In November’s web exclusive, “America ,” a white teenager in Ohio finds herself awakening in the body of the Puerto Rican “Marisol” from A West Side Story. The story is beguiling at first because of its voice and given the comic richness inherent in the world of high school theater. But then layer upon layer quickly opens up, revealing truths about identity via the innocence and volatility of adolescence. We chatted briefly with author Erin McGraw about appropriation, empathy, and identity in fiction.
Erin McReynolds (ASF): This could be the prompt for a comedy improv troupe, or a Christopher Guest movie: “A high school theater in Ohio is rehearsing West Side Story . . . Go!” Did you do high school theater? How did you come to this scenario?
Erin McGraw: My brother was the one who did high school theater and who was cast as a Jet in our very white high school’s production of West Side Story. I’ve always played the story of white kids doing that play for laughs, but lately I’ve been seeing the implications of the casting. That led me to YouTube and the many, many videos of high school productions of the play. Lots of schools and lots of races have performed it, but one of the constants is how badly the girls usually dance “America.” Boom! A story was born.
ASF: It’s so true—I muddied up a lot of stages in high school and college, myself. Now I have all the wisdom and complexity to better play those roles, so it’s a travesty. Do you kind of wish you had the chance to dance “America” now, knowing what you know? What would that look like?
EM: It wouldn’t be pretty. I can’t do the lay-back, either. And I’m not sure I’ve got the ability anymore to drop psychologically into a role without importing a bunch of anxieties and preoccupations about appropriation. One of the things I love about Marisol is that she gets into her role with a directness born of innocence. She doesn’t know anything about Edward Said; she knows about Mr. Bixby. When she’s older, that kind of access won’t be available to her.
ASF: Recent events have cast into stark relief something “America” is doing: West Side Story uses Romeo and Juliet, which is about the prevailing of enmity over love, to ponder whether America’s own capacity for love, in the late 1950s, stood a chance. And you use West Side Story, in turn, to ponder a white girl finding herself in this fictitious Puerto Rican teenager, Marisol. Am I reading this right that it’s a story about the inherent flaw in “Otherness”?
EM: That seems to me to intellectualize Marisol’s experience a bit, though ultimately you’re certainly right. At the first level, the story seems to me to be about identity and what occurs when we exchange one set of signifiers for another. The narrator becomes Marisol through an experience of the body—by learning to let the air catch her, she starts to feel a ferocious kind of newness that feels freer than the narrator’s life in flat Ohio. At least for the moment, she’d rather be fierce, expressive, raging Marisol than the obedient German-Irish daughter of nice, middle-class parents who frown when their daughter starts to change before their eyes. The narrator used to have a name, but I liked what happened to the story when we only came to know her as Marisol, as if she’s finally emerging.
ASF: That was the right move, I think. As a teenager you are pushing against all these systems to find your identity: against your peers, your parents, and even your own body. You’re trying on different roles . . . which is why it’s so important that we read. We don’t otherwise get the chance, as adults, to try on new identities and push our belief systems. And now there’s this conversation about how we’ve all retreated into our respective echo chambers, and empathy is even more at risk.
EM: The echo-chamber thing really worries me. Few things in the world are as seductive as being right, and so it’s natural for people to veer toward the opinions/news sources/websites that keep us feeling right all the time. Right now Marisol is feeling new and excited and sexy; she’s feeling powerful, and that is new for her. The story stops before she has to learn what happens to the Puerto Rican girls who try to spit at the white boys. That’s when the empathy starts.
ASF: What do you feel the responsibility of fiction is, or can be, specifically in our current landscape?
EM: I feel with all my being that we’d better be telling the truth—always and fully, and that means not copping to current pieties. We need to look hard at whatever it is we’re depicting, and then look again, and make sure we’re giving full weight and honor to contradictory truths. I’ve got a strong sense that if we don’t feel uncomfortable, we’re not paying attention. Nobody’s got all the answers, and fiction is one of the better vehicles I know to dramatize that.
ASF: What are you reading lately? What’s been your “Marisol”?
EM: My usual mishmash of stuff. I recently finished Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe’s A Square Meal, a history of food in the Depression, which ought to be required reading right n0w. I liked Maajid Nawaz’s book about Islamic extremism, and I’ve dipped a toe into Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. I also like gardening books and have a good one about camellias on the bedside table. A really good camellia will heal a person’s soul.
Erin McGraw is the author of six books of fiction, most recently Better Food for a Better World: A Novel. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Atlantic, The Kenyon Review, STORY, The Southern Review, and many other magazines and journals. She lives in Tennessee with her husband, the poet Andrew Hudgins.