Memoirs Chronicle Search for Identity in the Melting Pot, Pt 1

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: a guide to memoirs, including yours.

At the beginning of the Memoir Revolution, Frank McCourt in Angela’s Ashes and Jeanette Walls in Glass Castle horrified readers with the challenges of growing up in chaotic, impoverished homes. The spectacular success of these bestsellers ensured a whole genre of Coming of Age memoirs. These stories about that period of life continue to extend our collective understanding of the many challenges kids face on their journey to become adults.

Take for example Karen Levy’s beautifully written memoir My Father’s Gardens about a young girl whose parents moved back and forth between Israel and the U.S.. She did not suffer from alcoholism, child abuse or neglect, or poverty. The dramatic tension in her memoir is generated by her constant search for identity.

When she moved to the United States, her Israeli accent gave her away as a foreigner. However, when she went back to Israel, she experienced the same problem in reverse. Her Americanized accent made her an outsider in Israel, as well. This constant state of trying to belong forced her to ask an extreme version of the question every young person faces. “Who am I and how do I fit in?”

At first glance, moving back and forth between two countries seems like an extreme aberration. However, when you look more closely, you can see similarities to what millions of kids face when they go back and forth between the cultural mixing at school during the day, and ethnicity of their home at night. In modernity, with its great mixing and migrating, an increasing number of children are growing up in a culture different from the one in which their parents or grandparents were born. For those kids, the search for identity is complicated by many of the same tensions that influenced Karen Levy.

To add to the challenge of modernity, more people marry across cultural lines, creating a dual identity inside their own homes. If you are one of the millions have had to find themselves while bridging across two or more cultures, Karen Levy’s memoir will awaken familiar feelings. Even if your own Coming of Age did not involve complex cultural mixing, your ability to navigate in modernity will be enhanced by learning more about the psychological conflicts caused by trying to fit in.

Writing Prompt
If you are writing your own memoir, see if Karen Levy’s search for identity can help you get in touch with some of your own dilemmas about the question “who am I and where do I fit in?”

What understandings about your culture did you learn in your family and neighborhood? Write a scene when you realized that there were other cultures that might not accept you, and might even consider you to be the Other. What did that feel like? What impact did these cultural interactions have on your journey to find your own identity?

My search for cultural identity
When  I was growing up, I felt safe listening to the Yiddish my parents spoke in order to keep secrets from us kids. And I felt safe when I walked the few blocks to synagogue, crowded to overflowing during High Holidays. Because of the predominance of Jews in my part of Philadelphia, even at school most of my classmates and teachers were Jewish.

So as a teenager, when I opened a book and saw photos of the Holocaust, depicting those who had been tortured and murdered for looking and sounding like me, I was stunned to realize being Jewish is dangerous. However, I never personally experienced the stress of fitting into a non-Jewish culture until I was eighteen years old.

When I entered school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, the predominance of northern Europeans threw me into massive confusion about my identity. Not only were many of my classmates blond, and almost all of them Christian, but when the war protests heated up, I discovered that many people in rural parts of the state considered the protests a product of Jewish agitators. As the police and politicians become increasingly aggressive against us, I realized that I was participating in a battle as old as the human race, with dominant groups feeling threatened by the Other.

Over the years of growing up, I again relaxed and learned to participate in a culture that is based, at least in theory, on the attempt to ignore differences among people. Later in life, when I began to look back at my own development, I often wondered why I struggled so desperately to travel from child to adult. Once I began writing my memoir and reading others, I realized that even though adults do their best to ignore these differences, when their kids go out into the world, they must figure these things out for themselves.

Kids from ethnic backgrounds face an exercise of getting the two images to overlap, like the familiar optical test at the eye doctor’s office. One image is the one you learned about yourself in your childhood home, and the other is the image you learn about yourself in the wider world. The exercise of bringing these two into focus creates wonderful material to explore in the story of yourself.

In the second part of this article, I list a selection of memoirs that highlight the attempt to make sense of cultural identity in a variety of circumstances.

Here is a link to My Father’s Garden by Karen Levy.

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my book Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.