Growing Up Between Cultures

Cultural and National Identity

Developed by Kathleen Ashley, University of Southern Maine

  • Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood by Alexandra Fuller
  • The Names: A Memoir by N. Scott Momaday
  • Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language by Eva Hoffman
  • Anna In-Between by Elizabeth Nunez
  • No No Boy by John Okad

Issues of cultural or national identity – once considered relatively simple and unproblematic –move to the foreground in this reading series that includes memoirs, a novel, and essays. Each book provides a window into a historical period and specific geographical locations where different cultures intersect. Whether the setting is colonial and post-colonial Africa, the American Southwest in the 1940’s and 1950’s, post-World War II Poland, the intellectual scene of New York City, the class conscious Caribbean, or political Washington D.C., the complexity of cultural history in each case challenges the youthful protagonist who searches for a stable and coherent identity.

All of the central characters wrestle with questions about their own individual identity, questions complicated by their experiences growing up among multiple cultures. Who am I? What culture do I belong to? What country am I “at home” in? What language do I speak, and how do I communicate with people around me who speak another language or whose social codes differ from those I understand? How do others classify me? What bridge between my past and my future can I establish in the present? The story of the search for self-definition often includes the stories of parents, whose cultural assumptions and identifications may differ from those of the next generation and yet who have a powerful influence on their children. There may be multiple cultures within the family as well as in the outside society.

As a group, the readings ask us to examine such concepts as race, ethnicity, culture or nationality, and to challenge common definitions that may be based in political expedience rather than fact. Each author, however, chooses a different path for his or her journey toward awareness. Alexandra Fuller wrote several novels — attempting to capture Africa’s complexity – but in the end decided to write a memoir mainly from the naïve perspective of a child in the racist environment of colonial wars. By contrast, Elizabeth Nunez writes novels that draw heavily from her own childhood experiences in the Caribbean but her central character brings an Americanized professional viewpoint to the stratified island society. N. Scott Momaday and Eva Hoffman’s memoirs narrate the reaction of sensitive artistic young people to geographical dislocations, whereas Eric Liu’s interest in issues of Chinese cultural and ethnic identity only arose when he was a successful adult. He chose to explore those issues in politically-sophisticated essays into which his personal family stories are woven.

The books in this series thus highlight the cultural diversity in almost every setting and they reveal the many different ways there are to negotiate those competing claims of identity.