We were a packed crowd seated on child-sized fold-up chairs. Whoever had set them out clearly had forgotten that people have legs, the rows too smushed together.
Salvatore Scibona was trying out his small repertoire of French – nearly nonexistent, but endearing. I hoped the French audience members weren’t cringing.
He had never been to France before, he said, quickly switching to English. No one in his family had, either. He couldn’t believe he was here. The French translation of his debut novel had come out. The End.
That’s the name of the book, but there seems to be no end to the accolades heaped upon it. The book has won numerous awards – The Young Lions Fiction Award, The Whiting Writer’s Award, finalist for the National Book Award.
At the reading at Shakespeare and Co. last night, Scibona jumped right in, his summation something like this:
His hometown of Cleveland (the “flyover part of the country” he claimed New Yorkers call it – I have never heard that, but it’s pretty good), used to be a series of ethnic enclaves. Italian here, Polish there. Slovakian and all slices of Eastern European.
After the second world war a lot of blacks from down south moved up to Cleveland and other industrial areas. Just like that, people “stopped being Italian [or insert ethnicity] and started being white,” he said. And all of the privileges that came with that.
With a name like Salvatore, there’s no hiding his origins. But he’s never thought of himself as anything other than white. (A year spent in Italy probably confirmed he wasn’t Italian – he spent the entire year there crying, he said).
His book explores 1950s Cleveland, using a town carnival as the conceit. From the way he talked about it and the excerpts he read, it sounds as if he takes on tense racial dynamics all while grounding them in believable story. His characters are racist, he said, but they are real people. His primary role as the writer was to let his characters express who they were, not try to create a book to serve a political message. Though, of course, it does.
I haven’t read the book so I can only conjecture how he pulls it off. But it’s refreshing, an author diving into such meaty territory, not shying away from what others might be too scared to touch.
It made me think, the US has a mighty messed up record on race, but at least we talk about it. Not always well, not always as much as we should, but we do discuss it.
The French lag behind in this regard. You can’t even use the word “race” in a conversation. (I’ve tried it. It is obviously an offensive word.) No statistics are kept on ethnic background because everyone is “French.” Nice sentiment, sure, but not a reflection of reality.
I haven’t been following the debate on French “national identity” too closely, but there seem to be some pretty strong opinions about what French does and does not look like.
Remember the youths burning cars in the “suburbs” a few years back? They were disenfranchised youth, and yes, mostly of a certain color. But were the French able to say that? Not really. Frustrations build ever further when you’re not even allowed to name who you are, what seems abundantly apparent. There are a lot of French citizens who feel they are not French.
Every society has its own demons to contend with; there is no end in sight. More frank discussion might help, though. Liberté, egalité, fraternité, looks good as a motto, but would be even better as the truth.