Multihyphenated Identity in Young Adult Fiction: On Emily Bowen Cohen’s “Two Tribes”
By Na’amit Sturm NagelSeptember 20, 2023
Two Tribes by Emily Bowen Cohen
Two Tribes, Emily Bowen Cohen’s debut graphic novel, published in August by Heartdrum, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, focuses on these same struggles around hyphenated identity but caters to a younger readership. While Jen’s novel uses humor to reveal the heavy and complex ways young adults engage with ethnicity, Bowen Cohen’s work prefers to maintain a serious tone to reveal the stress and inner turmoil of a young girl trying to untangle her multiple heritages. Bowen Cohen’s novel, geared toward ages eight to 12, helps young readers reflect on how to respond when society sends contradictory and misguided messages that conflict with one’s own intuitive sense of self. Unlike Mona’s multihyphenated heritage, Mia’s identity feels more like an enigmatic burden than a gift, and she must try to find a way to take ownership over her inherited origins. As the novel opens, readers find Mia struggling to explain her ethnicity to new friends: Mia’s mother is Jewish and has remarried a Jewish man, while her father is a member of the Muscogee Nation. She is flustered by having to answer “no” to each of her classmate Justin’s ignorant questions about her Native American identity: “Do you have beads?” “Can you ride a horse?” “Can you shoot a bow and arrow?” The graphics show her cheeks turning red in anger and embarrassment as her interlocutor declares: “Then you’re not a real Indian.” Mia lives with her Jewish mother and lacks access to the Native American language or customs she inherits from her father. While she knows Justin is ignorant and incorrect, she also does not know what it means to be “a real Indian.”
Bowen Cohen’s graphic novel will appeal to young readers who are already fans of Raina Telgemeier’s books or Kayla Miller’s Click series (2019–) because it, too, provides young readers with tools that can be used to chip away at the confusion of adolescence. Telgemeier’s Smile (2010), Sisters (2014), and Guts (2019) provide young adults with a colorful reflection of middle-school battles with embarrassment about teeth troubles, the challenges of sibling relationships, and anxiety over throwing up. Miller’s series follows a young girl named Olive as she transitions from feelings of social comfort to social anxiety and must stretch herself to accommodate these new experiences and emotions. All three novelists want young readers to have a mirror that helps them both see themselves and approach the situations the protagonists face in these novels with more confidence, knowing that they are not alone in these experiences.
Yet Bowen Cohen’s protagonist does not enter a new challenge that destabilizes her, as do the characters in Telgemeier’s and Miller’s books. Rather, as she comes of age, the emotions that have caused her stress and confusion around identity her whole life begin to rise to the surface. Though she finally can articulate her anger and frustration, she still must go on a journey to discover the answers that can provide her with a sense of peace and understanding. For young readers unfamiliar with either Native American rituals or Jewish customs, Two Tribes has the added benefit of highlighting some of the more central elements of these traditions. Readers experience Mia learning Hebrew and Muscogee; braiding challah for Shabbat and experimenting with finding and cooking wild onions; struggling with the Jewish law not to eat milk and meat together while also struggling to be polite about not enjoying the flavor of her gramma’s traditional sofke, a fermented dish of boiled corn and lye. As Mia first learns about these customs and traditions, the reader also gains an elemental understanding of them.
Through Mia’s feelings of solitude as she reconciles the different parts of herself, the novel also expresses the challenge young adults face when neither their community nor their family is able to understand all sides of their identity. In a particularly memorable chapter, Mia sits at a Shabbat meal with her rabbi, and while her parents talk to him and his wife about Mia’s bat mitzvah, she asks, “But … what if I’m not just Jewish?” Her parents and Rabbi G. attempt to convince her that she shouldn’t feel different just because kids at school cannot understand her, but their advice discounts her desire for society to recognize her as a Jew and a member of the Muscogee Nation.
Bowen Cohen successfully highlights the complicated nature of Mia’s split identity by rendering her multiple landscapes in clear, realistic, photo-like panels. The reader senses how the Jewish suburbia in which she lives contrasts sharply with Oklahoma’s more rural Christian landscape, where her Native American family resides. Bowen Cohen draws stark panels of each landscape without Mia in them and then illustrates the character attempting to enter these spaces and find room for herself. With this technique, readers sense how landscape and background shape Mia. The graphics also provide close-ups and bird’s-eye views of daily life: in one tight panel, readers can see the details of the shell-shakers that Muscogee girls put on their legs so their dancing matches the “rhythm of the song”; in another panel, the graphic precision of the image of mother and daughter preparing dishes on opposite ends of a kitchen island for Shabbat illustrates the regular rhythms of Jewish religious life.
Mia is not the only young girl in Bowen Cohen’s novel trying to navigate identity politics. In Los Angeles, Mia’s best friend Chloe is adopted and also faces mockery at school. In Oklahoma, Mia’s cousin Nova is ridiculed by adults for her creative style of dress. Nova has a more intuitive understanding of her heritage because she has imbibed the recipes, customs, and lifestyle with her upbringing, but while she is an expert in these areas, she also is unable to satisfy the adults in her life with a single, unified identity. Instead, Nova transforms into her alter ego Tabithra and explains to Mia that “dressing like [Tabithra] will make [Nova] feel fearless. And all it takes is some animal print and a red wig.” When Mia worries that looking different will complicate Nova’s social acceptance, Nova responds, “I am weird! Why hide it?” Even when Nova’s grandmother looks at her askance, she is not rebuffed: “I’m honoring my heritage in my own way. I’m being true to myself. Isn’t that how we do it in Indian country?” It is Nova who teaches Mia that “being true to [one]self” is part of her heritage.
The kids in this graphic novel instruct the adults about hyphenated identities, and they do so without seeing a reflection of themselves in society or literature. By representing this, Two Tribes makes a compelling case for the necessity of its own existence. The novel highlights how literature is the ideal vehicle through which society can explain complicated identity politics to both adults and children, and not enough books like it exist. When Mia struggles with her identity, her first stop is the school library, where she discovers a distorted and dangerous depiction of American Indians through the book Little Indian Girl (a lightly disguised version of Grace Moon’s Chi-Weé: The Adventures of a Little Indian Girl, published in 1925). Bowen Cohen does not reproduce the language of the text, but we see the thought bubbles this reading inspires: a terrified white girl surrounded by angry-looking Native American men wearing exoticized headdresses who feed her inedible food. That book does not portray the beauty or complexity of Native American culture, instead reinforcing racist depictions of Native Americans as the Other. Enabling readers of Two Tribes to see what the reading of Little Indian Girl does to Mia’s self-esteem and sense of identity reminds them why the book in their hands is so important. By metafictionally acknowledging the dangers of the wrong sort of literature, Bowen Cohen also underscores the power of finding the right kinds of works, as well as receiving the support from adults that young people deserve.
The text showcases the patronizing way adults speak to children and how it can dangerously flatten the multiple dimensions of having a hyphenated identity. Bowen Cohen includes many panels that portray close-ups of Mia’s parents and Rabbi G. trying to respond glibly about the simplicity of being Jewish and Native American. Mia is eventually able to cut them off and explain how finding a balance between her identities is actually complex and nuanced. Verbalizing acceptance of multiethnicity is not the same as showing acceptance, and Bowen Cohen deftly uses the creative mixture of images and language to highlight how words can help communicate the struggles that individuals like Mia face, but actually tackling these struggles will require broadening one’s narrow perspective of what a multiethnic identity looks like. With so little YA fiction focusing squarely on young adults’ struggles with hyphenated identities, Two Tribes shows how society indirectly tells them that their identity categories must compete with one another, but when one focuses on the parts of their inheritances with which they identify most, they might find that their multiple heritages do not conflict but rather complement one another.
Na’amit Sturm Nagel is a doctoral candidate in the English department at UC Irvine. Her work examines Jewish American, African American, and Asian American literature alongside one another, with a specific focus on gender, generational trauma, and temporality.
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