Author Alex Wagner shares her journey to discover her identity and family history

A journalist and author of "Futureface," this year's Common Reading selection, Wagner talked about surprises and findings on her journey to discover her identity and family history as she engaged in a forum for the common reading on Sept. 18 in Alumni Gym.

It’s important, useful and empathy-building to find out about all the flaws in your family history. But they don’t determine who you are in the present day.

That was the message that journalist and author Alex Wagner shared Wednesday night during an on-stage discussion with Paula Patch, senior lecturer in English as part of the 2019 Common Reading program. Through the program, first-year students and other members of the campus community are invited to read the same work, with the author visiting Elon for a series of forums and a large-public event like Wednesday night’s discussion with Patch. The goal is to create a shared intellectual experience each year for Elon’s newest students.

Journalist and author Alex Wagner speaking during the Common Reading lecture on Wednesday, Sept. 18.

Patch asked Wagner about her findings and surprises while authoring “Futureface: A Family Mystery, an Epic Quest, and the Secret to Belonging.” Wagner is also a correspondent for CBS News and contributing editor at The Atlantic, and is currently the co-host and executive producer at the weekly political documentary show “The Circus.”

Wagner didn’t know where her journey of finding her family’s origin story would take her. That meant she stumbled upon a few surprises. “There were moments of great intrigue,” Wagner said.

Among those moments was finding out that her great-grandfather might be Jewish, especially considering that her family is deeply rooted in the Roman-Catholic church. “That all of that might have been a ruse, actually, to cover up Jewish roots — that was a huge moment for me,” she said.

Another inflection point for Wagner was receiving her DNA test results. “You’re really hoping that it’s going to return like two percent Egyptian or like one percent Peruvian king,” she said.

People hope it’s something exciting, and while Wagner’s DNA results weren’t a big revelation to her, she was still able to connect them with her identity. “I was like ‘I knew I was Scandinavian, that’s why I’m so tall, that’s why I like Ikea,’” she said, drawing laughter from the crowd.

Another important part of Wagner’s journey was visiting Luxembourg and Myanmar (formerly Burma), where her father and mother were from respectively. “You go to these places where your forefathers and fathers once walked and ate and lived and breathed and slept and it’s not that you necessarily see vestiges of them there, but there is kind of something that happens along the way,” she said.

Traveling across the globe only made Wagner realize that her true home was not in Myanmar or any other faraway place, but instead right here in America. “Coming back to the States, as problematic as so much of our national discourse is, it is really amazing to come home and feel like you’re home,” she said.

Patch asked Wagner if she plans to share her family history findings with her two sons. Wagner said she wants to give her children the biggest box she possibly can once they are old enough to understand.

“There were moments of great intrigue.”

Alex Wagner, journalist and author of “Futureface”

“My parents, and I think many people’s parents, give them the best stories of the family,” Wagner said. “They are like heirlooms. They pass only the shiniest, best ones down,” Wagner said.

Her book, which is dedicated to her oldest son, won’t be that. “FutureFace” is an honest look at Wagner’s family and herself. “I hope he reads it one day and I hope he learns a little bit about his family that he never knew,” she said. “And I hope he learns something about his mom too.”

Wagner also engaged with students during two forums on Wednesday and another two on Thursday, with attendees encouraged to ask questions. During the first forum on Wednesday, moderated by Professor of English Stephen Braye, Wagner said that everyone’s family tells a story about who they are.

“We accept them unquestioningly,” Wagner said. “It’s good to ask questions and it’s good to try and find out the factual basis behind the histories that have been given to us.”

Looking into that past is a worthwhile activity for Americans, especially in an era that questions what it means to be American.

“There are these fascinating stories about who those people were and what they went through,” Wagner said. “Those stories can teach us a lot about the moment that we’re in right now and our own lives.”

One student asked Wagner to elaborate on her tendency toward the “salad bowl” rather than “melting pot” theory when it comes to American culture. Growing up, Wagner said she was exposed to narratives other than the typical western perspective.

“That was a more wholesome approach to our multivalent society,” she said. In that context, the debate between the melting pot and salad bowl as descriptors of American culture arose. The melting pot suggests a melting down of cultures to create a new, uniform mix. The salad bowl suggests that America is made up of different ingredients that make create one thing, a salad, while retaining individually recognizable ingredients.

“I lean towards the salad bowl because it’s felt like ‘this is good, I’m a tomato, I’m down with the lettuce, I’m down the onions and avocado, but I’m still a tomato at the end of the day,” Wagner said.

But America is now at a seesaw point where one party, one voice, one group of people wants to be the dominant one.

“That fundamental tension has given rise to where we are politically and socially,” Wagner said.