A cultural commentator turns her acute observational skills and journalistic skills to the mystery of her own heritage.
When Wagner, currently an anchor and contributor for CBS News and a contributing editor at the Atlantic, started pulling the threads of history between her Burmese mother and her American father, it didn’t take long for the perceptive journalist to see that things could get messy. Her thinking about American identity harkens back to a 1993 Time cover story that heralded a multicultural woman as “The New Face of America,” which explained “how immigrants are shaping the world’s first multicultural society”—hence her concept of “Futureface.” The narrative is part Mary Roach–style, participation-heavy research, part family history, and part exploration of existential loneliness. “I wanted definitive proof that I was not alone, that I belonged….It was a mystery to be solved—several mysteries, to be honest—and, oh, did I love mysteries,” writes Wagner. “I was on the case: telephone, magnifying glass, library card, passport in hand.” After introducing her family’s complex genealogy, including a hint of Jewish ancestry, Wagner recounts her trip to Burma, where she discovered the same distressing cultural fracturing she has been reporting on in America. Without discovering any documents of substance there, she headed home to go through the complex history of Henry Wagner, her great-grandfather, who brought his family from Luxembourg to Iowa. Wagner picks apart the “White Immigrant Origin Story,” digs through digital and physical records, and subjects herself and her family to scores of DNA tests, the results of which proved “less than convincing.” Regardless of whether Wagner solved her mystery, the journey is worth taking; it serves as a welcome reminder that tribalism and xenophobia are dangerous but ultimately futile threats. As the author writes, the search for ancestry is “a reminder that ultimately, we are all in this together—still.”
A timely investigation that turns up “sad confirmation that animus and violence and expulsion always end up screwing everyone, even the people doing the expelling.”