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Esther Cepeda: All-American stories

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Esther Cepeda
December 7, 2013

CHICAGO -- It’s time again for my annual roundup of great books that are “Diverse but not about diversity.”

 To recap: I’m not a fan of books that are written for and promoted mainly to a certain ethnic or racial group because the works supposedly reflect “them” or “their” experience.

 The best storytelling is rooted in the universality of our collective human experiences. If we read not only to understand ourselves but to understand others, why do we need such publishing segregation?

 There are legions of readers who do enjoy race- and ethnicity-based literary genres. And I don’t take lightly their criticism that the experiences and viewpoints of the writers who work in this realm are generally underrepresented in what is considered “mainstream” book culture.

 But readers must be the ones to define “mainstream.” The reality is that the United States is diverse and growing exponentially more so daily. That African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans are already mainstream is a foregone conclusion.

 In that spirit, here’s my tribute to books that respect diverse characters by including them in stories that reflect shared experiences.

 First up is Justin Cronin’s “The Twelve,” the second novel of a trilogy. A sequel that couldn’t possibly have lived up to the nail-biting thrills of the first installment, this mesmerizing book nevertheless offers a diverse cast of characters who, because of apocalyptic events, have been stripped down to the core of their humanity as they struggle to reclaim a vampire-infested world. As in real life, there are good and bad guys—both male and female—of all colors and creeds.

 In addition to many other delights in this story, Cronin envisions a not-so-implausible future where Texas is a sovereign Republic—and its president is named Victoria Sanchez.

 Next is “My Beloved World,” Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir. Here’s a book that should not be mistaken for being about a “Latina who made it.”

 “My Beloved World” will warm the heart of anyone who believes in the American promise that if you work hard, you can overcome any obstacles to reach your dream. And it should be required reading for anyone who erroneously believes that their race or ethnicity, gender, physical health, income level or pedigree determines their ability to succeed in life.

 The book should also be a must for anyone who still thinks Sotomayor is a lefty ideologue. Her entire worldview revolves around working hard and refusing to see herself as a victim—two lessons that are essential to success, regardless of your politics.

“Waiting for Jose: The Minutemen’s Pursuit of America,” written by University of Texas ethnographer Harel Shapira, is a book about the older, predominantly military veteran “patriots” who are drawn to the U.S.-Mexico border to help keep out unlawful immigrants.

 Even someone who detests the actions of those who believe that illegal immigration must be stopped by vigilantism has much to learn here. As Shapira takes an objective look at the disconnectedness from mainstream society that drives the Minutemen to try to make their mark on America’s history, it’s hard not to be captivated by how they both idealize and vilify Mexico’s immigrants.

 The year’s showstopper is “Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History.” Written by Yunte Huang, a professor in the department of English at the University of California at Santa Barbara, this 2010 book finally came out as an audiobook last June, which is why it only recently charmed me.

 I’m not exaggerating when I say Huang’s love for this character and for the genre of crime/detective stories practically jumps off the page and shakes you by the lapels. Huang deftly turns to hard-boiled prose and ephemeral Confucianist aphorisms as he unfolds a story about, well, I’ll let him tell it:

“As a detective, Charlie Chan should take his place in film history alongside sagacious gentlemen like Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Hercule Poirot, and Lieutenant Columbo, yet his ethnic identity marks him as different. [But] Charlie Chan is far from the emasculated Chinaman his critics have claimed he is … [he’s] an American original, ‘made in the U.S.A.’

 “Make no mistake … Charlie Chan’s Chinatown beat, like jazz, is a distinctly American brand … epitomiz[ing] both the racist heritage and the creative genius of this nation’s culture.”

 Priceless.

 Enjoy these books and don’t forget to send me your favorite picks for next year.

 Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.



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