Biracial, Bicultural Roundtable: Think Who, Not What, Part 2

Yesterday, we posted Part 1 of this roundtable, featuring an introduction by Cynthia Leitich Smith and contributions from Will Alexander and Crystal Chan. We continue Part 2 with Kekla Magoon, Jo Whittemore, and Yvonne Wakim Dennis.

Kekla Magoon

Question 1: Growing up, how did your identity evolve (in its nuances and complexity)? To what extent and in what ways (for worse and/or better) was it guided by your families of origin and immediate communities, by the larger society?

My identity overall has many layers, but the racial and cultural aspects of who I am have had a very direct impact on how I interact in the world. My mom is a white American, and my dad was born and raised in Cameroon, West Africa. The world looks at me and wants to see a black American, but why? I’m equally white, genetically speaking. Being black in America is a culture of its own, and a culture I do not directly share, and yet it is attributed to me based on my appearance. Many times it has proven difficult to appear to the world as someone slightly different than who I feel I am, from the inside perspective. I certainly don’t identify as white, but I don’t identify as black either. For me being biracial is a separate identity. And, being half-African is different than being half-Black American. Not everyone understands this concept, and people far too frequently judge me differently based on appearances.

Kakla Magoon
Kekla Magoon

It’s shocking to me how many times I’ve had to argue with people about my ethnicity. To be asked “What’s your background?” only to hear in response, “That can’t be right. You must be at least part Native American” or “No, you definitely look like you have some Latina blood.” When this happened to me as a teen, I felt patronized and disrespected, as if people couldn’t have confidence that I knew where I came from because I was a child. As an adult I can see it is much deeper—a lot of people are uncomfortable with the seeming fluidity of a biracial identity. My identity itself is not fluid, however, it causes me to drift among various circles of society without always having a proper place.

It has always been an uphill battle to be different. I cannot fold seamlessly into a white community nor a Black American community, nor an African community (as a person mostly raised in the U.S.) and so I often felt ungrounded, but had no language or explanation for that feeling for a long time. In college, I befriended a number of other biracial people, and first generation Americans (children of immigrants, like my father) and we began to form our own community. In those circles, I began to feel a sense of belonging, a feeling of sameness and home.

How did all of this impact the writer you are today, or did it? Does your writing reflect lived experience in terms of race, culture and/or ethnicity, and if so, how? In either case, how does your heritage inform your voice in the big-picture conversation of children’s-YA literature and diversity?

All writing is fundamentally about identity—who we are necessarily informs our writing, as well as affecting how we interpret other people’s work. My work often deals with characters who are caught between extremes, and who make an effort to define themselves in the midst of a turbulent society. I have written extensively about African-American history in effort to absorb more about this culture that I am purported to share. I write from a place of what I know about being biracial and straddling the line of cultures, as well as from a place of questioning what it would feel like to live in a different body, in another place and time, with different life experiences.

I hope to see more conversations about biracial/multiracial voices in YA/children’s literature. People like me embody the breaking of stereotypes, a thing we spend a great deal of time talking and worrying about in our industry these days. When we suggest that voices of color in literature need to be “authentic” what does that mean? We’re told that our characters need to be “believably” ethnic, which often seems to suggest a balance between things that are recognizable as part of the culture in question (i.e. stereotypes) and things that are unique to the character. We are all many people in one body, undefined by a single thread of anything—culture, class, interests, personality. We are fluid, and flawed. When someone says of a character, “A black kid would never do that,” I cringe. My every thought and action doesn’t perfectly reflect my “blackness,” my “whiteness,” or even my biraciality. I don’t act like I’m expected to all the time. So I hope that my voice in the dialogue can help challenge what it means to be “authentic” and remind people that diverse writing inherently takes unexpected forms.

About the Author:

Kekla Magoon is the author of eight young adult novels, including The Rock and the RiverHow It Went DownX: A Novel, and the Robyn Hoodlum Adventures series. She has received an NAACP Image Award, the John Steptoe New Talent Award, two Coretta Scott King Honors, The Walter Award Honor, and been long listed for the National Book Award. Kekla conducts school and library visits nationwide and serves on the Writers’ Council for the National Writing Project. She earned an M.F.A. in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she now serves on faculty. Visit her online at www.keklamagoon.com.

Jo Whittemore

Question 1: Growing up, how did your identity evolve (in its nuances and complexity)? To what extent and in what ways (for worse and/or better) was it guided by your families of origin and immediate communities, by the larger society?

My family and I moved a lot growing up, but we spent the longest periods of time in California and Texas. When I went to school in California (for most of K-6), I identified with my Korean side a little because my mom had a Korean best friend, and on occasion we’d hang out with her family who had kids about my age. Only two kids there ever teased me for being Asian: one who my best friend Brianna instantly shut down, and another who kept calling me Bruce Lee. He would still talk to me and hang out, and I could just roll my eyes and say, “Shut up, Chris.” Him I could deal with.

Jo Whittemore
Jo Whittemore

When my family moved to Texas (where I finished my schooling), we moved to a very small town where there was only one other Asian family at the time. I was made fun of a lot for being Asian, both in school and out. I very quickly started identifying more with my Caucasian side out of a sense of survival and wanting to fit in. Sadly, that worked. I remember at one point going to a scholastic tournament and competing in a category with one of my classmates. She glanced around the room and said, “Wow, we’re the only white people in here.”

Have I mentioned how sad that is?

When I got to college…Oh, My Diversity. I could find kimchi at the grocery store and see mixed race couples all over campus. It was awesome. Only one guy ever made fun of me for being Asian, and only one guy informed me we could fool around but never date because his parents wouldn’t approve.

And yes, I remember every time someone makes an issue of my race. Each one is like a little scar.

But scars are where the skin gets tough, so I’ve got an effing rhino hide now.

I finally, finally started to fully embrace and appreciate my mixed heritage when I joined the SCBWI, because it’s such a diverse group of writers and illustrators. I travel to conferences and schools now and meet people of all backgrounds. I’ve gained so much confidence as a writer that if people were to compare me to even College Jo, the difference would be night and day.

Question 2: How did all of this impact the writer you are today, or did it? Does your writing reflect lived experience in terms of race, culture and/or ethnicity, and if so, how? In either case, how does your heritage inform your voice in the big-picture conversation of children’s-YA literature and diversity?

I think it definitely impacted me, because most of the main characters in my stories (even if they’re not from an underrepresented race/culture/religion, etc) are underdogs. They’re kids who tend to get the short end of the stick and who get discounted and written off.

I want all kids (and really, any readers) to feel like they matter and are just as good as anyone else. I try to present it in a humorous way because I know how difficult it can be to deal with embarrassment and shame.  You might as well try to find the lighter side of it if you have to face it!

About the Author:

Jo Whittemore is the author of the tween humor novels Front Page Face-Off, Odd Girl In, D is for Drama, Colonial Madness, and the Confidentially Yours series. She also penned The Silverskin Legacy fantasy trilogy.

Yvonne Wakim Dennis 

Question 1: Growing up, how did your identity evolve (in its nuances and complexity)? To what extent and in what ways (for worse and/or better) was it guided by your families of origin and immediate communities, by the larger society?

As a child,  most of my identity came from my grandparents as neither my Syrian mother nor Cherokee father were as interested in raising us in their cultures as the older generation. With my Syrian grandparents, I saw lots of differences and didn’t really feel connected until I was older.  Possibly it was because I only saw them a few times a year; often around holidays, family celebrations or school vacations.  I always felt like I was in a foreign land when I stayed with my grandparents.  The food was delicious, but not my standard fare.  The language was mysterious –  our grandfather was Jidu and our grandmother was Tetta or Nana. The rules were different for boys and girls – didn’t like that so much.  The reminiscing of my grandparents’ childhoods was “exotic”  and filled with mesmerizing tales of strange snakes and customs. We really thought they had a magic carpet stored in the attic!  Accompanying them on their errands around the Arab community in Allentown’s 6th Ward was truly an exciting experience.  

Yvonne at Bank Street Book store for book signing
Yvonne at Bank Street Book store for book signing

However, looking back, it was probably similar to how schools teach diversity around holidays.  It becomes the curriculum of the tourist. As a teenager, I really embraced the Arab culture and loved visiting my family.  I begged my mother to let me live with one of my uncles and finish school as I detested my stepfather and always felt like an outsider in the tiny mostly Anglo town where we lived.  She would not, and I still harbor some resentments for her not allowing it.

I lived with my Native grandparents until I was five and thought of them as my parents.  I didn’t realize that some of my grandfather’s habits, personality and behavior were because he was Indian. We lived on a farm and I played with the children from a nearby farm on occasion. One time, they invited me to go to church with them.  The family still tells the story of how I responded when my grandfather asked me if I had learned anything.  “Yes, Grandpa.  They nailed some poor guy named Jesus up on the barn door!”

I sometimes went to work with my grandmother who taught in a rural school.  Loved that.  Most of what I remember from those early days were Grandpa’s lessons (although my grandmother taught me to read when I was three, and I loved our trips to the library and reading time at night).  

Grandpa always told us to keep our times together secret – creepy-sounding in these days, but necessary back then.  Grandpa took us out to pray and told us to not talk about it – I didn’t realize until I was an adult that Indian ceremony was against the law.  My family had a storied past, filled with banditos and resistors and just plain contraires  in some cases.  Besides Cherokee and Sand Hill, our ancestors included German Hessian mercenary soldiers, who fought alongside Native people in the Revolutionary War.  I didn’t know that until I was an adult and don’t have any recollection of learning anything about German culture.  

Loved Grandpa’s stories, but was not allowed to retell them.  One time, Grandpa threw some of my toys away after I wouldn’t share  them with my visiting cousins.

“Why are you throwing away my toys?” I cried.  

“I thought they were garbage,” Grandpa responded, “if they were valuable, you would share them with others.”  

Learned that lesson fast and didn’t realize it was an Indian way of looking at the world until much later.

At my grandparents house, we talked about dreams over breakfast.  We ate lots of stews of bear, raccoon, squirrel, deer and grouse. We never took more than we needed.  We gave back.  We learned that bears, deer, rattlesnakes, rocks, trees all had opinions and had to be respected.  We learned to fight and stand up for what we thought was right.  We learned a sense of justice, which in a strange way was affirmed by our mother when we went to live with her.  We learned that girls can do whatever they want and science and Native philosophy were deeply intertwined.

As a teenager, I wanted to fit in with the dominant society, but in my way.  I carried my ethnicity like a weapon.  “Step back from the Indian Arab!!!!”  I craved any kind of news on the Freedom Riders and wanted to go along.  Again, Mom said no.

I worked and lived on my own at the Jersey shore in the summers and hung out with people from Latin, Black and Jewish backgrounds, not like the white Christian folks in my little town.  I felt included for the first time.  It was the 60’s and the world was changing – I felt part of it and by the time I got to college (a Quaker school two states over), I was anti-war,  anti-colonialism (which included European domination in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and South America) and a civil rights supporter. However, I was also a young person coping with  being “free” from my mother and trying to figure out love, socializing, and finances. Hard time.

I think being around Africans, African Americans, Latin Americans and Asian Americans made me appreciate my particular mixture. I was not like those groups, but I wasn’t white either, although sometimes mistaken for Greek or Italian. And I was usually treated like an exotic rarity, which I either accepted or rejected depending upon my mood.  

I argued with everyone, which earned me low marks in my Bible history course and made me popular among the GDI’s (God Dammed Independents), although I wanted to be in with the cheerleader crowd.  Actions didn’t fit with desires.

As a young adult, I embraced my Cherokee religion and became much more “Indigenized.” I credit it to the revitalization of Native cultures as well as the American Indian Movement, International Indian Treaty Council, and Native authors finally getting published.

Question 2: How did all of this impact the writer you are today, or did it? Does your writing reflect lived experience in terms of race, culture and/or ethnicity, and if so, how? In either case, how does your heritage inform your voice in the big-picture conversation of children’s-YA literature and diversity?

Oh yes…..it affected my writing!  It gave me something to write about!  Everything I write blends the true history of this country with a healthy dose of multiculturalism and environmental justice.  If one is mixed, this government, society makes the person choose one or it is chosen for him.  The message is that only one set of your ancestors count.  I think one can successfully honor all his ancestors.  Most of my identity is Native; I think I see the world from that perspective.  However, I love my Syrian heritage and will never deny it.  

I also wish that people would stop allowing some archaic and bigoted construct of race define them.  For instance, some African American people can be as tough on mixtures as white people, making people choose one instead of embracing all.  I understand it, but for instance, a mixed Indian and Black person who identifies more with the Indian side should be respected without being criticized for denying his African ancestry.  On the other hand, the same person should not be forced to deny his African ancestry because of government policy or shame. We need to celebrate the DNA that got us here. As the Zulu teach, we need to restore the order of our ancestors and give our parents and their parents back the consequences of their actions.

If you look at kids’ and YA books, there are few about people of mixed parentage.  I have many nonfiction works  published, but my fiction has been rejected.  Neighborhood kids read all my manuscripts and love them.

I guess publishers don’t believe that stories about multiculturally blended children (at least those of Native heritage) will sell although anyone who reads my manuscripts keeps asking when they will be published. And every book I’ve ever written has won an award and is still in print! So it’s not like my books aren’t marketable.  No, bigotry and ignorance still rule.

In spite of it, I will continue writing what I write. To paraphrase Hopi/Miwok/Scotch/German/Irish/English poet Wendy Rose, “I pray to my ancestors no matter what continent they are from.”

About the author:

The author of several award-winning non-fiction books for children and adults, Dennis interweaves environmental justice, activism and multiculturalism into all she creates and credits her diverse family (Cherokee/Sand Hill/Syrian) for her interest in inclusivity and pluralism.  Her focus is on First Peoples, but she writes about the many cultures that make up the U.S.  Dennis’ more recent publications include:  Native American Almanac (2016); A Kid’s Guide to Arab American History (National Arab American Museum Children’s Book of the Year – 2014); A Kid’s Guide to Native American History (2010 Gold Moonbeam Award; 2010 Silver IPPY Award).  She is also the recipient of the 2014 David Chow Humanitarian  and the 2014 Sanaka Awards.  Dennis lives in New York City, is a member of Bank Street Writers Lab and serves as board secretary of Nitchen, Inc; Educational Director of the Children’s Culture Center of Native America; board member of While We Are Still Here and Coopdanza and writes for Native Hoop Magazine.