This polished collection of prize-winning essays is a result of a call the editor Tara L. Masih placed in 2007 for intercultural essays dealing with subjects of culture, race and sense of place. Masih is a dedicated writer and editor whose work (herself a Native Indian American raised in New York) is deeply concerned with intercultural relations. The Chalk Circle collection reflects many complex issues of this seemingly shrinking world and its many cultures. Through arranging the particular essays into comprehensible chapters – each dealing with a different issue, Masih shows keen insight in intercultural relations and what it means to be “the other”.
The mere fact that the authors are people of different backgrounds inevitably supports the mosaic design of the collection, but is by far not the only element of diversity. Topics vary from sense of place, self-identity, war and race, to encountering “the other”, being “the other” and spirituality, all while being neatly arranged into seven easily manageable topical “bites”. This collection is an extensive what-if game that authors play with both the reader and themselves: what if things had been different? What if circumstances changed? What if roles were reversed? What if identity is more complex than we think?
Short author’s “bio” introduces each essay, although in each case it is rather a lengthy list of credentials than a short biography. This might be a missed opportunity to show the author’s inspiring life journey in a nutshell, instead of providing the proof of their professional skills (which, considering the high quality of the essays, is unnecessary). Noticeably, much thought and care went into designing this book and one can only imagine how difficult the task of selecting and organising the pieces of this collection was, especially considering how holistic, yet concise the end result is.
Each of the twenty essays shows equally vivid images of author’s personal complexity and their struggle in search for catharsis, whether it is feeling uprooted and searching for home (Christine Stark), realising that intolerance is a problem of wide spectrum between ignorance and racism (Samuel Autman), feeling like a war crime “perpetrator by lineage and cultural inheritance” and seeking forgiveness (Shanti Elke Bannwart), or pushing your boundaries and purposely exposing yourself to the “otherness” (Katrina Grigg-Saito). These tales of personal and cultural identity are so well crafted and sometimes even irresistibly humorous (Samuel Autman, M. Garrett Bauman), that it is almost easy to confuse the book with a light-hearted pleasure reading, which the Chalk Circle is anything but.
The collection is very accessible, thought provoking and so riveting that you might be inclined to devour it in one sitting, which I found being equally tempting and impossible. However well crafted these essays may be, the gravity of the topics doesn’t offer the opportunity for a casual read-through and you will have no choice but to pause, to re-examine your personal stands and opinions after each and every essay.
Perhaps that is why this collection is perceived mainly as a teaching tool for young people in their formative years (when the question of self-identity is oh-so-important). In relation to this, I would argue that this publication is absolutely not another intercultural communication textbook – in the best possible sense. Not only because of its artistic value, but because it transcends the old concept of merely preaching tolerance.
The collection provides a reality check; yes, perhaps especially to us millennials, who tend to think of themselves as liberal by default and mighty tolerant. It points out that we only think we understand the cultural differences, because they can be so obvious, but there is a great amount of small things we don’t know we don’t understand, and that creates the true barrier between us.
The Chalk Circle as a whole challenges the long-preached idea that race, religion, etc. does not matter – because it does. It gives their bearers means of self-definition, at the very least. It suggests not to ignore the differences, but to be aware of them and appreciate them. The idea that dominates the collection is that being the “other” – if just for a while (as Lizette Wanzer puts it in her piece Signatures: “to step inside another’s skin, to borrow perspectives”) – is the true means of creating understanding.
That is a highly evolved perspective, free of colour-blind hypocrisy, which is time over time debunked in the most unapologetic, brutally honest writer’s experience (and their interpretation of this experience), like in this excerpt from Mary Elizabeth Parker’s essay Miss Otis Regrets:
I wish for one day to come when a person’s race won’t register so sharply with me. But I’m not there yet. Often, if I try a friendly nod at a black person out in the world, I read in his or her face hauteur, disdain, anger, disgust, Keep Off! But that may be only my own expression mirrored at me: My friends and family claim that I always look angry, judgmental, or supercilious.
To top this fresh approach to interculturalism off, we are reminded that true intercultural understanding is a bottom-to-top initiative, laying the responsibility for intercultural relationships with each individual: “I think it’s the work of people in their ordinary lives that weaves the bounds between cultures” (Shanti Elke Bannwart, Tightrope across the abyss).
Carefully designed questions for discussion at the end of the book somewhat affirm its educative nature, although in my experience they provide highly nutritious fodder for thought also outside of the classroom.
To sum it up: I like travelling because it provides you with the perspective you didn’t know you needed. This book works a great deal like travelling. If you want your own viewpoint widened, this book should be high on your list.
Veronika Bacova was born in a country that no longer exists and raised in Slovakia. She studied Media & Communication and consequently, she doesn’t take herself seriously or anything that she sees on the news. Veronika takes keen interest in pop culture and science. She’s acquired her English language skills largely from the Cartoon Network. When she doesn’t play ukulele as means of procrastination, she enjoys making complicated sciency texts approachable to all. Because democracy.