Summer Blend Book Club Wraps Up

This series began in June with the help of Heidi Durrow, author and co-founder of the "Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival." All summer long, Tell Me More has been covering books about the multicultural experience in America. Durrow checks back in with host Michel Martin to discuss the novels in the program's Summer Blend Book Club.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: As we said earlier, our Summer Blend book series has taken us deep into the experience of the emerging story of mixed-race Americans.

We decided to end where we began, with a conversation with author Heidi Durrow. She is the author of the bestseller "The Girl Who Fell From the Sky." She cofounded the Mixed Roots Film and Literary Festival, and she helped us kick off our series back in June. And she joins us once again from NPR West.

Heidi, welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us, and thank you for helping us with the series.

HEIDI DURROW: Thanks for having me back.

MARTIN: Now, you read all the books that were featured in the series, and, in fact, you featured some of them at the festival. Did you see any themes threaded through all of these very different stories?

DURROW: They were all very different, but I was struck by some certain patterns that were going on.

The first thing was, when we started this off at the beginning of the summer, we talked about this trope of the tragic mulatto, these old stories about the mixed-race person who couldn't find a home in either community and died tragically of consumption or some awful disease. Right?

But in these books, I was so struck by the fact that they're funny. There's so much humor in these books, I found myself laughing out loud so often when, here I was, reading books about the mixed experience, and aren't they supposed to be serious and teach us something? Well, they're teaching us something through humor, also, which was really exciting to discover.

MARTIN: You know, I think it's sometimes hard to remember that it was not so long ago when multiracial families weren't just hidden, that they were actually illegal in many states, that the Supreme Court didn't outlaw discrimination - well, rather, let me just put it this way. The Supreme Court decision in the case of Loving v. Virginia was in 1967, and, until that time, there were still 16 states that outlawed mixed-race marriages.

And I wonder: Is it remarkable that there has been this change in attitude in such a short period of time, or do you feel that perhaps we should be farther along?

DURROW: I think, right now, we're in such an interesting place, because we are finally talking about it. We have a long way to go, still, and I think where we're going to find our answers, really, is through the literature, through the stories that we start telling about these experiences.

One of the other things that I realized as I was reading these books again is that we're actually talking about being multi-generationally mixed. There's this talk now, suddenly, about the ways in which we continue to be mixed, and we reinvent mixed-ness with each generation.

MARTIN: Well, I think it's important to point out that we've always been mixed. We just didn't admit it. But to that end, according to the census, mixed-race people still make up a very small percentage of the American family. Maybe it's hard to contemplate that, but really, according to the latest figures from the census, it's just over 2 percent of the population.

DURROW: It's not very much, is it, when you talk about those hard numbers. But what that number doesn't really show is who those people are related to. When I've gone around and I've talked about "The Girl Who Fell From the Sky," what I'm so interested in is when I meet someone who I think is a, quote-unquote, "white person," someone who has blonde hair and blue eyes and pale skin, and they'll say, this is about my family, because my sister is married to someone from Tanzania.

And the census number doesn't reflect the fact that we love people in so many different ways. It doesn't show us who we love, and it doesn't show necessarily who might be interested in knowing more about this experience.

MARTIN: And finally, before we let you go, I'm going to put you on the spot - which is such a terrible thing to do, but I'm going to do it, anyway.

I'm sure that maybe even five years ago, many people would never have envisioned that a person of mixed ancestry, our president, which we know - would be leading - but personally self-identifies as black, as African-American. But he is of mixed-race ancestry, obviously.

And I'm wondering, five years from now, how do you think our national conversation around race and the mixed-race experience might have evolved?

DURROW: I think what's happening is that the people who feel like they're outside of this conversation, that it's something that other people have to deal with. And, very honestly, by this I mean mostly white people, that when we start talking about race, there is this coded language. And I think these books, these stories about the mixed experience once again offer - especially people who are part of the majority - permission. It gives them an entree to say, I actually am part of this story, too. So can I talk to you about this?

There's this way in which we don't want to be offensive, right, when we're talking about race, but we also want to talk about it. We just need a way in. And I think a story is the best way to do that.

MARTIN: Heidi Durrow is the author of the bestseller, "The Girl Who Fell From the Sky." She's also the cofounder of the Mixed Roots Film and Literary Festival. She's been helping us with our Summer Blend book series, and she was kind enough to join us from the studios of NPR West.

Heidi Durrow, thank you so much for joining us.

DURROW: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: If you want to hear our previous conversations or all of our conversation in our Summer Blend book series, just go to our website. Go to NPR.org. Click on the Programs tab, and then on TELL ME MORE.

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