Author Matthew Salesses on “Belonging and Identity in America”

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Wheelock College formally opened its doors to the 2015-2016 academic year on Sept. 1 with a Convocation ceremony, which is a highly revered, annual tradition that takes place at Wheelock Family Theatre. The word “convocation” comes from Latin words meaning “coming together.” Matthew Salesses, who was adopted from Korea at the age of 2 and is the author of the novel The Hundred-Year Flood, delivered a keynote address that discussed the Convocation theme of “Belonging and Identity in America,” the theme of both his novel and Wheelock’s summer reading assignment, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Matthew Salesses discussed the Convocation theme of “Belonging and Identity in America,” a theme which runs through both his novel and Wheelock’s summer reading assignment, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

The Hundred-Year Flood follows Tee, a 22-year-old Korean-American man, as he escapes to Prague in the wake of his uncle’s suicide and 9/11. As the flood slowly makes its way into the old city, Tee contemplates his own place in life being of mixed race, adopted, and an American in a strange land full of heroes, myths, and ghosts. In this novel, Salesses addresses the tangled threads of identity, love, relationships, and coming of age.

In Americanah, Adichie tells a story about two Nigerian teenagers, Ifemelu and Obinze, who fall in love. Nigeria is under military dictatorship, so people are leaving the country. Ifemelu departs for the United States to study. Through her experiences in relationships and studies, she struggles with racism in American culture and its many varieties of racial distinctions. Obinze hopes to join her but is refused a visa after 9/11. Instead, he goes to London illegally, beginning an undocumented life. The journeys are different from that of Salesses’ Tee, but the themes mirror one another.

During his Convocation speech, Salesses shared his upbringing as a Korean adoptee of white parents, recalling that, in America, white children were “just kids” while children of color bore a sense of “otherness.” Salesses remarked, “When we value diversity for its otherness, we’re devaluing it.”

Salesses called for Wheelock students to “remake” themselves within the world they live in and thereby “remake” the world. He challenged them to truly “see” race, or to change how they “see” race. He said: “What I’m asking you today … is, when you have the chance to remake yourself, talk about the things you notice. … Stop trying to forget race. … See yourselves as racial, all of you. See race; change race. … To value diversity not as a fact of life but as a difference, or to value certain lives as ‘just’ lives and not diverse lives, or as the lives that are normal … is to teach yourself that [diversity] is dangerous. In this country, even when we value diversity, we value it for its ‘otherness.’ We value diversity as something that is not always there, as something that can be forgotten.”

Salesses has written for a wide range of venues, including NPR, The New York Times, Salon, the Center for Asian American Media, The Toast, and The Good Men Project, and has been featured on WGBH, Al Jazeera America, OPB, Tribune Media Services, TWiB, and elsewhere. He has received awards and fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Inprint, the University of Houston, Emerson College, Glimmer Train, Mid-American Review, and [PANK]. His other books include I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying (a novel) and Different Racisms: On Stereotypes, the Individual, and Asian American Masculinity (essays).

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah received the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, was selected as one of the 10 Best Books of 2013 by The New York Times Book Review, and was shortlisted for the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction of the United Kingdom.