Iain Haley Pollock, Spit Back A Boy

         As a fiction writer, reading poetry is always a lesson in sparseness and omission, getting down to the bare necessities of telling a powerful story.  Pollock has many strengths, the first of which is his simple, visceral images. In the poem “Recessive Gene,” Pollock addresses mixed identity through a child who searches for belonging. After being told by other children that they all were Black on the inside he looks for his own internal blackness: “Dad had a pocketknife/ …That afternoon, I stole it./ Alone, behind the locked door/ I tried to scrape, as if fish scales/ the rosy skin from my forearms” (4). In both “The Frog” and “Killadelphia,” the poet uses rhythmic repetition to his advantage, mirroring the pace of city life and the sharp simplicity of childish anger. “Child of the Sun” again plays with race/ identity, and how that interacts with history, colorism. The narrator feels the weight of his difference as determined by other members of the family; how that will affect the way society perceives him. Pollock plays with form in “Longing as Hoppin’ John;” starting with the longest line first, then using shorter and shorter lines until the last line is a single word. My favorite poem of the collection, “Oya in Old City,” tackles history, time, and spirit. This poem ends with another powerful, succinct image : “I flung my almost white self/ into my mother’s embrace- that brown/ embrace I hoped would swallow me whole/ and spit back a boy four shades darker” (19). It is no surprise that this collection won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize for 2010. Iain Haley Pollock’s poems hum the blues, exposing deep painful truth as well as celebrating life’s simple pleasures.

 

Here’s a video of Iain Haley Pollock reading:

Ruth Ozeki, My Year of Meats

I didn’t pick up this book expecting to find a mixed character; it was a pleasant surprise to encounter Jane Takagi-Little, Ozeki’s determined and curious narrator. Researching for a critical paper, I approached My Year of Meats as a novel of “social responsibility,” managing to incorporate elements of racism, classism, sexism, the globalization of Western culture and the dark side of the meat industry. Ozeki tackles these topics with precise and engaging prose that invites the reader to understand the perspectives of her characters. Jane has a passion for documentaries, yet finds herself as the producer/part-time director for the Japanese network show “This American Wife:” which films American housewives preparing meat-based meals as an example for aspiring Japanese women. Sponsored by the big company BEEF-EX, Jane is pressured to find women who fit a perfect stereotype, though she consistently breaks the mold by filming families that showcase diversity. As she and her crew descend deeper into the meat-loving world, they discover some disturbing practices of the industry that take a very personal turn.

Along the way, Jane navigates her family, love and work lives as a mixed person, facing questions about her own skills and authenticity. Jane has a complicated relationship with her mother who sees her as this big-boned American girl whose values she doesn’t recognize. Jane herself becomes obsessed with the idea of hybridity when she engages in a short-lived relationship with Emil, an African American she meets and pursues. Her boss and coworkers doubt her ability to understand what the Japanese television audience demands because of her American roots. Through it, Jane persists for truth, her narrative intersecting with that of a young woman in Japan, Akiko.

 

  • “Being half, I am evidence that race, too, will become relic. Eventually we’re all going to be brown – sort of. Some days, when I’m feeling grand, I feel brand-new – like a prototype. …Now, oddly, I straddle this blessed, ever-shrinking world” (15).
  • “I am not fat, but my tallness amounts to the same sort of gross affront to nature, at least to my Japanese mother, who comes up to my rib cage. She sees my height as a personal insult and something that should have been avoided. …she gazes skyward and blames the red meat she fed me as a child” (123).
  • “I learned what I needed: a mate who was black, brown or red, to go with my white and yellow. At the very least, I was aiming for three out of five” (151).

Here’s a link to Ozeki’s website to check out this book and her other works.

Sarah Jamila Stevenson, The Latte Rebellion

The young adult novel is a perfect place to find relatable, accessible mixed race stories. In fact, more YA books are featuring mixed kids that ever before. Recently,  I picked up a copy of The Latte Rebellion by Sarah Jamila Stevenson. I loved the spunkiness and drive of the main characters. The story follows high school students Asha and Carey as they create and anonymously sell T-Shirts to raise money for a post-graduation trip. The shirts promote “The Latte Rebellion;” a club they form to promote mixed race awareness. The idea catches on, and as the girls try to juggle finishing high school and teenage social dilemmas, they find themselves with a mini-revolution on their hands!

  • “We’re mixed up. We’re not really one or the other, ethnically. We’re like human lattes” (13).
  • “The Latte Rebeliion wouldn’t have gotten as big as it did if it hadn’t been needed. Sir, do you realize there are people out there who still think that to be proud of being mixed-ethnicity is somehow un-American?” (115).

Check it out, it’s a fun, engaging read. Also, see the website created for the book! Sarah was gracious enough to answer some questions about herself and the book for this blog!

 Can you tell me a little about your background? Do you identify as mixed? Are there any characters in the novel you relate to most?

I definitely identify as mixed. My dad was born in India and grew up in Pakistan before moving to London as a young man, and my mom was born and raised in California and is of mixed European descent, primarily Czechoslovakian and English/Irish/French Canadian. As a kid, I never knew what exactly to tell people if they asked me what my background was. I’d ask them if they wanted the long answer or the short answer!As far as my novel is concerned, I can’t say there’s any one character I identify with the most, but there are parts of me in Asha, Carey and Miranda. Asha has a lot of my uncertainties and insecurities, but in other ways she’s much more ambitious and driven than I was in high school. Like Carey, I was pretty school-focused and college-obsessed. And, like Miranda, I was one of very few people in my group of friends who specifically wanted to go into the arts.  Unlike any of them, I was never involved in a disciplinary hearing!
As a Northern CA resident, what challenges and/or advantages do you think mixed race people face here? What inspired you to set the book in Northern CA?
I think that the advantages and challenges overlap a bit. The question of ethnic identity is complex–there are innumerable subtleties to anyone’s background and experiences–yet, as Asha points out, ethnicity can never really be the entirety of someone’s identity. Here in Northern CA (and most places in CA), it’s a wonderful bonus to be able to interact with so many people of varying ethnic backgrounds, of mixed race, of different cultures and religions. At the same time, that diversity is a challenge because it’s easy for an individual voice to get lost, for an individual person to FEEL lost, especially if you don’t feel like you fit perfectly into one single category. That sense of individual difference can be a challenge. It can also be a strength, of course.

These are some of the reasons I did choose to set the book in Northern CA–it makes for a very dynamic setting. On a more practical level, most of my stories are set in California because I was born and grew up here. So I know the setting much more intimately than anywhere else and feel like I can do it more justice.

Many of the latest books about mixed race are YA books. Why do you think this is?
One of the primary reasons, in my opinion, is that young adulthood is a time of questioning, of exploring, of beginning the long ongoing process of figuring out who you are as an individual human being and where you belong in this world. Coming to terms with your ethnic identity, your family and where you come from is often an important part of that. I’ve noticed that even books written for adults that involve mixed race have a huge coming of age component–Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese, White Teeth by Zadie Smith, just to name a couple.
What is your favorite book featuring a mixed character other than The Latte Rebellion?
I really did love White Teeth–it was an eye-opener for me in terms of the possibilities of writing about mixed ethnicity, and the story also really resonated with me personally. In YA books, Justina Chen’s Nothing But the Truth (And a Few White Lies) was also inspiring and thought-provoking for me, and came along at a critical time when I was working on The Latte Rebellion.
Can you tell me more about your blog, Aqua Fortis?

Aquafortis is my personal blog. I started it as a way to stay in touch with friends who had moved out of the area, but it’s evolved into more of a space to share my thoughts, ideas, artwork and writings–at least from time to time. I wish I had more time to devote to it, but most of my blogging energy is spent on the team blog I contribute to with author Tanita Davis–Finding Wonderland (http://writingya.blogspot.com). We post about YA literature and writing, including book reviews of YA novels, and we’re particular fans of multicultural fiction, fantasy and sci-fi, and graphic novels. We’ve been blogging there since 2005.

Jenoyne Adams, Resurrecting Mingus

In Resurrecting Mingus, Adams writes in a style that bends the boundary between popular and literary fiction – a very readable, fluid narrative that switches point of view between Mingus (the main character), her mother Ellie, and her father Carl.  Mingus is a lawyer stuck between her divorcing parents and her jealousy-prone sister, Eva. While being challenged to chose her loyalty to one parent or the other, Mingus finds herself enveloped in a relationship with a new man who makes her question her own beliefs about love, and about her biracial identity.  Here’s some “mixed” quotes:

  • “Sometimes Mingus used to think there should have been a special dining cage in resturants for biracial families. …As they ate, people could gawk and turn their chairs to get a better view” (30).
  • (Mother’s point of view) “Curly haired combinations of me and Carl. i used to want to take them home ot my father and let him see how wrong he was. Let him seethat white and black did mix, perfectly, into two little girls” (156).
  • “Mingus had always felt more black than white. But there was something about what Eric said that unnerved her. Like he was denying that a part of her existed. That same part that she had denied many times herself” (159).

Other Tongues: Mixed Race Women Speak Out

I was very excited when this anthology arrived in the mail. Having visted the facebook page and read a call for submissions on Adebe DeRango-Adem’s blog, I had high expectations of what the editors would bring together in this book. It definitely held up to my own hype – it is a beatifully arranged mix of stories, personal histories, poetry and artwork that directly address the mixed race experience for women. It is broken into three sections: “Roles/Rules” (the ‘what are you’ questions, forming identity), “Roots/ Routes” (impact of location, intersections of ancestry and geography) and “Revelations” (wisdom gained from experiences). I found most of the pieces to be very well written and engaging. I highly recommend reading it! (Pick it up from the publisher or Amazon).

Here’s some of my favorite quotes from the book:

  • “I noticed that often white women and black women had different ways of asking. White women: is that natural or a perm? …Black women: which relaxer do you use?” – Liberty Hultberg, A Mixed Journey From the Outside In
  • “You study me. …Without colour, until you are told how to fill it in…Searching my face like it is a map of the world. Placing foreign features…Exoticizing.” Erin Kobayashi, Pop Quiz
  • “We’re huddled on the tiny island of bed, quiet/ in the language of blodd: the house, unsteady/ on its cinderblock haunches, sinking deeper/ into the muck of ancestry” -Natasha Tethewey, Southern Gothic
  • “…I really made a concerted effort to appear blacker. My daily concerns involved embodying the cultural representations of what blackness meant to me” -Kathryn McMillan, Whitewashed
  • “I am keenly aware that in queer spaces I am more often ‘of Colour’ and in White spaces I’m more often straight…I get spoken In, I get spoken Out, through microinvalidations and microinsults. …Sometimes I lie. Sometimes not correcting is the lying. Sometimes its not.” -Kimberly Dree Hudson, Racially Queer Femme
  • “Identity is not a measure of bllod quantum/ it is a nationhood, it is a language, it is a family/ it is in my blood, my blood memory” -Shandra Spears Bombay, The Land Knows

Also see all of Miranda Matini’s “The Drinking Gourd,” Marika Schwandt’s “Mulatto Nation,” and Rachel Afi Quinn’s “Combination of the Two.” As quoted above, Kimberly Dree Hudson’s “Racially Queer Femme” rocked my world with its brillance; and for adding the word intersectionality to my discourse of mixed race identity. Thank you to Adebe and Andrea Thompson for editing this awesome anthology and bringing these voices to light.

Rachel Harper, Brass Ankle Blues

Brass Ankle Blues is a coming of age story, following fifteen year old Nellie as she navigates a summer of self-discovery. She harbors anger towards her parents: her mother is in and out of her life, and neither give her the support she craves to figure out her mixed race identity. While looking for the familiar, (spending time with her family at their cabin at the lake), she is confronted with things that are new. Nellie develops a new relationship with her cousin Jess, falls for a neighbor, experiences the death of a grandmother, and other things that test her developing sense of self. Harper’s prose is delicate but direct, never giving in to lengthy, flowery descriptions; instead cutting deep to the heart of Nellie’s journey.

  • “When I was seven I told my father that I wanted to grow up to be invisible. He told me to read Invisible Man. For him, the answers were always in books. I did read Ellison’s novel, but I seem to have the opposite problem. …[People] follow me with their eyes, their questions. They ask me things I haven’t even asked myself” (Prologue)
  • “…my whole body has been covered with small brown moles…I think of them as the mark of miscegenation. I wonder if this flawed skin is the ultimate sign of weakness, evidence that my blood shouldn’t be mixing in my veins. …More come every year and by the time I die I will probably be covered. On my deathbed I will finally be a black woman” (18).
  • Jess: “Your family’s something else. You’re all these different mixed-up things -” Nellie: “So what does that make us?” Jess: “I don’t know. There’s no one word.” Nellie: “Exactly…and until we come up with one, we’re black” (58).

Check out the author’s website