Sunday, 30 January 2011

The African Queen

Sarah Jamila Stevenson, a middle grade / young adult writer and former writing group member of mine, has just published her debut novel, The Latte Rebellion I had a few peeks at this when it was in the making and I can vouch for how good it is. The Latte Rebellion is about a handful of high school students in California who get tired of being racially categorized and stereotyped. On a whim and to make some money, one of them decides to start a movement to celebrate people of all different races and mixtures, and she calls it the Latte Rebellion. It succeeds beyond her wildest dreams -- until things begin to spiral out of control. I won't spoil the ending by telling you what happens, but it's lots of fun.

I love the idea of a club that celebrates diversity. I'm largely Caucasian, but I've been a member myself, ever since I got lost on the way home from school in kindergarten and was taken in by a kindly family. While I waited for my mother, their little girl and I played together. She gave me chocolate gold coins. A few old ladies were steaming tamales in their kitchen and they had crucifixes on the wall. But what really fascinated me was the fact that they could all speak Spanish, even Maria, the little girl who played with me. People who cooked their tamales from scratch and spoke a language I could not understand! I'd discovered a whole new world and I was hooked.

When I was in the fourth grade, a girl named Melissa joined our class. Melissa had bouncy golden curls, a posh British accent, and a lot of perfectly ironed cotton dresses with crisp bows that tied at the waist. I was in awe of her. When she introduced herself to the class, I was astounded to hear her announce she'd lived with her parents in Africa. "We had tea with the queen," Melissa added, smiling prettily. My awe turned to speechless adoration.

I pictured a dignified, statuesque, blue-black African queen sitting with Melissa and her parents outside a tall grass hut, sipping tea. I imagined them talking about lions, the Nile, and malaria (Melissa's father was apparently interested in malaria). Afterwards Melissa would wipe her mouth with a lace-trimmed hanky, set her cup down on a polished tree stump, and say thank you very much.

When my best friend invited me over to make cupcakes for open house day, I asked if Melissa could come too. I was determined to get the details of her tea-drinking experience with the African queen.

Sadly, Melissa turned out to be a crashing bore. Not only did she refuse to lick the bowl or spoon after we had filled the cupcake tins -- "It's not sanitary," she scoffed, giving sanitary only three syllables -- but she laughed me to scorn when I asked her about tea with the African queen and whether she'd seen antelopes or elephants. She caught my misunderstanding right away. "Not an African queen, you silly," she said. "We had tea with the British queen!"

Melissa and I only managed to disappoint and confuse each other. I didn't realize that tea in the U.K. was a meal, not a beverage, and the thought of her sitting in a palace with a lot of stodgy old people in fancy clothes was nowhere near as exotic as my picture of her little party with the African queen.

As a child, I couldn't get enough of the exotic. Our school had a fair number of minorities: Latino, African-American, and Asian, and there was even one boy from Egypt, but there were never enough real live foreigners for me -- people with exotic accents who came from countries across the ocean. I worked hard to cultivate any kid who had been abroad or even had a foreign parent; I grilled them about the languages they spoke, the foods they ate, the clothes they wore. On Cinco de Mayo, I wanted to be one of the Mexican girls twirling in their colorful skirts, singing in Spanish. On Japan Day, I envied the Japanese-American kids from the bottom of my heart. They showed up at school in yukata or real kimono and zoris, rolling their eyes -- "My mother made me wear it!" -- but obviously proud, nevertheless. We who had no exotic traditions had to make do with embarrassments: housecoats with colorful patterns and scarves, simulating obis, wrapped around our waists. There was no comparison. Small wonder, then, that I dreamed of African queens.

When I went to live abroad myself, I discovered something interesting: suddenly I was exotic. After a while, the people around me ceased to be exotic to me, but I never stopped being exotic to them.

Many decades later, in Japan, I finally met African royalty when our kids made cameo appearances in a children's cooking show. My daughter and his son bonded over a mutual loathing for one of the presenters. "Kenji's dad is from Ghana!" my daughter told me proudly, "so he's a prince!" When Kenji's father and I finally met, it took me a while to broach the subject, but I was desperate to find out. "My daughter tells me you're a prince," I said. He laughed. "Insofar as such can be said to exist in Ghana, then I suppose that I am," he said in an accent remarkably like Melissa's. Interestingly enough, the prince did not seem particularly exotic: we were both foreign parents in Japan. We spent much of the day talking about childcare, the quality of education, and how our children had settled into Japanese society.

But he was still loads more fun than Melissa.

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25 comments:

AnneB said...

Tell Sarah that her book is already in our county library system with several holds on it!

Robert the Skeptic said...

Our daughter Amy was just out of college when she went to teach English in Kitagata, Japan. Southern Japan sees few Western visitors and this was Kitagata's first ever foreigner.

Little blond Amy was the town curiosity. People would come up to her and touch her hair with no reservation. She made friends quickly but the discovered they wanted to be friends with her due to her "status". She eventually became very lonely for friends she could just be "herself" with and not be a celebrity.

She did make some close friends there who she took her family to visit this last fall. It was a great trip.

Vijaya said...

You know what's funny? I thought Melissa meant the British queen by the way she said it, from the very beginning. There is after all only one queen!

How odd that I've been a foreigner much of my life and never felt like an exotic beauty, whereas my husband has rarely been a foreigner, but while he was in Asia, the people wanted to touch him all the time because he is so blond and fair.

Oooh, I shall have to look for the Latte Rebellion. What a great title!

Tigermama said...

Oh my! I'm living in exotic central and I'm the exotic! LOL!

Mary Witzl said...

AnneB -- That's great! Other than "I loved your book," I can't imagine any sweeter words to an author's ears than "Your book's in the library, on the waiting list."

Robert -- Being exotic gets old fast. I hope I was never as obnoxious to the people I trailed after admiringly, but I'll bet I was a sore trial. Knowing I must have been similar helped me grin and bear it when I was the exotic foreigner in Kyushu.

Our daughters also had kids make an effort to know them because of their foreign status. Their foreignness rubbed off as soon as they realized there was no language gap, and I loved that.

Vijaya -- If you'd come to my school, you'd have had a hard time shrugging me off!! You grew up in India, spoke a foreign language, and ate interesting, spicy foods? I'd have been an insufferable pest!

I know now that when British people talk about 'the' queen, they only mean theirs -- and I also know there is no such thing as an 'African' queen, or even a queen from Ghana. But I was ignorant back then, and desperate for something totally different. I'm afraid the queen of England held no appeal. Now, of course, I'd be happy to meet her.

Tigermama -- It's so true, isn't it? In the countryside in Turkey, it was surreal to be followed around by the most incredibly exotic people -- all anxious to hear about exotic America.

Carole said...

No diversity in my home town. I did get excited when a large Catholic family moved to town. I convinced my parents to let me try their chuch but that was as interesting as it got. And it was interesting but no African queens.

Charles Gramlich said...

I like the exotic in almost everything except food.

Bish Denham said...

I LOVE the idea of the Latte Rebellion! You know I grew up in a multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-lingual family and environment where I was in the minority. I never felt out of place.

angryparsnip said...

When I visit my son in Japan we always get looks especially from the children.
We always seem to travel where there are few foreigner visitors. On trains we are usually the only foreigners and we stand out !

One evening very late we all walked into a Family type restaurant four blond foreigners. Menus where looked at and when the waitress came, son heard the couple next to us say... oh boy this should be interesting, well David ordered in Japanese and was joking with our server.
The couple both laughed and smiled the rest of dinner.
My son it very tall and hairy so he is always noticed.
I love when I eat with chopstick as the little kids are always amazed. I am a big hit in Japan, I am a star !

cheers, parsnip

Mary Witzl said...

Carole -- My sisters and I almost swooned the first time we walked into a Catholic church.

People like us who grew up in an essentially mono-linguistic environment know how this feels. Kids who grow up in places like London and San Francisco will never know how much better they've got it.

Charles -- But the food is almost the best part! (So says the woman who wouldn't touch haggis unless she was half starved.)

Bish -- We're both honorary lattes, aren't we? Sigh...you grew up in a place I'd have given my eyeteeth to visit (if I'd known what my eyeteeth were back then).

People used to call Asian-American kids who neglected their culture 'bananas' -- yellow on the outside, etc. I used to wonder if I wasn't an egg, but in fact I like my own culture just fine.

AP -- I tired of my 'star' status pretty fast, but my kids found it even more of a trial. But there were advantages to being a fly on the wall. I almost always enjoyed surprising people who assumed I wouldn't understand what they were saying. I showed a Japanese-American friend's brother around Sendai once. We got awfully tired of trying to convince people that he wasn't interpreting for ME.

After 17 years in Japan, it was strange to go back to the States and blend into the crowd. I kept waiting for people to point me out to others.

Robin said...

That book sounds wonderful! I find myself listening to a lot of YA books on tape these days. They're just so much fun. (Plus, I'm quite immature.)

I lived in a very "white bread" suburb of Boston when I was growing up. I was the most exotic thing around, and only because I was Jewish. Yet, we always had people of all nationalities over the house, because they were in the Physics department with my father. I found them fascinating, and wonderful. And they brought me the best gifts! A lovely woman from China brought me a glass cat night light when she came over for a party. I used it until it melted into slag. I was able to tell her how much that night light meant to me at my dad's retirement party. She was so surprised.

Falak said...

It's after coming to India that I realized how I never took advantage of living in a country like UAE, which is a melting pot of cultures. But the funny part is that we have so many exotic cultures within India it's difficult keeping abreast with them. It always amazes me how the exchange students in my college are always way more enthusiastic about learning about Indian culture than most Indian kids themselves are.

Pat said...

Melissa sounds a pain in the butt. I had a fleeting period as a Melissa clone when I was passing through my angelic like exterior phase and quelling the devil inside. Out to tea I would refuse a chocolate biscuit the first time - confident I would be pressed and at the end of the meal would tip-toe to the hearth, my frilly dress held in either hand and empty my crumbs, daintily, to murmurs of 'Oh so sweet!'
Then I got bored and unleashed the inner devil.

Kim Ayres said...

The places I grew up in were bereft of anything "exotic". The closest I got to it was being bullied for being English when I lived in Wales.

But the greatest thing for me was when I went to Canada on a student exchange programme. I was thrown in with all the other "international" students, so became friends with people from all over the world, with a wide range of cultures, accents, and colours. When I returned to Scotland, I joined up with a few other students who had been on an exchange and we formed an International Club at the university, to celebrate and enjoy the rich diversity of all the "overseas" students (as they were called by the Uni - what a difference in attitude - "International is inclusive; overseas is foreign).

Helen said...

I have to admit Mary, that with all your travelling, wonderful writing and love for all things spicy - I think you may be a little bit exotic yourself!!!
Will look for that book - just finished a series and am desperate for something new!

Marcia said...

I was pretty sure Melissa meant the British queen, too. I'm genuinely sorry she turned out to be a bore. I would have been fascinated with her too. But I was really never very exotic as a child. I liked books about kids "just like me."

I knew a girl who went to Ghana as a missionary. The children were awestruck by her pale white skin, blonde hair -- and also her weight. They exclaimed about how blessed and rich she was because she was heavy. (She came back with her hair in gorgeous tiny braids and her weight a lot lighter. :))

Mary Witzl said...

Robin -- I would have been so envious of you. My best friend's father was a professor of music and at her house there were always a number of foreign students visiting. I wanted foreign students to come stay at my house too and used to whine loud and long for my mother to invite a few for the holidays. Unfortunately, our house was small and there would have been no place to put them. It seemed so unfair!

If it's immature to like YA books, then I'll happily join that club. In fact, I like MG too, so I guess I'm even worse...

Falak -- What you describe is something I've noticed in other countries too. In America, the people most capable of explaining American traditions, etc., tend to be foreigners. Here in Scotland, I've met many non-Scots who can tell you precisely what tartans are used by various clans. In Japan, I went with friends to one of the larger shrines and two of the boys with us didn't know that the large ropes wrapped around trees were called 'shimenawa', but I did. When you're in a foreign country, you tend to be more interested in all the traditions and keen to learn all about them.

Pat -- We've all had our Melissa moments: I remember a pair of white patent leather shoes I was desperate to keep clean, and a diary I wrote with gold ink (though I don't remember ever having the inner strength to resist anything with chocolate in it). I'm so glad you finally cracked through it! I feel so sorry for women who stay Melissas all their lives.

I wonder how Melissa herself turned out?

Kim -- Being endlessly prized for your exotic appeal can be almost as tiresome as getting ostracized for your otherness. But I know which one I prefer.

I know exactly what you mean -- and good for you for helping to form that club! When I was a kid, the international day at our local university was a high point in my year. People showed up in the most incredible outfits with exotic musical instruments and tasty food. I feel wistful just remembering it.

Helen -- Do look out for Sarah's book -- I don't think you'll be disappointed.

I'm about as exotic as a Norway rat, but if others see me as strangely alluring, I'm all for it!

Marcia -- Melissa was wonderfully exotic at first, but she suffered fools badly so we could not get along. I think she'd been talking about African women, then segued into the bit about tea with the queen -- that's what put me off. If she said she'd gone back to England and had tea with the queen, I'd have immediately known which one she meant.

My oldest daughter is blond and buxom. She's always amazed by how popular she is with the African male students, who tend to like a bit of substance to their women.

Miss Footloose | Life in the Expat Lane said...

Such fun reading this post, Mary! You described so well where your love of travel came from.

My love of travel started -- I think -- from reading children's books that had been translated into Dutch (me being Dutch ;) when I was a child. These books were set in foreign countries like the US, England, Switzerland and so on, places with mountains and strange food and unusual customs. Later I collected a tribe of pen pals from foreign countries and started a scrapbook with pictures from travel agency brochures.

I got lucky. I ended up with a globetrotting life.

Mary Witzl said...

Miss Footloose -- I too avidly sought out books about kids in different countries and corresponded rather desperately with as many pen-pals as I could find. (I think I may have overwhelmed a few with my many questions and speculations.) We had a globe that came free with our World Book encyclopedias. I would spin it, close my eyes, and rest my finger lightly on it. Wherever my finger happened to be when it stopped spinning was a country I knew I would one day visit (I didn't count all of the times I landed in the Pacific or Indian Oceans). That's how I know that some day I WILL get to New Zealand.

We really are lucky, aren't we? If I could have known back then that one day I'd live my dream, I'd have been giddy with joy.

Adrienne said...

When I was in fifth grade the new girl in class had a British accent, and we all thought that was so exotic. It's hard for me to believe that now. The population is pretty diverse here - it's hard to imagine what kids would find exotic.

Angela Ackerman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Angela Ackerman said...

(I'll try again without the spelling errors, lol)

How great to get a sense of your roots. It's easy to see the stepping stones that turned you into such a savvy cultural aficionado that you are today!

When we were in Africa, my son and hubby went on a group walk to see a nearby waterfall. On the way they came upon a well groomed garden and sprawling house where they met a woman who called herself 'Mamma Stella'. This friendly old woman was dressed in white, very well spoken (British) full of good humor and continually flirted with the men in the group, trying to get one of them to be her boyfriend.

After the group continued on, the guide was quite excited, and explained that speaking with Mamma Stella was a rare honor--it turns out she's a princess, the daughter of the last king of Tanzania.

So, you never know who you will meet in this big wide world of ours. :)

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

Mary Witzl said...

Adrienne -- In a strange way, isn't that just a little sad? I'd like to think that kids could celebrate diversity without getting jaded.

Angela -- Now I want to find out exactly where you went in Tanzania so that I too can meet Mama Stella! Except with my luck, she'd have a cold that day or be too bored to come out and greet the travelers.

I really like the sound of 'savvy cultural aficionado', though I'm not sure I'm quite there yet -- I'll have to try and live up to that description.

Marian Perera said...

It's funny, Mary - I came off as exotic to a lot of people in the American and then Canadian cities I've lived in, and yet I never wanted to be seen that way.

I also imitated their way of pronounciation - "why-ta-min" rather than "vit-a-min" and "skedule" rather than "shedule". Thankfully, though, it's normal to eat food from many different countries here. I like it as spicy as possible.

Mary Witzl said...

Marian -- I know now that being exotic gets old quickly, but I didn't know it as a kid. And people who spoke different languages and ate different foods just thrilled me, whether they were Austrian or Egyptian. Even now I remember cruising the tiny 'foreign foods' section of our local supermarket -- what a thrill that was!

But yes: bring on the spicy food!