Otherness in “The Color of Water” and “Country Lovers”

The concept of otherness is one of the central issues in James McBride’s autobiographical book The Color of Water and Nadine Gordimer’s story Country Lovers. However, while there are many similarities in how otherness functions in these works, some aspects are fundamentally different. This short essay argues that two authors have opposite stances on otherness and solve this problem accordingly.

Among the similarities in handling the issue of otherness is the question of race and origin. James and Ruth, the main characters of The Color of Water, feel the pressure that their skin color puts on them. For Ruth, her Jewishness makes her whiteness less accepted, as James finds it difficult to fit in both with white and black people. In Country Lovers, it is also the race that divides people and makes them “other”. However, while for James McBride, the otherness is connected to the sense of belonging and search for identity. For Nadine Gordimer, the otherness is a profoundly tragic issue entrenched in politics. Gordimer (2002) writes: “The farm children play together when they are small; but once the white children go away to school they soon don’t play together anymore, even in the holidays” (p. 332). Thus, the author emphasizes the nature of this divide which is dictated by social constructs and institutions: school, the press, court and public views formed by the apartheid regime in South Africa.

It is important to emphasize that the struggles the characters of The Color of Water are going through are severe and explained by the societal structure. Ruth has to undergo the Southern white community’s exclusion and unacceptance while living in black neighborhoods. At the same time, James suffers from the stereotypes surrounding black people and unjust race-determined treatment. Nevertheless, the author emphasizes the importance of self-freedom and shows optimism about the possibility of overcoming “othering” through love, friendship and finding your true self. McBride (2012) writes: “Am I black or white?” “You are a human being,” she snapped. “Educate yourself or you’ll be a nobody!” (p. 70). While Country Lovers can also be seen as a commentary on the same issues, for Nadine Gordimer, there is no solution. The love between Paulus and Thebedi does not only win, but it creates a tragedy resulting in the murder of an infant.

Otherness, determined by race, becomes a focal point for both authors. However, if for James McBride, this problem can be solved by hard work on establishing understanding between people, for the author of Country Lovers, the otherness has no remedy. For her, the divide between people caused by this “othering” is much deeper, systemic, and tragic.

References

Gordimer, N. (2002). Country lovers. In R. Rubenstein & C. R. Larson (Eds.), World of fiction (pp. 332-336). Prentice Hall.

McBride, J. (2012). The color of water: A black man’s tribute to his white mother. A&C Black.

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