I recently read two coming-of-age novels, Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya and A Map of Home, by Randa Jarrar. I enjoyed both while I was reading them, but neither one has stuck with me as particularly memorable.
Bless Me, Ultima, is about a Latino boy growing up in New Mexico in the 1940s. Two of its central themes are inter- and intra-racial conflicts and religion. The boy struggles with figuring out his identity and reconciling seemingly conflicting inherited identities: his mother’s agricultural family versus his father’s rancher family, and his Catholic religion versus his great-aunt Ultima’s magical powers of healing. I know that this book is sometimes read in high school English classes, and I felt as if I should be doing the sort of analysis we did in high school. I tried to just enjoy it and let it flow over me instead, but I was only mildly drawn into it.
A Map of Home is also about identity. The main character is a girl whose mother is Egyptian and Greek and whose father is Palestinian. She grows up first in Kuwait, until the Gulf War in the early 1990s, and then moves first to Egypt and then Texas. The novel is about her attempts to figure out who she is as well as her sexual awakening. The language and tone is fresh and brash, not shying away from swear words and explicit descriptions of sex. Although very different from Bless Me, Ultima, I was again only mildly draw into it.
Both books are about cultures and experiences very different from my own, and I wonder if that has something to do with why I did not feel compelled by them. I think it is easier for me to get lost in a story if I can identify with a character in it. I don’t think that character necessarily has to be from the same culture as me, but there has to be something in their experience that resonates with my own. In the case of these two books, that did not happen. However, I do recall one book that took place in a different culture, The Bastard of Istanbul, that I felt really moved by, so perhaps it is more that these two particular books simply did not resonate with me, rather than the fact that they are about different cultures. Whatever the reason, I am going to continue to expand my horizons and read books by authors of a variety of backgrounds.