Against Borders

If anyone had told me when I was growing up in South Africa that I would be living in Chicago one day and writing about multiculturalism in children’s books, I would have thought they were crazy. I thought my place was really off the map; nothing could happen there that would interest the rest of the world. And I thought there was nothing connecting us. My view of Chicago, in fact of all the United States, came from Hollywood musicals and cowboy movies, and from stories about gangsters like Al Capone. Even today, that’s how many South Africans imagine things here.

In the same way, many people in the U.S. imagine that South Africa — the whole of Africa — is a steamy jungle with exotic wild animals and primitive natives and Tarzan and a few people on safari. Recently images of suffering, starving babies and massacre, have gotten mixed in with the stereotypes, but it’s all a vague picture of dark, primitive Africa.

Who would have thought that Nelson Mandela would one day be the most famous person in the world? Who would have dreamed South Africa would have multiracial elections and everyone would vote, including the eighteen million black people who had never voted before, and a black government would be elected to rule and the whole world would be watching? My husband went back to Cape Town to work for the African National Congress in the election. He stood with those people we saw on television, people lining up for hours and hours, some with babies on their backs, to vote for the first time in their lives. He brought back a copy of the ballot. My son says it’s like having a piece of the Berlin Wall.

Walls were what apartheid was about. Walls and borders.

And now after all the long years of boycotts and sanctions, South Africa is no longer a pariah, but a member of the international community. It’s strange to be bragging about my birthplace. I was always ashamed to say I was raised in South Africa. When strangers here told me they liked my accent and asked me where I was from, I usually mumbled something about having spent time in England. Or, if I said South Africa, I quickly went into a long denial about not being part of the apartheid regime.

But it wasn’t as simple as that. I was part of it when I was growing up, even though I didn’t realize it. I was against apartheid, but it didn’t seem to have much to do with me. I grew up in a liberal home. I wasn’t allowed to make racist remarks. I thought I was a good person. I didn’t see what was going on around me. I never noticed that there were no black kids my age in my neighborhood; not one black student in my school. We weren’t rich, but every white family I knew had at least one servant. I just accepted that the woman who cooked and cleaned for us and lived in a room in the backyard — we knew only her first name or referred to her as the “girl” — I never thought that her children lived far away and she was forced to leave them in order to come and look after me. I remember vaguely that one of her children died. I never asked her about her life. I couldn’t imagine her story.

I wasn’t into politics. My interest has always been in people, in personal relationships. I thought that those who marched with banners and slogans, who picketed and demonstrated, were a bore. I tried to be a “good girl.” To be a loyal and sensitive friend, a decent member of my community, to care about people. But “people” were white. The white South African writer Nadine Gordimer says that she once moved among blacks “as if they were trees or grass.”

It’s not just South Africa. The poet Adrienne Rich talks about a similar experience growing up white in this country, about “the apartheid of the imagination.” She was not brought up to hate, she says: she was brought up “within the circumference of white language and metaphor.” Language was with her, like the wind at her back as she ran across a field. Only much later did she realize “how hard, against others, that wind can blow.”

Just as I, a white child in Johannesburg, saw the blacks around me as undifferentiated “natives,” so Maya Angelou growing up in segregated Stamps, Arkansas, couldn’t see whites as individuals: “People were those who lived on my side of town. I didn’t like them all, or, in fact, any of them very much, but they were people. These others, the strange pale creatures that lived in their alien unlife, weren’t considered folks. They were whitefolks.”

They all look alike. We are individuals.

In South Africa that kind of apartness was the law. Racism was the law. This is the fury with which Mandela describes that law “diabolical in its detail ... the thousands of humiliations that ordinary Africans confronted every day of their lives. It was a crime to walk through a Whites Only door, a crime to ride a Whites Only bus, a crime to use a Whites Only drinking fountain, a crime to walk on a Whites Only beach, a crime to be on the streets past eleven, a crime not to have a pass book and a crime to have the wrong signature in that book, a crime to be unemployed and a crime to be employed in the wrong place, a crime to live in certain places and a crime to have no place to live.”

Mandela spent twenty-seven years in prison. And during those dark years, it was a crime to quote his words. To keep the apartheid system going you had to have fierce censorship. You had to control what people saw and thought. It was a police state. There were borders and barriers everywhere, barbed wire around our homes and in ourselves. There was blanket censorship of books and newspapers. Radio was state controlled. Until 1976 there was no television at all. The “public” library was for whites only. Most black writers were banned, banished, imprisoned.

The apartheid government with its rigorous censorship was right about one thing: books matter. The stories you read can transform you because they help you imagine beyond yourself. If you read only what mirrors your view of yourself, you get locked in. It’s as if you’re in a stupor or under a spell. Buried.

As an immigrant, I’m still unable to take for granted the freedoms of the First Amendment. In Johannesburg I worked as a journalist, and over many years I saw freedom of thought and expression whittled away until it was forbidden to criticize the government or even to ask questions about children detained and tortured without trial. The result of that kind of censorship is that most people can shut out, can not know, what is happening all around them.

Apartheid has tried to make us bury our books. The Inquisition and the Nazis burned books. Slaves in the United States were forbidden to read books. From Latin America to Eastern Europe, they’ve trashed books. But the stories are still here.

I believe that the best books can make a difference in building community. They can break down borders. And the way that they do that is not with role models and recipes, not with noble messages about the human family, but with enthralling stories that make us imagine the lives of others. A good story lets you know people as individuals in all their particularity and conflict; and once you see someone as a person — their meanness and their courage — then you’ve reached beyond stereotype.

When Bill Ott, Editor and Publisher of Booklist, asked me to do a book about promoting multiculturalism, I thought it would be straightforward. Booklist has been publishing fine ethnic bibliographies for years (from “Growing Up Native American” to “World Cultures”), and it seemed a good idea to pull them together, update and expand them, and make a book. ALA Books became co-publishers of Against Borders — my editor there was Bonnie Smothers. From the beginning Bill, Bonnie, and I were vehement that multiculturalism means across cultures, against borders; and multiculturalism doesn’t mean only people of color. Multiculturalism isn’t a special subject of an anthology or a separate area of a library, or a special month of the year, or a special view of history. It’s part of everything we do. It’s us.

There’s no doubt that some kinds of Eurocentric books have dominated the mainstream for a long time and that some cultures have been largely ignored. But the best way to promote them is together, not patronizingly as something cute and exotic and apart, but as good books. To join stories across cultures in my book, I chose the theme of the perilous journey: stories about heroes and monsters, friends and outsiders, that are part of everyone’s search for home.

One of the positive effects of the whole multicultural emphasis is that — even with books that have nothing to do with ethnicity, books about making friends or sibling rivalry or mathematics — you no longer have all-white classrooms and all-white neighborhoods. The multicultural cast is becoming the norm in illustration of concept books, and I seldom comment on it now in a review. But it would be insulting to say that these books are good because they’re multicultural.

In fact, one kind of book that doesn’t work is the one that deliberately takes multiculturalism, and only multiculturalism, as its subject. That’s like making life the theme of a book. What would you leave out?

Underlying much of the debate is the demand that each book must do it all. If you think that the book you’re selecting or promoting is the only one kids are ever going to read on a subject — about or with a single-parent family or with a Jewish character or with a gay character or with a grandmother — then there’s intense pressure to choose the “right” book with the “right” message. If we don’t watch out, reading becomes medicine, therapy. We start to recommend books because they give us the “right” role models, depending on what’s considered “right” in the current political climate.

The poet and columnist Katha Pollitt wrote in a brilliant article in The Nation that it’s because young people read so little that there’s such furious debate about the canon. If they read all kinds of books all the time, particular books wouldn’t matter so much. The paradox is that if we give young people didactic tracts, or stories so bland that they offend nobody, or so inclusive that nothing is left out, we’re going to make them read.even less. There has to be tension and personality, laughter and passionate conflict, if you’re going to grab kids and touch them deeply. If you want them to read.

A good story is rich with ambiguity, with uncertainty. You sympathize with people of all kinds, and neither side wins. The Israeli writer Amos Oz talks about the difference between his politics and his fiction: “Each time I agree with myself, I write an essay. When I disagree with myself, I know that I’m pregnant with a short story or a novel. Then I enter the lives of my different characters, giving them all their say fairly.”

A library collection does have to satisfy all kinds of requirements. But each book can’t do it all. I once heard Walter Dean Myers speak at a conference in New York City, and someone in the audience asked him why he wrote a book about black kids playing basketball; it’s such a stereotype, why was he feeding it? “Every book I write,” he replied, “can’t take on the whole African-American experience.” He said he had written other books in which kids did other things. But, he said, he likes basketball; lots of African-American kids like basketball; and this one book is about that world.

What’s more, one writer is not the representative of a whole ethnic group. Maxine Hong Kingston, who wrote the classic memoir The Woman Warrior, complains about “the expectation among readers and critics that I should represent the race. Each artist has a unique voice.” She says, “What I look forward to is the time when many of us are published and then we will be able to see the range of viewpoints, of visions, of what it is to be Chinese-American.” Phoebe Yeh, a children’s book editor at Scholastic, says that she is a reader before she is a Chinese. Cynthia Kadohata says that “being Asian” is not the focus of her writing: “a writer has no special obligation to his or her race unless such obligation resides in the heart.”

I’m a Jew, and I’m a white African American — but I can’t speak for all Jews. Nor for all South Africans; not even for all South Africans who are anti-apartheid.

In the same way, every gay or lesbian writer doesn’t speak for every gay and lesbian, and doesn’t write only about the gay and lesbian experience. We are all part of many communities — whether the community is defined by ethnicity or sexual orientation or age or neighborhood or work or sport or hobby. And what’s more, the closer you look, the more diverse each community is.

At the Booklist Open Forum at the last ALA conference in Miami, they discussed translation of books into Spanish. Which Spanish? Whose Spanish? Who’s speaking? Spanish in Mexico? In Puerto Rico? Latinos in Chicago? What’s a good translation? How colloquial should it be? Correct for whom? I speak three kinds of English — South African, British, American — no, many more kinds than three . . . The closer you get, the more diversity you see.

One of the big debates at the moment relates to authenticity. Of course accuracy matters. You can get a lot of things wrong as a writer, an artist, or a reviewer when you don’t know a place or a culture. I’m from South Africa, so I do know that culture better than the average American does, and reviewing a book about apartheid, I might find things that you might miss. One obvious example is the use of the word native, which is a derogatory term in Africa with overtones of the primitive and uncivilized, quite different from the way it’s used here. It makes me realize that I must miss things when I review books about, for example, Japan, or about Appalachia.

Being part of a culture does allow you to take more risks. You don’t have to be reverential all the time. When I was choosing the stories for my anthology Somehow Tenderness Survives: Stories of Southern Africa (Harper), I struggled with a kind of patronizing guilt. I looked for stories that had the right line — brave, good, beautiful people succeeding in the fight for freedom — and I felt a great deal of pressure to include them. But several things stopped me from choosing propaganda stories. First, reviewing the books on South Africa for Booklist, I had seen too many ethnic anthologies with the right balance and the right attitudes that just weren’t being read. You can’t harangue people into reading, however worthy the cause. Second, I heard Nadine Gordimer speak. She was politically militant, unequivocally committed to the African National Congress and the struggle to overthrow apartheid. But she was just as adamant that the correct attitude doesn’t make art. Because I knew the culture and felt at home there, I found the confidence to include all kinds of good stories — about people, not about perfect models of self-esteem.

But what about those who say that an American can never write about Japan, that men can’t write about women, that Chinese Ed Young cannot illustrate African-American folklore or that the African-American writer Virginia Hamilton can’t retell the story of the Russian witch Baba Yaga? In fact, some take it further. Only Indians can really judge books about Indians, Jews about Jews. And further still, you get the extreme, whites should read about whites, Latinos about Latinos, locking us into smaller and tighter boxes.

What I hear echoing in that sort of talk is the mad drumbeat of apartheidspeak. Apartheid, which means “separate development,” made laws on the basis of so-called immutable differences. Not only should whites and blacks be kept absolutely apart and educated separately; but among blacks, each “tribe” should be separate, so that Zulus should live only with Zulus and be taught in Zulu about Zulus to do things that only Zulus do. The apartheid planners said that blacks were specially suited to simple manual labor, that science and abstract thinking weren’t part of their culture, and that their training should prepare them to be good servants. It’s so absurd that it’s hard to believe that so much of it was carried out, and with untold suffering to millions.

Children’s fiction and nonfiction is full of people who don’t get beyond stereotype, because the writer cannot imagine them as individuals. Traveling to foreign places — or reading about them — isn’t necessarily broadening. Many tourists return from the experience with the same smug stereotypes about “us” and “them.” Too many children’s books about other countries, written without knowledge or passion, take the “tourist” approach, stressing the exotic, or presenting a static society with simple categories. Francine Prose, writing in the New York Times Book Review, talks about “picture-book ethnic” where “the faces are sweetly pretty, impassive, with uniformly dark cocker spaniel eyes.” Another kind of sweet stereotype is the nonfiction photo-essay so common in children’s literature, where the pictures are arranged so that the child — usually attired in national dress — goes on a “journey” that allows the book to include some colorful scenery and local customs. Such an attitude is really a failure of the imagination. The “others” aren’t complex characters, like me, facing conflicting choices. In the popular safari-adventure “Out of Africa” stories, the black people are like the wild creatures, innocent, mysterious primitives offering respite to the jaded sophisticates of the West.

The other side of the savage primitive stereotype is the reverential. It’s just as distancing. Just as dehumanizing. And it’s the most common form of stereotyping now. Michael Dorris, a member of the Modoc tribe, wrote the introduction for the Native-American list in Against Borders. He says:
As a child, I seldom identified with Indians in books because for the most part they were utterly predictable in their reactions to events. They longed for the past, were solemn paragons of virtue, and were, in short, the last people I would choose to play with. . . . Indian kids seemed far too busy making pots out of clay or being fascinated by myths about the origin of the universe to be much fun.

It’s obvious that for many American young people, books about “other” cultures are not as easy to pick up as YM magazine, or as easy to watch as MTV. And in fact, they shouldn’t be. We don’t want a homogenized culture. If you’re a kid in Miami, then reading about a refugee in North Korea, or a teenager in Soweto, involves some effort, some imagination, some opening up of who you are.

Stories about foreign places risk two extremes: either they can overwhelm the reader with reverential details of idiom, background, and custom; or they can homogenize the culture and turn all the characters into kids hanging out at the mall. There’s always that dynamic between the particular and the universal, between making the character and experience and culture too special, and making them too much the same.

Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind (Knopf) by Suzanne Fisher Staples is about a young Muslim girl living with her nomadic family in the desert of Pakistan. Shabanu has spirit and intelligence, dangerous qualities in a girl, especially when at the age of twelve she’s promised in marriage to an old man. As we get to care for Shabanu and what happens to her, we imagine what it must be like to be her. At the same time the story is rooted in the particulars of her culture, and the sense of her place is deeply felt. The important thing is that there’s no sense of the exotic; the desert is very much there but not as scenery or travelogue.

James Berry’s Ajeemah and His Son (Harper) also makes you see the universal by focusing on one person. In a searing combination of fact and fiction, Berry describes what it was like to be a slave, to become someone’s property. Ajeemah and his son Atu are kidnapped and sold in West Africa, never to see home or family again. After the bitter journey to Jamaica, they are separated forever, sold off to plantations twenty miles apart. No reader or listener will forget the kidnapping scene in Africa when Ajeemah begs his captors to tell his family what’s happened to him: the traders look at him as if he’s crazy and we know he will never see his loved ones again.

Special programs on one particular country or ethnic group or historical event can be an important and enriching part of the library and classroom, whether the focus is on the changing patterns of immigration, Black History Month, or any indepth study of one group or event. Kids can recognize their own particular culture and understand their connection with those who appear different.

But as the writer Patricia McKissack says, “Not just for Black History Month.” As well as projects on one culture or one group, I have worked with librarians and teachers to develop all kinds of themes which draw in materials from people across cultures and across the world, whether the subject is the Hero, or the Family, or Autobiography, or Reading for Pleasure. With my friend Darlene McCampbell, an English teacher, I selected short stories for a YA anthology, Who Do Yo Think You Are?: Stories of Friends and Enemies (Little). We included stories by Maya Angelou, Ray Bradbury, Joyce Carol Oates, Sandra Cisneros, Louise Erdrich, Richard Peck, Gish Jen, and several others. It’s not that we self-righteously set out to do a book of multicultural stories. It’s that whatever you do — an anthology or a booktalk or a bibliography or an exhibit on any theme or subject — you do it better if you open up your possibilities.

I write the monthly Book Reviewer’s Choice column for Sesame Street Parents Magazine. I make sure that I choose great books that preschoolers will enjoy, and I look for books everywhere. I include books that show us in all our diversity. For example, in a recent column on books about food, I included Bread and Jam for Frances (Harper), that wonderful old classic about a picky eater; and Too Many Tamales (Putnam) by Gary Soto, about a Latino family preparing a Christmas feast; and How My Parents Learned to Eat (Houghton), about an American and a Japanese learning each other’s table manners; and Dumpling Soup (Little) by Jama Kim Rattigan about a family New Year’s Eve party in Hawaii, and lots of others, including Never Take a Pig to Lunch and Other Poems about the Fun of Eating (Orchard), selected and illustrated by Nadine Bernard Westcott.

In talking to groups of kids about books, I use a theme to connect books across cultures. Friendship is a theme of universal interest to young people. There’s no more natural way to see across cultures than to recognize in stories from everywhere your own yearning for a friend you can trust or a group you can belong to. Jacqueline Woodson’s I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This (Delacorte) is a quiet, beautiful interracial friendship story in which two adolescent girls resist the bigotry in their school and the sorrow in their families and help each other find the strength to go on. You can read that with Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s funny, honest books about Alice or with Rachel Vail’s Ever After (Orchard), also great stories about growing up female today.

Those friendship stories are also about outsiders. Good books are never about only one theme. You could bring in S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. Then you can move out to other books and back again. The lone gunfighter in Jack Schaefer’s Shane (Houghton) is a strong outsider. So is the high school senior in Cynthia Voigt’s The Runner (Atheneum), fierce and alone and determined that no one will box him in. So is Sojourner Truth, who escaped from slavery and fought all her life to free others; she was also one of the first leaders in the struggle for women’s rights. Read aloud Sojourner Truth’s stirring speech in reply to men who said that women need protection not equality. She was six feet tall, thin, dark, very erect:
“Nobody ever helps me into carriages or over mud puddles . . . and ain’t I a woman? I have ploughed and planted and gathered into barns . . . and ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man... and bear the lash as well. And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children and seen them most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?”

Just about every coming-of-age story touches in some way on the outsider theme. Gender can make you an outsider. There’s a case in the courts at the moment brought by a teenage girl in the Chicago suburbs who wants to be on the school wrestling team. Jerry Spinelli imagines such a scene in a funny YA novel, There’s a Girl in My Hammerlock (Simon).

Maisie Brown goes out for junior high wrestling — to the consternation of her brother, the boys on the team, and most of the school. She’s not sure why, at 105 pounds, she wants to learn monkey-rolls, double arm tie-ups, and all the other holds and escapes. Maybe it’s because she didn’t make the cheerleading squad. Maybe she’s chasing Eric DeLong, the boy she loves, who’s on the team. There are hilarious scenes to read aloud.

Here’s how Maisie describes being in love: “Classes? Subjects? Forget it. The capital of Canada is Eric DeLong. Twelve times twelve equals Eric DeLong. The action word in a sentence is called Eric DeLong.”

You can connect that with Sandra Cisneros’s rebellious Latina teenager in The House on Mango Street (Arte Publico). “I am an ugly daughter. I am the one nobody comes for. . . . I have begun my own quiet war. Simple. Sure. I am one who leaves the table like a man, without putting back the chair or picking up the plate.”

From there you can lead to other stories about family. Read aloud “Those Winter Sundays,” a heartbreaking poem about a father. The writer, Robert Hayden, is African American; the situation is universal. You can bring in brothers and sisters. I love reading aloud Mary Hoberman’s poem “Brother.” It begins: “I had a little brother / And I brought him to my mother / And I said I want another / Little brother for a change.”

You can talk about that with Michael Dorris’s historical novel Morning Girl (Hyperion), set in 1492, which begins with a young Taino Indian girl who can’t stand her brother, until, in a moment of shared grief, she suddenly discovers that he’s a person. Then Columbus “discovers” them.

In my book Against Borders I have tried to give models and examples of all these kinds of projects: the kinds that focus on one culture at a time, and the kinds that connect books across cultures. At first when I was planning the book, I felt overwhelmed by the demands of political correctness. How was I going to choose the “right” books for the bibliographies and book discussions? What about all the watchdogs from everywhere who would pounce: how could you put that book in? How could you leave that title out? Even with my great editors and lots of wise and committed consultants, there were going to be so many problems. My husband is a longtime apartheid fighter. “Not problems,” he said. “Riches.”

And that’s really the point about the whole multicultural debate. When I lived under apartheid I thought I was privileged — and compared with the physical suffering of black people I was immeasurably well-off — but my life was impoverished. I was blind, and I was frightened. I was shut in. And I was denied access to the stories and music of the world. Groups like Ladysmith Black Mambazo were making music right there, and I couldn’t hear them. I didn’t know that in the streets of Soweto there were people like Nelson Mandela with a vision of a nonracial democracy that would change my life. I was ignorant, and I didn’t know I was ignorant. I thought I was better than my mother’s black housekeeper because she spoke English with an accent; but she was fluent in four languages. I didn’t know anything about most of the people around me. And because of that I didn’t know what I could be.

Borders shut us in, in Johannesburg, in Los Angeles, in Eastern Europe, in our own imaginations. The best books can help break down that apartheid. They surprise us — whether they are set close to home or abroad. They change how we see ourselves; they extend that phrase “like me” to include what we thought was strange and foreign.

Reading makes immigrants of us all. It takes us away from home, but, most importantly, it finds homes for us everywhere.


Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Random, 1970.

Carlson, Lori M., Editor. American Eyes: New Asian-American Short Stories for Young Adults. Holt, 1994.

Gordimer, Nadine. Interview, London Observer, September 18, 1994.

Hamilton, Virginia. Many Thousand Gone: African Americans from Slavery to Freedom. Knopf, 1992.

McKissack, Patricia. Panel discussion, Missouri Association of School Librarians, Spring Conference, 1989.

Mandela, Nelson. Long Walk to Freedom. Little, 1994.

Oz, Amos. Interview, New York Times, December 30, 1993.

Pollitt, Katha. “Why We Read: Canon to the Right of Me . . .” The Nation, September 23, 1991.

Prose, Francine. New York Times Book Review, October 23, 1994.

Rich, Adrienne. What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics. Norton, 1993.

Sumrall, Amber C., Editor. Write to the Heart: Quotes by Women Writers. Crossing Press, 1992.

From the March/April 1995 issue of The Horn Book Magazine
Hazel Rochman
Hazel Rochman is a contributing editor at Booklist, where she has worked for twenty years, and is the author of the award-winning Against Borders: Promoting Books for a Multicultural World (1993). Much of her article is drawn from her contributions to Booklist and Book Links.

Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.


Get access to reviews of books, ebooks, and more


We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing.