Malaka Gharib is an artist, a journalist, and a writer based in Washington, D.C., with her husband and 9-year-old rice cooker. Her autobiographical graphic novel, I Was Their American Dream, details her life growing up in a mixed-race family and the culture shock that arose from it. Through the use of her simplistically unique and varied illustrations and the relatable dialogue and prose detailed throughout, Gharib showcases a story that’s all too common for many of us.
One of the things Gharib takes note about in her memoir is the culture shock she experienced in America. She went to an ethnically diverse high school in Cerritos, CA, and saw her fair share of mixed-race peers. It was there that the most important question she learned she could ask was “What are you?”
At first, it seems like an innocent question that a curious teenager can ask in high school, but when you peel back the layers of the question, you begin to understand the identity crisis such a question can pose. Growing up, Gharib wasn’t accustomed to being of mixed race. To her, it seemed everyone was something. Having an identity to latch onto is helpful in those formative years, but when presented with people who had grown up in a different way than her, she was stunned. She was the one that was different.
All of this comes to a realization that every reader understands and fully acknowledges, and Gharib further discusses it in her story. It’s not the name of your heritage that’s important, but rather the culture, the food, the music, and the experience of it all. What I mean is that although Gharib’s mother and father are from the Philippines and Egypt, she is also a child of America. I Was Their American Dream is a look into the complexities of an American family. Yes, Gharib is from an immigrant family, but the most important thing about the entire story is that it’s a look into the life of a family that is all too common in America.
One of the great things that has to be pointed out about the story is the fact that there are characters of different races drawn thoughtfully. Gharib’s art magnifies the aspect of race, showcasing the limitations of racial identity. Characters look like people, never once placing an inch toward the stereotypical illustrations with which different races have been represented. And that’s kind of the point she’s trying to make. It’s not about the color or look of who we are, but the culture that one grows up in. It’s reflective of the melting pot ideal that America is supposed to stand for.
This is a story that I personally latched onto as someone of mixed race (Salvadorian and Mexican, and even then, that can become broken down further.) who has never really taken a look at how that may be perceived by others. It’s an eye opener of a shared experience anyone growing up “differently” in a sense can relate to and understand. Gharib’s story truly is amazing, and I want to thank her for sharing it with us.
Creative Team: Malaka Gharib (writer/illustrator)
Publisher: Penguin Random House / Clarkson Potter
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