The United States is facing a new period of unprecedented ethnic and racial diversity. Barack Obama as President is emblematic. The country now represents first, second and third generation emigrants from around the globe. Our melting pot days are behind us. The impetus can no longer be homogeneity but validation of the diversity that makes us different or “other.” The Chalk Circle: Intercultural Prizewinning Essays (Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing, 2012), edited by Tara L. Masih, gives voice to these diverse identities as they explore their place in the world and how we might better connect.
“Since I’m a mix of Japanese and white with whispers of black and Cherokee, nobody ever knows where I’m from, but they know I’m not from here, and here is always where I am.” —Katrina Grigg-Saito
Forging an identity is wrenching business. Made more difficult by a shifting global world. We encounter “strangers” with more frequency. We fear what we do not know.
It’s been over 30 years since I’ve had a social studies class. At the time the subject was relegated to reading a dusty textbook even though the Vietnam conflict was just ending. Most adults didn’t talk to us about the situation, with the exception of my favorite teacher. Her husband had just returned from Vietnam, and she shared with us some of their struggles as a couple as he learned to re-acclimatize. She told us ruefully about one evening making dinner and how she accidentally dropped a slotted spoon to the floor. The loud clang of it rocketed her poor husband into full-bore panic. That story told me more about conflict than any textbook could.
Living in Wisconsin—as insular and “whitebready” (Mary Elizabeth Parker) as you can get—we have seen our share of ethnic changes over the years. The area was first settled by Oneidas, American Indians forced out of the state of New York. Next came waves of immigrants from Europe, seeking “land and hope.” The Belgians were first, followed soon after by the Dutch and Flemish, Germans and French, Scandinavians and Poles, Czechs and Irish.
In the past two decades we have seen the arrival of Hmong immigrants coming from their war-torn homelands in Southeast Asia, and Hispanic families coming for economic opportunity. Most recently an influx of Somalis has quadrupled the number of students in our schools. This is a whole new world for my sons and daughter and future grandchildren, a telling microcosm for larger changes happening around the globe. And like a favorite teacher willing to share, The Chalk Circle tells the stories that need to be told in order to foster an environment of empathy and tolerance—stories from the feelingly personal that can act as a social studies 4.0 catalyst. In one way or another we are all immigrants. The Chalk Circle should be required reading for today’s global citizens.
The Chalk Circle is intelligently and thoughtfully compiled, unified by a belief in writing to further our comprehension of what can (or should) define us, as individuals and as a global culture. The anthology takes as its inspiration an exchange between Jane Welsh Carlyle and her husband Thomas Carlyle from 1845:
“Instead of boiling up individuals into the species, I would draw a chalk circle round every individuality, and preach to it to keep within that, and preserve and cultivate its identity.”
And the beautiful thing about chalk circles is they can be wiped clean as needed and redrawn.
The essays in The Chalk Circle provide polished stepping stones to the re-delineation of identity. Read them in their splendid sequence. Or skip around. Each tells a story from a distinctly articulated perspective, rippling outward in knowledge and (hopefully) understanding.
There are seven sections with two to four essays each. An additional bonus is the “Questions for Discussion” at the end of the anthology which may help a reader or a group of readers think more deeply on the topics, situations and experiences included.
The sections have a loose correlation to Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” with the essays addressing all levels of need: physiology, security, society, esteem and self-actualization. The mini-biographies of each contributor which precede each essay were a particular (and surprising) pleasure.
The Chalk Circle:
Identity, Home, and Borderlands
• In “If Grandmother had Married a Peasant”, Li Miao Lovett considers her life in the context of choices made by her parents, her grandparents. How might her physical and emotional situation been different.
• “Fragments: Finding Center” by Sarah Stoner brings a unique voice to the question of belonging.
• Christine Stark’s “Giiwe: Go Home” discusses how home found her.
As I Am: Letters of Identity
• “Bufferhood: An Autoethnography” by Emma Sartwell attempts a family tree of stories as a path towards self-definition.
• In “Valentine and This Difficult World”, Tilia Klebenov Jacobs explicates a family letter in order to discover its meaning for herself, those involved and the times.
The Tongue of War: A Clash of Cultures
• In “Reflecting on Dragons and Angels”, Shanti Elke Bannwart remembers the ending of World War II as a young girl in Germany and the win/loss march of soldiers out of the global conflict.
• “Tongue-Tied” by Kelly Hayes-Raitt asks a simple, poignant question—can we really afford collateral damage?
• Shanti Elke Bannwart’s “Tightrope Across the Abyss” addresses the work of making peace with an ancestry that causes you shame.
The Tragedy of the Color Line
• “A Dash of Pepper in the Snow” by Samuel Autman considers what unseen factors might fuel a prejudice.
• In “Miss Otis Regrets”, Mary Elizabeth Parker insists on her interpretation of events.
• Lyzette Wanzer’s “Signatures” considers what unites and what divides. (It’s not always what you might think at first.)
Eyewitness: As Seen By Another
• In “Winter Seagull”, Toshi Washizu tells a heart-breaking story of an event that struck down all barriers.
• Jeff Fearnside’s “Itam” discusses how a souvenir can act as a talisman.
• “High Tech in Gaborone” by M. Garrett Bauman discourses on the lucky fit of character and place.
• Gretchen Brown Wright’s “Triptych: Paradise” shows how paradise is not always all it appears.
• Katrina Grigg-Saito, in “Assailing Otherness”, understands a foreign culture best through its food.
• Kamela Jordan, in “Fried Locusts”, remembers fondly her Thai childhood.
• “Israel: Devouring the Darling Plagues” by Bonnie J. Morris further maintains that food is culture.
The Culture of Self and Spirit
• Betty Jo Goddard, in “Connections”, believes connections are a state of mind.
• In “Palo del Muerte”, Simmons B. Buntin comes to the understanding that the ultimate goal is to evolve into god. And god is nature.
In honor of National Poetry Month, read a poem written by Tara L. Masih, editor of The Chalk Circle.
Tori Grant Welhouse is a writer and poet from rural Wisconsin. She holds a BA in English from Carroll College (Wisconsin) and an MFA from Antioch University International (London). She has worked in media for the past two decades and is currently at work on a YA novel, as well as a poetry collection. Connect with Tori on her new blog: http://torigrantwelhouse.wordpress.com