Writing from where?

It used to be, at least in America, that writers often wrote from their heritage. If you were Irish, you tended to go that direction; if you were Jewish, that was important. And it made sense, especially in early 20th century America: everyone was struggling to define themselves as new, yet familiar. Hence, everyone is a (something)-American.

What’s weird about me (and, I think, quite a few people of my generation) is that I have very little in the way of cultural identification. My mom grew up in Quebec, but she’s a mix of French, German, and First Nation (the Innu tribe). Most people think she’s Spanish, or Greek, or something else, since she has an accent and very dark skin. In fact, after moving to a small town in rural Massachusetts (yes, there is a rural Massachusetts), one of my sisters third-grade friends asked why our parents were black. Mom, I can almost see… but my dad? He’s pasty white, of Ukrainain/Jewish, Swedish, and Lithuanian background. He was born Jewish, Mom was Catholic.

Growing up, I never felt a real part of anything. Dad converted to Christianity in his 30s, but we still have an extended Jewish family. I experienced Jewishness second-hand, being “unqualified” since my mother was Catholic. But with Catholics, I was on the outside because we were Protestant. I couldn’t take Communion. Culturally it’s a little weird, too, considering Dad knows virtually nothing about his Western European descent, and the Swedes are interesting (lots of artists and literary types, anyway)–but it’s never something we identified with. Barron is a generic enough last name that few people recognize the Jewish root. And with Quebec, although the country is beautiful and have wonderful memories of going there as a child (not to mention a gazillion relatives), I never “belonged”. I could speak the language passably enough (still can), but it still was never home for me. Home was New England, the sleepy Massachusetts Pioneer Valley and Berkshires, where everyone’s family is either French-Canadian or Polish, anyway. Nothing too unique about that.

So I think I’ve grasped, as a writer, to find my voice. In college I wrote a short story about a Jewish girl living in a small town, hoping that, somehow, I’d be able to tap into that culture. But it always felt weird, and I felt like a big poser, thinking that everyone would see through. It doesn’t stop the impact of events like the Holocaust, or, in the case of my mom’s background, the Trail of Tears, only it makes me feel distanced, as if my identification somehow isn’t warranted enough.

Of course, my husband is quick to remind me that, although I’m proud to be able to trace roots to Eleanor of Aquitaine on one side of my mother’s family tree, really–truly–we’re all cousins. I mean, genetically speaking we’ve come a long way. Culture might shift, but the actual DNA that we hold in common with our fellow Earthlings is, well, really close. Descendants grow exponentially, and when you look at family trees and consider how many hundreds of thousands of people can trace their line back to say, Eleanor of Aquitaine, it’s a little humbling.

My point, my point. My point is: this is why I write fantasy and science fiction. A love of things medieval didn’t stem from being brought up Roman Catholic or even around Roman Catholics. No, it happened because I read some books in school with knights and dragons, princesses and wizards, and something in me shifted into a different gear. I didn’t get into Celtic folklore because of my Gaulic background, I fell in love with it after reading An Acceptable Time by Madeleine L’Engle in 6th grade. Tolkien, Lewis, Alexander, then later Malory, Marie de France, and T.H. White defined my perceptions of fantasy, and I became a part of their cultures.

I guess I’m a citizen of the world. I just don’t write in it.

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