The Day Of The Pelican: Changing Identities

09/22/10 7:50AM By Mitch Wertlieb
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Vermont Reads 2010: The Day Of The Pelican

Photo/Mira Niagolova
(Wertlieb) Good morning. I'm Mitch Wertlieb.

Today we conclude our exploration of "The Day of the Pelican" by Katherine Paterson. The book was selected for the Vermont Humanities Council's 2010 Vermont Reads state-wide reading program.

In the novel "The Day of the Pelican," the Lleshi family struggles to start a new life in the United States.

Here's an excerpt from the book, read by Nijaza Semic, who came to Vermont from Bosnia.

"She tried to speak, but the effort was too great. She gave up and simply listened. She envied the little ones. They not only chattered away at school, but they played with neighborhood children after school and on the weekends. They could translate for Mama and Baba before Mehmet could. lt made him so angry that he studied ten times harder. He listened to the radio or watched TV when he wasn't actually studying. "To get the pronunciation right. You have to get the pronunciation or they laugh." Mehmet couldn't stand to be laughed at. His younger brothers and Vlora just laughed right back when the neighborhood children laughed at them. Besides, the pronunciation seemed easy for them.

Mama shook her head. "They're forgetting Albanian," she said.

But if English was hard for Meli, it seemed almost impossible for Mama and Baba. They went to a course at the library three mornings a week, but they refused to speak in public. If they needed to go to the grocery store or post office, they always took one of the children to translate for them.

The biggest problem for them all was Baba. He needed to get a job, but what job could a middle-aged man do? One who was hopeless in English?"

(Wertlieb) Nijaza Semic, reading from Katherine Paterson's book, "The Day of the Pelican." 

The transition to life here is often difficult for refugees. For children, a new life means a new school - one that can be very different from any they have known before. 11-year-old Susma Adhikari is a refugee from Bhutan. She attended school at a refugee camp in Nepal:

(Susma) "In Nepal we have to, in school we have to sit on the floor, mud floor it was kind of dirty, and we had to sit on a mat, here we have our own desks and we have everything we need.  In Nepal we don't have that much stuff.  There we were really scared from teachers because we had to respect them. It was kind of hard to learn there, but here, everyone is good and nice."

(Wertlieb) Susma had never seen a computer in school before. In Nepal, there were 60 students in classes and they were referred to by numbers.

After two years here, Susma plays on a soccer team and has friends. But for older students it can be harder, since other students have long established friendships, and language can be a barrier. 19-year-old Rajev Dahal is a senior at Burlington High School:

(Dahal) "I have many Nepalese people I know, but there are no American friends. There are many in the classroom but our friendships don't stick around much after classes. I think that it may be our cultural difference, and everything like that I think it will be ok in a few years when I get started speaking better English, and used to their culture. I think we can be friendly then."

(Wertlieb) For many families, the changes can be dramatic and unsettling. Filmmaker Mira Niagolova says the fact that children absorb languages faster than adults can alter family dynamics:

(Niagolova) "I'll give an example with the Somali Bantus because I think this is a striking example. The roles in the families are shifting from the parents to the kids because the kids after a couple of months they become very communicative and conversant in English, so they become translators, interpreters for their parents at the same time they start to forget their native language. It becomes very hard to communicate with their parents and there's this rift between generations that grows."

(Wertlieb) And there are other challenges. Finding appropriate work can be difficult. Judy Scott directs the Vermont Refugee Resettlement program, and tells the story of a man who had a master's degree in education in his country. But there was turmoil in his native land and his education couldn't be verified. So he was eventually hired in a factory to perform quality control, working with small objects:

(Scott) "He said that the first day after doing this for an hour and a half, his back was so sore he couldn't bear it and one of his coworkers saw how much pain he was in, remembered his own first few days and said, let me do it for you for awhile. He said it took him seven weeks to build up to the point where he could do that job. So when he told me this story, he said so now that's what I'm doing, I'm watching out for the new people."

(Wertlieb) Filmmaker Mira Niagolova says the Iraqi families she's observed have also found it difficult to adjust:

(Niagolova) "We have probably about 80 Iraqi families so far and I assume we'll expect more. In general the Iraqi population is very well educated and they are somehow frustrated because their expectations haven't been met so far. They want to get back their middle class life that they had in Iraq, but here they're in a different position. They're eager to re-establish their middle class life."

(Wertlieb) Some families may also have to deal with prejudice based on religion, and an uncertain world. This challenge concludes the book, "The Day of the Pelican," when the family's newly found security is once again threatened by global events.    

Again, Nijaza Semic reads an excerpt.

"At first it was only a rumor. Then the math teacher announced it in class. Airplanes full of passengers had crashed into the two tallest buildings in New York City, and another had smashed the huge military headquarters in Washington, DC. America was under attack.

"But who did it?" a boy blurted out.

"We don't know yet," the teacher said. Her voice was quiet, but Meli could hear the quaver in it. "The radio said ‘terrorists."'

"What terrorists?"

"We don't know any details. But we mustn't panic. If we are at war, we will all have to be brave and clear headed. I've been asked to announce that we will complete the school day but that there will be no after school activities. No sports practices or clubs. Everyone is to go straight home after the last bell."

Meli could hardly breathe. She could see in the eyes of her classmates a mixture of excitement and fear. She felt only dread. She knew what war was like. Had they fled Kosovo only to be plunged into the midst of its horrors in America?"

(Wertlieb) Nijaza Semic , reading from Katherine Paterson's book, "The Day of the Pelican."

Because they are Muslim, the family at the heart of the novel experiences a backlash of fear, anger and prejudice.  The children are harassed in school.  But the school successfully addresses - and corrects - the behavior.  It may not be your usual "happily-ever-after ending," but it's an honest one - and it's cautiously optimistic.

The sense of wary optimism expressed in the novel is also reflected in reality. Filmmaker Mira Niagolova has worked with many people who have resettled in Vermont. And she thinks technology has somewhat changed the refugee experience - for the better.

(Niagolova) "We're a global society, it used to be we would come and assimilate Now we're seeing other tendencies, again because of the new means of communication, people tend to go back, to see what they have left behind and  for me it's interesting. Are we going to have the same allegiances as we did before? Or will we have more sojourners or people who have duel citizenship ? "

(Wertlieb) That duality is evident in the thoughts of Bosnian refugee Ramiz Mujkanovic, who told the Vermont Folklife Center that it's still important to keep aspects of one's native culture alive:

(Mujkanovic) "It's great to be in America, it's great to be an American. But it's great to keep your own culture and your own customs there's nothing wrong with that, and I try to tell our own people, Bosnian people, there's nothing wrong listening to American music, to go in American society and have friends, but it is very important for us to keep our own culture, our own customs, food, us something, this is something we bring to this country."

(Wertlieb)  More resources about the Day of the Pelican, Vermont Reads and the Vermont Humanities Council can be found on our Web site, vpr-dot-net.

For VPR News, I'm Mitch Wertlieb.

"Vermont Reads" was produced by Betty Smith and Melody Bodette, and was edited by Ross Sneyd. Our technical director was Chris Albertine. Web producer was Tim Johnson.  John van Hoesen is our executive producer.

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