When I heard about the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign started by YA author Ellen Oh, I thought not just about what I might contribute, but about what I have to contribute to books in general.
I write about people struggling to figure out who they are, when who they are is caught between conflicting ideologies in a world that rewards homogeneity. I prefer sci-fi and fantasy, genres that allow me to write about complex issues with fresh and sometimes abstract perspectives. And I write about young adults because they are the epitome of identity crisis.
Writing about being torn between worlds is easy for me. I’ve experienced many dualities in my life, one of which includes being a person of mixed race and mixed cultures…
Being Mixed Race
The only picture I have of my paternal grandmother is an old black-and-white photo. I’ve tried to have it restored, but the image is badly damaged. In the photo, my grandmother’s eyes have been drawn in round.
My grandmother was from Hong Kong, the mistress of a wealthy man. Her name was Audry, but I doubt that was her real name. She died in childbirth, and my father grew up hating his middle name because of the teasing he took for being illegitimate. The ancestors of my mixed-race paternal grandfather include a Hawaiian girl who married a Scots immigrant. And somewhere in between someone married a Bajan (from Barbados).
On my mother’s side, the story is even less clear. My maternal grandmother came from wealth—supposedly a banker’s family from Venezuela who disowned her when she got married. The tragedy of her story is that my paternal grandfather was brilliant and upwardly mobile, but when introduced to the lifestyles of those in his economic circles, he fell to poverty under the influence of alcohol. He, too, was mixed race—white and Arawak, which is Island Indian.
I know there’s more, but it’s difficult to verify when shame blurs the truth. The strands of my ancestry are filled with stories of women kept hidden or dispossessed because they crossed racial lines. Stories of men who tried to fit in but were too different in too many ways. These are people that I don’t want to marginalize, I don’t want to forget, and I don’t want to sweep under the rug. So I honor them by reminding myself that I am mixed race.
But being mixed race is about more than ancestry.
The music, the superstitions, the folklore, the food—Thanksgiving Day at my sister’s home in New York City was a feast that included callalou and lasagna and jerk chicken and more. Being mixed race is about cultural identity, too, which in my case means that the lines sometimes blur between the foods and customs I inherited from my parent’s place of birth, Trinidad, and the country that I’ve adopted as my own, the United States. Then there’s the languages—born in Curacao, I learned a smattering of Dutch and a bit more of Papumento from nearby Aruba. Growing up in St. Croix, a skip away from Puerto Rico, I learned to speak Cruxan as well as Spanish, and the melodies of Calypso, Reggae, and Soca are as familiar to me as Merengue and Salsa.
But being mixed race is more than cultural identity.
Being mixed race is also about genetics. In a time when ancestry can define medical illnesses, self-awareness is crucial to self-health. Acknowledging my mixed race also provides a life-map that allows my kids to understand why the pieces of their beings don’t seem to fit external expectations.
And being mixed race is scary in a world on the brink of understanding how to use genetic markers to target racial and ethnic groups with bio-warfare. Having many races in one person means an increased vulnerability to that threat.
But being mixed race is about more than DNA.
Being mixed race is about white-knuckling it at the airport, wondering if this will be the time I’ll be delayed as the customs official takes a little longer inspecting my passport. I’ve spent tense moments thinking of little details in my life—where I went to high school, who was my college advisor, the name of the quarterback on the football team. Tense moments where I wonder if this will be the time I’ll be taken aside and asked to verify my identity because I look like a native trying to leave the country illegally…when in fact, I look like a native almost everywhere I go.
Being mixed race is knowing that a very basic part of my identity could be questioned at any given moment. Someone will ask why I speak differently, act differently, behave differently from their expectations. And these expectations change based on where I am, or on the experiences of the person doing the asking. And even if I try to go along to get along, (abhorrent as that is to me), my mixed race can be used against me at any time because being mixed race means never having enough of any one race to get past having to always prove myself.
And being mixed race is more than an experience.
Being mixed race—saying I’m mixed race is sometimes taken as an insult. Some see it as a false claim on their heritage. Others perceive it as an effort to distance myself, as if the words I am mixed race are a reflection of an ideology that says one person or race is better than another, when in fact, the words “I am mixed race” are a humble acknowledgement of all those and more who rode a boat over, who refused to change seats on a bus, and most especially who did not define their choices in partners by racial lines.
Saying I am mixed race is my way of being inclusive, a means of acknowledging the many parts of me, and I hope, an invitation for you to share the many parts of you.
And if you do find your way to reading my books, I hope that you will see some part of you reflected in my stories. Regardless of creed or race, everyone deserves to find themselves lost in a tall tale of adventure, love, and fantastical worlds.