What can the parents of mixed race children learn from the experience of people who are, themselves, mixed? That’s the question that was in the back of my mind while reading Mixed: An anthology of short fiction on the multiracial experience.
I’ve come away a little wiser, but not a whole lot happier, because the main message of this collection of stories by mixed race authors is that multi and biracial people have been doing it tough. Very tough.
There are historical reasons for this, as shown in stories like Falling Sky, by Christina Garcia. In many places throughout the world, throughout history, mixed children have been, and in some places still are, evidence of sexual and social transgression. The shape of their eyes, the colour of their skin and the texture of their hair speak of parents who stepped across forbidden racial borders.
In Falling Sky, the transgression was that of Si’s mother, one of the many Vietnamese women who bore a child to the American Marines posted to Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Growing up, Si is acutely aware of his difference. He feels the biting disapproval of families like his, where the children are a visual reminder of the American presence, an unwanted legacy of the war.
Mixed children have also often been born of exploitative relationships: the ‘half-caste’ child of the privileged white male and economically dependent, subservient, or enslaved, Black, Indigenous, or Asian woman. Si’s American father is long gone. He’ll never know if this shadow man loved his mother, or if he treated her well. Was he kind, was he generous? Or did they just have a mutually satisfactory sexual arrangement? It’s no longer relevant, anyway. The absent father doesn’t have to deal with the consequences, or the stigma. Si and his mother do.
I like to think our mixed Australian kids don’t do it anywhere near as tough as Si and other characters in this anthology. Of course it will always depend on circumstances; some will do it tough, others won’t. The fact they are mixed might be less significant than their class, gender, education or a myriad other social and cultural influences. But I think that as their parents, we can’t blithely assume that they are all having as easy a time as their white friends, in a society which still harbours plenty of racism and xenophobia.
Even in what feel like ‘enlightened’ times, and an accepting multicultural society – 21st century inner Sydney – the stigma can still be there, for mixed children and their families. I’ve noticed it. The raised eyebrows, the stares, the questions and assumptions. Usually these reactions to our mixed family are based in relatively benign curiosity or ignorance, but not always.
Many stories in the anthology explore the inner lives of individuals who are forced to find their place in what can feel like a racial war. Individuals who are marginalised, isolated, objectified; their identities and allegiances questioned, or rigidly prescribed.
Wayward, by Mixed editor Chandra Prasad, places mixed race people at the margins, on the outside looking in. One hot summer in Massachusetts, teenaged Jai has been sent to be ‘straightened’ by her Indian grandfather, Mr Agrawal. He sets her filling in a disused well on his property, while the town searches for a missing child: white, spoilt, Whitney Swinn.
Seeing Whitney through Jai’s memories, it’s hard to feel any empathy for her. Even at the age of six, when Jai was her babysitter, Whitney expresses all the brutality and power of her white privilege. “Are you Porto Rican?” she asks Jai; “… you’re dirty like one”. Towelling Whitney dry after a bath, Jai feels like a “grimy, greasy giant next to an ivory snow princess”. She wanders through the Swinn mansion, “fingering their white marble counters”, observing a life that’s rich but rotten.
Five years later, it’s as though Jai’s brief incursion into the Swinns’ life has spoiled her own. She won’t eat the borsch that Mr Agrawal specially prepares (her Russian father’s recipe), gorging instead on overripe tomatoes from his neglected garden. She loathes the smell of wild mint that Mr Agrawal loves, but vividly recalls “the most lovely scent of all: the fragrance of Whitney Swinn’s hair”.
Angie in Footnote by Carmit Delman, expresses self-hate in another way. After being raised by a white mother in a white neighbourhood, she becomes obsessed with finding her Indian roots. You’d think that exploring her heritage would be a healthy thing to do, but not the way Delman tells it. Her wardrobe bulges with Indian cottons; her fridge is dripping with curries and samosas congeal in take-away containers. She knocks back overtures from an old (white) boyfriend and fucks the Indian delivery boy – as though the act of sex will give her authenticity. Oblivious to her desperation, he just wants to be all-American. It’s painful to read.
Although not quite as painful as Effigies, by Lucinda Roy. In Effigies, African Studies Professor Samuel Bernard Monroe has made damned sure that he is right at the centre of his chosen racial group. Rather than allow himself to be marginalised, like Jai, or lose his sense of self, like Angie, he’s made a career out of being Black. Sam was raised by a white, somewhat dysfunctional mother, the product of a brief relationship with a man who was, she thinks, Nigerian.
While not knowing for sure who his father was clearly plays a role, racist bullying when he was a teenager was the catalyst for Sam’s total dedication to being Black. But Sam looks white. His cherished afro is the only clue to his non-white parentage. When, after years of building his career and nurturing his identity as an African American, Sam’s right to claim ‘Blackness’ is challenged by his darker skinned colleagues, the tragedy for Sam is that his sexism and arrogance (obviously rooted in his own insecurities as a mixed race person) have poisoned his relationships so much that he’s unable to get support, or even provide proof, of his claim to be half African.
The story’s a scary reminder of how badly things can go wrong for mixed kids raised by single, white parents who haven’t tried to understand the consequences of the racism they are going to face, and are not well equipped to help them deal with it.
By this time, you may be seriously wondering whether you want to read Mixed. And it is quite unrelentingly pessimistic. So many of the characters are crippled, damaged, victims of their own self-hatred or self-doubt.
I got to wondering, is it because they are mixed, or is most modern fiction like this, focussing on the harshness of life? I may have to stick to reading non-fiction for bettering my mind, and speculative fiction soap/space operas for enjoyment.
Fortunately for my state of mind, not all the stories are as fraught.
One of my favourites, Caste System (Mary Yukari Waters), is a delicate, sensitive observation of family relationships. Sarah, who lived as a child in Japan but now resides in the US, visits her Grandma after her own mother’s death. The visit gives her an opportunity to review the family patterns of behaviour that have prevented her really understanding her mother’s sister. It’s a lovely portrayal of Sarah’s deepening understanding and appreciation of her aunt and her own relationship to her Japanese family.
In her notes on the story (short bios and notes are a welcome feature of the anthology) Yukari Waters says ‘I think the nice thing about being mixed is that it frees you from having to pick sides’. This perhaps explains the optimism and generosity of her story in comparison to others that have a bleaker outlook on the biracial experience. I wonder if her perspective springs from a childhood where racism was not a dominant factor, whereas some of the other authors maybe felt more pressure to choose a racial ‘side’, when growing up.
In Human Mathematics – another of my favourites, and not just because of the Ghanaian connection – Mamle Kabu explores a teenager’s experience of changing identities depending on the company she’s in. Half Ghanaian Claudia, sent to an English boarding school, keeps switching between being ‘African’ with her Nigerian friend Folake and ‘English’ with her white friend Sarah. Her voice changes, her gestures, her opinions, depending who she’s with. When she’s in a mixed group of both African and English girls, she struggles to find a way of expressing herself that everyone will understand. She’s most comfortable with her Indian friend Mira, with whom she can speak a ‘smooth, natural blend’ of African and British English.
Claudia’s Nigerian roommate Folake sees this awkwardness and accuses her of siding with the white girls. Acutely aware of being caught in the middle, with the privileges of whiteness undermining her connection to the fully African girls, Claudia is almost paralysed. Her inability to manage her dilemma leads to her gradually losing Folake’s friendship. In spite of this, Human Mathematics is a story of self-realisation and growth. Claudia isn’t scarred for life; she doesn’t become self-destructive or obsessed. She moves on. Ten years later, she’s able to forgive and understand her teenage self. There’s even hope that she can again be Folake’s friend.
I’m a sucker for a happy ending. But I also liked Human Mathematics because it covered such a wide range of issues – identity, racism, fitting in, difference, acceptance, language, culture. It’s not just overt racism or pressure to conform that mixed kids may have to deal with, it can also be the cultural splitting that Kabu describes: Claudia’s African culture is pretty much invisible to her white friends, and she feels she has to downplay it. This really resonated with me, because I don’t think the African side of my own son’s life is really very visible to some of his white friends and their families. They see the obvious – his colour, his hair, his African name – but not the less obvious, such as food culture or family relationships. I don’t think he sees it as a problem, and perhaps it’s not. But it’s kind of weird.
I mention this conundrum as the background to my final selection for this review. Compulsory reading for those people who don’t really ‘get’ that my son’s life is not quite as white and middle class as that of their own kids, should be Unacknowledged, by Brian Ascalon Roley.
The story pivots on thwarted expectations. Ben’s mum pressures his dad to ‘import a maid’ from the Philippines. The maid, when she arrives with her sultry daughter in tow, turns out to be not quite the person they expected. It’s a classic example of the family back home making their own decisions about what the family in the west wants/needs/ will get, regardless.
My own experiences of this have often related to clothing. I have just been given a rayon tent dress made in Indonesia, because ‘that’s what all the white ladies wear’ in Ghana. Somehow my in-laws managed not to notice, when I was there, how much I admired African fabrics and tailored clothing …. But the motives of the Filipino relatives in Unacknowledged are far more serious: they are trying to offload an embarrassing ‘second wife’ and her illegitimate child. The ten thousand dollar cheque Ben’s American father provided to his uncle in the Philippines ‘to bribe customs officials on the Asian side and to purchase a false visa for the agents here in Los Angeles’ (again, sounding very familiar) – was totally wasted.
The first few pages made me laugh in recognition, but Unacknowledged moves beyond the humour of conflicts of interest and ingenious cross-cultural work-arounds. It’s a brilliant examination of the undercurrents, expectations, obligations, and tensions that can play out in a family of mixed cultures and classes. The whole ‘we need a maid’ adventure doesn’t end particularly well for the ‘imports’, and it temporarily fractures Ben’s immediate family.
Yep, our family’s been through this too, when AM was small, with relatives brought over whose expectations did not match DadaK’s. I think it is actually a fairly common experience, for migrant families with relations in developing countries, but in a mixed family there’s an additional layer of ‘westernisation’ that can make it more challenging to resolve. Our family’s failure to resolve our specific ‘thwarted expectations’ problem had a very negative impact on AM’s connection to his extended African family in Australia. This matters, when there are so few of them here.
So what is my take-home message from Mixed? I may be naïve, but I’m not convinced that the worst case scenarios painted in so many of the stories – written by adults who grew up in highly racialised America – are really what’s ahead for most of our young people in diverse, multicultural, urban Australia. Maybe I’m wrong. Regardless, I think that Mixed is a valuable read for anyone in a mixed family, because it covers such a broad range of experience and perspectives. I’ve focussed on the ideas in the book but from a literary point of view it’s also an enjoyable read. I am not a fan of short stories, I often find them unsatisfying and cryptic, but I was totally absorbed in Mixed.
As a white person growing up in the 1960s and 70s in a very monocultural environment, I was quite oblivious to racism and cultural diversity until I moved to the city and went to university. It was a shock to find out about it so ever since then, since before I met AM’s dad, I’ve been educating myself in many different ways. I think white parents, especially, owe it to our mixed kids to be informed about racism and how it operates, and to try and better understand the potential complexities that being ‘mixed’ might create in their lives. Mixed will help you do that.