Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Novel Novelist: Outsider Or In?

Word up, Hip Hapa Homeez! We at Watermelon Sushi World are so HAPA to call you our homeez. Because of your dedication, we’re moving towards getting our Watermelon Sushi film completed. One of the ways we’ve been doing that is by offering Hapa*Teez t-shirts to the mixed roots community. With every t-shirt purchase, you get us closer to our goal. And, you earn a rear crawl credit--your name will roll at the end of the movie.

Cassie as hip HAPA homee
When you do buy a t-shirt, please email us at with your correctly-spelled name. And, if you send us a digi photo of you wearing your t-shirt, we’ll showcase you on our Watermelon Sushi and Hapa*Teez fan pages on Facebook (like Cassie, here).

Hey, here’s a shout-out to Arana, The Topaz Club founder, for her recent purchase. Join The Topaz Club group page on Facebook where mixed-race women of African descent share their stories.

Speaking of stories, this week’s featured hip hapa homee is Dmitri Ragano who just completed his novel, Employee of the Year. Your Hip Hapa first met Dmitri after stumbling upon his interview with Japan enka star Jero. After corresponding for a while, we met in person--along with Dmitri’s beautiful wife and daughter. Below, Dmitri discusses his life and how he came to write a book about a multiracial character.

Q: Tell us about your parents.

A: I am a typical garden-variety white guy so I might be something of an anomaly in the Watermelon Sushi World. My mother came from an Irish German family and my father from an Italian family. They grew up blue-collar Catholic in Pittsburgh, then broke away from the church during the Vietnam War era. They gave me an exotic name that they liked from Russian literature.

Dmitri at AFI Fest
Q: How did the way you grow up affect your life?

A:  I grew up in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, a town on the edge of Pittsburgh that was predominantly African American. I had exposure to different cultures at a young age. I was often the only white guy in my elementary school class so there was exposure to art and popular culture that was different than my own. I remember very vividly when the early rap songs like "The Message" came out. That style of using rhythm and poetry to deal with real-world situations was a big influence on my fiction writing. Another influence was August Wilson, who broke onto the national scene when I was a teenager with plays about the African American experience in Pittsburgh.

During college in San Francisco, I went to Japan to study the language. For a while, I lived in a remote part of the country where I was the only foreigner in the town. The process of learning to communicate in a new language in a foreign country is slow, painful and humiliating. But once you get to the other side, the rewards are amazing. It unlocks certain parts of your brain and heart you didn't know existed. Charlemagne said, "To possess a second language is to possess a second soul."

So, the combination of these experiences created an openness and curiosity about other people's cultures. On the flip side, for better or for worse, it instilled this sense that I was an outsider and that it was sort of my destiny to go out and search to find my place in the world. Again, this is a theme with many characters in my book: they don't have a map for how to live their lives so they take scraps of maps they find along the way and try to piece them together.

Q: Were you accepted in every country where you’ve lived?

A: I have traveled to around 25 countries, but Japan is the only country outside the U.S. where I've lived. I lived in Japan several times for a total stay of about five years. It was a great experience, but you need to qualify the word "acceptance" when you talk about living in Japan as a foreigner. Japan is a very homogeneous and insular culture, and it's been that way for thousands of years. There's been no significant immigration in the whole recorded history. When you live in Japan, you live as a guest and you are treated with incredible kindness and hospitality. But like a guest in a hotel, you never really feel completely at home, you never expect to be completely accepted. You always feel like at some point you will overstay your welcome and have to leave. This is not everyone's experience, but I think it is a typical experience of most foreigners who live and work in Japan. The kanji characters for the word "gaijin" literally mean "outside person".

Q: Tell us about your interracial marriage and biracial child.

A: My wife and I met in San Francisco at a party held by these Japanese monks who lived by Haight and Fillmore. They would cook all this Buddhist vegetarian food and play reggae concerts in the basement. She was trying to learn English and I was trying to learn Japanese. We were friends for many years before we became romantically involved and decided to marry. 

Being from different cultures is challenging. You come at things from a different frame of reference. My wife's experiences being raised in Osaka are so dramatically different than what I knew growing up. The stories you tell yourself about who you are and how you should live are completely different. The good news is we love each other very deeply and share the same core values. But we've spent the early part of our lives learning to express the love and values in different ways. So it takes a long time to work this out.

For our daughter, I think this has pros and cons. She's exposed to a wide range of ideas and experiences and she knows we care about her more than anything. But I am sure sometimes it's got to be confusing for her compared to, say, having two parents who grew up in the same country with the same language, same culture and same socioeconomic background. 

Q: What motivated you to write Employee of the Year, about a mixed roots character in a multicultural workplace?

A: I think there are more young people growing up like my daughter, who are mixed roots and exposed to many different customs, values, languages and ways of life. Yet, I believe there is still a lack of stories in our popular culture that reflect this. So I felt there was an opportunity to write about characters that grow up straddling different racial and cultural experiences and how they negotiate their own identity. There's no tribal blueprint for the type of person they should try to become. It's a riddle they have to solve on their own. 
On top of that, my story is set in a big financial company in Los Angeles. In this city, on top of mixed roots experiences, you have mixed class experiences, interactions between people from different educational and economic backgrounds. These are all things we have so much trouble talking about in America. A company is a good setting for a story about this. In Los Angeles, the 1 percent and the 99 percent only set foot in the same zip code during working hours.
Dmitri channels Temo

Q: Is the main character, Cuauhtemoc McCarthy, based on your own personality and experiences?

A: In many ways, Temo is based on who I've tried to be. I've tried to be someone who retains a certain honesty and purity while being pragmatic about what it takes to survive and thrive in the modern world. Temo's job as a collections agent is to chase people down and convince them to pay their credit card debt. If he can't do this successfully, he loses the only way he knows how to support his wife and family. He feels ambivalent about this, just as most working people have mixed feelings about how they make a living.

Q: I first learned about you as a journalist from your interview with Jero. How does writing fiction differ from reporting?

A: The interview about Jero is a funny story about how lives and cultures intersect. My father worked for 30 years as a schoolteacher in inner-city neighborhoods around Pittsburgh. When my wife and I got engaged in 1998, we went back to Pittsburgh and visited my father's school. There was a woman from Peru who was teaching Japanese so we visited her class to talk about Japan. I remember there was a kid in the class who knew a little Japanese from his grandmother. For the next ten years, I had no contact with him, never thought about the visit to the school, et cetera. Then suddenly, in 2008, I was on a business trip in Peru and I saw something on the cable news about Jero, a guy from Pittsburgh who went to Japan and became a singing sensation. It turns out it was that same kid I'd visited at my father's high school! He remembered my father as one of his teachers. So, after leaving South America I had to go to Asia for business. My wife and I were in Japan and I decided to do an interview with Jero for the local Pittsburgh newspaper.

I think this is the best illustration of the difference between fiction and journalism. With fiction, you're taking the essence of the people and experiences from life and molding them into a narrative. With reporting, you end up discovering these real life connections and events that are so random and serendipitous that you couldn't make them up because no one would ever believe it. I mean, look at Obama. You couldn't write a fictional story about someone with his background becoming President of the United States. No one would find it plausible.

Your Hip Hapa with Jero in San Francisco
Thank you, Dmitri for sharing. Hip Hapa Homeez, you can buy a copy of Employee of the Year on Amazon or download it to Kindle for 99 cents.

Here are some of Dmitri’s feature articles:

Interview with Jero:

Interview with Howard Zinn:

Japanese cell phone culture:

And, books citing his journalism:

Andye deep in African Asian thoughts
Here's another shout-out; this one to Watermelon Sushi Associate Producer Andye AndinhaNiakan for this blog entry about Your Hip Hapa:

And, don’t forget, we’re still running our Ask My Cuz @Oprah campaign on twitter:

Until we cross ISP’s again, remember to fan us, follow us, or friend us, but please connect!

You can also request membership in the Hip Hapa Homeez group page on Facebook.

Your Hip Hapa,