Tag Archive | mixed race

AAPI Month: Beyond Fractions Panel

May was Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month (sidebar: why is it Asian American and Pacific Islander rather than Asian and Pacific Islander American? I know I’ve seen APIA before, but suddenly AAPI seems to have become dominant), and the Asian Author Alliance organized a month of virtual author panels featuring many kidlit authors speaking on a variety of topics. Thanks to Twitter, I did not miss one of the panels that had caught my eye: Beyond Fractions: Writing and Living the Mixed Race AAPI Experience. Heidi Heilig moderated a conversation among Keala Kendall, Sarah Kuhn, Karuna Riazi, Pearl Low, and Rebecca Kuss.

To kick off the panel, Heidi said that when people who aren’t mixed race talk about the mixed race experience, they focus so much on pain. She wanted to know what joyful experiences the participants had had. Sarah agreed that people were always focused on, Oh, how sad you must be! She said joy comes from community, including community with other creatives like her fellow panelists. She and her brother grew up in a pretty white town, but there was one other mixed Asian family with two daughters, so of course they became best friends. She said it’s beautiful how mixed race people can embrace each other as whole people. For Pearl, being mixed has created so much abundance, with layers of experience on top of each other. She’s been able to connect with so many people, including people from the Chinese community, the Black community, and the general mixed community. Keala agreed, saying that you stand to inherit culture from all sides, and there’s a lot of pride there. She noted that in mixed race stories told by people who aren’t mixed, there’s a lot of focus on the mixed race character’s whiteness or their proximity to it. She also said she had a lot of great food in her family.

Sarah jumped in to talk about the creation of dishes, giving the example of her Japanese American mother’s teriyaki hot dogs. She said she hadn’t yet been able to replicate them; this is her tragic biracial quest. Rebecca said that her mother made hot dogs with water chestnuts and kimchi and that food was very tied to the mixed race experience for her. Here, Heidi said that, of her two sons, the one who looks more white likes a wider variety of foods and more Asian food than the other, and she feels like she’s colonizing (or decolonizing? I may not have caught this exactly) her husband’s white family.

Karuna, being South Asian and Black, saw two sides of resistance against colonization having come together to make her. She’s proud to be able to say she’s mixed race because two families came together and shared their backgrounds, resulting in a new generation that has a different experience. She mentioned a family photograph of her Bangladeshi grandmother and African-American grandmother hugging and crying the first time they met. Sarah said this was really beautiful because the stereotype about mixed race families is that they hate each other. As she gets older, Pearl sees more and more parallels between her Chinese and Black cultures. Noting that her mother is Chinese, she said that there’s a Jamaican fruit that’s kind of like a longan.

Next, Heidi asked whether anyone had anything special to share about the moment when they started to find community. Sarah always feels heartbroken when she hears about mixed race people who’ve faced racism within their families. She’s glad her mother made her realize she should appreciate all of herself and was so invested in making sure she was proud of who she was. Sarah learned about Japanese American incarceration and anti-miscegenation laws from her mother. Her mother also ensured she had a connection to Japanese culture, taking her up to Portland sometimes, where there was a little bit more of a Japanese American community. It made it more natural for Sarah to seek that out when she moved to more diverse areas.

Heidi explained that her mother is white and her father is Chinese, but her father didn’t connect very well with her and her siblings when they reached adolescence, so her mother encouraged her to talk to her Chinese grandmother, to learn her recipes, go over to her house after school every day, etc. So even though her mother didn’t embody that heritage, she encouraged Heidi to engage with it.

Pearl grew up with a single Chinese mother who made an effort to make Jamaican food for her so Pearl would know that part of her identity. Food is the strongest tether she has to her heritage, and she wants to know how to cook these recipes and share the food with others. She related to Heidi’s experience of having the parent from the other culture instilling a culture in you.

Rebecca said she’d had a similar experience, but perhaps not a positive one. She and her sibling(s?) were the only mixed race kids in their Jewish community and went to Jewish school. She believes her mother saw her children’s proximity to whiteness as being the best path for them, so she converted to Judaism, learned all the prayers, and cooks Jewish food better than people on Rebecca’s father’s side of the family. It was in college that Rebecca started to embrace her Korean side. She added that what Pearl had said about noticing the similarities between cultures resonated with her; in her case, it was Korean culture and Jewish culture.

Karuna also cited a similar experience. Her Bangladeshi grandmother only came to visit the U.S. once, but she taught Karuna’s mother how to make all her dishes, and now her dishes are considered to taste the closest to the originals, even though she’s the only non-Bangladeshi daughter-in-law. While Karuna spent every summer with her Black grandparents, her Muslim community is almost all Desi, so she experiences a pressure to present Desi, although that’s not fully who she is. She used to speak Bengali but no longer can (though she still understands it) because her father encouraged her to speak English. This language loss makes her “not Desi enough.” And then there’s the anti-Blackness, not within her family but within the community. Recently, she’s come to own that it’s both sides of her that make her strong and make her who she is. She’s decolonizing herself by refusing to choose a side.

Pearl shared that her mother was disowned for marrying her father. The first person in her mother’s family who reached out again was her great-grandmother, who Pearl thought would be the most stubborn. So this proves that people can change. Pearl said the whole battle to try to prove you belong to a culture you belong to is exhausting. Eventually you reach a point where you decide you don’t have to prove it, but it is really helpful when a family decides to open up and take in both cultures.

Heidi said she wanted to come back to anti-Blackness, but first she asked the panelists what the biggest misconceptions about the mixed race experience were and how they were reflected in fiction and other media. Keala named the misconception that mixed race equates to biracial with whiteness on one side. Consequently, a lot of stories emphasize biraciality from a white viewpoint. When Keala tells people she’s mixed race, their reaction is often, Oh, yeah, you look white, but in fact she’s a lot more “other stuff” than white. Mentioning that she has five siblings she loves to death, she said she rarely sees stories focused on mixed race families as a whole. Another misconception is that mixed race people are pulled toward one side or the other rather than experiencing abundance.

Sarah agreed that always centering whiteness was a problem. As Keala said, there’s a misconception that if you’re mixed race, you must be at least part white, and then the story revolves around how white you are, how colonized you are. She would love it if we could deconstruct that and get away from the idea that whiteness is what must always be centered. Being mixed is kind of like being a writer: people who aren’t that think they know what it’s like and tell you to your face. People make assumptions and express weird microaggressions that are supposed to be compliments. Sarah said mixed race people are always reduced to concepts instead of people, but she is still a person, with a totality of experience that others are perhaps not seeing. These assumptions and reductive conceptualizations are then reflected in stories, which is how we wind up with a lot of stories where mixed race people are just sad or there to teach someone a lesson.

Pearl feels it comes down to writing multidimensional characters. The mixed race experience is a human experience. There are so many assumptions out there: that a white/Asian mixed person has a white father and an Asian mother, that a Blasian person has a Black father… Another one Pearl has heard from Blasian friends, especially in Japan, is that mixed people like them are always supermodels. They just want to be regular people! So it comes down to actually having mixed race people in the writers’ room. Perhaps when you don’t, there’s a weird fetishizing of the mixed experience that happens. People think it’s fun to write about because of The Turmoil.

Karuna observed that the mixed race experience is really daunting for an industry like publishing that really likes to shoehorn people. It would be nice to not be seen as a trope and to see biracial kids who have a good connection to both sides of their family. While mixed race people with a white parent need representation too, not all mixed race people are part white!

Keala suggested that the commodification of the mixed race experience functions as a way to insert white writers in the writers’ room. For instance, you can have a mixed race character raised by their white parent while their parent of color is dead. Sarah agreed that having mixed race characters was seen as a way to “insert diversity,” say by having a mixed race character who’s “basically white with a bit of soy sauce.” She’s also frustrated with people who say, Isn’t it more diverse if this character is full [X race]? Heidi noted that so often everything is measured with respect to whiteness, so some white people can’t even handle the idea of mixed race characters who aren’t white at all.

I may have missed the last question, but next Sarah talked about how her latest novel, From Little Tokyo With Love, was her first time writing about the mixed race experience in a direct way. It was difficult for her to write about the Asian American community she loves in a way that might portray it in a negative light, but things do happen that can make people feel unwelcome. While she’d centered mixed race characters before, this was the first time she tried to delve into things that are not so great within the community that could be worked on. She would like to see more stories that engage with that complexity, specificity, and messiness. Finally, Pearl said that if we want to talk about these issues, we need to create space for it, space in which to express our different experiences.

The second part of the panel consisted of an audience Q & A. The first question was: for those of you who have incorporated your mixed race identity into your stories, what aspects of that experience did you choose to include (or actively not include) and why?

Sarah circled back to what she’d just said about how it had taken her a while to take on the complexity of the full experience. In her earlier novels, the focus was on being Asian American, but this time around, her editor, Jenny Bak, pushed her, if she was comfortable, to explore the feeling of not being enough in the Asian American community. It was scary for Sarah because she didn’t want people to think that it’s really the Asians who are the problem; “it’s still the white people who are the problem.” In the book, her main character is almost trying to flatten herself and take the nuance out of her experience so she can just uplift the greater idea of community. She feels bad about any negative feelings she has. With YA, Sarah feels like she’s writing a letter to herself and doesn’t realize it till later. She said that it’s okay to bring up discomfort and that you’re hurting yourself by not expressing it.

Heidi talked about her latest YA series, with its bipolar main character, and how the two sides of her family take different approaches to mental illness. She sort of brought in stuff from her white side and gave it to her main character in a pan-Asian fantasy.

Pearl, who primarily works in animation, TV, and film, tries to bring her mixed experience to whatever she works on. She can try to insert representation on a visual level where she can, and she felt like she put a lot of herself into Hair Love because even though the character isn’t mixed race, she has a single parent who doesn’t know what to do with her hair.

The next question was: would you ever write write a mixed-race character with ethnicities that are not your own? How far do you “cross the line” into another culture that isn’t your own?

Karuna said this would need to be done as respectfully as when writing cross-culturally in general. Being mixed race is often treated as POC Lite, which is really not the case; it’s not a one-size-fits-all thing. Being invited into such a space (she said “crossing the line” sounded negative) takes research, getting sensitivity readers, and listening respectfully. She pointed out that your mixed race experience may not be like someone else’s. She does have a WIP with a mixed race character whose ethnicities are kind of like her own but not exactly.

Keala said that she’ll never say never, but there are some experiences she knows she’s not equipped to write. She lives in Hawai’i, so she might be able to write certain characters, even if not as perspective characters. But she’s not sure she could write a Jewish character because she didn’t grow up adjacent to any Jewish communities, and she doesn’t think she could write a Blasian experience. She noted that if you want to write a Hawaiian Japanese character, you have to know about Hawaiian-Japanese relations.

The third audience question was: in the Asian diaspora, we still struggle with discussing intracommunity issues–colorism, intersectionality, purity policing, etc. How might we move forward in a genuine way to have these discussions?

Pearl said this was a hard one. A lot of it has to start with labeling things as a problem. As a Chinese Black person, she sees the Model Minority myth as very pervasive. There can be a Chinese attitude of you just have to work harder, our oppression is the same, so if we can do it, you can do it. We need to have honest conversations about what we face and not pit communities against each other, because they live different experiences. There should be discussions that don’t take the white gaze or white approval into account.

Karuna echoed Pearl and said she sees a lot of defensiveness when the word anti-Blackness comes up. She shared a story about an auntie at the masjid who suggested she might have better luck meeting someone if she didn’t bring up how she’s Black so often. As hate crimes against Asians were rising, she saw people in the Asian author community calling out Black people for not supporting Asians while not going after white people, even as Black people were posting. She wondered if others (on the panel…?) were raised with the attitude that we shouldn’t criticize within the community because there’s so much external criticism. She sees a frequent impulse to save face, but Asian (American) communities just need to start being comfortable with being uncomfortable. If the anti-Blackness conversation had already happened, it wouldn’t have derailed the conversation about how to support Asian elders. Keala added that coming from a marginalized group doesn’t exempt anyone from marginalizing others and causing harm.

Sarah said that she’s had to overcome her upbringing in order to say things that might make others uncomfortable. She recalled an Asian reaction to Black Panther she’d observed, which boiled down to, How do we get our own?  She also sees a wallpaper of comments about mixed race people in the community that goes unchallenged, but making people uncomfortable is one of the only ways to move forward.

Finally, someone asked whther the panelists could share some media or stories that they thought encompassed the mixed race identity in an authentic and/or positive/uplifting way. Rebecca cited To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, which was the first book she read (in her late 20s!) by a Korean author with a biracial Korean character. She told her now-husband they couldn’t get married till he’d read it (he ultimately read all three books in the series). Lara Jean, the heroine, is proud of being biracial, but that’s not what the books are about, it’s just the reality of her experience.

Sarah named Akemi Dawn Bowman (yay!). One of the first times she saw some of her own experiences on the page was in Starfish, a novel about a Japanese and white girl. The way Bowman incorporates the experience of being multiracial into fun, poignant narratives is something Sarah would’ve died for when she was younger (and still loves today).

Keala cited Heidi’s The Girl from Everywhere, which is partly set in Hawai’i. Heidi had never seen a biracial character in a book before her own book. She gave a shout out to Karuna’s The Gauntlet because there was no whiteness. Karuna named the Color Outside the Lines YA anthology of interracial love stories, in which she has a story.

Pearl said she’s had a hard time finding stories that speak to her experience, but she definitely cried when she read Sarah’s Shadow of the Batgirl because it had a Blasian character (Sarah confirmed that Erik, the character in question, had gotten a lot of love). Pearl also mentioned the TV show Kipo and the Age of the Wonderbeasts.

YALLWEST 2018

Spring in Los Angeles means the LA Times Festival of Books and the YA festival YALLWEST, both of which I have attended several years in a row. This year, the Festival of Books was the same weekend as the West Coast Conference on Formal Linguistics, which my department was hosting and which I presented at, but I still managed to get to the festival on Sunday. The highlight of my afternoon was when Gayle Forman smiled at me. I was sitting on the grass pretty far back from the YA stage, writing in my journal as the Culture & Belonging panel was wrapping up, when two women approached from behind me. I glanced up, and one of them, wearing a straw hat, glanced down and smiled at me. And I thought, That’s Gayle Forman!

A few weeks later, Isabelle and I returned to Santa Monica High School for YALLWEST. Publisher’s Weekly has a photo essay on this year’s festival, and we’re in the first picture! I’ll bet you can’t find us.

Upon arriving, we visited the Mysterious Galaxy stand, where all the authors’ books were being sold. I’d brought my copy of Spinning so I could get it signed by Tillie Walden, but at the stand I discovered two other comic books by her, I love this part and The End of Summer. After going back and forth a bit, I bought both of them. After one panel, we came back to the booth area for Tillie Walden’s signing. It was lovely to meet her, and she drew illustrations in all my books! You should check out her gorgeous, poignant work.

Next we went to a panel that Tamora Pierce was on. I read tons of Tamora Pierce when I was younger, and I met her and asked her a question once at the Edina Barnes & Noble when I was in eighth grade or so. It was funny walking around the festival and spotting famous YA authors around every corner.

We headed to the choir room for a panel entitled Singularities. The funny thing about YALLWEST is the panel titles are all a bit obscure, and the panelists don’t always know themselves how to interpret them. This was one of those panels. It was moderated by John Corey Whaley. One of the authors, Hilary Reyl, had a novel, Kids Like Us, about a Californian boy on the autism spectrum who winds up in rural France because his mother makes films. He apparently speaks French and goes to French school (like me!) and adores and quotes Proust (not like me!). Another panelist was Ally Condie. She described her middle grade novel Summerlost, and I didn’t recognize it even though I’ve read it and it’s on my Hapa Book List! It didn’t click until she started talking about how she’s from this small town in Utah that has…a Shakespeare festival! Yes, she’s from Cedar City, where we roadtripped last summer. Emily X.R. Pan was also on this panel; she’d been on the YA panel at the LA Times Festival of Books too. More on her anon.

The next panel was the one I’d been most excited for: Friendships! It was in the student art gallery. One of the authors joked early on that “we write novels because we’re not succinct and concise.” Well, that was relatable. I learned that Libba Bray’s best friend is Gayle Forman. Arvin Ahmadi said he sometimes finds himself wondering of his closest friends, What if we had never met?! I found that relatable too. There was plenty of discussion of how friendships can be as close and intense as romantic relationships and how these particular authors for the most part didn’t much like writing toxic friendships. They’d rather write wonderful ones!

Our penultimate panel was the Fantasy/History panel. Emily X.R. Pan was on this one as well, and she finally spoke about something I’d been wondering about. Her debut novel is The Astonishing Color of After, which has been on my radar for a while and which I’m interested in reading. The protagonist, Leigh, is multiracial: her father is white, and her mother is from Taiwan. In the story, after her mother’s death, Leigh goes to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents. Emily X.R. Pan is not mixed race, and so I’d wondered why she made Leigh mixed race. On the Fantasy/History panel, she addressed this, saying that while she wasn’t mixed herself, she’d grown up in mostly white communities and felt out of place among Asian(-American?) peers. She’d wanted to write a character who experienced this sense of displacement, so she made Leigh multiracial. While I appreciate the potential similarities of these experiences, I didn’t see why Pan had to make Leigh mixed race to accomplish her goal. She said that she herself had felt out of place (perhaps conflicted about her sense of belonging) as a monoracial Taiwanese-American growing up in largely white communities, so if she wanted to convey that experience, why not write about a character like her? I’m not saying authors should only write characters like themselves. I’m just saying that Pan didn’t need to make Leigh multiracial to do what she wanted, and I also think the multiracial experience is distinct.

 

Meditation Workshop & Mixed Remixed 2017

A week ago today I happened to see a post about a meditation workshop Yumi Sakugawa was leading that very evening on campus. I looked closer and realized the workshop was happening in my building, literally just upstairs from the phonetics lab where I was sitting. As it happens, Asian American Studies and Linguistics are in the same building, so it’s not so surprising, but it felt providential. Isabelle and I decided we had to go, since Yumi Sakugawa was practically coming to us, and the stars aligned even further: our afternoon seminar ended early, allowing us to make it to the workshop on time.

The other attendees were mainly Asian American women, like at the panel with Yumi, MILCK, and Krista Suh back in May. There were a bunch of undergrads, including a film student who told us about a documentary she’s making about Yumi! I hope we’ll get to see it in the fall. There were also a couple of librarians, at least one professor, I think, and several Asian American Studies staff.

Yumi had us go around and introduce ourselves and say three words that described our current state of mind. Since it was the last week of classes, there was a lot of “stressed” and “overwhelmed.” She led us in a couple of guided meditations and read to us from some of her meditation-related comics, which I hadn’t seen before. She also talked about this taking tea and cake with your demons exercise. The idea is to face the things about yourself you’re ashamed of, or don’t like so much, or have a hard time accepting, to face them head-on and without judgment and to listen to them in personified form. While drinking tea and eating cake. So we all drew the kind of tea and cake we wanted to have with one of our demons on tissue paper. As a closing ritual, we went around the room again and said what three words we wanted to define the rest of our week and ripped up our tissue paper drawings and dropped the shreds into Yumi’s singing bowl. It was a perfect way to spend a Wednesday evening at the end of a long quarter.

On Saturday, I headed downtown for my third Mixed Remixed festival. I went in 2015 and in 2016, when I appeared on my first author panel. In the past, the festival has been at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo, but this year it moved to the Los Angeles Theatre Center, a stone’s throw from The Last Bookstore. I arrived in time for the Featured Writers reading, which featured (haha) Tanaya Winder, May-lee Chai, Tara Betts, Julian Randall, and Julie Lythcott-Haims. They all read powerful work, but I particularly liked Tanaya Winder’s spoken word poems, some of which incorporated song. I was also interested in May-lee Chai’s personal story: she wrote a memoir, Hapa Girl, about growing up with a Chinese-American father and a white mother in rural South Dakota in the 1980s. It was…not a hospitable place for her family.

Next I went to the panel The Mixed-Race Conversation: Is It a Wrap?. It was moderated by Karen Grigsby Bates of NPR’s Code Switch and featured Kayla Briët, a musician and filmmaker who’s performed at every Mixed Remixed I’ve been at; Greg Kimura, former president of the Japanese American National Museum and an Episcopal priest; Tehran, a comedian whose performance at last year’s festival I did not particularly appreciate; and Caroline Streeter, a professor at UCLA. I once again did not appreciate Tehran, but setting him aside, the panel was great. The panel was intergenerational, which brought out a diversity of perspectives and was also just nice to see. The conversation ranged from the academic to the pop cultural to the personal and even to the religious, thanks to Greg Kimura. That was a voice I hadn’t heard before at the festival. I liked what Caroline Streeter had to say about our cultural amnesia, how there have been mixed race people and communities in the United States for hundreds of years and so many of those stories are forgotten. I also liked what Greg Kimura had to say about the essential role he thinks literature and the arts will play in shaping our society’s attitudes about mixed race people (among other things). And basically everything Kayla Briët said was eloquent and inspiring.

A young hapa woman in the audience asked Greg Kimura about his strong identification with the word hapa. I think she asked if he’d faced any backlash for using it, but–and maybe I was projecting onto her–I also sensed that she was asking whether he thought it was (still) appropriate for multiracial Asian Americans to call ourselves hapa. A question in this vein is what I would’ve liked to ask the panel at the LA Times Festival of Books this spring if I hadn’t had a raging headache at that session. I was thinking about the term hapa at last year’s festival too and have written about it at other times as well. Greg Kimura basically said it’s been shown that hapa isn’t a Native Hawaiian term so it’s not appropriation to use it, and he claims his identity with this word. This argument doesn’t suffice for me though. First of all, I know hapa is Hawaiian Pidgin; just because it’s not an indigenous Hawaiian word doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a meaning and history specific to Hawaii that’s been overwritten and changed by multiracial Asian Americans on the mainland. Being hapa means something to me, but I also can’t use this term without qualms.

At the end of the panel, talk turned to Trump and how optimistic (or not) the panelists were about the future. Both Caroline Streeter, the oldest panelist, and Kayla Briët, the youngest, found they could not truthfully say they thought things were getting better. They both expressed worry about the future. I was grateful for their honesty and also…saddened, I guess. We were all at a festival celebrating our mixed race identities, but we can’t forget that this is a dark time for our country.

During the longish break between the last session and the evening program, a young woman named Laura came up to me and handed me a postcard about her oral history project Mixed Feelings. Check it out on Facebook and Tumblr; there are interviews with mixed race people of many backgrounds about their identity and experiences. If you identify as mixed race, you can participate by filling out the survey! Laura and I ended up sitting together at the evening show, and she told me her project was born in the wake of last November’s election, out of her need to do something.

Kayla Briët opened the show again; I will never get tired of watching her play the guzheng and use her loop machine. There were a couple of other acts, and then actor and producer David Oyelowo accepted the Storyteller’s Prize with a moving speech about his own interracial marriage. After the show, I caught up with Maria Leonard Olsen, one of my co-panelists in the kidlit session last year. I also said hello to two other people I recognized from the mixed and queer writing workshop in years past. The workshop did not take place this year, sadly.

After leaving the festival, I walked to The Last Bookstore, since it was literally less than half a block away. While I was contemplating all the books I wanted in the SFF section, a woman with a stroller asked me if I worked there. I wish! I picked up Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and headed home.

Monday was the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia, which made interracial marriage legal throughout the United States. It also marked one year since the shooting at Pulse in Orlando, which I wrote about a little last year before I could write up last year’s Mixed Remixed festival. It seems a fitting time to reflect on how far our country has come and how far we have yet to go.

Science and Books and Madrigals, oh my!

I packed a lot into Earth Day weekend. Saturday morning was the March for Science. I bussed downtown with three other friends from the department. It was much less nuts getting to this protest than it was getting to the Women’s March. We actually made it into Pershing Square this time, where a button hawker greeted us with, “I’ve got you covered, nerds!” I did not buy a button. We hung out in the park reading signs as the morning speeches wrapped up. I spotted one that read: “I should be doing research right now #gradschool.” Too true.

I was glad to see this member of the clergy

We marched from Pershing Square to City Hall, just like in January. People chanted, “Science, not silence!” and when a little boy started chanting the slogan on his sign, “Science is better than Donald Trump!”, people joined in. When we reached City Hall, we stood around for a while watching the rest of the march arrive. One of our syntax professors found us, which seemed miraculous given the crowds. I later learned a bunch of other linguists from our department had been there, though we never saw them.

From the march, I headed to USC for my third LA Times Festival of Books. I wandered through the booths for a bit. I glimpsed Yumi Sakugawa at the Skylight Books booth and witnessed the eerie sight of red-clad, white-bonneted handmaids walking in pairs about campus. There had been a WriteGirl workshop at the festival earlier in the day (I finally started volunteering with them!), but I couldn’t make it because of the March for Science. I stopped by the stage where the girls were reading in the afternoon, though, and listened to some of their pieces. Then I made my way to the Big 5’s children’s book booths, and at the Penguin Young Readers booth I noticed that Julie Berry was signing. I had read The Passion of Dolssa recently and also enjoyed All the Truth That’s in Me, so when she had a free moment, I went up to talk to her. I told her I was a fellow Viking Children’s Books author, and then we chatted about grad school and Provençal.

After meeting Julie Berry, I met up with Isabelle at the Small World Books booth by the Poetry Stage, where she was about to get some poetry collections signed by Hélène Cardona. After that, we explored the festival a little more before heading to the first of the two panels I’d picked out for the afternoon. This one was a YA panel entitled Faith, Hope, and Charity: Strong Girls in Crisis, which struck me as a little dramatic, but okay. The panelists were Julie Berry, Sonya Sones (who…turns out to be someone I think I’ve contra danced with in Los Angeles–no wonder she looked so familiar!), and the person I’d been most eager to see, because I loved Cuckoo Song and The Lie Tree: Frances Hardinge. The moderator was Jonathan Hunt of SLJ’s Heavy Medal blog fame. The authors talked about the inspiration for their latest novels, mixing genres, and whether/why their protagonists are girls. Julie Berry said that since she has four sons she gets asked why she doesn’t write about boys, and she said, “I’m a girl! It’s like what you are doesn’t matter once you’ve reproduced!” Which elicited much laughter, but there’s something dismal underlying that if you think about it.

Next we went to the other panel I’d picked out: the hapa panel! I’d been excited for it because Kip Fulbeck–author of Part Asian, 100% Hapa and creator of the Hapa Project–was on it (the other two panelists were USC professors). He was indeed the highlight of the panel for me. I enjoyed his self-deprecating manner and his sort of “you do you” attitude. He’s not interested in policing hapa identity, and he told one young hapa woman in the audience that one doesn’t have to spend every minute of one’s life fighting. Taking care of oneself is important too.

On Sunday, I participated in Jouyssance’s fourth annual early music singalong. Jouyssance is a local early music ensemble whose concerts I’ve occasionally attended. I know one of the singers because she used to sing in our Georgian chorus. Anyway, I printed the scores to the nine songs on the singalong program a week in advance and made myself a Youtube playlist to sing along to. I can sightread vocal music to an extent, but I had a feeling I would be in over my head if I didn’t prepare a bit. My favorites were Orlando Gibbons’ “The Silver Swan,” Claudin de Sermisy’s “Tant que vivray,” Thomas Morley’s “April is in my mistress’s face,” and Heinrich Isaac’s “Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen.” There was also Josquin des Prez’s “El Grillo,” which I find annoying.

I arrived in the sanctuary of St. Bede’s Episcopal Church on Sunday afternoon, clutching my scores. A few singers from Jouyssance were there, but most of the participants weren’t in the ensemble. Everybody seemed to be a relatively experienced choral singer, though. The Jouyssance director complimented us on our reading of the first song and said she hoped we were all singing in choirs. The pace was relatively swift, and there wasn’t any hand holding, but everybody could handle it, and it was fun. Plus we weren’t exactly striving for perfection or speedy tempi.

My row of the alto section included our former Georgian chorister, a woman I know from shape note singing, and a French woman whom we told about shape note singing and who later told me she’d just started alto recorder. She showed me some of her music: “Pastime with good company”! “Belle, qui tiens ma vie”!

We didn’t do the Gibbons or the de Sermisy, to my chagrin. No French and too much Italian! I learned that Orlando di Lasso’s “Matona, mia cara” is not only quite vulgar but is also largely ungrammatical. After working on six of the nine songs for an hour and a half, we took a break for some treats and then sang everything in an informal “concert,” which Isabelle came to. (This concert was so informal that we occasionally started songs over again after a rocky start.) It was a lot of fun, and I hope I get to do it again next year!

Mixed Remixed 2016

As I mentioned last week, I went to my second Mixed Remixed Festival two weekends ago. Last year, I went for the first time and had a wonderful time. This year, I applied to be a presenter and was placed on a panel entitled “Excavating Family Mythology & Publishing Your First Children’s or YA Book.” (I was a little perplexed when I found out because as far as I’m aware I excavated zero family mythology for either of my books, but it turned out not to matter.)

mxdrmxd - web ad - 2016 - EXCAVATING - jpeg

Oh, my goodness! I’m on a panel flyer!

While last year’s festival was only one day, this year’s was two. My panel was on Friday, the first day. I took the bus to the Japanese American National Museum early in the afternoon in order to make it to the panel before mine, “Hapa Writers: Our Stories in Fiction.” On my way in, I met Heidi Durrow, the author who founded the festival, for the first time in person.

To me, the most interesting part of the hapa writers panel was when panelist Maria T. Allocco talked about her relationship to the very term hapa. I’ve alluded to the complexities of using this word before. Maria explained that she no longer liked to call herself hapa because it means “part” or “fragment,” and she is of course whole. She also said she found the word Eurocentric, I think because it’s sometimes understood as meaning someone of mixed Asian and European ancestry. But I don’t think this is the definition used in, say, Kip Fulbeck’s Part Asian, 100% Hapa. I also have qualms about using the term hapa, but for entirely different reasons. My understanding is that hapa is a Hawaiian word that means “half” and that can be used in combination with many other modifiers to refer to people of all kinds of different multiracial identities. That is, hapa itself has nothing to do with Asian ancestry. It’s in the mainland U.S. that it came to mean an Asian mixed race person. I’m uncomfortable with the way a Hawaii-specific term has been appropriated, but I’m conflicted because, like several of the panelists, I like having this word to describe exactly what I am.

Next up was my panel! My fellow panelists were Katrina Goldsaito, author of the forthcoming picture book The Sound of Silence; Maria Leonard Olsen, author of, among other books, Mommy, Why’s Your Skin So Brown?; and Veda Stamps, author of the middle grade contemporary novel Flexible Wings. Our moderator was Jamie Moore, the festival’s literary coordinator. The conversation ranged from our writing processes to why we write for children to what we read growing up to We Need Diverse Books to how to balance writing with a day job. I was the only writer on the panel who hadn’t actually written a book with a mixed race protagonist.

Speaking on my first author panel ever wasn’t as nerve-wracking as I’d anticipated. I didn’t get tongue-tied, and I think I managed not to say anything absurd. I had fun, and it was a great way to meet people. I was touched that Claire Ramsaran, the organizer of the mixed and queer writing workshop who interviewed me for the Mixed Remixed blog after last year’s festival, came to my panel even though children’s literature is not her specialty. Also, when the panel was over, N, one of the people scheduled to speak on Saturday’s millennials panel, came up to talk to me, and we had an interesting conversation about Asian-inspired fantasy.

On Saturday, I went back for a full Day 2 of the festival. The first panel I went to was “Is the Mixed Thing Just for Girls?” There were two men on the panel, so…no? One of the audience questions really brought home to me the fact that mixed race people are not a monolith (obviously) because it was about hair. I really can’t speak to this experience, but my impression is that hair is a big deal to white and black multiracial people (or I guess black and anything). There are always tons of reference to hair at the festival, and one of the main sponsors is Mixed Chicks, a company that makes hair products specifically for mixed people (where, as far as I can tell, mixed means part-black). Last year, festival attendees all got sample products in our goodie bags. I think those products are still stashed in my room somewhere. I don’t have curly hair, and my hair is far from being a major facet of my multiracial identity.

I took a break for lunch and got some onigiri in the Japanese Village Plaza. After lunch was the mixed and queer writing workshop I mentioned, which I also went to last year. It was a little smaller this time around, but some of the same people came, so it was fun to reconnect with them. I had a conversation with one of them about using or not using hapa to describe ourselves. She actually avoids it, precisely because of the appropriation issue. Then we started comparing notes about grad school experiences…

From the workshop, I went to the featured writers panel, mostly to hear Jamie Ford read. The other authors were poet F. Douglas Brown, memoirist and spoken word artist Willy Wilkinson (whom I saw perform last year in the live show), and novelists Sunil Yapa and Natashia Deón. Jamie Ford read a scene from his next novel, about a hapa boy who comes from China to the U.S. only to be sold at the Seattle World’s Fair (I think).

Next I went to “Mixed Millennials: Changing What Mixed-Race Means,” the panel N was on, since, well, I’m a millennial! N and one of the other panelists, Andrea, co-run a website called Mixed Race Politics, which publishes articles and essays related to the mixed race experience.

After a bit of a break, there was a reception in the building across from the museum. There I got to talk to the very kind Jamie Ford, who asked me what was next for me writing-wise. Then we piled into the Tateuchi Democracy Forum for the Storyteller’s Prize Presentation & Live Show. I sat with Andrea and Claire and a couple of other people from the writing workshop. Opening once again this year was singer and multi-instrumentalist Kayla Briët (I’m still envious of her guzheng). Then we got to see a sneak peek from the forthcoming film Loving, about Richard and Mildred Loving, of Loving vs. Virginia fame.

The other performers were:

  • Lichelli, who delivered a monologue about hair
  • Andrew J. Figueroa “Fig,” who went to Hampshire College and who performed amazing, amazing…Hip-Hop, I guess? (I’m going by his bio; I’m terrible with music genres). His piece on being harassed by a policeman in high school blew me away.
  • Maya Azucena, who’s singing and stage presence were also very impressive and stirring

The Storyteller’s Prize went to Taye Diggs and Shane W. Evans for their picture book Mixed Me! I belatedly realized that Taye Diggs was a way bigger deal than I knew (this seems to happen to me a lot, since I’m so out of it when it comes to pop culture and/or the entertainment industry).

Like last year, the live show was exciting, invigorating, and cathartic. Afterwards, there was another reception with cake. I chatted with Andrea and met a few more people before heading home. I’m already looking forward to next year’s festival!

My Hapa Story

Family Portrait

My family (Photo credit: Dorothy Kunzig)

This post is a submission to the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s #myhapastory project.

I was born in Washington, D.C. to two economists. My mother was born in Hong Kong and grew up in Minnesota. Her parents were from Guangdong Province. My father was born and raised in Minnesota. His ancestors were mostly from Germany and Sweden. For the first nine years of my life, I lived in Maryland, where my best friend was also hapa. We did French immersion and soccer and Suzuki camp together.

Then I moved to Minnesota, where all my grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins lived. I had roots there. My maternal grandfather had owned a Chinese restaurant in downtown St. Paul. My paternal great-grandparents had had a farm in West St. Paul. I can still visit the spots where these places used to be.

I spent my teenage years (not so) secretly writing fantasy stories and playing cello in a lot of orchestras. I didn’t have any close Asian-American friends, but that didn’t matter to me. I did experience the occasional unwanted question (“Are you half?”) or incident that vaguely bothered me (like not getting invited to the Asian table at All-State Orchestra camp).

In high school, I started studying Mandarin in addition to French, despite the class being at the same time as orchestra. (I needed a Time-Turner, but instead I…had no lunch period.) My mother’s side of the family speaks Taishanese, not Mandarin, and I never learned it. But over the years, Mandarin has helped me understand more words in Taishanese.

I went to Swarthmore College, where I studied linguistics, French, and Chinese. I joined the Swarthmore Asian Organization and a group called Multi, and my senior year a new group called Swarthmore Hapa started to form. I wrote papers about the representation of Asian characters in U.S. children’s books and mixed race identity in Francophone literature. I also discovered and fell in love with contra dancing and shape note singing.

Now I live in Los Angeles, where I’m a Ph.D. student in linguistics by day (and sometimes night) and an author of children’s fantasy novels by night (and sometimes day). I used to call myself half-Chinese, but now I call myself multiracial, Chinese-American, hapa. One day, I hope to publish a book about a girl like me.

Mixed Remixed 2015

I spent all of Saturday at the Mixed Remixed Festival, which, in the organizers’ words, is a “cultural arts festival celebrating stories of the Mixed experience”. It’s part literary festival, part film festival, part symposium, and 100% amazing. I don’t remember how I stumbled upon it originally, but I had made a note of the date in my agenda, and when I noticed it was coming up, I looked it up again and decided to go. Am I ever glad I did!

The festival was held in Little Tokyo at the Japanese American National Museum, a place I have visited before. I picked up my name badge and a goodie bag that included a giant box of Milk Duds and free samples of shampoo specially made for “mixed heritage & multi textured curls.” For, you know, my super curly hair. Then I made my way into the museum for my first session, Writing Fiction with Jamie Ford.

Jamie Ford is the author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, a historical novel about the friendship between a Chinese-American boy and a Japanese-American girl during World War II. I read it several years ago and liked it very much. One of the reasons I’d been drawn to it was because I had been a Chinese-American child with a Japanese-American best friend. Anyway, I was excited to have the chance to attend a workshop with the author.

The session turned out to be less a workshop than a discussion about storytelling and a Q & A about the writing life and breaking into traditional publishing, but Jamie Ford was very funny and engaging. Plus it was my first opportunity to see who else was at the festival. It felt a bit like being at an event with this organization I belonged to in college called Multi. For once, you’re among people who, while they all have different backgrounds, are also somehow fundamentally like you in a way that most people aren’t. And for once, people like you are in the majority.

Next, I headed to Putting the “M” in LGBT!: Writing Mixed *and* Queer, facilitated by Clare Ramsaran. This workshop was great. It was a smaller group, and we sat around a boardroom table and all got to introduce ourselves briefly. We watched a Youtube video of Staceyann Chin performing her poem “All Oppression Is Connected” and then did three writing prompts. Some people read from what they had written, and we had some interesting discussions, including one about what constitutes passing. The funniest moment was when one guy, a festival volunteer, talked about how he and his partner were trying to have a child. They wanted a mixed race egg donor but were being told most egg donors were white because that’s what people wanted. Then he looked around the room at all the workshop attendees, the vast majority of whom were young women, and repeated, “I’m looking for a mixed race egg donor.” We all laughed.

There was a break for lunch. I had brought my own, but there was also some sort of Family Free Saturday thing going on, which included free Korean-Mexican fusion food, so I got some baby bok choy and spicy meatballs with polenta. I was still scarfing these down when I slipped into the panel Cracking Open the Dialogue of Our Families: Racial Microaggressions & Whiteness. The panelists were all transracial (in some sense) adoptees, one an international adoptee from Korea and the other two domestic adoptees. There were almost no adoptees in the audience, on the other hand. It was interesting nevertheless to hear about the three panelists’ experiences, which were quite divergent.

During the next break, I ran across the way to the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy, where Skylight Books was selling all the festival authors’ books. I snagged a copy of Jamie Ford’s second novel, Songs of Willow Frost (more Chinese-American historical fiction, yay!), and had a nice chat with him as he signed it.

Next was a reading with authors Jamie Ford, Mat Johnson, and Marie Mockett and poets James Tyner, Bryan Medina, and Michelle Brittan. Now, I’m not always the biggest fan of readings; I tend to prefer to read words on the page myself rather than hear them read aloud by their authors. But this reading was incredible. Especially Mat Johnson reading an excerpt from his latest novel, Loving Day. I could picture every instant of those scenes. I could see the greenhouse and the Japanese temple in Marie Mockett’s excerpt too, and I really liked Bryan Medina’s poems. There was fun Q & A afterwards, and the three poets joked about there being something in the air in Fresno that produces so many poets.

After a reception, it was time for the Storyteller’s Prize Presentation & Live Show in the Tateuchi Democracy Forum. Three people/entities were being recognized, and in between the presentation of the awards there were various performances. First up was KAIA, the stage name of musician Kayla Briët. She sang and played guitar, keyboard, and guzheng (a Chinese zither), the latter two sometimes at the same time, and she used a loop machine, which was pretty cool. Apparently it was her first live show, and I was blown away by her talent and poise, especially since she’s only eighteen. The crowd loved her.

The three prize winners were Jamie Ford, Al Madrigal, and Honey Maid (yes, as in the graham crackers; their representative’s acceptance speech made for a weirdly corporate moment, but I admit their ad was pretty heartwarming). My other favorite act was Willy Wilkinson, a trans multiracial Chinese-American writer and advocate who performed some great spoken word poems.

After the show, everybody mingled over cake in celebration of Loving Day. I had of course heard of the 1967 Supreme Court case Loving vs. Virginia which struck down all remaining laws against interracial marriage, but I hadn’t realized there was a day dedicated to commemorating this event. Loving Day was June 12, the day before Mixed Remixed.

Mixed Race in Victorian London

I just read the first two books in Y. S. Lee’s The Agency series, A Spy in the House and The Body at the Tower. Y. S. Lee is a Singapore-born Canadian author, and these novels are mysteries set in 1850s London. The protagonist, Mary Quinn, is the daughter of an Irish woman and a Chinese sailor. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve read almost no books starring a half-white, half-Chinese character, that is, a character like me, so I was intrigued by The Agency books.

Mary’s father is a Lascar, an Asian sailor who works on British ships. I hadn’t heard of the Lascars before reading A Spy in the House, and I appreciated Lee’s illuminating a perhaps little-remembered aspect of British imperial history and the demographics of mid 19th century London. By the time the story begins, though, Mary’s parents are both dead, and she is working for an all-female detective agency (improbable, I know). Though she can’t conceal her “exotic” (oh, boy) appearance, she keeps her racial background a secret from everyone, including her employers. She passes as black Irish or allows people to assume she has some Spanish or Italian blood.

Mary claims not to be ashamed of being Chinese, but she doesn’t want anyone to find out about her father because she fears (probably with good reason) that people will think her inferior or of lesser intelligence if they know. Thus she’s uncomfortable in situations where people dwell on her looks or when Lascars are brought up (the first mystery involves shipping and a home for aged Lascars) or when she must interact with other Chinese people in London. She also seems ashamed of her inability to speak Cantonese when other Chinese characters address her in it.

Mary calls herself a “half-caste,” a term which is now considered derogatory. I first learned this word from the Australian film Rabbit-Proof Fence, which I watched in a high school world history class. It also appears in Chinese Cinderella and the Secret Dragon Society by Adeline Yen Mah, an entertaining book about a group of children in China who train in martial arts and rescue American soldiers during World War II. The protagonist is Chinese, but a couple of her companions are of mixed Chinese and European heritage, and I recall them being direct about the challenges this creates for them in China and even talking about their race with the American soldiers.

Mary’s sense of, and fear of, belonging nowhere is likely a familiar one to most mixed race people. She keeps her family history a secret among the English but still can’t avoid people questioning her about her appearance and heritage. She believes if people knew the truth, she wouldn’t be accepted in white society anymore, perhaps not even by her beloved employers/former teachers. At the same time, she doesn’t believe she’d fit in in the Chinese community either, in part because she doesn’t speak Chinese. In The Body at the Tower, while disguised as an errand boy, Mary is invited by a Chinese servant girl to have dinner (a proper dinner, with rice) with the girl’s family. Feeling that it’s too late to return to that community and that she can’t live in both worlds at once, Mary rejects the invitation.

While Mary can pass as, if not fully English, then at least not-Chinese among white Londoners, the Chinese characters can see immediately that she has Chinese heritage. This is probably a result of experience: most of the English have probably met very few Chinese people, while the Chinese Londoners are attuned to other East Asians because there are so few of them in the city and may also have seen other children of Chinese sailors and white women in their small community. I’ve noticed a similar pattern in my life, though it doesn’t always hold. Some white people tell me they noticed I was Asian right away while others notice something and privately wonder “what” I am for a while until they decide to ask me, often ineptly. I have also met Asian people who were surprised to learn I had Chinese heritage. In my experience, the only people who can reliably tell I’m hapa* right away are other hapa people. We’re generally pretty good at identifying each other.

In this vein, the part of Mary’s experience that most resonated with me was how people are eternally inquisitive about her appearance and how she can never be sure how people perceive her. For me, this is the number one most disconcerting thing about being multiracial. I don’t mind telling people about my background, but ignorant/borderline rude questions and coded language get old. And though I, unlike Mary, don’t have to pass as anything, it can be weird to be somewhere and not know whether everyone else in the room realizes there is a Chinese-American among them.

Something nice about The Agency books is that their covers feature a model who is both Asian and white! That’s partly why I finally checked them out from the library; seeing the covers reminded me that these were the historical fiction novels about a mixed race girl. I don’t think I ever saw the covers without knowing about the race of the heroine, so I see a hapa girl on them, but interestingly, there has been some discussion of the covers online. Some bloggers have complained (mildly) that the model looked more like a Latina or a light-skinned Black girl than a hapa girl. Others even seemed to think she looked white. This concern is understandable given that there have been cases of egregious whitewashing on YA covers, but it also reveals that people have a certain conception of what a Chinese/white girl should look like, and the fact is, hapa people can have a wide range of phenotypes. Y. S. Lee has even commented on this herself and has posted behind-the-scenes pictures from the cover photo shoots on her website. She wants her readers to know that the model’s heritage is true to Mary’s.

Anyway, I’m probably going to read the next book in the series because I want to find out if Mary reveals her Chinese heritage to her love interest!

*Hapa is a Hawaiian word meaning half, part, or mixed and is used to refer to mixed race people. In the continental U.S., it’s come to mean specifically a mixed race person with Asian heritage (see Kip Fulbeck’s Hapa Project). I like the word hapa, but I’ve also heard that some people object to its having been appropriated outside its Hawaiian context, so I use it gingerly.