As much as I enjoy collections populated by multiple contributors, I have yet to finish a multi-writer title in which every chapter from cover to cover is of memorable quality. That said, The Chalk Circle: Intercultural Prizewinning Essays, edited by Tara L. Masih, featuring 20 pieces by 19 writers, offers a resonating moment in almost every essay that will surely give readers pause, from lives not lived, to inherited evil, to homeland misfits, to “eating a little sh*t.”
Masih’s collection originated from the intercultural essay contest she founded and curates, hosted by the Soul-Making Keats Literary Awards, an outreach program of the National League of American Pen Women. “Intercultural,” a term Masih discovered in 2006, as she explains in her foreword, moved beyond “[t]he buzzword at the time… multicultural”: “Multi, to me, means many and separate. Inter begs to be more inclusive.” “Intercultural” allowed Masih to consider writers of all backgrounds, regardless of ethnicity. In her excitement over receiving the submissions, she realized, “It wasn’t enough to read them myself and give an award. They needed to be sent out in the world and read by many and various populations.”
All essays here “won a prize or honorable mention,” but Masih doesn’t rank them. “All carry equal weight,” she insists. According to the contest website, Bonnie J. Morris won the 2011 First Prize for “Devour the Darling Plagues,” reprinted here as “Israel: Devouring the Darling Plagues,” about a year in Israel during which pleasurable meals were “respites from warfare and violence.” Masih groups the essays into seven sections that “… are meant to give further weight to each essay when juxtaposed with its companion(s).”
Irony aside, perhaps the strongest entry is the single non-contest essay, the three-part introduction by poet and performance artist David Mura. With fluid clarity, he moves from the personal – his own third-generation Japanese American heritage and his Japanese-WASP-Jewish son’s relationship with his Somali Muslim American girlfriend captured in a heart-searing poem – to the editorial – why the collection is “particularly timely and necessary” – to the political – “a snapshot of America today … a country of unprecedented ethnic and racial diversity.”
Among the chosen 20, standouts are many, but by personal happenstance (as I happen to be in Utah for a week as I write this), none quite as obviously as “A Dash of Pepper in the Snow,” in which writing professor Samuel Autman recalls his 1990s tenure as “the first black reporter ever hired at the Tribune” in Salt Lake City. Racism was hardly discreet: a mother locked out of her vehicle on a cold night asks Autman for help assuming that he “know[s] how to break into cars,” a university employee mistakes him as maintenance staff during an event he’s been sent to cover, and a psychic compliments him for being “such an educated colored.” Autman quickly learns firsthand that “Utah’s racially insensitive culture” can’t be separated from Mormonism: “racism [is] not only embedded in its philosophy but its sacred texts,” as a missionary alludes to him as a “demon” in his own home. And yet Autman finds he “couldn’t stay away” after leaving in 1996. One lasting lesson is clear: “In Utah I learned how to bond with people despite differences in religion and background.”
A different sort of culture clash happens in the work of Shanti Elke Bannwart, a septuagenarian German survivor of World War II living in New Mexico, the only writer with two essays in the anthology. In “Reflecting on Demons and Angels,” she recalls war’s end as a six-year-old witnessing the parade of defeated German soldiers, followed by victorious Americans, precociously questioning which side was right, which was wrong. In “Tightrope Across the Abyss,” Bannwart introduces readers to her neighbor, Bettina Göring, the grandniece of infamous Nazi Hermann Göring. Bannwart details his heinous crimes, “[i]n case you are too young to recognize his name.” Both Göring and her brother independently chose sterilization because neither “‘want[ed] to give birth to more monsters.'” Bannwart wryly notes, “New Mexico is about as far away as one can flee to separate from one’s German roots and cultures, but not far enough.” Bannwart finds a sense of her own redemption as she chronicles Göring’s relationship with Holocaust survivor and Australian artist Ruth Rich. [… click here for more]
Tidbit: The Chalk Circle recently won a 2012 Skipping Stones Honor Award in the Multicultural and International Books category. Whoooo hooo and congrats!
Readers: Young Adult, Adult