Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Mishna Wolff’s I’m Down

Ooh! Dang, she just capped on you!
Ooh! Cap!
Man, that was cappish!

There was no surer way to irritate my parents in high school than a few slang words. Dog, doggish, cap, and cappish were prime offenders; mention them during dinner and you could see my parents squirm. It brought me great joy to demonstrate, on a nightly basis, to my parents, how very uncool, how very white, they were. This, of course, was not news to them.

I never was good at capping, but it was a big part of my life, especially in high school.

Out of the blue, my sister sent me a copy of Mishna Wolff’s very funny new memoir of growing up in Seattle, I’m Down. I read it with great pleasure in about a minute. It’s about a white girl who, among other things, learned how to cap.

It’s not really like reading a book—it’s so slight and fun and lively—but it is a really fun and interesting memoir about race in America, one that reminds us that behind the big narratives of race are a million idiosyncratic stories and that some of them, like Wolff’s, are touching and very funny.

The gap between the glamorous brunette in the author photo and the gangly, awkward teen with the biggest Afro I’ve ever seen on a white person signals the journey Wolff made, from her father’s house to the New York she lives in now. When Wolff’s parents divorced, she and her sister remained with their dad (in the house he’d grown up in), a man who, in her telling, really thought of himself as black (all evidence to the contrary). The neighborhood was now almost entirely black, as were his girlfriends and the guy friends with whom he played hoop and dominoes and to whom he sold dope. While Mishna’s little sister embraced her surroundings, accepting her father’s half-baked home remodeling projects, happily joining informal dance troupes and dressing up, Mishna was nerdy and nervous, worrying about grades, and struggling with her parents’ divorce and her father’s happy embrace of neighborhood life.

Eventually, her mother gets her enrolled in the IPP program (a souped-up honors program that Seattle Public Schools started after I graduated) and Mishna has to bridge the divide between the unhappy affluent children of divorce (no skiing this weekend! Mommy’s depressed!) and the mouthy poor children of divorce (hang on to your step-brother, the back door of the van opens when we hit a pothole). I particularly loved a poignant scene where Mishna, the absolute worst player on her amazing basketball team, runs into a white friend from school. Neither girl knows quite what to do, but Mishna snubs her school friend, with her upper-middle class "it's just a game" attitude and actually tries to score. It's not a kind choice, but it's the right one and it feels true to the conflicting loyalties of adolescence.

In more serious hands, this wouldn’t be as funny a book. There is a lot under the surface that I would like to know more about: How serious was that pot farm in the basement? What happened to the little black girl with glasses, the other smart nerdy kid in Mishna’s neighborhood? As a Seattleite, I wished for neighborhoods—it seems like this was Rainier Valley-ish, somewhere south of the Central District where I went to high school—but I was always wanting to know the name of the high school, the street. As a writer, I wanted to hear more about class, happiness, ambitions, and low expectations. Somewhere in this book is an insight about race and class privilege. Moving between worlds as she did, Wolff saw how easy it is for the affluent white daughter of an alcoholic mother to make it, debt-free to the liberal arts college of her choice where she will, of course, be free to mess up her own life or not. At the same time, the poor black daughter (or the black-identified white daughter) of a pothead will have to claw her way to that same spot. There are no middle class black people in this book, though one of her father’s girlfriends is nearly middle class—and a source of great (if temporary) hope for Mishna.

In all, this is a really wonderful light read about an ordinarily heavy topic. And besides, she gives a shout-out to Ezell’s Fried Chicken! Right across the street from my beloved Garfield High.

A review here. A clip of her reading about capping here. Her very funny website here.

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