Tara Masih’s The Chalk Circle

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According to Wikipedia, in Wicca, standing inside a chalk circle can protect you from evil. It can even empower you. Wikipedia also says that Bertolt Brecht wrote a play called The Caucasian Chalk Circle: “The play is a parable about a peasant girl who rescues a baby and becomes a better mother than its natural parents.” It is based on a Chinese play called Circle of Chalk

Inside Tara Masih’s The Chalk Circle self-identity seeks protection from forced acculturation and social stereotyping. Wikipedia’s description of Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle adds a whole new significance to Tara’s choice for the title —

“A peasant girl who rescues a baby and becomes a better mother than its natural parents.” —

Isn’t that like the immigrant experience? Leaving the care of our native “mother” with aspirations of having our dreams nurtured by our adoptive “mother”?

Tara proposes the term “intercultural” but I prefer the notion of an “intracultural” anthology. According to Grammarist.com: “The prefix inter means between or among. The prefix intra- means within.”

The essayists collected in Tara’s anthology seek to thrive within cultures (as opposed to “between” or “among”). To be between or among cultures would suggest  the choice of one or another. To live within cultures is to blend equal parts of the cultures at play to create a whole new solution. This is what the essayists in Tara’s anthology try to do. They try to fit into existing cultural molds. 

Sarah Stoner’s essay, “Fragments: Finding Center”, is the most obvious illustration of this. Because she looks like your average white American, her atypical American upbringing as a high schooler in Thailand, a middle schooler in Morocco, and her life in Belgium before that is ignored and she is self conscious about drawing attention to it.

She doesn’t feel she fits in at her Northwestern US college. She is “an American in America who has never lived in America.” She calls herself a “Third Culture Kid”. She “grew up outside of my home country (my first culture), in a country that was not my own (a second culture), I lived in a third culture created from belonging to neither, and being from both — sort of.”

She yearns for “an ethnic look or a foreign accent, an easy category of difference that doesn’t confuse or mislead.”  Samuel Autman does stand out. He has an ethnic look that does not confuse or mislead. His essay, “A Dash of Pepper in the Snow”, describes his experiences as the first black reporter at the Tribune, a Utah newspaper. 

Perhaps tellingly his conflict begins not among his new colleagues at the paper but at a diner popular among the staff. Her name is Val and she unwittingly ignites an unrelenting self consciousness in Samuel about standing out. This self consciousness eventually evolves into a quest for conspiracy. And at the end there is an interesting and surprising twist to the author’s story, as well as a revelation about the frailty of perception and culture.  

Mary Elizabeth Parker’s “Miss Otis Regrets”, the essay that follows Samuel’s picks up where his left off. Culturally American Mary insists there is a darker meaning to Cole Porter’s Miss Otis Regrets and is dumbfounded that her intelligent husband does not. He grew up attending British boarding schools in Egypt.

There are many more equally engaging reflections on culture in The Chalk Circle. As I read, I couldn’t help saying to myself, That’s happened to me and I’ve wondered about that too

On an educational note, The Chalk Circle would be a powerful text in a social studies unit on immigration as well as the Civil Rights Movement and World War II (just to name a few). There are thoughtful essays that inspire further study the results of these historic events. The anthology would also be an engaging interdisciplinary English tool to study personal narrative and memoir. The Questions section of the book makes it ready-to-use in the analysis of complex texts. 

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