant vs. second-generation experience and all that.
It’s no surprise that Smith is the biracial daughter of a Jamaican mother and English father; the increased multiculturalism in relatively recent literature is partly a reflection of thankfully increased author diversity.
Jhumpa Lahiri also finds multicultural fiction gold in The Namesake and The Lowland, both of which feature Bengali characters who migrate to the United States. They and/or their children of course interact with white Americans and in some cases have romantic relationships with them, while other characters continue to identify mostly with their country of origin.
Then there’s Nadine Gordimer’s My Son’s Story, in which a biracial anti-apartheid activist in South Africa has an affair with a white social worker; Lee Child’s Make Me, in which Jack Reacher teams up professionally and romantically with a Chinese-American woman; and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, in which the multicultural elements include Harry and Cho Chang dating at one point.
The multicultural connections in relatively recent novels obviously include more than romantic ties/angles. In Fannie Flagg’s I Still Dream About You, for instance, the African-American friend/real-estate coworker (Brenda) of the white protagonist (Maggie) has political aspirations in Alabama. Billie Letts’ Where the Heart Is includes African-American (Moses) and Native-American (Benny) characters who befriend the white protagonist (Novalee) when she’s abandoned in Oklahoma.
As one can see from the above examples, people of color are frequently — though not always — the supporting rather than lead characters in multicultural literature written by white authors. Too much of that sidekick phenomenon, which is also often the case in movies.
While there’s plenty of blatant white superiority in older novels — often reflecting the narrow-mindedness of the authors themselves — there are some nice exceptions. For instance, James Fenimore Cooper depicts various Native-Americans with surprising tolerance in his five 19th-century “Leatherstocking” novels (including The Last of the Mohicans), and I loved the deep friendship between the Native-American Chingachgook and the white Natty Bumppo.
Also, black or biracial characters are prominent, portrayed positively, and shown interacting (or trying to interact) with white characters on a fairly equal basis in 19th-century novels such as Armadale by Wilkie Collins and Georges by Alexandre Dumas (who was biracial himself). But those protagonists also face major difficulties living in a mostly white society.
Black-white interactions are even more fraught in decades-ago books such as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Margaret Mitchell’s often-racist Gone With the Wind, Carson McCullers’ more-understanding The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, and Richard Wright’s Native Son — though Bigger Thomas in that last book is eventually befriended and represented by a white (communist) lawyer.
Then there are John Steinbeck’s works, which rarely featured black characters but often featured Hispanic ones — as in The Wayward Bus (driver Juan) and Tortilla Flat (most of the book’s ensemble). Also, Asian-American housekeeper Lee is arguably the most interesting person in East of Eden as he interacts with the white Trask family he works for and with the mostly white California world he inhabits.
It’s almost another topic entirely, but there’s plenty of multicultural interaction in sci-fi and fantasy — or maybe it’s more like multi-planet or multi-categories-of-beings interaction. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, for instance, we have hobbits, dwarfs, elves, orcs, wizards, humans, etc.!
What are your favorite books with multicultural elements? How important is that kind of diversity to you as a reader?
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I’ve finished and am now rewriting/polishing a book called Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Writers, but am still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as “Dear Abby” and Ann Landers, and other notables such as Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.