A peculiar mix from our own psyches is played out when authors start any project. Whether fiction or nonfiction, each book is a quirky weaving together of many different threads. We choose colors, discarding others, and weave something together which we hope will be a compelling whole.
Sometimes we succeed.
The threads are composed of our own internal questions, impasses, confusions. Lessons learned and failed attempts in our lives as well as the journeys of those we know and love. Efforts to form sense and meaning from our worlds. Voices from the universe unleashed by our imaginations.
Ann Pearlman’s The Christmas Cookie Club enthralled readers everywhere with a heartwarming and touching story about the power of female friendship. Now, in A Gift for My Sister, she once again explores the depth of the human heart, and this time it’s through the eyes of two sisters. Tara and Sky share a mother, but aside from that they seem to differ in almost every way. When a series of tragedies strikes, they must somehow come together in the face of heartbreak, dashed hopes, and demons of the past. The journey they embark on forces each woman to take a walk in the other’s shoes and examine what sisterhood really means to them. It’s a long road to understanding, and everyone who knows them hopes these two sisters can find a way back to each other. Ann Pearlman, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award Nominee, is the author of Infidelity: A Memoir, The Christmas Cookie Club, and The Christmas Cookie Cookbook. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
And so Sky, Marnie’s careful, perfect daughter who does everything safe and right, is tested by a series of tragedies: miscarriages, a still birth, the death of her best friend, the death of her young husband. How will she begin to come to grips with Job’s question? How will she answer it for herself?
Making this more difficult, she has an impetuous, risk-taking sister, Tara, who walks along the margins of society tip-toeing on the very cliff that perpetually terrifies Sky. Tara gets pregnant in high school with the child of a black man, fresh out of prison, aspiring rap star, Aaron. These two sisters are opposite sides of the same coin. Both fatherless daughters: one lives super safe; one decides what the hell, shit happens, I’ll just do my thing.
Now, there’s a bunch of personal history that made me decide to play this universal dilemma with two sisters. I’ve always wanted a sister and didn’t have the blessing of growing up with one. But, I am blessed with two wonderful daughters who have a close relationship that I’ve been privileged to witness and enjoy vicariously. And yes they are very different, but not in the way that Sky and Tara are. For closeness requires an acceptance of difference and is more dependent on reciprocity, sharing, and appreciation than similarity.
And I wanted to write about the formation of an interracial family. I’ve been part of a biracial family for many decades, at first met with hostile and attacking comments, stares, and incidents when the sight of a black man and a white women was outrageous and scandalous. But those are other stories. Luckily, times have changed. Seeing biracial couples of all variations is now commonplace in America, no longer an event worthy of notice or glance. We even have a biracial president and many biracial celebrities. Recently, news that DNA united two cousins, one who viewed herself as black, another white, showed them happily hugging each other. In the last 40 years, biracial marriages have increased from less than 1% to 8 %. 14% of all marriages are between people of different ethnicities. The face of America is changing. Immigrants from Latin America, Asia, the Caribbean, and Africa have come with their cultural perspectives. We’re becoming a browner people. The evidence of the growing diversity of ourselves as a people is seen in our census figures, our celebrities, our streets and neighborhoods, and our families.
But that does not mean that our society is as ‘post racial’ as we would wish. You see the rending at the seams in the racist attacks on our president couched in peculiar code words like “tar baby” and the “food stamp president.” How much is partisanship and how much is racism is evident in the virulent anger. Race, and the struggles for full incorporation of the progeny of the people who were brought as slaves have been the principal social struggle for America. Hopefully, this is the last gasp of archaic ideas, an attack covering the fear of change.
For the child born of these unions, being biracial poses both a gift and a challenge. You fit in everywhere, but nowhere entirely. You feel comfortable with both groups as they are portrayed in your family. Your life is enriched if you’re lucky enough to be exposed to two cultures gaining an intuitive grasp and knowledge of both. Yet, the outside world presents a different challenge. You don’t fit in completely with any homogeneous group. You risk being the only ‘black’ in a white group, or the only ‘white’ in a black group. Either too white, or too black, you are always somewhat different in social situations. You are keenly aware of the difference in treatment of people depending on skin color. Often you’re forced to deal with the annoying question, “What are you?” The struggle for identity, insecurity about belonging escalates. Instead you gain an exquisite sensitivity to prejudgments and stereotyping and an ability to juggle these strange perceptions from others. Perhaps there is also an ability to adapt to many situations, to get inside the heads of others more easily because your range is so much broader.
How is all this played out in the novel, A Gift for My Sister? Tara is fortunate that Aaron’s mom, Sissy, accepts her and their son, Levy. However, Tara’s family and, especially Sky, struggle. After all, Aaron is not the safe choice that Sky would want for herself or a family member. Although Tara, who has never felt accepted by Sky and their mom, embroils the entire rap crew into helping Sky move across the country to return home. Yet Sky remains suspicious and withdrawn even from Levy until she and one of the crew are victims of racial profiling, pulled over on the highway, suspected of being drug dealers. Sky’s worldly possessions are strewn on the side of the road. Then her blinders come off and, instead of solely seeing Levy’s darker skin, she recognizes her own mother’s smile. Sky accepts him and Levy is finally connected to her by family similarity and love.
Thus, Tara gives Sky an opportunity to challenge her stereotypes as she recognizes her kinship with Levy, and the experience helps her embark on a new path. Sky accepts and welcomes Tara, Aaron, and Levy. At last, Tara feels she belongs with her own family. The sisters heal the rift between them.
Variations of this will be the tale of many American families as we become more blended. For families will have decisions to make. How the extended family accepts differences set the foundation. Family members who are able to reach beyond xenophobic perspectives will not only endow their progeny with extra love, wisdom, and learning, but gain the thrill of returned love. The identity crisis and sense of uneasiness meeting new people is lessened. As with all children, the welcoming of the infant with joy and excitement by both families enhances the child’s sense of self and importance, security, and agency.
As we blend into a new society increasingly comfortable with racial mixture, Gift portrays one incident of transformation. It is, partly, the story of the tension and stress many families experience as they embrace members of diverse races. Acceptance of this welcome transformation will serve to ease our society into celebrating each one of us as individuals and the panoply of our variety.
Find out more on the author’s website here.
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