09 16 2014
  6:29 pm  
     •     
McMenamins
In 1980s Portland, the Alberta neighborhood was nothing what it was today. Author Heidi Durrow just called it "dangerous."

When walking home in the evenings, Durrow said she'd travel in the middle of the street to avoid the dark recesses of the sidewalk.
"I'd sing 'I'm a Little Tea Pot' as loud as I could, so people would think I was crazy and leave me alone," she said.

 

Durrow with her grandmother at the Interstate
Firehouse Cultural Center in February

Now living in Los Angeles and New York, the former Portlander recently published her debut novel, "The Girl Who Fell From the Sky" about a mixed-race girl growing up in none other than the Rose City of the 1980s. While the protagonist, Rachel, largely resembles the author – both are the daughters of a Danish mother and African American G.I. who experienced the growing pains of being not exactly Black and not exactly White – the similarities end there.
Rachel is the sole survivor of a family tragedy that leaves her living with her African American grandmother and aunt in Portland, far away from her home in Europe with her father.
Without giving away too much of the story, Durrow's Rachel must not only deal with the loss of her mother and siblings, she's forced to discover what it means to be a mulatto in American society.
"She doesn't have any idea of what race is," she said. "What does Black mean? What does White mean?"
As she's slowly "racialized" by both her peers and her new family, she discovers that there is not one answer to the person she must become.
"Black is all kinds of things," Durrow said. "She's seeking role models all the time."
Instead of being stuck in a stereotype, Rachel – like Durrow – finds that she wants to be a bit of all the parts of her ancestry.
"What do they have? I want a little bit of that?" Durrow says of her character, and her own search for identity. "There are different ways of being African American and Danish in the world."

Durrow struggled to find a publisher for the work for nearly five years. All publishers had the same problem – there just didn't seem to be an obvious market for the book. Unfortunately for Durrow, Danish African Americans don't command a large percentage of the book-buying market.
But then in 2008, she was awarded the Bellwether Prize for Fiction, which recognizes unpublished manuscripts that address issues of social justice. The award came with prize money. It also came with a publishing contract.
"(The Bellwether Prize) was the one gatekeeper I needed to share this story," Durrow told The Skanner News.
Durrow is now on a multistate publicity tour, which included a stop in her hometown of Portland in late February.
The tour has allowed Durrow to connect with many people who shared similar experiences – and even meet a few fellow Danish African Americans. While the crowd is obviously self-selected to people who enjoy Durrow's work, she said she's been enlightened by the experience.
Being biracial in America has changed since she's been in school. President Barack Obama's heritage has changed the way most Americans view a mixed race person, she says. But Durrow also thinks tolerance depends on what part of America you're in, and who your peer group happens to be.
Many mixed race people – including Obama – prefer to label themselves as one way or another, typically with the race or culture that they relate to the most. But Durrow isn't one of them.
"We're still not comfortable with ambiguity," she says. "I'm not one of those people who thinks you must identify yourself as one way or the other."
Several years ago, Durrow's fascination with mixed races and cultures manifested itself into the online podcast "Mixed Chicks Chat" – a show about the "absurdities that mixed raced people often face."
The multifaceted author – who has a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University and law degree from Yale – also organizes the annual Mixed Roots Film and Literary Festival in Los Angeles.
The festival brings hundreds of participants and artists in June to discuss issues of mixed race and mixed culture in all its forms. This year, Durrow says Obama's sister is planning to attend the festival to speak.
"The festival is a way to give back," she said. "We screen films about mixedness in all of its guises."
Mixed Roots tries to go beyond the "tragic mulatto story" and address the deeper meanings of being mixed by employing workshops, panels and performance. Last year's festival even featured a film about a forbidden love affair between a Serb and Croat – a cross cultural relationship largely foreign to American audiences.
Visit Durrow online at www.heididurrow.com. To purchase a copy of Durrow's book from Amazon, click here

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky


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