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February 5, 2004


Random Family, New Identities

random family
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, author of last year's Random Family, a book about an extended family's life in the South Bronx, had a long piece in the NYT last weekend about how her experiences researching her book for ten years have helped her understand herself and her own family in ways she initially wouldn't have thought possible.

Random Family is one of the the most powerful non-fiction books I've ever read, and in my opinion, is akin James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in its efforts to accurately portray the difficult lives of a forgotten underclass. LeBlanc's book follows an extended family's travails over the course of about 10 years with a non-judgmental objectivity that preserves the story's believability despite its seemingly incredible nature. LeBlanc's rigorous narrative style also offers a dispassionate, but never cold, look at the individuals in the family, without either condemning, pitying, or glorifying them. Her book depicts the reality of this family in a way that a reader completely removed from that reality can understand, but it's not an easy book. You have to struggle to remain as nonjudgmental as LeBlanc, and struggle to open your mind and heart to the pain and love she portrays.

Despite growing up in a Massachussetts suburb, LeBlanc went on to feel the distinctive pull of the South Bronx and describes how the neighborhood has redefined her. Her time there changed her on many levels, and showed her that her true identity is now neither entirely in the Bronx or in Massachussetts, but somewhere in between. Her identification with this middle-ground is symbolized by an unexpected development in her own life: her family life eventually became intertwined with her subjects, when they became involved in her father's battle with cancer. Her experiences have shown her that "home" is not merely a physical space, but an approach to life that transcends geography:

To be where I am is to accept where I came from, to be both a visitor and an escapee. Maybe always-leaving is my closest kinship, but I've learned to claim the life I live here, wherever that may be. The open invitation is what I cherish most about my work in this city - the righteousness of my ignorance, the job of getting lost again and again.
In any case, LeBlanc achieved something remarkable with Random Family, and it is fitting that after putting so much into the project, she learned as much about herself as we learned from her.

categories: Books, NYC
posted by adm at 11:31 AM | #