On Sunday, August 2, the inaugural Middle Ground Book Fest presented Outsider-Insider: Finding Identity Between Assimilation and Heritage, a panel featuring Brandy Colbert (The Only Black Girls in Town, Little, Brown), Carlos Hernandez (Sal and Gabi Fix the Universe, Disney/Rick Riordan Presents), Jasmine Warga (Other Words for Home, HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray), and Rebecca Balcárcel (The Other Half of Happy, Chronicle).
After introducing their novels, the authors answered questions posed by moderator Kannan Cangro, an Indian American school librarian in northern Virginia, who kicked off the session by asking the authors to describe their own “outsider-insider” experiences and how that had shaped their respective works.
Hernandez began by describing how his brother Jesús assumed the name “Jesse” and began calling him “Carl” as the two rose through the Boy Scouts. He continued by describing their dual church experiences, one pan-Latinx and one American, and how the brothers felt conflicted about speaking Spanish in public spaces. “My bifurcated childhood definitely influences everything that I do, and probably requires more therapy than I could have time for,” Hernandez admitted with a smile.
Warga shared that her father is a Muslim Arab immigrant, while her mother has primarily Western European heritage. Growing up in the same small town her mother did, Warga was faced with an overwhelmingly white population. As the only child in her elementary school with an immigrant parent, Warga began to grow uncomfortable as she recognized the insidious nature of the questions aimed specifically toward her and not her white friends. When 9/11 happened, Warga, then in eighth grade, was bombarded with negative propaganda about Muslims and Arabs and did not witness any nuanced media depictions, which conditioned her to feel that mixed identity had to be either-or. “So now, in lots of ways, the books that I write are about trying to push back against those ideas and blend these hyphenated parts of my identity together,” Warga concluded.
For Balcárcel, one of the most difficult moments of her life was when she was 10 and her Guatemalan paternal grandparents flew to Texas for a visit. She soon realized she could not bridge the language barrier, which made each party unknowable to the other. Another influential experience was with stereotypes when someone told her, “You people are so good with children”—these moments, among others, made it into the book.
Colbert recalled her upbringing in the Missouri Ozarks with an “about 3% Black” population. She often felt pressured to assimilate and “stand out for all the right reasons”; though her parents offered “a strong Black upbringing,” being othered was common in their majority white community. When Colbert went into therapy in her mid-20s, her therapist observed that Colbert had something in common with her biracial clients: they all faced some of the same emotions and issues regarding exclusion and belonging.
Cangro next asked the authors how their characters navigate between assimilation and honoring their heritage.
Warga stated that in many ways, she wrote Other Words for Home to push back against this very question. Oftentimes, assimilation in the U.S. centers a Western European norm, “without understanding that the entire fabric and culture of this country has been informed from the people who willingly immigrated here and those brought here against their will.” Warga thus did not want her protagonist Jude to have to make “the false choice” between assimilation and her heritage.
Balcárcel agreed with Warga’s assessment, saying that though her main character Quijana starts by striving toward assimilation, she later begins to decentralize that way of thinking and understand how her culture influences her identity: “She wants the richness of both worlds.”
Next, Colbert shared that, much like her own childhood, “Alberta feels proud of being Black but doesn’t have those validating experiences, trying to fit in while acknowledging her identity.”
Hernandez established a bicultural Cuban-American place for protagonist Sal where the perception of his skin color changes depending on where he lands in the country. This was significant for Hernandez, who grew up in mostly white Sarasota, Florida, but visited family in the more Latinx-inclusive Miami.
The authors then detailed scenes in which their respective characters debated between their identities.
Finally, the panelists described the beneficial aspects of having a foot in two worlds, including developing cultural curiosity, understanding the nuances of different cultures, emphasizing observational skills, and increasing empathy.