Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Zora and Nicky by Claudia Mair Burney

★★★★★  The publisher provided a copy for review
Knock me off my feet! What a fabulous book. Read it. If you're an American, please read it.

But first, a history. I became an American this year, a very hard choice and the price of working overseas. (That's another story.) I'm learning about American history and challenges bit by bit. The deep-seated racial divide between blacks and whites astonishes me and - honestly? sets my teeth on edge.

Why? Canadians of my age grew up with different "stuff" - of course we have many of our own prejudices and assumptions. But when I went to school, we read about countries with civil wars, racial conflicts, and class divides that belonged to others. We were taught that all of us had immigrated from somewhere on equal footing. No teacher put one group below another. My classmates, friends, and their families came from Europe, Africa, Asia, or were First Nations (called Canadian Indians at the time) from Asian or southern migrations.

We asked each other, "Where are you from?", meaning "Where is your family originally from?" and expected to hear Russia, Cuba, France, China, etc. We didn't notice much about skin color since we came in all shades. I burned; others tanned. I had freckles; others had lovely olive skin with not a mark on it. Mostly, we evaluated each other by: "Are you nice? Do we like each other and play well together? Okay then, you're my friend."

We expected everyone to be their own person. Our groups and families looked different from each other and we hung around mostly within those networks. We kept our language alive with our grandparents and parents at least for another generation or two. Then our grammar got so bad that people from "home" (our place of origin) laughed and most of us spoke only English or French.

Our stereotypes into adulthood were of community qualities, foods, movement, and the things our groups valued. "Germans are rigid and rule-bound." Chinese make money. "Catholics have big families." Ukrainians paint Easter eggs and their church services sound gloomy. "Japanese fold paper into marvelous shapes and like eating fish." Indians wear turbans and their curry smells better than Mexican chili. "Africans dance like nobody's business" (proven at my brother's wedding: our white kid looked like a wooden stick, dancing among the Kenyans into which he married. We German-Canadians laughed aloud at our ineptness and envied the fabulous "moves" of our new family members.) That wasn't all we knew but it reflected some of what our people (whatever our origin) contributed to Canada.

That may offend some of you. That's the way Canadians learned to embrace varied rituals and backgrounds and were taught to value each other and otherness. It was a celebration of difference, rarely negative (but even then, we tended to be equally depreciative: "You have the moves but I'm a better organizer.")

We didn't like everything about everyone: my Polish-born German father-in-law hated curry so he didn't like the smell of Indian food as W and I did, living in Vancouver's "little India." My father wouldn't hire First Nations "to get things done" because he was task-oriented and they were relationship-oriented. They had little sense of time and ownership. If someone showed up to talk, Indians talked, nevermind the appointment on the calendar. We accepted and expected differences. We sometimes chose (and were chosen - or not chosen) according to our tribe's strengths and weaknesses.

As a young adult, I heard about Camp David, the Madrid Conference, and the Oslo Agreement. I read the novel Exodus by Leon Uris, creative fiction that shone a spotlight on the impossibility of harmony between Abraham's sons. I marveled at the ongoing Jewish-Palestinian hatred. When we visited Israel recently, I listened to both sides, explaining the difficulties of reconciliation and living beside a historical enemy. I heard how no "solution" from inside or outside was working.

But all the black-white conflicts in the USA? Those were utterly foreign problems. Why couldn't people just get along? Weren't they living in the "land of the brave and the free?" What wickedness segregated schools, pools, and drinking fountains? It was the weirdest thing, living next to such a country.

Yet I first encountered American racial tension at church. After playing choir piano for a Brooklyn Tabernacle song, I sighed backstage and made an offhand remark to my friend (who happened to be black. Ignorant me: as a Canadian I'd never identified her as anything but a friend and fellow musician.)

"I'm just not able to pull it off. I wish I had the big hands and soul of a black man. I wish I could relax into the music." To a Canadian, that expresses a passing sigh for a strong, positive stereotype: music, rhythm, flow that the African side of my family has and the German part of the tribe admires.

Unknown to me, I had just detonated an explosion in our relationship. "WHAT DID YOU JUST SAY?" Donis asked me. "WHAT?! I'll forget you ever said that, or our friendship is over." She heard me demean her heritage as "black musicians in a white club."

I was staggered by her vehemence. She wouldn't talk more about it. "If you want to be my friend ever in the future, never ever mention this conversation."

So, what had just happened to Donis and me? I sought clarification from my American friends (black and white - acknowledged at that point as "other" - from each other and from me.) My friends tried to explain the history of slavery and civil rights and the ensuing bias of white against black and black against white. Those heritages were utterly strange. The explanations of the racial divide repelled me so much that I refused to consider becoming an American. Who would choose to join hatred on both sides of history?

Well, here I am. Identified as "white people." How odd. This book made me laugh aloud - how can such humor exist in a difficult story? It also made me cry a few times, I who "never" cry for books or movies. My heart was touched and touched again.

I closed the book with new insights, compassion for the realities and challenges of current black and white USA cultures. Now I am puzzled and stumped. How can my life make a difference to this abhorrent divide that has been handed me with citizenship?

How can I embrace this as "my" problem and responsibility from here on? The color-blindness I grew up with doesn't seem healing to African-Americans. Advice welcome. (For example, a friend suggests any blindness is not helpful, but living with a kaleidoscope perspective is.)

Ok, this is a book review. = I highly recommend the book. It's sympathetic, compassionate, and a great story besides. I'm going to read it again. In the meantime, I'll be thinking about it - and any comments I get from you.


  1. Actually, Rosemari, you weren't 'colorblind' growing up, rather, you were accepting of the kaleidoscope of color and culture that surrounded you. Boundaries, if there were some, were porous. Recently it was pointed out to me that to claim 'colorblindness' is actually dishonoring of the experiences of others. This makes some sense and I am realizing what seems perfectly ordinary to me is quite different to what is perfectly normal to someone else.

  2. True. Having crossed cultures again, I know I'll never be "this people." We look too different and think too differently. Maybe that's where I'll have to leave the burden of the USA?