All the Cats Who Are So In, I Don’t Fit In*

assimilating-or-notVery often, when two cultures come into contact, one of them ends up becoming dominant. There are many reasons for this, and many consequences of it. One of them is that members of the minority culture frequently have to make a painful choice – one of several. Do they keep their own language, cultural ways, and so on, or do they assimilate? If they assimilate, there’s more of a chance of surviving well within the dominant culture. But it means rejecting their own culture and language, with all of the loss that entails. Keeping that culture and language, though, means likely being cut off from a lot of opportunity.

This isn’t an easy choice to make, and matters aren’t helped by the pressure to assimilate and the equal (and opposite) pressure not to ‘sell out.’ And that pressure can come in several ways. And, in some cultures, being a member of a minority culture carries a stigma that greatly impacts a person. That, too, plays a role in the decisions a person might make. There are plenty of crime-fictional characters who face these dilemmas, and it adds to their characters.

In Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn series, we are introduced to Janet Pete. She’s a half-Navajo/half-white attorney whom we first meet in Skinwalkers. At first, she lives and works in Washington, D.C., where she has a position with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Later, she works for the Navajo Nation. For a time, she and Jim Chee are also romantically involved. Pete has learned how important it is to assimilate if one wants to ‘get ahead.’ She lives a white lifestyle, and at one point, encourages Chee to accept a position off the Reservation, so that they can live in a more dominant-culture way. But at the same time, she is well aware of her Navajo background, understands its traditions, and has a deep respect for her people. She has to make some very painful decisions as the story arc concerning her plays out. And part of the reason for that is the pressure she feels both to assimilate and to be a part of the Navajo world.

Jason Matthews faces much the same challenge in Nicole Watson’s The Boundary. He’s a Brisbane police detective who is also a member of the Corrowa people. He’s been able to manage his life by (mostly) assimilating, as have some other Aborigine characters in this novel. And so far, he’s done all right. Then, the Corrowa people get into a land dispute with a development company over Meston Park. Both groups lay claim to the place, and the situation gets very ugly. Judge Bruce Brosnan rules against the Corrowa, and a few hours later, he’s found dead. Then there are other murders, each of someone involved in the case against the land claim. Matthews is on the team that investigates the killings, and the experience tests his views about assimilating, about identity, and about culture.

Then there’s the question of what’s sometimes been called ‘passing’ – being a member of one race, but identifying oneself (at least publicly) as a member of another. In the US, at least, there’ve been blacks who chose to ‘pass’ as white, rather than identify as black, and it’s been a difficult choice. On the one hand, ‘passing’ has meant opportunities that wouldn’t be available otherwise. On the other, many blacks have seen ‘passing’ as turning one’s back on one’s own. There’s a Walter Mosley book featuring PI Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins that addresses this very issue, but naming it would be too close to spoiling for my taste.

It’s been an issue in other places, too. Malla Nunn’s Emmanuel Cooper series, for instance, takes place in 1950s South Africa, a time when Apartheid was the law of the land. The rules about race were strict, and brutally enforced. They determined where one lived, what sort of education and job one got, whom one could marry, and much more. Being identified as white (whether Afrikaans or English) meant privilege, power, and opportunity. Being identified as non-white relegated one to a lower class of citizenship, with little opportunity and less voice. In that world, it’s so important to be considered white that many people hide any evidence that they might not be. And that fact figures into more than one character’s choices in the series.

One of Anya Lipska’s sleuths is Janusz Kiszka, a Polish immigrant to London. He’s a well-known member of the Polish community there, and has become sort of a ‘fixer’ – a person who can get things done. He doesn’t always use the ‘usual channels,’ but he always knows someone who knows someone, if I can put it that way. Although he has no burning desire to return to Poland, Kiszka has kept many of his cultural ways, as well as his own language. And he dislikes the tendency for some Polish immigrants to immediately adopt English ways, drop their language, and so on. It’s an interesting perspective on the meeting of cultures.

And then there’s Brian Stoddart’s Roisin McPhedren. When we first meet her in A Madras Miasma, she serves as cook and housekeeper for Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu. They are also lovers, but they keep that secret. The series takes place in 1920s Madras (today’s Chennai) during the last decades of the British Raj. Roison is Anglo-Indian, and well aware of the social advantages of being as ‘English’ as possible, particularly since she is not of the upper class.  And that includes English social mores. It’s a painful situation for both her and Le Fanu. By contrast, Le Fanu’s assistant, Sergeant Muhammad ‘Habi’ Habibullah makes no attempt to ‘be English.’ He is unashamedly Indian, and Muslim. He may not assimilate, but Habi has earned the respect of others, most particularly his boss, because he is very, very good at what he does.

It can be painful and difficult to decide whether and how much to assimilate, if one’s not a member of a dominant culture. And there isn’t really a ‘right’ answer. Perhaps that’s part of what makes such characters so interesting.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beat’s I Don’t Fit In.


Filed under Anya Lipska, Brian Stoddart, Malla Nunn, Nicole Watson, Tony Hillerman, Walter Mosley

26 responses to “All the Cats Who Are So In, I Don’t Fit In*

  1. One of the things I love about the Louise Penny crime series set in Quebec is that we do get a bit of insight into some of the tensions between the Anglo and French-speaking community, how they view each other, perhaps not with disdain, but sometimes with bemused bafflement.

    • I think Penny does that very well, too, Marina Sofia. And what I like about it is that neither side is shown as ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ although Gamache identifies with the French-speaking community. It’s just different ways of looking at life.

  2. As someone who comes from a country whose culture has been more or less subsumed into the dominant culture of our larger neighbour, and is beginning a tentative fight back in recent years, I’m always attracted to this kind of story. That’s part of the reason for my fascination with the countries that used to be part of the British Empire – we share some aspects of that cultural domination. I’d add Abir Mukherjee’s first novel “A Rising Man” to your list – partly because it’s set in Calcutta at the period when calls for Indian Independence were rising and his characters show examples both of people who have and haven’t assimilated, and partly because Mukherjee himself is a Scot of Indian heritage writing books about an Englishman in colonial India! That’s got to cover most aspects of the assimilation question all by itself… 😉

    • I can see why this sort of story appeals to you, FictionFan. Assimilation questions are relevant for a lot of different cultures that have been dominated/subsumed/etc. by other cultures. I think there probably are some similarities among cultures just based on that fact, so I it makes sense that you’d have a sense of resonance. And thanks for mentioning the Mukherjee. I’ve been wanting to read that since it came out and *embarrassed blush* I haven’t yet done so. That’s on my oist for very soon, though. I appreciate the reminder.

  3. Anytime I think about cultures clashing in a story I always think about Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn series. Marina Sofia made a great point about Louise Penny’s series as well. We learn a lot about how the different cultures interact or do get along. Great post, Margot.

    • Glad you enjoyed the post, Mason. And I think you’re quite correct. Tony Hillerman did a really effective job of showing what happens when cultures meet, and people have to decide how they’re going to interact. And so does Louise Penny (thanks from me, too, Marina Sofia).

  4. tracybham

    All of the authors / series you have mentioned here I would love to read, or read more of. The most recent example I can think of is Cold Mourning by Brenda Chapman set in Ottawa, Ontario. Kala Stonechild is a First Nations police officer who sometimes has a hard time fitting in and being accepted when she gets a job in the police force there.

    • That’s exactly the sort of story I had in mind with this post, Tracy, so thanks for mentioning it. And that’s the sort of situation that’s faced by members of minority cultures when they’re in majority-dominated professions. It’s certainly a challenge, and can make for an interesting character layer and source of tension.

  5. Margot: Your post made me think of the number of Canadian writers who are “encouraged” by their publishers to set their books in America so they will be easier to sell.

    • Oh, I’m not surprised at that at all, Bill. And it’s another, interesting way to look at this whole question of assimilation. The thing is, some of the best Canadian crime fiction I’ve read is set in Canada – with very Canadian characters.

  6. Col

    I’m reminded of Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy. There’s definitely a culture clash in Northern Ireland and a Catholic police officer isn’t Mr Popular with either community.

  7. Interesting way to provide tension in a story (in addition to the tension surrounding the murder). Thanks for the reading list! I’ll have to add some to my TBR list.

  8. I’m going to try and get my hands on Abir Mukherjee’s A RISING MAN — thank you FictionFan. On another note, Margot, it’s heartening to see Western tourists and expats adopt our culture, language, and way of life — and doing such a great job of it too. We’re not really all that different from each other.

    • No, we’re really not, Prashant. And I think as cultures come into contact, we really learn that lesson. I’m with you, too: I really want to read the Mukherjee!

  9. In Nicholas Freeling’s Van Der Valk books, published in the 60s and 70s, the good inspector was very Dutch. But he had a French wife, Arlette, who was seen as rather sexy, ‘hot stuff’. Cultural differences often cropped up in the books. I read them when I was quite young, and it was very good for me, educational and informative in an entertaining way, because I would probably have not distinguished among different European cultures so much, it was a nice way to learn a lesson. (another point in favour of reading crime novels!)

    • You’re right, Moira. I like those mysteries for that reason, too. And it’s interesting to look at the prevailing views of both cultures in those series. I especially enjoyed the perspective Van Der Valk’s wife, Arlette, had about the Dutch, and about fitting in without assimilating. Interesting stuff!

  10. R. T.

    I think this divide occurs also in older British crime fiction; the class divides are remarkable and fixed, so Heaven help anyone who violates the class distinction boundaries. Now, I wish I could think of a good example; however, I am now reading The Moonstone, and the upstairs-downstairs separations are interesting dynamics.

    • You make a very well-taken point, Tim, about the different social classes in a lot of Golden Age crime fiction. And The Moonstone is a fine example of how that plays out. Thanks for mentioning it.

  11. Claire McGowan’s books who follow Paula McGuire who works in the Missing Persons Unit on the border between Northern and Southern Ireland brings up a few examples of this even though peace has been declared, people have years of distrust to overcome.

    • That’s just it, Cleo. Just because peace has been declared doesn’t mean that everything’s happy and all right again, does it? And I’m glad you mentioned McGowan’s take on that border; it’s got some interesting assimilation/cultural issues as well as solid mysteries. Must spotlight one of her books at some point!

  12. I can see where this would add an interesting layer. Thanks for your insight, Margot. Always fascinating!

    • That’s kind of you, Sue – glad you enjoyed the post. And I really do think this assimilation question can add to a story when it’s authentic and done well.

  13. kathy d

    The Boundary is a very good book about the Indigenous people of Australia and their struggle for land and culture rights. It has a good conclusion, too, not about violence either.
    And Malla Nunn’s books are excellent. What a horror was apartheid in every way. The comedian, Trevor Noah, published a memoir, “Born a Crime,” about his childhood in South Africa.
    His mother was an African woman and his father a white European. They could not be together in public and his mother could not even acknowledge Trevor Noah was her child in public. In his book, he praises his mother for figuring out how to survive and protect him.

    • Trevor Noah has a really interesting history, Kathy, and I’m glad you mentioned it. His story is a microcosm of what life was like in South Africa during the years of apartheid – it brings the police down to the human level. And that makes it all the more powerful.

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