Very 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.