Sunday, July 1, 2012

Ilana Gershon's "No Family is An Island"

Ilana Gershon is Associate Professor of Communication and Culture at Indiana University. She is the author of The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting over New Media.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, No Family Is an Island: Cultural Expertise among Samoans in Diaspora, and reported the following:
Page 99 offers a concrete example of this book’s central theme – what happens when people have conflicting ideas about what it means to have a culture. The book is about how these clashing notions create problems within Samoan migrant families, and between Samoan migrants and government bureaucrats in New Zealand and the United States. On this page I turn to what I admit is one of my favorite examples of how this clash can go frustratingly wrong.

Pacific Island migrant communities often find themselves in a bind when they are dealing with government officials in representative democracies. Samoan communities will be asked to provide a spokesperson who can translate what it means to be Samoan. Yet Samoans often find this a challenging task in diaspora. Government officials will want them to choose someone, anyone, who can represent Samoan interests at various community meetings. But who gets to speak for whom can be a very contentious issue for Samoans. They have developed relatively effective techniques for resolving this in their Pacific island home, but these techniques don’t always travel well overseas. In Samoa and American Samoa, people depend heavily on the long historical relationships established between families in villages to decide who gets to be a spokesperson. Yet migrant communities are normally composed of people from many different villages. Of course, Samoan migrant communities often eventually choose someone to be a representative who is acceptable to most people, but this is a hard-won achievement, and easily undermined. The chapter as a whole focuses on how both representation and translation are complicated activities from a Samoan perspective, yet New Zealand and U.S. government officials expect that if you have a culture, you can represent your community and translate your cultural assumptions and practices whenever asked.

The page is a good example of what the book explores in general: how Samoan migrants are expected to be culture bearers and the problems with certain culturally insensitive expectations about culture. But what this page doesn’t show is that the costs of being a culture bearer are different in the United States and in New Zealand, in large part because what being a minority means is different in both places. If you read the rest of the book, you find out the ways that these different nations’ histories with the dominant minorities affect how those countries’ minor minorities are expected to be cultural.
Learn more about No Family Is an Island at the Cornell University Press website.

See the Page 99 Test: The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting over New Media.

--Marshal Zeringue