Reimagining The 'Tragic Mulatto'

Heidi Durrow i i

Heidi Durrow's debut novel, The Girl Who Fell From The Sky, received the Bellwether Prize for fiction that addresses issues of social justice. Connie Gabbert/Designwork Group hide caption

itoggle caption Connie Gabbert/Designwork Group
Heidi Durrow

Heidi Durrow's debut novel, The Girl Who Fell From The Sky, received the Bellwether Prize for fiction that addresses issues of social justice.

Connie Gabbert/Designwork Group
The Girl Who Fell From The Sky
By Heidi Durrow
Hardcover, 256 pages
Algonquin Books
List price: $22.95
Read An Excerpt

Like so many children of mixed marriages, the author Heidi Durrow has often felt like she's had to straddle two worlds.

She is the daughter of a black serviceman and a white Danish mother.

Her own personal search for identity inspired her debut novel, The Girl Who Fell From The Sky. The story revolves around a girl who moves across the country to live with her grandmother after surviving a family tragedy.

The book has received breathless critical acclaim, and it was awarded the Bellwether Prize for fiction that addresses issues of social justice.

A Future And A Voice For A Survivor

Preteen Rachel, the daughter of a black GI and a white Danish mother, is the protagonist. And as the story unfolds, the reader discovers just how unfathomable her family tragedy was. Her mother, brother and baby sister all died after leaping off a Chicago apartment building — a jaw-dropping turn of events that was actually based on a real story.

"It was a real newspaper story that I read about 15 years ago," Durrow tells NPR's Michele Norris. "A mother went to the top of the building and the only survivor of this fall was this girl. I remember reading that and just being haunted by, not the questions that the other people were asking about why this happened, and how could we live in a world where it would happen, but I wondered what would her survival look like."

Durrow wanted to give Rachel a future and a voice, she says, and a life that wasn't solely defined by tragedy.

On Biracial Identity In The U.S.

But Rachel faces other conflicts in the book, among them the pressure to choose a race or a culture. Durrow discusses the difficulties that mixed race children often face.

"I think they can [embrace both cultures] if they're not faced with this question, 'What are you?' " Durrow says. "The satisfactory answer isn't usually, 'I'm black, and white.' Other people want mixed race kids to choose who they are."

Durrow began working on The Girl Who Fell From The Sky in 1997, and she says the language about biracial identity has changed between then and now.

"Obviously when President Obama began his candidacy and we started to talk about biracial, it suddenly didn't sound like a scientific term," she says. "Still though, now, I think people are uneasy with that. And I think we can see that in the fact that once there was the inauguration, President Obama became our first African-American president. Which I believe he is, but we stopped talking about biracial again. I think it's a little unsettling for people — just trying to understand, what does it mean to be both black and white."

A Departure From Tragedy

Durrow also talks about the tradition in literature of a 'tragic mulatto' and how her book departs from this by separating the tragedy from the character.

"The tragedy is outside of her, it's not something that's part of her character," she says. "I think that's something that's been frustrating about other stories about the 'tragic mulatto,' that somehow it was an inherent difficulty within the character. For Rachel ... she's still able to be whole, ultimately, and I think ultimately triumphant."

Excerpt: 'The Girl Who Fell From the Sky'

The Girl Who Fell From The Sky
The Girl Who Fell From The Sky
By Heidi Durrow
Hardcover, 256 pages
Algonquin Books
List price: $22.95

Rachel

'You my lucky piece,' Grandma says.

Grandma has walked me the half block from the hospital lobby to the bus stop. Her hand is wrapped around mine like a leash.

It is fall 1982 in Portland and it is raining. Puddle water has splashed up on my new shoes. My girl-in-a-new-dress feeling has faded. My new-girl feeling has disappeared.

My hand is in Grandma's until she reaches into a black patent leather clutch for change.

'Well, aren't those the prettiest blue eyes on the prettiest little girl,' the bus driver says as we climb aboard. The new-girl feeling comes back and I smile.

'This my grandbaby. Come to live with me.' Grandma can't lose Texas.

'Thank you, ma'am,' I say. I mind my manners around strangers. Grandma is still a stranger to me.

I know only a few things about Grandma. She's a gardener. She has soft hands, and she smells like lavender.

For Christmas, Grandma always sent Robbie and me a card with a new ten-dollar bill wrapped in aluminum foil. On the back of the envelope where she pressed extra hard there'd be a small smudge. The card smelled like the lavender lotion she uses to keep her hands soft.

Grandma doesn't have a single wrinkle on her anywhere. She has eggplant brown skin as smooth as a plate all because of the lotion she sends for special from the South. 'They got better roots down there — better dirt for making a root strong.' Her body is a bullet. She is thick and short. Her dark hair is pulled back and is covered by a plastic bonnet.

'Well, aren't you lucky to have a special grandma,' the bus driver says. 'Pretty and lucky.'

This is the picture I want to remember: Grandma looks something like pride. Like a whistle about to blow.

Grandma puts the change in for my fare. She wipes the rain off my face. 'We almost home.'

When we find our seats, she says something more, but I cannot hear it. She is leaning across me like a seat belt and speaks into my bad ear — it is the only lasting injury from the accident. Her hands are on me the whole ride, across my shoulder, on my hand, stroking my hair to smooth it flat again. Grandma seems to be holding me down, as if I might fly away or fall.

The bus ride is seven stops and three lights. Then we are home. Grandma's home, the new girl's home in a new dress.

Grandma was the first colored woman to buy a house in this part of Portland. That's what Grandma says. When she moved in, the German dairy store closed, and the Lutheran church became African Methodist. Amen. That part's Grandma too. All of Grandma's neighbors are black now. And most came from the South around the same time Grandma did.

This is the same house Pop and Aunt Loretta grew up in. On the dining room mantel are photographs of me and Pop. Of me and Grandma. Of me and Robbie. Of me, but none of Mor, that's mom in Danish.

'There, see that smile? That was the time I came to visit you over Christmas. Remember? Playing bingo. Oh! And I have a little present for you.'

When she comes back, she holds a large wrapped box. I open the box. Make my first deals with myself. I will not be sad. I will be okay. Those promises become my layers. The middle that no one will touch.

'Thank you,' I say and pull out two black Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy dolls.

'Aunt Loretta gave you her room. Dressed it all up in pink. Did you know that's her favorite color?'

I nod.

'And look at your hair. All this pretty long hair looking all wild from outside.'

'We're gonna wash that tonight,' she continues. 'Your Aunt Loretta will help you. Bet she know how to do something better with that mess of hair than what you had done before. You're gonna go to school Monday and be the prettiest girl there.'

She doesn't say better than your mama. She doesn't say anything about my mother, because we both know that the new girl has no mother. The new girl can't be new and still remember. I am not the new girl. But I will pretend.

The two rag dolls that Grandma gave me sleep at the bottom of the bed. Grandma and Aunt Loretta want to check on the poor baby. That's me.

I close my eyes and pretend sleep. I pretend sleep all the time now. 'Poor baby, so tired.' Grandma pats my hair.

It's the kind of hair that gets nappy. Grandma tried to brush it out before bedtime. I held real still, but it still hurt. She said I was tender-headed. The comb got stuck in the bottom in the back. Grandma said the tangled part is what's called my kitchen.

'She's got good hair. Leave her be.' Aunt Loretta pulled the comb out, untangled each hair. 'It's the same place where my kitchen is,' Aunt Loretta said. 'Where I get the naps in my hair too.'

'Black girls with a lot of hair don't need to be so tender-headed,' Grandma said. My middle layers collapsed. And I cried. And cried and cried.

Now my nappy kitchen head is on the pillow. All wild, like Grandma says. And I'm done crying. I don't want to be a mess or nappy or be so tender. 'I'll wash it tomorrow, Mama,' Aunt Loretta says. Her voice is honey.

I want to be as beautiful as Aunt Loretta. She smiles all the time even when she looks at the picture of Uncle Nathan. Her teeth are white like paper and straight. She shows her teeth when she smiles. I have a cover-up-my-teeth smile. Maybe I started doing it when Pop called me Snaggletooth.

Aunt Loretta is nut brown and knows she's beautiful. She was Rose Festival princess and got to meet President John F. Kennedy. Her skin is even prettier than Grandma's and she doesn't use that sent-for lotion.

Grandma and Aunt Loretta leave the door open enough to let light in. But still I press my back into the bed and open my eyes. No more pretend sleep. Now I will be real awake. Make sure the dreams don't come. Stay awake. Stay away from dreaming.

Tomorrow is my first day at a new school. I have a new notebook and pencils and a pencil holder with a zipper. I am going to think about school and practice the best cursive and learn all the big words I can know. I am going to concentrate. Be a good girl.

In my diary I write: 'This is Day 2.' Second day at Grandma's house. I wish I could go back home. Home to before Chicago. Back to when there was me and Robbie and Mor and Pop. And everything was okay. Even though there wouldn't be an Ariel, that would be okay too.

Aunt Loretta makes pancakes special for me even though she has no business in the kitchen. Two pancakes and not enough syrup is what she gives me. Syrup that makes a stain in the pancake middle, gone so fast like the pancake is thirsty. I eat exactly what she gives me.

Aunt Loretta eats only one pancake. And Grandma none because her teeth don't set right. There is something dangerous about pancakes because Grandma watches us eat. 'How you gonna catch a lizard with your backside loading you down?' Grandma fusses at Aunt Loretta. I am smart and know that when she says 'lizard' she means husband. That is called learning the meaning from the context. Because Grandma says it and she touches Aunt Loretta's face at the same time. That means she's talking about being pretty and being worth something and making it count.

Aunt Loretta laughs. And so do I. They are happy that I am laughing. It's the first time as the new girl.

'I don't need a lizard, Mama.'

When Aunt Loretta says 'Mama,' I think of saying 'Mor' and how I don't get to say it anymore. I am caught in before and after time. Last-time things and firsts. Last-time things make me sad like the last time I called for Mor and used Danish sounds. I feel my middle fill up with sounds that no one else understands. Then they reach my throat. What if these sounds get stuck in me?

I laugh harder, but the real laugh feels trapped inside too.

School is not a first-time thing. I sit in the front, where I always do. I sit quietly, like I am supposed to do. I raise my hand before speaking and write my name in the top right-hand corner of the paper. And the date. Because this is what good students do.

Mrs. Anderson is homeroom and language arts. She is a black woman. I think about this and don't know why. It is something I'm supposed to know but not think about. Mrs. Anderson is my first black woman teacher.

It makes me go back in my mind: Mrs. Marshall, first grade, favorite; Mrs. Price, second grade, not so nice; Mrs. Mamiya, third grade, beautiful; Mrs. Breedlove, fourth grade, smart; Mr. Engels, fifth grade, bald and deep voice. I remember they are all white.

There are fifteen black people in the class and seven white people. And there's me. There's another girl who sits in the back. Her name is Carmen LaGuardia, and she has hair like mine, my same color skin, and she counts as black. I don't understand how, but she seems to know.

I see people two different ways now: people who look like me and people who don't look like me.

'Rachel Morse?'

'Present.'

'Where are you from?'

I answer: '4725 Northeast Cleveland Avenue, Portland, Oregon, 97217.' I hear laughter behind me.

Day 2 becomes Day 3. And the next day and the next. I count each day in my diary. Each day gets a new page.

Grandma thinks I am adjusting well. She says, 'I think you adjustin just fine.' I want her to put s's on the ends of her words and not say 'fixin to' when she's about to do something. The kids in school say that, and I know they're not as smart as me.

There is a girl who wants to beat me up. She says, 'You think you so cute.' Her name is Tamika Washington. She says, 'I'm fixin to kick your ass.' Sometimes she pulls my hair. In gym class she grabbed my two braids. I said 'ouch' really loud even though I didn't mean to and Mrs. Karr heard. She said, 'Tamika,' and blew the whistle real loud. And Tamika said, 'Miss K. I'm just playin with her. Dang.' When Mrs. Karr turned away again that's when Tamika said it. 'I'm fixin to kick your ass after school. You think you so cute with that hair.'

I am light-skinneded. That's what the other kids say. And I talk white. I think new things when they say this. There are a lot of important things I didn't know about. I think Mor didn't know either. They tell me it is bad to have ashy knees. They say stay out of the rain so my hair doesn't go back. They say white people don't use washrags, and I realize now, at Grandma's, I do. They have a language I don't know but I understand. I learn that black people don't have blue eyes. I learn that I am black. I have blue eyes. I put all these new facts into the new girl.

And I am getting better at covering up the middle parts. When Anthony Miller kicks the back of my chair in class, I focus on the bump bump bump until he stops. I can focus on the bump bump bump and not say anything. I hear the smile on his face as he bumps my chair. Is he counting the number of times he can bump before I tell on him? I don't tell on him. And when Antoine mocks me in a baby voice when I answer the questions right, I don't have to cry anymore or be so tender. When something starts to feel like hurt, I put it in this imaginary bottle inside me. It's blue glass with a cork stopper. My stomach tightens and my eyeballs get hot. I put all of that inside the bottle.

Aunt Loretta brushes my hair each morning and only sometimes makes pancakes. She's bought a special brush for me that's pink with white bristles. She holds my hair in her hands the same way as Mor did. Aunt Loretta's hands get lost in my hair. She has small wrists, tiny enough for me to wrap my fingers around. She has perfect red nails. She uses the nail on her right index finger to make the middle part. It doesn't scratch. She parts my hair from the front to the back to make the line. I feel the line she makes on my scalp. Grandma uses a sharp comb and it feels like she's dividing me in half.

Today is school picture day. Aunt Loretta wants to brush my hair special. I sit between her legs on her bedroom floor still in my favorite pajamas. Aunt Loretta smells of toothpaste and fresh white soap. I bunch my legs against my chest and wrap my arms around my knees. I feel like a boxer getting ready to fight in the ring. Not tender, just taken care of.

'Why do the other kids talk about my eyes?'

'Why?' Aunt Loretta says as if I should already know. 'Because they're such a pretty blue.'

I giggle when Aunt Loretta says this. A giggle can mean thank you or please stop looking at me. This time it means the first thing because it's school picture day and it's important to be pretty.

'Yeah, they're just like Mor's,' I say, and I feel something like happy. I have said 'Mor' out loud and made some of the inside sounds outside. I have said 'Mor' and the glass inside me didn't shake.

I try the sounds again. 'When Mor was little she had two braids in her hair too. Hestetaller. That means horsetails. I saw a picture.' In the picture Mor is nine or ten or maybe eleven years old like me. She sits at a desk that opens up like a box.

'Well, today we're going to do something a little different,' Aunt Loretta says. 'Okay?'

I nod and know that it doesn't matter if I don't agree. I am a doll.

'I remember when I was a little girl,' Aunt Loretta says. 'I'd have to sit by the stove to get my hair pressed out. If I didn't smell the hair burning I knew it would be no good.'

I have heard this story before. I think it's embarrassing but don't know why.

Aunt Loretta puts her nails in my hair and makes one part then another. She uses the big curling iron that goes in her hair even though my hair has curls. I smell hair burning.

I see a girl in the mirror when she is done, and she is not me. There are so many pieces to my hair. Nothing lays flat. There are stiff curls that don't wrap around my finger.

'You look like your grandmother spit you out herself.'

I don't want to be spit.

I am the letter M and somewhere in the middle for class pictures. When I sit down, my feet don't reach the floor. My middle is all jumbled. I do my best cover-up-my-teeth smile, but the corners of my mouth barely move.

'Such a pretty black girl,' the photographer says. 'Why won't you smile?'

Grandma's house is two blocks away from the Wonder Bread factory, which means that my house is two blocks away from it too. What's hers is mine, she says. Simple math. Mr. Kimble, my math teacher, says that's what's called the transitive property.

Only I don't like what's Grandma's: an oily pomade she wears that smears my cheek when she kisses me, a green velvet couch with deep brown swirls that no one can sit on unless special company comes by, a porcelain music box decorated with people who look like kings and queens and a servant with a broken arm, a dresser full of fabric she's saving for the day I learn how to sew. Hers is the sent-for lotion, the rocking chair on the porch, and the pictures on the mantel, and the powder that looks like cornstarch that she puts in my underwear drawer. She has a lot more things but these are the main ones. Grandma is a collector. I think of her collections as junk and scraps. Like the other volunteer sorters at the Salvation Army, Grandma sets aside the good stuff for herself. Good stuff is a silver spoon, or a china teacup with or without a matching plate, or a dress-up purse with four beads missing and a torn strap. Grandma has boxes of mismatched coffee cups and saucers and yards of corduroy, gingham, silk, and lace stuffed into dozens of drawers and boxes in the basement. All these things are worth something but maybe only that Grandma sees.

Grandma's things are mine, and I am not allowed to touch them. Only sometimes I do. Because how can you have something without holding it?

On Tuesdays we go to the Wonder Bread factory store and buy old bread even though it doesn't make any sense that the bread would be old because it comes from just next door. But maybe that's one of those things that works differently here in civilian life. That's what Pop would call it. He's a tech sergeant in the United States Air Force. He makes maps.

Civilian life is different than military life. Civilians live in the same house or apartment and know the same people their whole lives.

'Why would you want to live in the same place your whole life?' I ask my new friend Tracy. She's white. She looks at me like I'm crazy.

'You have to live where your parents live. That's just how it is,' she says, and I make her not my friend anymore.

'I live with my grandma and my Aunt Loretta.'

'So, that's different.'

'I lived all over the world.'

'No you haven't.'

I open the blue bottle. Mad goes in there too.

You can buy bread at the Wonder Bread factory store on a good deal. Grandma likes good deals. On Tuesday afternoon there's an extra discount and sometimes a few crumbled up cupcakes near the counter. They do not have franskbrod, or rugbrod, or wienerbrod, or any pastries with marzipan. They do not have the kind of bread Mor made. I wait for Grandma by the checkout counter. It's Tuesday but the crumbles at the counter are gone.

'This Roger's baby?'

'Mmm-hmmm,' Grandma says to a tall woman wearing an African scarf on her head.

'No mistakin you in the same family. Roger got some strong genes makin these babies. Except for those eyes.'

The new girl smiles a no-teeth smile when the African scarf woman takes her face in her hands. The new girl looks something like happy and stuck there. She's the trophy on Aunt Loretta's dresser with the perfect tennis swing. Smiling. Frozen. She is still. She is me.

Grandma grabs my face and wipes away imaginary crumbs from my mouth. I know they are imaginary. Grandma's just polishing me up.

'You know Roger's granddad had blue eyes. Something about like this.' Grandma turns my head toward her when she says this. I am scared the sounds will spill out.

'They say that's the only way it can happen. What they call that?'

'Recessive,' I say and don't know what other sounds might come out.

'She a smart girl. That's good. Just don't be too smart, young lady. The men don't go for that.'

Grandma laughs.

The African scarf woman laughs and says, 'We are a mixed up people alright.'

'Mmm-hmmm.'

'Makes you wonder what that boy would look like now,' says the African scarf woman.

And Grandma says, 'Either one of them boys. Or that baby girl.'

Reprinted from the book The Girl Who Fell From The Sky by Heidi Durrow. Copyright 2010 by Heidi Durrow. Published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

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