As for this Watermelon Sushi World blog, Your Hip Hapa has big plans in the Year of the Metal Tiger. So, for now, we’ll be moving to an every-other-week publishing format. Next week, we’ll post an interview with another Hip Hapa Homee, but the one after that will be published on March 10. If you, or someone you know, would like to be profiled here, please drop a line to firstname.lastname@example.org
Your Hip Hapa first met Heidi W. Durrow (pictured above) along with her partner, Fanshen Cox, in July 2007 as a guest on their half hour podcast called Mixed Chicks Chat. And, last year, Your Hip Hapa facilitated a panel about mixed race relationships at the Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival also hosted by Heidi and Fanshen. Yesterday, Heidi’s highly anticipated book, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky (Algonquin Books), was released. Below, Heidi discusses the process of writing and publishing this important story about being multiracial.
That’s a pix of Heidi's book here. Below, she and Fanshen pose at the Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival. And, below that, her parents exchange vows on their wedding day.
For more information, check out Heidi’s website at: www.heidiwdurrow.com
Q: What's a nice multiethnic girl like you doing writing such an acclaimed work of fiction?
A: I’ve always wanted to write, and for a long time didn’t believe that it was worth writing because no one would be interested in a story about the Mixed experience. But when I gave up thinking about what “they” (agents, editors, literary journal editors) wanted, and decided to write what I wanted to read or wish I could have read; then, the writing started flowing.
The story, though, of The Girl Who Fell From the Sky was inspired by a real event that happened about 15 years ago. A family died in a terrible tragedy, but a miracle happened and the girl survived. I became haunted by what her survival might look like. I didn’t know anything about the girl but the barest facts of her biography. And so, I filled in what I knew--the story of a biracial and bicultural girl who suddenly discovers that her identity isn’t “American”, but a race.
Q: Had you written a novel before, and do you plan to write more?
A: This is my first novel. It took 12 years to write.
I’m working on some other book projects now, and I’m hoping they won’t take so long to complete.
My journey to publication was very long in part, I think, because I didn’t know how to get published. I was a journalist, and then a lawyer, and I thought if I just wrote then I would get published. But there are a lot of things that you need to do as a writer that are not writing. You need to cultivate mentors and advisors who can help you with recommendation letters. And, you need to get to know people (other writers and publishing professionals). Just like in any business, it’s easier to get published if you’ve met the editor. That’s not to say it’s the only way. My first publication, which appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, was a blind submission. The same story had been rejected by two-dozen other literary journals. I had a rule that I had to send out the story to two more journals for every rejection I received. I’m surprised I didn’t have more rejections in hand by the time I got the acceptance. The rejections were discouraging, but I also needed to keep pushing forward.
I found my agent through a connection with my mentor, writer Michael Pettit. He had judged a contest I won and took an interest in helping me with my career. He’s been a huge support and I’m terribly grateful to him.
I found my publisher, again, just by a blind submission. My book won the Bellwether Prize for Literature of Social Change, an award created and funded by Barbara Kingsolver. Along with the prize came a contract for publication. Voila! You can bet I was excited when I got the call from Barbara Kingsolver that she had chosen my manuscript. It felt like magic--like I was an overnight success. But really, I had put many years of work into the manuscript. I got lucky that I found the one gatekeeper who said ‘yes’!
Q: Do you think that there's such a thing as a mixed-race genre for authors?
A: I think there are stories of the Mixed experience. I don’t know whether there is a mixed-race genre, but maybe there is. If so, I would call it the Creole Aesthetic. I chaired a panel on that at the Loving Conference--looking at the similarities between different types of art dealing with the Mixed experience. I’d love to have that discussion again.
Q: Will your book cross cultures?
A: Yes, I think so. At bottom, the book is about a young girl who’s trying to learn how to be a woman without her mother. She’s looking for role models; trying to figure out what kind of woman she’s going to become. I think a lot of people can relate to that.
Q: Are mixed people hungry for stories about themselves?
A: I can speak for myself and say ‘yes, I definitely am’. It’s one of the reasons, my partner Fanshen and I started the Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival--www.mxroots.org. It’s an opportunity for mixed people, mixed families, and people in mixed relationships of every stripe and sort to see themselves reflected in film and in readings and performance. We’re putting together the 3rd Annual Festival now. It’s set for June 12-13, 2010, at the Japanese American National Museum. And, it’s free! I just want to put in a little plug here: Please donate to help keep the Festival free. It’s a fiscally sponsored project of the New York Foundation for the Arts and, your donations are tax-deductible to the full extent of the law. Donate on-line now!
Q: How did your parents meet?
A: My parents met in Germany in the 1960s. My father was in the Air Force and my mom (who is from Denmark) was working as an au pair to an American military family. They were married in Denmark because it was illegal for them to marry in South Carolina, where blacks and whites could not marry and, where my father was about to be stationed.
Q: How much are you affected by Danish culture?
A: My Danish family is my heart! I love them so much and they were such a big part of my growing up. My mom—the smart woman that she is—decided to raise us speaking Danish. We only spoke Danish with her and spoke English to our dad. Being Danish is such a huge part of my identity, even though I never went to school in Denmark or lived there for more than a few months. It’s just part of who I am.
Q: How did you become so involved with the mixed-race community?
A: I became involved in the mixed-race community because I felt isolated. It really did just start with my longing and need to talk to my friend Fanshen about these issues. We realized that every time we saw each other (which wasn’t much) we’d talk about these issues. We started the podcast, Mixed Chicks Chat--www.mixedchickschat.com--as a way to connect more often. We didn’t really think that people would start to listen! The Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival was a natural outgrowth of that. We wanted to create a space for artists to share their work. We wanted to offer a forum for their stories.
Q: What has changed for mixed people since you two began your podcast and festival?
A: The fact that people who are not mixed simply say the word biracial--I think just that is a huge step. That is of course because of President Obama. Thank you, Mr. President! Because of the One Drop rule, people hadn’t even been allowed to think about mixed-race identity—the lines had been drawn. I think people are more likely to share information about their blended families or relationships now. And, I think mixed families are starting to look like families to outsiders. People aren’t trying to do the math of how the kids belong with the mom or dad. That’s the best. I think that’s progress.
Congratulations, Heidi! Here’s to good fortune with your book.
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Your Hip Hapa,