White Author Says, 'I'm Down'
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TONY COX, host:
Living through a parent's divorce is never an easy thing for a child, especially at a young age. For young Mishna Wolff, no big deal, though. She writes in her memoir that, quote: I know divorce is supposed to be hard on kids, but when my parents finally did it, it wasnt really that hard on me. They were so mismatched that the year before they got divorced, I often wondered if Dad met Mom by mistakenly wandering into a poetry reading thinking it was a Parliament concert.
Mishna Wolff is white. She was raised primarily by her Caucasian father. The thing is, her father was so engrained in the urban Seattle neighborhood the family lived in, that he identified as a black man. This mismatch of her parents, as she calls it, is the foundation of her childhood and the catalyst of her very funny book, called "I'm Down." And she joins us now. Mishna, welcome.
Ms. MISHNA WOLFF (Author, "Im Down"): Hi.
COX: I want to talk first about the cover of the book.
Ms. WOLFF: OK.
COX: It's a young, white girl with the biggest afro that I have ever seen. How did that come about?
Ms. WOLFF: It's my third-grade picture, and the afro is Photoshopped.
COX: Well, I assumed that that was the case.
Ms. WOLFF: You know what, you'd be surprised, Tony. People do...
COX: Really? People think - they thought that was you?
Ms. WOLFF: Yeah. Yeah. It's meant to be provocative, obviously. And it was influenced partly by - I dont know if you know Norman Mailer's "The White Negro." That's sort of the template for the cover.
COX: Now, you grew up in the Central Seattle area during the 1970s and '80s.
Ms. WOLFF: Yeah.
COX: And your book is courageous on a lot of levels because you tackle race, you tackle class, you tackle gender issues, you tackle family issues. What was it that made you decide, you know, I want people to know my story?
Ms. WOLFF: You know, I was writing and doing a lot of storytelling series. And everyone wanted to hear these stories about my dad. And I never thought like, my family was that unusual because when you grow up in a family, you never think oh, my family's so different. I mean, there were a lot of mixed families around me. I knew a lot of white people in my neighborhood that identified as black too. I mean, we weren't the only family that way.
But people really seemed to connect with these stories about my dad and growing up, and going - and then the first one that I wrote was about going to all-black Baptist church, which - that didnt make it into the book. But people just really connected with these stories. And they would start telling me about their childhood. So I sort of knew that I was on to something, that people were seeing themselves through my stories.
COX: I want to read something from the book, the very first page, and I want to ask you about it.
Ms. WOLFF: OK.
Ms. WOLFF: Sure.
COX: This is what you say in the prologue: I am WHITE, in capital letters. My parents, both white. My sister had the same mother and father as me - all of us completely white. White Americans of European ancestry. White, white, white, white, white, white, white, white. Are you still white?
Ms. WOLFF: Yeah. I'm still white.
COX: In the same way that you talked about yourself then?
Ms. WOLFF: No, because that's the beginning of the book, and things change between the beginning of the book and the end of the book. And there's another chapter after the book ends and, you know, I'm somewhere way, way down in the middle of, you know, everything. But a lot of times, people would look because we were a mixed family. My stepmother had two kids of her own that were lighter than she was, but darker than my sister and I. My sister looked mixed. So there was a lot of times people would be like, who's your father? Who's their father? Who's her father? Are you guys half sisters? Are you whole sisters? So it's just sort of explaining that right off the bat.
COX: What changed you?
Ms. WOLFF: Acceptance, you know. By the third chapter, I'm from the inside looking out at the white world. And that's got its own broadness now, and that's stereotyped and that's, you know, something that I'm not a part of.
COX: So you went from being white on the outside, looking at black, to being white but on the inside of black, looking back at white.
Ms. WOLFF: Yeah. And we're using the words black and white in a very broad way. And that's actually not whats contained in the book. We're actually talking in the book about class. Because later on in the book, I get involved with some more middle-class black people and this is a whole nother world for me that, you know - and I really want to fit in there.
COX: How'd you learn about your-mama jokes?
Ms. WOLFF: I put in the book - it's called government-subsidized charity club, and that's because St. Martin's didnt want to get sued. But I learned about your-mama jokes there, and it was during day camp. And we'd go every summer and I swear to God, all we did was that, all summer long - was just bust on each other the entire summer. I dont even remember there being any toys there. It was just your-mama jokes all summer long. And then you'd go to school the next year and just work out all this new stuff you got at day camp.
COX: But you know what was funny: You talked about how it worked, you know, around the black kids. You tried it at the school that you ultimately went to, with the white kids from the upper-class neighborhood. Didnt work so well there.
Ms. WOLFF: No. Everything I did that worked at home backfired at school.
COX: If youre just joining us, youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And we're talking with author Mishna Wolff about her new memoir, "I'm Down," which talks about her life growing up white with a father who identified more closely with African-Americans.
The first few chapters of your book - to be honest, I found them hilarious. But at the same time, I'm like, man, if a black woman reads this, she is going to be so mad because of the stereotypes that you used.
Ms. WOLFF: Right.
COX: And you pull no punches, from hair to looks to weight, to all the things that black women try to not have known about them, if possible. You just laid it out there. And coming from a young, white girl gave it even more of a bite. Was that your intention?
Ms. WOLFF: My intention was to write a book that from the beginning to the end, you see a change in perspective of the main character. So if you picked up the first couple chapters and you were like, wow - that was my intention. And I'm also a child, so there's no politically correct context for how I'm viewing the world at that point.
COX: So what is it like, then, for people that dont understand - and you know, I put myself in that category...
Ms. WOLFF: OK.
COX: ...being white, living in a mixed neighborhood with a father who is white but lives a black lifestyle, sending you to black institutions - church; schools; camp; the poor broke-down day camp that you went to - what was that like for you?
Ms. WOLFF: I think at the time, I just thought if I could be good enough at all these skills that sort of seemed to be part of the different milieu I found myself in, if I could just be better, then everything would be OK and everyone would like me. So I really felt in control of the outcome - which, you know, is part of the point of view of the book, is that I never thought that I was powerless to change class issues, race issues, my father's own insecurities and fears. And I always thought that it was all perfectly within my hands and that if I could just be good enough, everything would be OK.
COX: Why did your dad do that to you, to put you in that circumstance?
Ms. WOLFF: Well, I think he thought he was doing what was best for me. I mean, I think most parents think they're doing what's best for their kids. And he liked black culture. He enjoyed being part of black America. And he just assumed we would, too. You know, I...
COX: Yeah, but why did he identify as black in the way that he did? I understand part of what you are saying, but I'm not sure that I'm following what it was that made him want to be black. He talked black. His friends were black. His girlfriend, ultimately his wife, his second wife was black. Everything about him...
Ms. WOLFF: And third wife.
COX: And third. Everything except for his skin was black.
Ms. WOLFF: Well, I have a few answers to that. But that's like the $10 million question that I really still can't answer. I mean, he'll tell you it's because he was inspired by civil rights. And then on another day, he'll tell you it's because he came to the U.S. from Canada when he was about 11 or 12, and he had wool pants. And he felt like he didnt fit in, and that it was the brothers that really made him feel at home.
I think a lot of it is because he was an athlete, and he played sports all though junior high school, high school and ultimately, you know, one semester of college, and everyone on his sports team were black. He played both basketball and football. So those are the short answers. He also - I mean, clearly, loves black women.
COX: Yeah, he certainly did. But you know what? It seemed as if you had some issues dealing with black women and black girls. Did you?
Ms. WOLFF: I think I did, growing up, a lot. I mean, I was so intimidated - at least, initially - in my encounters with black women and black girls, growing up. And you know, especially my stepmothers or my dads girlfriends. You know, I really wanted everyone to like me, and I really got the message that there was something really wrong with me.
I mean, I was coming from a child's perspective, so I dont know why but I just got a case of the shame like pretty early on, and I never could quite shake it.
COX: Well, you know, you deal with it in a very, very funny way, and biting at points, but really funny. Some of the stories you tell about the girls on the playground and the girl whose mother combed half her hair and I think - what did you say? She just forgot to comb the other half?
Ms. WOLFF: Yeah. She braided half her head - and I guess moved on to something else.
COX: Yeah, that's exactly how you put it. What's been your dad's reaction to this book?
Ms. WOLFF: You know, my dad's a really huge fan of the book. He bought 10 copies as soon as it came out. He's actually grown a lot since the time period that the book takes place. And I think that's partially due to an outstanding third wife who, you know, I just adore. But his reaction was really, I mean, he'll say, you know, everyone can tell you love me, and everyone can tell I love you - in the book - so that's all that counts. You know, that's what he would say.
COX: I've got to ask you this before I let you go.
Ms. WOLFF: OK.
COX: Because, you know, you are seeking acceptance, which is a coming-of-age theme. Did you get it from the people you wanted it from? And before you answer, did you get it from your peers, did you get it from your dad, and did you get from your mom?
Ms. WOLFF: Well, without giving away the ending of the book too much or paring down a coming-of-age story, ultimately, I got it from everyone and it didnt matter. Because, you know, as long as youre seeking others approvals, youre always going to be lacking. So, I mean, that's ultimately the story.
COX: Mishna Wolff is a writer who lives in New York. Her memoir, "I'm Down," is available in stores now. She was kind enough to join us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Mishna, thank you.
Ms. WOLFF: Thanks for having me.
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COX: And that's our program for today. Im Tony Cox, and youve been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Lets talk more tomorrow.