Heidi Durrow: Remixing Creativity

An Interview by Jennifer Maritza McCauley


 Heidi Durrow

Heidi Durrow

For bestselling author Heidi W. Durrow, creativity is about “re-imagining” and “re-combining.” Durrow’s essays and fiction examine oft-explored themes of race, community and identity with fresh language and searing honesty. Durrow’s debut novel The Girl Who Fell from the Sky follows Rachel, a half-white, half-black young woman wrestling with her mixed identity and past. The novel is roughly based on Durrow’s childhood and adolescence.

Durrow has dedicated her career to giving biracial and multiracial writers a voice. She is the founder of the Mixed Roots Film and Literary Festival, the Mixed Experience Podcasts and was recently named a Power 100 Leader by Ebony Magazine. Durrow aims to create a community of mixed writers, and to help biracial and multiracial individuals tap into their own creativity. “My projects are direct outgrowths of my attempt to demonstrate that there was in fact the market for a story about a half-black Danish girl,” Durrow says. “I was certain that there were other people out there who had complicated stories that they wanted to tell.” Durrow is especially proud that her popular outreach programs are “creating storytellers.”

Durrow is thoughtful, endlessly sunny, and generous. Here she discusses creativity, her literary muses, and the difficulties of being a mixed-race writer, among other subjects.

 

ORIGINS

You’ve said you are “…a mixture of [your] father’s ferocity and [your] mother’s energy and creative spirit…” When did you realize you had a “creative spirit?” How do you define “creativity?”

DURROW

I think we’re all creative spirits. What I meant when I said that [I had my mother’s creative spirit] was just that. We all have the ability to put things together in new ways, to come up with new questions, to tackle problems or find strategies for [creating] beauty and art. The way I define creativity is that it’s an impulse to create something new out of other things, to build things, or even see something in a new light. [It’s] about recombining, re-imagining. All of that is creativity, whether people do it through writing, through creating amazing meals and food, through fashion, or through mathematics. It’s all about creativity.

ORIGINS

Why did you choose writing as a creative outlet?

DURROW

I really feel like writing chose me. I have always loved to write. I love paper, pen, ink, notebooks, stationery, stamps and books. Of course, I love books and I love reading. I do remember though, when I was very young and I decided to become a writer. I was probably six or seven years old and my mom had been a stay-at-home mom. It was the first time that all three of us kids were in school at least part of the day so she had some time to herself. She was just starting to explore her own creative spirit and she took classes in ceramics, macramé, and batik. She also took a children’s writing course via correspondence and she loved that course a lot. She would send in her assignments weekly.

At that same time, she ended up writing an essay for American Dane Magazine about the Danish word hyggeligt. Most of the time [the word] is translated as cozy or comfortable but that doesn’t really serve its true meaning. The word itself is actually a state of mind in Denmark. So, it’s about being cozy but all of the connotations are with family, food, music, candles, and just everything good like chocolate and puppies, you know. It’s a wonderful word. And she wrote this essay explaining this word and it was accepted for publication. She was so excited. I will never forget the day that she received the check in the mail. My mom was so proud she was holding the check up in front of her. My dad was taking a picture of her and my brothers and I were standing next to my dad, just looking at our mom. It was as if rays of light were coming out of her. It was so astounding and I processed this [moment] in the simplest way as a kid but [the memory] will always stick with me.

I registered that as joy. Joy was being a published writer. I wanted to be a published writer. I wanted to be like my mom and so that was the earliest piece of wanting to express myself. Writing has a lot to do with the ways in which I saw my mom come into her own and I wanted that too.

ORIGINS

Rachel, the half-black, half-white protagonist of The Girl Who Fell from the Sky is told to “act black.” Have you ever felt pressured to “act black” in your writing or personal life?

DURROW

I definitely have felt pressured to “act black in my personal life” and it started when we finally moved to the U.S. when I was 11 years old. The funny thing is I didn’t know what [acting black] meant.

I didn’t have any understanding of race. My dad was black and my mom was white but they hadn’t told us that [those terms] had any meaning and we hadn’t assigned any meaning to [those terms]. When I was 11, we ended up moving to Portland, Oregon, to a mostly African-American neighborhood. Kids would say to me, “What are you?” At first I would say, “I’m the very best speller in my whole class!” But of course I realized, after some time, what they wanted to know was “What are you are you? Black or white?”

I also learned that even though at home I spoke Danish, ate Danish foods, and felt culturally Danish in many ways, once I got outside people couldn’t understand [what I meant] when I said, “I’m African-American and Danish.” What they wanted me to say was “I’m black” and they wanted me to be part of that tribe. So, I guess I don’t really know what acting black means. I mean, except in the worst stereotypical way, but there was a lot of pressure to at least not say the full complicated story of who I was. It didn’t matter if I had a whole other language inside me or held on to a connection to a whole other country and culture. In terms of acting black in my writing, I think that’s a fascinating question.

If I felt any pressure [to do that in my writing] it’s only been the pressure that comes from within. I remember, once I had assimilated into this identity of just being African-American, what I wanted most was to be a black woman writer. I came of age during the heyday of black women writers actually being lauded as well as achieving commercial success. Alice Walker won the Pulitzer, Toni Morrison won the Nobel, Terry McMillan became a huge bestselling writer and Gloria Naylor was very popular at that time too. I so desperately wanted to be a black writer that when I learned about Nella Larsen for the first time in high school I was certain that I would never like her work because she wasn’t a real black writer. She was writing about being mixed and everyone knew being mixed was not a possibility. So, strangely I didn’t read her work until after I had graduated from college. I remember going to the New York Public Library and I checked out both of her books. I read both books in two days and I felt like my mind was exploding because here was this woman who also was half-black and half-Danish who wrote about these things in 1929.

So how can it be that I couldn’t be brave enough to also write about my experience with that same kind of identity in my generation? You know, I had a lot of internal conflict about writing a story that wasn’t just about black people. It took me many years to figure out that the best writing comes from complication and the best writing comes from the truth you’ve spoken about your experience.

ORIGINS

You’ve spoken about your admiration and appreciation for the writer Nella Larsen. You include a quote from Larsen’s Passing in the epigraph for The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, and Rachel’s mother is named Nella. How did Nella Larsen’s work directly influence your writing of The Girl Who Fell from the Sky?

DURROW

I consider Nella Larsen to be my literary mother. I feel like in so many ways she created me, she gave me permission to tell this story that I didn’t realize I was allowed to tell, and then beyond that knowing about her work gave me a feeling of confidence. I had a history and I wasn’t just a one-off person but there was someone else who had been in the world, who had walked in my shoes and that meant something very important to me as I developed as a writer.

In 2006, I had the great privilege of going to the University of Copenhagen and reading from my then novel-in-progress. I don’t even think I had published any pieces of it yet but I was invited by George Hutchinson who was just releasing his definitive biography of Nella Larsen and he proved that she was in fact as Danish as she said she was. He gave her back to me in a very interesting way. Her previous biographers had said she had lied about her connections to Denmark, that she had been disowned by her family, and [that she was telling] a different story. There’s something very healing [about having a truthful, definitive Nella Larsen biography] and before I went to the University of Copenhagen I decided to go visit Nella Larsen’s grave in Brooklyn. When I got there I discovered that it was unmarked so when I returned to the U.S. after the conference [at the University of Copenhagen] I felt this imperative to make sure that she was remembered. I was able to contact the family that owned the plot and was given permission to erect a headstone which now says “Nella Larsen a Novelist Remembered.” That meant a lot to me. It made me feel like [Nella Larsen] was a part of my family and I’m part of the continuum as well. There are a whole lot of other Afro-Viking women writers out there who will need us in the future too.

ORIGINS

You have a great gift for lyricism. The voices in The Girl Who Fell from the Sky are diverse, different and deftly conceived. Multiple characters write in African American Vernacular English, Rachel’s Danish mother writes with broken English, and Rachel has her own unique way of writing. Do you find it challenging to switch between these different voices?

DURROW

First, thank you. I do love words and even more than that I love beautiful sentences. Maybe that’s why I write so slowly because I’m fixated on sound. I want my writing to feel like an enchantment, that there is a certain rhythm inside the reader and the words on the page are compelling [this rhythm] as well. [Readers are inside of a story,] they are inside of a rhythm, so each sentence is important. There was a great challenge in writing in different voices. It was also necessary I wrote in the voices that needed to be there. I would often write just Rachel chapters or edit Rachel chapters and then edit the Nella chapters. I didn’t find myself confused in any way but I wanted to make sure I also was listening [to the characters] in the right way as I was trying to come up with the words.

ORIGINS

Many works of literature and film have employed “tragic mulatto/a” characters. How do you feel about the “tragic mulatto/a” trope in 2014? Should the half-white, half-black child still be considered “tragic?”

DURROW

I’m done with the trope of the tragic mulatto. This is why: because the central idea behind it is that there is something inherently tragic within the mixed-race character. This isn’t true. Yes, it is true that tragedy happens to mixed-race characters like Rachel in The Girl Who Fell from the Sky. But the tragedy happened to her and then she continues on. How does [tragedy] change her or help her or hinder her development? I think we’re finding new ways of writing about the mixed experience and we will continue to [hear from] more diverse voices about that experience because it is diverse. [There’s] the story of me versus the story of my brothers. These are three different stories and we all grew up in the same family. They are personal stories about growing up being biracial and bicultural.

ORIGINS

In your article “Why Fiction Still Matters in the Digital Age” you mentioned that you met a young fan who told you, “Oh my god, you wrote my life!” How have you felt about the responses from the biracial or multiracial community to The Girl Who Fell from the Sky?

DURROW

I have been very excited by the response from multiracial and biracial people and interracial families. I wrote the book that I wanted to read when I was young and there was no book like this. So the fact that young people and their parents are finding the story and finding themselves in it, that’s an incredible feeling. Now that’s not to say that everyone is so happy with it. I have seen reviews that have said [there’s] not enough about multiracial experience. Well I say, it’s not a position paper. It’s a story and it’s complicated.

ORIGINS

The Miami Herald has said The Girl Who Fell from the Sky “… is poised to take a place among classics of the American experience.” Why do you think the authentic biracial experience has been neglected in American Literature?

DURROW

I can tell you that my book almost never saw the light of day because I was told by editor after editor that there was no market for a story about a half-black, half-Danish girl. I was told that no one was interested in an Afro-Viking coming-of-age story, that it was too specific. So, I think the reason these stories haven’t been told a lot in the past is because of ideas about market forces and what demographic of the population would be interested or could relate to the experience. Who would actually be interested. Lo and behold, even though it was rejected by about four dozen different publishing houses, [The Girl Who Fell from the Sky] went on to become a New York Times bestseller. These are not just multiracial people buying this book. These are people who are finding themselves in a story even though it’s about a theoretical stranger. These are people who are connecting with [a character] who isn’t like them but then they discover [that she is] quite like them. [The reader’s] feelings and longings and yearnings are the same [as the character’s]. So, I think that’s why the stories have been neglected or at least not published as much. I feel like these stories are just starting to [get published] now.

ORIGINS

Do you consider your work Black Literature or American Literature?

DURROW

I don’t think you can have that choice because it’s actually not a choice. Black literature is American literature and American literature is Black literature. I think it’s that simple. If you’re asking me, do I want to see [my book] on the Black literature shelves? Yes, definitely. I also want to see it in the literary fiction [section] and I also want to see it right by the checkout counter. I think when there is a story about race we think, well, it’s just about race but it all comes down to human emotion.

ORIGINS

You founded the Mixed Remixed Festival and the Mixed Experience podcast series. What inspired you to pursue these forms of outreach and media?

DURROW

Those projects are direct outgrowths of my attempt to demonstrate that there was in fact the market for a story about a half-black Danish girl. I was certain that there were other people out there who had complicated stories that they wanted to tell. I wanted to gather other artists around me as well as thinkers, and people who are interested in exploring the same issues that I was interested in exploring. These projects are projects of love. I don’t get paid to do them but they’ve been so immensely rewarding because [these projects have] created a community for me and for [mixed] people. These projects and the festival in particular have created storytellers. Now there are lots of young storytellers who are writing, creating, filming, and blogging because they know there’s a place where they can talk about it. The festival is that place. Podcasts are that place and I think [these projects are] some of the greatest work I’ve done for myself. I just feel blessed to be able to create a safe space for artists who need it.

ORIGINS

What advice would you give to people who feel they have a “creative spirit” but don’t know how to tap into their creativity yet?

DURROW

I think if people are at the point where they’re thinking about their creative spirit than they’re already tapping into it. I would say the most important thing to do is be curious, stay curious, and to read free range. I mean, read stuff that you wouldn’t normally read. I would say do the thing that you’re most scared of and do it without any expectation of success.

Read more of this interview in the first issue of Origins.