A Review of Alex Wagner’s Futureface: A Family Mystery, an Epic Quest, and the Secret to Belonging (OneWorld, 2018).
By Stephen Hong Sohn
Lately, the only thing I ever turn on in my car is NPR. The radio station once held an interview with Alex Wagner, who was discussing her mixed genre publication Future Face: A Family Mystery, an Epic Quest, and the Secret to Belonging (OneWorld, 2018).
B&N gives us this description of the title: “Alex Wagner has always been fascinated by stories of exile and migration. Her father’s ancestors immigrated to the United States from Ireland and Luxembourg. Her mother fled Rangoon in the 1960s, escaping Burma’s military dictatorship. In her professional life, Wagner reported from the Arizona-Mexico border, where agents, drones, cameras, and military hardware guarded the line between two nations. She listened to debates about whether the United States should be a melting pot or a salad bowl. She knew that moving from one land to another—and the accompanying recombination of individual and tribal identities—was the story of America. And she was happy that her own mixed-race ancestry and late twentieth-century education had taught her that identity is mutable and meaningless, a thing we make rather than a thing we are. When a cousin’s offhand comment threw a mystery into her personal story–introducing the possibility of an exciting new twist in her already complex family history—Wagner was suddenly awakened to her own deep hunger to be something, to belong, to have an identity that mattered, a tribe of her own. Intoxicated by the possibility, she became determined to investigate her genealogy. So she set off on a quest to find the truth about her family history. The journey takes Wagner from Burma to Luxembourg, from ruined colonial capitals with records written on banana leaves to Mormon databases and high-tech genetic labs. As she gets closer to solving the mystery of her own ancestry, she begins to grapple with a deeper question: Does it matter? Is our enduring obsession with blood and land, race and identity, worth all the trouble it’s caused us? The answers can be found in this deeply personal account of her search for belonging, a meditation on the things that define us as insiders and outsiders and make us think in terms of “us” and “them.” In this time of conflict over who we are as a country, when so much emphasis is placed on ethnic, religious, and national divisions, Futureface constructs a narrative where we all belong.”
So, this description does a pretty comprehensive job of setting up the basic premise of the work. I call it mixed-genre because it’s a little bit of: auto/biography, historical/cultural studies, and certainly takes some inspiration in style from Wagner’s journalistic background. I’ll also introduce a spoiler warning here, as I think it’s quite critical to discuss the “mystery of” Wagner’s “own ancestry,” which revolves around family lore detailing the possibility of a hidden Jewish background. While proving this genealogical background serves to catalyze Wagner’s quest, her pursuit takes her in unexpected directions. Indeed, she discovers that one of her ancestors may have traveled to the United States under an assumed name and that his name is exactly the same as a person who turns out to be a non-biologically related father. Wagner is determined figure out why these two figures were so closely connected despite having no blood relation and uses many experts and resources at her disposal to find out what she can.
On either side of her family tree, Wagner does come to one major realization: that ancestry is the stuff of myth and legend. By uncovering the contexts around her genealogy, Wagner realizes that she must look past a hagiographic perspective to engage more fully the mysteries of one’s family roots. The concluding chapters take on an interesting subject matter, as Wagner seeks to establish some quantifiable data concerning her family tree. She takes a number of DNA tests that have now become popularized and enable an individual to get a basic percentage of certain backgrounds that one possesses. The problem, as Wagner discovers, is that these tests are not all the same and give different baseline results, which gives her pause to wonder whether or not they are all that accurate.
Another element that I found fascinating about this study is that Wagner’s investigations into the procedures used to determine basic DNA groupings ultimately relies upon some ossified notions of sample populations. But, what is perhaps most notable about this publication is that Wagner’s work adds to what I consider to be one of the smaller subsets of Asian American literature: Burmese American literature. At this time, I only know of a handful of writers (such as Wendy Law-Yone, Charmaine Craig) in this area, so any new publication from this particular ethnic group is a welcome one!
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