False Intimacy: A Cautionary Perspective

Marriage can provide a unique entry point into another culture—but it's not a substitute for immersion reporting

PATRICE GOPO is the author of All the Colors We Will See, an essay collection about racial identity formation and her search for belonging. More at: patricegopo.com and on Facebook.

Not long ago, I heard a black American speak about best practices when pursuing racial justice and the formation of multiethnic communities. He acknowledged that in these pursuits, a major challenge occurs when people develop a perception that they understand another cultural experience because of extended interaction with someone from that culture. He shared that he has even encountered this reality because of his marriage to a Chinese American. Sometimes, he believes his connection to his spouse allows him to understand how Chinese Americans experience life. But then, he said, he reminds himself that his perspective is still one of an outsider.

I understood what he meant. I also have moments when, because of my cross-cultural marriage, I think I understand another life experience. Occasionally, although I am a black Jamaican American, I believe I know what it is like to grow up in Zimbabwe, in the Shona culture, and immigrate to America, as my husband Nyasha did. At times, I may even communicate this perception in conversation. I have said phrases like, “My husband comes from a quiet and reserved culture”—information I gathered from observations of Nyasha and his immediate family rather than knowledge of his culture.

When Nyasha and I married in 2008, we joined a growing number of people marrying across countries and cultures. The Pew Research Center reports that within the United States, 15 percent of all new marriages in 2010 were between people of different races or ethnicities compared with 6.7 percent in 1980. According to the United Nations, in 2013, there were 232 million international migrants in the world, up from 154 million in 1990. The growing number of international migrants only increases the number of marriages that mix multiple nationalities, cultures, races, and/or ethnicities.

Of course, within any marriage, we are susceptible to misinterpretations about another person. But I wonder if writers, in particular, are prone to face this issue because of our bent to unearth stories.

Not long after Nyasha’s move to the States in 2010, I wrote several essays that explored the impact of immigration on a person’s identity and cultural ties. Nyasha’s personal stories became a conduit for me to help readers think about issues I deemed important: the impact of globalization on shifting definitions of identity, the way past injustices like colonialism wreak havoc on individuals and societies even today, and the reality of life for people who immigrate to dominant cultures. In one essay, I grounded the reader in a scene about Nyasha meeting a Shona man at a local museum and speaking Shona for the first time in more than a year. In another essay, I detailed Nyasha’s encounters with people unable to understand his accent. In both essays, in order to build contrast between what Nyasha experienced in America and his life before, I discussed aspects of the history and culture of Zimbabwe—a place I had visited only twice.

Were those personal essays? Even now, I’m not sure. I existed as a character in the work, but the stories were Nyasha’s. In retrospect, I recognize that the “I” character lacked multiple dimensions and was serving merely as an interpreter of events. Rather than truly grappling with the experiences, I had concluded my essays with straightforward, heavy-handed lessons. 

I spent many months revising those essays, but they didn’t grow beyond undeveloped characters, vast generalizations, and thoughts lacking nuance.

Late one night, I found myself thumbing through an old book about the history of the African continent, with section headings about African civilizations and the pursuit of freedom.  I realized that although I knew about these topics—and could learn more about them from books—my knowledge lacked depth. My understanding was filtered through the perspective of one black Jamaican American. It occurred to me that perhaps marriage had lulled me into a false sense of intimacy with my husband’s culture and the broader experience of many Zimbabweans. Perhaps my work struggled because I was trying to write with authority about topics and areas where I had very little authority at all.

I began to think about other writers—novelists, travel writers, journalists—who spent significant time researching and/or immersing themselves in other cultures in order to write accurate and complex work. I had neglected to learn more about Zimbabwe and the experience of other Zimbabwean immigrants. I never lived in Zimbabwe. Nyasha and I met in South Africa, started married life in Cape Town, and then moved to America.

Marriage had indeed provided a unique entry point to a different culture and life experience—but it was a very small entry point, just one person. The only story I knew was Nyasha’s. Sitting at my desk in North Carolina, far from the wide roads of Harare and the rhythm of the Shona language, how bold was I to imagine I could write a sweeping indictment of colonialism or a social commentary about language preservation among modern Zimbabweans—just because I shared a life with one Zimbabwean immigrant?

Nonfiction writers have the power to tell stories that can be more lasting and leave a bigger impact than a conversation or passing remark. I felt this responsibility keenly; strangers who read my work might think I have some sort of cultural authority because of my marriage. In fact, I was running the risk of believing I was an authority on another cultural experience. This can be a dangerous realm, this space where a writer begins to believe she understands a certain experience just because she is part of a cross-cultural marriage.

And yet, I had witnessed many of Nyasha’s experiences, and within the overlap of our lives existed stories I wanted to tell. I envisioned essays that encompassed the way he and I are a microcosm of cultures connecting. Was there a way for me to write in a robust fashion about Zimbabwe and events surrounding my husband’s immigration? I found insight in the work of other authors whose lives touched another culture through marriage.

In her classic memoir Migrations of the Heart, Marita Golden writes about coming of age as a black American during the Black Power movement as well as her later move to Nigeria and subsequent marriage to a Nigerian man. In one chapter, Golden weaves together a string of vignettes about her life; these include a conversation with a female Nigerian student who is struggling to balance cultural expectations with her ambition; a panel discussion about women’s liberation, which takes place at the university where Golden teaches; an argument between the author and her husband, Femi, about his financial obligations to his family; and a job opportunity that would have been unlikely back in the States.

The vignettes depict the public life of a country as well as the private lives of individuals. These interconnected snippets invite the reader to observe and consider how the experiences might have affected the author. In the same chapter, Golden writes, “But in the tight, increasingly narrow world I lived in with Femi the culture that both straitjacketed and consoled me was beginning to emit sparks, as I increasingly struggled out of its hold.” Here Golden admits both the positive and negative impacts of her husband’s culture on her identity, reminding the reader that this is a place of complexity. Ultimately, Golden avoids easy stereotypes, and her willingness to admit uncertainty allows her husband’s culture to become a sort of living character.

In My Accidental Jihad, Krista Bremer, a white American, writes about her marriage to a Libyan man. Unlike Golden, who lived in Nigeria for several years, Bremer married her husband in America and visited his country only briefly. She writes about her husband and his culture in a way that asks the reader to travel with Bremer as she considers her own preconceived ideas in the course of connecting her life to another culture. Ultimately, the story focuses on her personal growth.

For example, when her sisters-in-law dress her in their culture’s traditional clothing, Bremer reflects, “[B]eneath these concealing layers of cloth, my body was no longer divided into good and bad parts; it was a seamless whole. I had always equated feeling sexy with feeling beautiful, but swaddled in this material I felt entirely different: hidden and safe.” Her experience produces greater awareness of her own perceptions about beauty and serves to expand her views.

Finally, I left the memoir genre and turned to Debby Dahl Edwardson’s novel My Name Is Not Easy, a 2011 National Book Award finalist for young people’s literature. Edwardson is a white woman from Minnesota married to an Alaskan Iñupiaq man. She has lived in Barrow, Alaska, for more than thirty years, and her novel follows a group of fictional Native Alaskan children in boarding school in the early 1960s. Since the author’s note indicates many details came from her husband’s life and the lives of others in her community, I gathered that Edwardson sought to write emotional truths about the events she described. Unlike Bremer and Golden’s memoirs, this is not a story of the author’s transformation or a view of another culture offered through a tentative lens of uncertainty. In an interview for the National Book Foundation, Edwardson said, “I started writing books for young people after I had become fully immersed in a Native Alaskan perspective.”

Reading Edwardson’s book and learning more about her experience gave me an example of what it might look like for an author to develop a deep and layered intimacy with a spouse’s culture. Edwardson acknowledged the importance of full immersion before she began writing stories of her adopted land and people. For me, this was a necessary reminder that while marriage has the power to expose a writer to another culture, it doesn’t automatically provide the experience of immersion in that culture.

And Golden’s and Bremer’s books showed me that even without such immersion, there was still opportunity to write the stories bubbling within me, the cross-cultural experiences I wanted to explore on the page. I admired the way these writers recognize the many dimensions of their spouse’s country and culture and also consider the reality of marriages where cultures intersect. Their work highlights the value of expressing a full gamut of emotions—including hesitation, frustration, admiration, and confusion—to embody their experiences and observations. As a reader, I felt invited to sort through their reflections and emotions with them, rather than viewing either author as an authority about a particular culture.

This was a space I believed I could inhabit comfortably as a writer, too—a place where I could weave my own story with the story of our family, without crossing into the realm of false intimacy. I could write with authority about the ways I was altered because of the person I married while also writing with curiosity and uncertainty about my husband’s experiences and his culture. In the absence of the opportunity to immerse myself in Nyasha’s culture, I could instead write what my own life had prepared me to tell.

I continue to write essays about my husband, about myself, about our children. Now, though, I write as one examining moments and memories. I write a glimpse of the morning Nyasha and I first met, the afternoon he told me that my parents’ Jamaican homeland reminded him of Zimbabwe, and the night we chose our daughter’s Shona name.

Those long-ago essay attempts never became viable, but their legacy endures. Images and ideas from the unfinished drafts show up in new work: an overheard moment when Nyasha taught our daughter a few Shona words; my toddler’s body flattened against the concrete floor in rural Zimbabwe, her arms reaching for the chickens beyond her great-grandmother’s door. When I reread my work, I learn of a woman whose life entwines with that of a man from another culture. And I see a desire to make sense of their experiences.

* Illustration by Anna Hall

About the Author

Patrice Gopo

Drawing on her experience as the child of Jamaican immigrants, born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska, Patrice Gopo enjoys exploring issues of race, immigration, and belonging. Her essays have appeared in a variety of publications, including Catapult, Charlotte Magazine, Creative Nonfiction, Gulf Coast, and Full Grown People.

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