Esmé-Michelle Watkins, Race, Writing, and the Mixed Experience: an Interview with Heidi Durrow

Apogee’s fiction editor, Esmé-Michelle Watkins,
interviewed the novelist Heidi Durrow, author of
The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, which won the 2008
PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially-Engaged Fiction.

EMW: You frequently ask other artists of color the question “What are you?” during your podcast, The Mixed Experience. It’s a brilliant way to begin a conversation with artists of color because we are frequently asked this question and because it can lead to greater discourse around how notions of identity are assigned and how they shift over time. What are you, and how does the answer inform you as a writer? Can you tell us a bit about your podcast?

HD: Growing up, I got the question a lot as a mixed-race person whose appearance was “ethnically ambiguous.” I’ve always wanted to answer the question with an essay response even though I think the people who ask want a single answer like “I am black.” When I turn the question on my podcasts guests, invariably they chuckle first, and then give an essay-like answer. We all are so many things and they are constantly shifting.

Today I think I most readily identify as a mixed-race writer, an Afro-Viking word warrior. And it’s been essential for me to claim that identity in order to write. I remember growing up during the 1980s in a mostly African-American community and the pressure was on me to identify as black—there wasn’t room for being both black and Danish in those days—I had to pick a side. And I, for a lot of reasons, embraced the party line––because it was easier and because my psychic health demanded it. So when I knew I wanted to be a writer, I knew that I wanted to be a black woman writer. And it was the heyday of black women writers: Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Terry McMillan and Gloria Naylor were not just award-winning writers. They were bestsellers too.

I was going to tell a black woman’s story in my writing. But then finally––after years of refusing to read Nella Larsen’s work because she was not “black enough”—I read her two books in two days. It changed my life. Here was a woman writing about being black and Danish some 80 years ago. She had the courage to write about it, so why couldn’t I? It was then that I began to hear my own voice, and acknowledge that my own stories and hurts and obsessions were worthy subjects to write about.

The Mixed Experience podcast is an extension of the writing I do: An opportunity to speak with other writers and artists that are writing about the kinds of things that I’m interested in and am writing about. I really want to make sure that these stories about multiracial families and people are in conversation with one another. I don’t want to have a separate bookshelf at the bookstore, but I do think it’s important to recognize each other’s work and build on what has come before.

EMW: Before becoming a novelist, you worked as an attorney, a journalist, an actress, and a Hallmark greeting card writer. How did each of those professions influence the artist you are today?

HD: You forgot Life Skills Trainer to professional athletes! That was a great job for many years while I was working my first novel, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky. I guess I gravitated to all of those jobs for two reasons: They were jobs that allowed me to write, and they provided financial security. I grew up poor, and as much as I wanted to be a novelist, I knew it was unlikely that the writing would pay the bills. I never wanted to be poor again, and so I gravitated always toward financial safety. It was my first impulse.

EMW: I found your novel The Girl Who Fell From the Sky in a bookstore on a rainy afternoon in San Francisco. I stayed up very late that night and finished the book in its entirety. I devoured it. What moved you to tell this story? What were your hopes for the book?

HD: I read a newspaper story about a family that died in an accident––and the girl who survived. I became obsessed with the story. There were so many questions unasked and unanswered. I wanted to write my imagined story of what happened to that girl. So with just a few facts about her, I started writing her story. And it was terrible. The writing didn’t work. I started to ask myself why was I obsessed with this story, of all the stories in the world. What was it that made me want to spend my time and heart and imagination with this girl? And I realized it was because it was the story about a girl who was growing up without her mother. In some way, I felt like I had grown up without my mother because of society’s ideas about race. I should explain that I grew up with my mother and she was a rock in my family—she raised three children on her own, and did a great job. But what she didn’t realize as a Danish immigrant was that when I wasn’t at home, no one could see her in me. I was divorced from everything that connected us in a world that only saw black and white and couldn’t see that we were connected. When I realized that, I realized that I had to make the character mixed, like I am, and deal with these issues.

I hope that readers connect to the characters with their hearts––that somehow, by reading about the pain the characters experience, they are better able to connect with their own pain, or heartache, and begin to heal. As much as the book is about multiracial identity and experience, it’s also about grief and learning to heal from that. I hope that readers find more questions than answers in the book. I’m always grateful to hear from readers who say they see themselves in the book—and many of those readers are diverse in age and ethnicity. That’s a wonderful thing.

EMW: The novel was selected as the winner of the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. What did this mean to you? In your view, how is fiction a socially engaged activity? HD: The prize changed my life. The book had been rejected by everyone. Some four-dozen publishing houses passed on it. Mostly that meant that they didn’t think there was a market for a half-black, half-Danish girl. They saw the character as “too specific.” And then I won the PEN/Bellwether, which came with a guaranteed book contract. I’ll never forget the moment that I got the call from Barbara Kingsolver who created the prize and funds it. I was over the moon. Fiction is really essential to making change in our society. Barbara Kingsolver put it best, saying, “I truly believe that it is only through stories that we will be able to heal the rifts created in our country over difference, culture and race.”

EMW: The epigraph to the novel is a memorable quotation from Passing by Nella Larsen. When did you first read Passing and how did it inform your novel?

HD: I first read Passing in 1991. I had just graduated from college and moved to New York City and had for the first time in a long time a chance to read freely. I checked out Quicksand and Passing from the Mid-Manhattan library and was just gob-smacked by her work. I couldn’t believe that I had denied myself of her company for so long: I had in fact learned about her when I was a sophomore in high school. My English teacher was taking a black women’s literature course and learned about Nella Larsen. She thought I would be interested since she had the same background, as an African-American Dane. But I refused to read her because she wasn’t “black enough” and didn’t understand that America doesn’t let you be both. So I decided that her work must be absurd. But that all dissolved when I read her work and loved it. I consider Nella Larsen to be my literary mother. Heck, I think Passing should be a movie and, in fact, I began working on an adaptation of it a few years ago.

EMW: You’ve published several essays about Nella Larsen and the mixed experience. In 2008, you wrote a piece about visiting her grave. If Nella were alive today, what do you think she would have to say about the mixed experience?

HD: At that time, I was coming to terms with the fact that I had to prove publishers wrong. I had to prove that there was in fact a market for stories about the mixed experience, that there was a widespread community who wanted to hear the stories I wanted to tell about racial and cultural difference. I decided to visit her grave because it seemed right to acknowledge Nella’s part in getting me to the next step in my journey to publication. When I arrived, I saw that she had no headstone or marker. I made it my mission to erect a headstone for her so that she would be forever remembered. I don’t know how Nella would understand where we are today in terms of mixed-race identity and experience. I don’t know if she would trust it. You have to understand that her book, Quicksand, about a character that is black and Danish, was lauded in the late 1920s and early 1930s. But she died in the 1960s at a time when, again, people had to choose sides.

EMW: A decision in the matter of Loving v. Virginia, the case which struck down anti-miscegenation statutes, was reached in 1967. Were you aware of this case growing up? Did its legacy affect your view of multiracial and multicultural unions?

HD: I was very much aware of the case growing up. I don’t think I knew the name of it until I was in high school but it was very much a living part of our family story. My parents couldn’t get married in 1965 because it was illegal for whites and blacks to marry in South Carolina. So, they married in my mom’s hometown, in Denmark.

EMW: Many of us have come to know you as the creator of the Mixed Remixed Festival. I should tell you now I would not be a writer today if you hadn’t thought of it. Please tell us about the festival and how it came about. How do you see the festival playing a role in shaping the work of mixed artists today?

HD: That delights me to no end because the Festival is meant to be that place where emerging artists who are telling stories about the mixed racial and cultural experience know they can share their stories. I created the festival because I had received so much rejection from gatekeepers because of what I was writing about, but I knew that there were others out there who were interested in telling similar kinds of stories. Selfishly, I wanted to create a place where we could meet and network and help each other. So that was the genesis of the festival that is now called Mixed Remixed.

We celebrate stories about mixed-race families and people through film screenings, readings, workshops, panel presentations, and performances. The Festival is a non-profit arts organization run entirely by volunteers. None of us gets paid and we offer the festival for free to the public each June. The 2016 Festival is two full days: June tenth and eleventh at the Japanese American National Museum in downtown Los Angeles. We usually do a call for submissions that is due in January or February for filmmakers and films, writers, and performers. We always end up with a tremendous line-up. We also award a Storyteller’s Prize to artists, scholars, community leaders and organizations that have been able to illuminate or celebrate the mixed experience in their work. Past honorees have included writers Susan Straight and Jamie Ford; and Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, creators of Key & Peele. This year we’re excited to honor television and film star Taye Diggs and illustrator Shane Evans for the children’s book they collaborated on, Mixed Me! We always need more help to make the festival happen.

EMW: In addition to the festival and the podcast, you also have a blog, Light-skinned-ed Girl. Can you please tell us about the blog? How do you balance all of your activities with writing?
HD: The blog was actually my first attempt at finding an audience for stories of the mixed experience and it turned out to be the way that I found my voice. I love the community I found there in my early days of blogging. This is the 10th anniversary of that blog and I’m hoping to keep it going. But it’s hard to keep up with that: I’m at work on my second novel, developing the festival and recording the podcast—and attempting to maintain a life that is beyond the work. I’ve done a terrible job balancing all of it, but I’m still trying.

EMW: We started our conversation with your famous podcast question, “What are you?” How do you believe your answer and your legacy might affect future answers to this question?

HD: I hope my answer shows other people that they have permission to be as complicated as they are, too. I hope that we’ll continue to expand the definition of blackness, as well as whiteness. I hope that the only default answer that will make sense in the future is: I am a story.