I'm intrigued by Arthur Laurents's plans to bring West Side Story to Broadway next winter in a "bilingual revival," having the Puerto Rican characters speaking Spanish and otherwise making the show "more realistic." (Here's hoping he doesn't try to set it in the present, though, because that gorgeous, swanky 1950s brass would sound as corny as Kansas in August.)
That theme of bridging cultures (I know WSS is based on R&J, but making the Montagues and Capulets into Jets and Sharks throws us into contemporary contexts) came to me yesterday when I was editing a Guide review of The Umbrella Queen, a picture book by Shirin Yim Bridges and Taeeun Yoo. Apparently based on the "umbrella village" of Bo Sang in northern Thailand, the story is about a little girl, Noot, who longs to paint umbrellas the way all the women in the village do, but instead of painting the traditional patterns of flowers and butterflies, she paints elephants. The Thai king comes to judge the umbrellas in the annual contest and names Noot the winner, "because she paints from her heart." It's a nice enough little story, but has an unacknowledged dynamic that shows up time and again in American books for children about "other cultures," allegedly honoring different cultural norms but in fact contravening them to celebrate the spirit of individual expression. (Historical fiction does this too, as Anne Scott MacLeod wrote in a brilliant essay for us.) It's a case where the story's need for conflict subverts its simultaneous claim on cultural authenticity. There's no story if Noot happily paints flowers and butterflies, but the fact that she triumphs by painting elephants says, in effect, that the tradition that inspired the story isn't worth holding on to. Can you have it both ways?