Families As We Are:
Conversations from around the World

by Perdita Huston (Staff: PC/W 1978–81, CD/Mali 1997–99, CD/Bulgaria 1999–2000)
with a foreword by Richard C. Holbrooke (Staff: CD/Morocco 1970–72)
Feminist Press,
320 pages
June 2001

Reviewed by Sharon Dirlam (Russian Far East 1996–98)

    PERDITA HUSTON LISTENED to fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, children and grandchildren. She learned about their hopes and frustrations, sometimes about their overwhelming despair, other times about their love for each other and their plans for a better future.
         She interviewed scores of families — people from different generations and different countries and different world views — and documented their comments. In this important book, we too can listen to these ordinary people, who so seldom have our attention, and we can learn from them.
         Huston writes that when she first considered writing Families As We Are, a book on contemporary families, people said, “Oh, don’t do that! The family is too controversial.” And that, she concludes, “is just the point.” While families struggle to cope with the rapidly changing world, politicians “condemn the transformations underway . . . . They cast the beleaguered family as villain for all that ails contemporary society.”
         It is hoped that her book will give them pause, that at least some might see the need to support families of all kinds through these troubled times.
         Huston explains how she found the people she chose to interview. She selected countries that she thought would reflect the major global trends of modern life — economic transformation, urbanization, the migration of workers, and environmental stresses. She chose the United States, Japan, Thailand, Bangladesh, China, Mali, Uganda, Egypt, Jordan, Brazil and El Salvador. Then she asked sociologists and activists in each country to introduce her to families coping with these trends.
         She usually spoke with three generations, enabling her to find commonality across cultures. Her subjects included farmers and office workers, impoverished and affluent people, multigenerational and nuclear families, close-knit families and families separated by distance or by education. She also found people who created families from a common bond — prostitutes struggling to raise their children, and families consisting of street children who help each other stay alive.
         Huston and an interpreter interviewed each family member alone, so each one would feel free to speak openly. The hundreds of hours of conversations were recorded and transcribed, and the result is a fascinating and detailed record of each individual’s perception of family life.
         Interspersed with the interviews is a remarkable spectrum of statistics. A sampling: In the past century, the average life span in the world has increased almost 30 years; there are 13 million AIDS orphans in the world; 25 percent of the world’s families are headed by women.
         Huston recognizes the family as a constant force, although it takes a variety of forms.
         “Throughout history, family forms have evolved to meet the changing demands of society,” she writes. “The pace of change sets us apart from generations past. It demands immediate adjustment.”
         In the United States, Huston interviewed a family from a small farming community in Missouri, an Indian family on the Paiute Native American Reservation, and a lesbian couple with an adopted daughter.
         While some of Huston’s interviews do touch on the growing disparity between the world’s rich people and its poor people, there is no foreshadowing of the increasing intolerance of Islam fundamentalists, no anticipation of the hatred toward America that would applaud terrorist acts. Huston’s subjects were looking the other way — toward a better future for their daughters, toward increasing prosperity for all their children.
         Yet the older generations did express apprehension about the pace of change. They worried that their grandchildren no longer showed respect for their elders, felt little responsibility for their family members, and lacked a sense of commitment to their community.
         The interviews took place over a four-year period just before the turn of the 21st Century. In Uganda, Huston spoke with grandparents who were raising several grandchildren whose parents had died of AIDS. In Bangladesh, she met prostitutes who lived together and cared for each other’s children. In Thailand she recorded the stories of Cambodian refugees.
         Chapters are arranged by topics, such as “Families As We Were,” focusing on patriarchal and multigenerational families in various countries, and “Living Together, Growing Apart,” showing a trend toward smaller and nuclear families. Other chapters focus on the elderly, women’s changing roles, men’s changing roles, ways in which childhood is changing, environmental issues, health and politics, disintegrating families, and, finally, public policies.
         The inclusion of family photographs enriches the book. These priceless pictures capture the essence of their subjects, their love for each other, and their pride in being chosen.
         It appears that there was a basic list of questions, weaving a common thread through the multitude of interviews. These questions elicited comments on the changing roles of men and women, attitudes of the generations toward each other, the family’s place in the community, earning a living, and outside forces impacting the family, including disease and war and politics.
         In Families As We Are, the author is “writing down the words and thoughts of the voiceless, helping give them shape and, above all, giving them to us,” writes Richard C. Holbrooke, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, in his foreword. Both he and the author were Peace Corps country directors.

    Journalist Sharon Dirlam, a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, has written Two Years Beyond Siberia, a nonfiction narrative about her Peace Corps service that is now making the rounds of agents and publishers, and two stories published in Travelers’ Tales: A Woman’s World.