Friday, January 13, 2023

Multiracial or Transcultural: Part 2

I'd like to follow up on a post from last month concerning interracial marriages and the differences between multiracial marriage and transcultural marriage. To recap, multiracial marriage means exactly what it sounds like - a marriage between two people of different races or ethnicities. Nothing more. Transcultural marriage, on the other hand, according to Kyle J. Howard, means "two people of different cultures come together & build a family that represents both of them," where "both spouses' cultural backgrounds are honored and celebrated." I couldn't agree with the distinction more, and I've seen examples of both. I've witnessed interracial marriages where one partner felt consistently disrespected and excluded because of their culture, either by their spouse or by in-laws whom the spouse failed to put in check. I've also seen interracial marriages in which both partners made the effort to celebrate and respect the other's culture and traditions.

So the question to me is, how do I know if I'm in a transcultural relationship, especially before I commit to marriage, instead of a possibly toxic and merely "multiracial" one? How can I be sure that my partner is willing to truly unite with all of the parts of me, my family, and my culture? I'm not an expert in the sense of marriage therapy or counseling, but I do have some markers I would look for based on my own experience.

1) Does your spouse spend intentional time with your family? Do they look forward to seeing your parents and siblings, along with all of the extended family, play cousins and fake aunties? Or do they avoid family events, always finding some excuse why they can't be there? When they're around your family, do they isolate themselves or do they engage as if they're trying to become part of the family? Or worse, are they always making snide remarks about what people are doing, and expecting you to participate in their mockery or laugh at their jokes? A person who tolerates, desires, or even "loves" a person of another race, ethnicity, or culture, but can't stand to be around any others of the same group is very likely tokenizing their partner. It may be that they have some fetish, and only want to dip their ... toe ... into those dark waters to see what it feels like, with no real respect for the actual personhood of those they claim to love. It may be that they think of their partner as "one of the good ones," someone to be tutored and reimagined like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, a prodigy who needs to be rescued from their race. Either way, it's a bad sign if you are the only person of your race that your partner can tolerate being around. It's very possible that you've become their "Black friend." 

However, I would add that some people are naturally introverts, like myself, and find it difficult to fully participate in social events. For us it's draining to be around so many people and feel like we're in the spotlight, expected to perform. That dynamic should be considered. Still, there's a crucial difference between the guy on the fringe of the party watching the festivities and smiling at all the joy and fun and interacting in positive, if more low-key, ways with your family members, as opposed to the guy on the fringe smirking at what he sees as antics and madness, flexing his imagined superiority by refusing to join in, or even joining in as some sort of parody or insult. 

2) Does your spouse or partner make an attempt to speak the language? I'm not talking about the cringy appropriation of slang that often sets out teeth on edge, but actually learning a second language. If your culture includes a different language or dialect, does your partner make an attempt to learn that language and use it around you and your people? Or do they treat it as an inferior language, worthy of mockery or at best, not worth learning? This is especially important for English speakers. As much as I love my language, it has often been used as a weapon, and often forced on others against their will. There's a little bit of that colonizer instinct in forcing in-laws to communicate with you in your language rather than making an effort to really understand them in theirs. It may take time, but in the long run, you gain not only a deepened trust and relationship with your spouse and in-laws, but you also become bilingual, and in ways that other people don't have access to. Immersing oneself in Spanish or Kreyol or Xhosa for a weekend is far more effective in achieving fluency than several months of Duolingo or Rosetta Stone lessons. 

In addition, the desire to learn your in-laws' language should apply if your spouse is a child of deaf parents. ASL is a beautiful language, and becoming not only more popular today, but also more useful in social and professional settings. If you have an opportunity to learn to sign in order to connect with an in-law, as opposed to isolating them or yourself from the family functions, you should definitely do so.

Overall, the effort a partner makes to engage on equal terms with in-laws is a good predictor of whether the marriage is, or will be, merely multiracial or truly transcultural. The desire to separate oneself from in-laws or extended family can be a sign of problems down the road. It's true that some in-laws can be toxic and should probably be avoided even by the blood relative, but barring that danger, a partner's attempt to isolate a partner, spouse, or lover from their family or from other elements of their culture can be a bright red flag warning of impending abuse and toxicity. I've been blessed with wonderful in-laws who have welcomed me and shared their home, food, language, and culture with me, and I've tried to do the same for my wife, encouraging her to form relationships with my relatives. Every time I see my wife engaged with my family, I get a little choked up and think to myself, "at least they're not bothering me for a while."

Monday, December 19, 2022

Book Review: Someday, Maybe by Onyi Nwabineli

Someday, Maybe is a novel about grief. Eve loses her husband to suicide and struggles to overcome the depression and trauma of not only the loss of her beloved, but also the shock of his decision and the guilt she feels for not seeing the signs. He leaves no note, gives no warning, and creates a mess of family affairs and other loose ends. In addition, his mother pours out all her anger onto Eve, sinking to horrific, but believable, depths of verbal and legal cruelty at a time when Eve is least equipped to defend herself. 

As she grieves, we see flashbacks to Quentin and Eve's love and life together. As the novel progresses, those flashbacks become increasingly more honest. Eve begins to lose the gloss that distorted her view of Quentin, and begins to accept that he was not perfect, just as she isn't, but that both are still worth loving. One thing I like about the novel is that it centers an interracial marriage, with all of the nuances that brings, but the main conflict is not "them against the world." I appreciated the way it balanced the effort to normalize their union while still acknowledging the distinct issues it faces. At its core, the main conflict is grief, and the fact that the lovers are of different races is handled with honesty while still allowing Eve and Quentin to deal with the sorts of problems that most couples face. Even the animosity from Aspen, Quentin's mother, tinged as it might be with racism, is ultimately about control. I got the impression that while Aspen sees Eve as particularly unacceptable fas a daughter-in-law as a Black and Nigerian woman, nobody would have been acceptable. Her relationship with Quentin is one of those toxic relationships in which the mother tries to use her son as a surrogate partner after the death of his father, a dynamic also born out of unresolved grief. 

However, despite some of the critiques of the novel I've read, which I'll discuss later, the novel is not so heavy as to become torturous reading. Not only does the novel oscillate between the utter despair, shock, and grief that Eve is enduring and the mostly happy flashbacks of her life with her husband, but the tone of the novel itself has a dark, sardonic, self-deprecating humor that makes the sadness of it more palatable. One thing that Nwabineli does very well is keep the tone dialed mostly to dark humor, but then periodically remind us of the horror of what actually happened. When Eve is sorting out her feelings for her mother-in-law, balancing a merciful pity for the woman's grief against a justified indignation against her cruelty, she remarks, "She wasn't the one who slid in his blood." Every so often, Nwabineli throws a punch that lands flush, disrupting the dark humor with the pain of reality. And immediately after the punch lands, she can retreat into a rose-tinted flashback or another self-deprecating quip that resets the mood of the novel. 

In addition to the tone, there is a sense of hope produced by Nwabineli's choice of perspective and her strong sense of voice. By writing this novel in first person, Nwabineli is effectively reminding the reader of one of the oldest truths of fiction. If the main character tells the story, then she must survive in the end. In any first person narrative, no matter how many gunshots or breathless close calls, no matter how bleak or dangerous things get, the reader knows that the main character will live to tell the story. In Someday, Maybe, the person telling the story is the Eve who has survived, in whatever form that takes. The narrator is the Eve who no longer spends each day in bed, roused only by loving family members. The Eve telling the story no longer flinches at every hurdle or setback life throws at her. She has overcome, or at least is in the continuing process of overcoming, and this is probably the reason the novel takes the darkly humorous tone that it has. The Eve telling the story can afford to shake her head at the former Eve who easily falls apart at the slightest test of her resolve. In the future, she has the energy and strength to spare. She has survived the worst, and tells the story from the mountain top, or at least high on its face, even if the story itself takes place in the valley.

This brings me to some of the critiques I've read about Eve's grief process. In choosing the novel, I read some reviews, and found several that put me off the book a little, even though I still wanted to read it. Several of the reviews I found took issue with Eve "wallowing" in her grief. They found her either unlikable or unbelievable because she pushes away the people who try to help her and engages in behaviors that are either unhelpful or downright self-destructive to her healing process. I hate to give these reviews oxygen by linking to them, but I do want to respond to their criticism, so I'm posting screenshots here.

Grief is a very personal experience and I understand that is a main part of this story, but I could not spend one more minute watching Eve wallowing and isolating herself from everyone. If that was my only complaint I probably could have kept reading, but there were just a few too many stereotypical clich├ęs for me.

Listened to the audiobook. After listening to two hours of teeth gnashing, wallowing and caterwauling, I gave up. The heroine is grief stricken, we got that, but enough is enough. I wish I could have gotten past that, because the author has a beautiful writing style. Her descriptions are rich and image provoking. I would like to read more of her work, preferably without the nonstop misery.

I really tried to give this book a fair shot, and while there were moments of humor and hope, the vast majority of it felt like a glutton for trauma over and over again.  The glaring issues with the mother-in-law aside, and as much as I hate to agree with Aspen, I also cannot see how any adult would be able to succumb to grief to this extent. Although I think I would have felt the exact emotions that Eve was describing, I cannot think of any adult who would be able to spend almost nine months in bed with little to no repercussions. It just didn’t feel realistic to me at all. The tireless efforts of her family, friends, and acquaintances were inspiring, but I feel like I identified with the older sister Glo most of all. How do we care about Eve when she doesn’t even care about herself? There were so many different steps that could have been taken that, as a reader, I felt resentful of Eve at best and apathetic toward her in the end.

2.5 stars. I am still gathering my thoughts on this… Overall, I found Someday, Maybe to be very, very repetitive. I felt like this novel remained immersed in grief and lacked expansion in terms of healing/coping with loss.

As a rebuttal, first I'd like to congratulate anyone who's lived the type of charmed life that has so far avoided the kind of loss that causes a person to grieve this way. Even so, to have the attitude that "enough is enough" seems pretty callous.

Secondly, dear reader, can I just mention in response to the above reviews that the entire novel takes place in about eight months? Eight months. Ocho meses. Huit. I mention this because when I first read these reviews, I would have liked to know that bit of information. From the time Eve discovers the dead, bloody body of her husband to the end of the novel is a mere eight moons, and yet for some readers, that should be plenty of time to "get past that." For those of us burdened with human hearts and psyches, it can take years to come to terms with the loss of a loved one, especially a spouse, and especially with the suddenness and unanswered questions of an unforeseen suicide. Before I read the novel, reviews like this made me almost not read it, although I would have missed out on something beautiful. Now, after reading the novel, they make me a little angry.

People grieve, often for a long time, and this grief can be a burden or even a cause for repulsion to others, to those who are not grieving. Some time ago, I lost a child. I don't talk about it with anyone except my wife, and that probably less than I should. He was basically stillborn after a complicated pregnancy. I became depressed and angry for at least a couple of years, and I was probably difficult to be around. Today, I'm more or less healed, in the sense that I don't eat everything that isn't nailed down and lay around all the time. Still, I have about ten or fifteen minutes of intense sadness, every day, and I don't always know when it's going to hit. He'd be turning twenty-four soon if he'd survived. I don't think it's a fair critique to say that a woman should get over the loss of her husband to suicide in just eight months.

This doesn't mean that Someday, Maybe isn't a tough read sometimes, emotionally. Grief is tough, and this novel does a brilliant job of depicting the process - including the messiness and self-destructive behavior. As she works through her shock and depression, Eve really does become a burden to her family, who rally around her to the point of risking their own mental health. She pushes people away and fails to confront issues until they snowball into problems. Fortunately for her, she does have a family with strong bonds and strong faith to support her through her struggle. I don't know how anyone would survive a loss like hers without that support. I suppose some people don't.

In the end, Eve has to reckon with the fact that while she isn't responsible for Q's decision, that her husband both was and wasn't the man she believed him to be. She discovers that it's okay to love him for all the things she knew and the things she didn't, and it's okay to move on. "Sadness is not a reason to stop living." 

I found Someday, Maybe not only engaging and beautiful, but very helpful and encouraging. Nwabineli has created something with style and heart, and I look forward to reading whatever she does next.