The Great Xanadu of Race Politics

mixed-raceI’ve been in the practice of storytelling through art since elementary school. I didn’t begin to tell my own story, however, until graduate school, where I wrote about the adventures of a dark-skinned mixed boy and a Russian-American girl in rural Kansas. After two years of study, I managed to complete my thesis, but was well short of a finished first draft.

After spending several more years writing a mixture of what could be described as The Little Prince meets Pedro Paramo, I realized the main character’s search for identity and purpose in a world that regarded him as anomalous because of his skin color and unorthodox beliefs were, in essence, my own.

Knowing my heritage, I managed to confounded the color line and mass-mediated stereotypes as a child. “You don’t sound Black” and “You are not the usual Black” are comments I’ve heard most often, the runners up being: “I can tell you’re mixed because your hair is different” or “What country are you really from?”

I’ve developed a series of responses over the years—some of which mention I’m of African, Cherokee, and Scottish ancestry—but, no matter how I respond, I always wonder why people from seemingly all backgrounds police Black identity so zealously, especially in regard to dark-skinned people of African descent.

An ex-girlfriend was of a similar mix type, but her appearance was notably different than mine. She had pale skin, blue eyes, and straightened brown hair with natural blonde highlights. I identified as mixed because of my upbringing and knowledge of my ancestry; she identified as Black because of her upbringing, adherence to the one-drop rule, and what I assume to be disinterest in her Native and Anglo ancestries. While our inevitable split was not due solely to identity politics, the policing of Blackness played a large part in our relationship’s demise.

Until recently, I was in the occasional habit of defending my ancestries with genealogical records, DNA test results, and family photographs, but I stopped all together because the act of proving serves to trivialize my experience and existence. I also stopped because identity police are annoying. Now I tell them “I am who my ancestors are” and let their minds silently explode.

The novel I mentioned earlier has actually become a memoir in verse even though the characters and happenings are fictional. If the concept of a poetic fictional memoir seems contradictory, blame artistic license, cultural inheritance, and the subversive nature of poetry. I was brought up to know storytelling is more about getting to the underlying truth than simply relating details. Given that, I’ve come to realize the concept of being both dark skinned and mixed is difficult to convey accurately without writing about in academic detail the usual suspects of colonialism, colorism, racism, and general human cruelty. Writing my truth in essence seems more natural and meaningful beyond mere details of record, and has become an effective way to transcend identity politics.

F3b1 haplogroup

My Mother’s Haplogroup – Region: Southeastern Asia

Apollo Papafrangou: Wings of Wax

WingsofWaxWhile my novel simmers at 85% completion, several of my former Mills College grad school classmates have released their published novels into the world, one of the most recent among them being from my good friend, Apollo Papafrangou, with Wings of Wax, the story of aspiring Illustrator Angelo Koutouvalis, who believes the secret to conquering his romantic shyness lies in traveling to Greece for a reunion with his estranged father, who can hopefully pass on the mysterious ways of the kamaki―the classic Mediterranean Casanova.

I read a draft of the book while we were in school together and am still reading through the definitive version. I’ll post more about Apollo and Wings once I’m done.

In the meantime, check out Apollo at San Francisco’s Quiet Lightning from last March:

News from Native California Winter 2015

nnc292cover_web800pxLast year, I was blessed with the opportunity to become a regular contributor to News from Native California, a quarterly magazine devoted to the Indian people of California. In volume 29, no. 2, my first contribution is a review of Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous People’s History of the United States―an impassioned, well-documented telling of the history of America from an Indigenous point of view.

The theme of the issue is “Long live the cultures!” In light of resurgent efforts to quash minority voices, this sentiment is most apt.

Along for the Ride?

A few months ago I visited Cannery Row with my girlfriend on a marvelous sunny day. We ate fine food, listened to live jazz on the plaza while enjoying a view of Monterey Bay, window shopped expensive underwater camera equipment, and walked Ocean View Avenue with droves of other tourists; yet, I felt a lingering sadness. The Depression-era Row, “the poem and the Cannery Rowstink and the grating noise,” Steinbeck wrote about, came to mind as we walked by the older architecture and imagery. Perhaps the novel and my general knowledge of Ocean View Avenue influenced my immediate feelings, but the melancholy seemed to reach beyond that, beyond the restaurants, gift shops, cafes, hotels, and salons to a history of haves and have nots.

I’ve worked my share of miserable jobs and have had to subsist on rice for several days when teaching English in Japan, but I always felt on the verge of soaring above it all. True poverty grants few opportunities and little hope. Steinbeck’s beautifully tragic depictions of the working poor in Cannery Row are bleak, where the only blessing for the poor is to have other impoverished people around to survive. I imagined the dark frustrations of the people handling massive amounts of fish and metal for hours because canning was the best they could do to make a living, saw in my mind the grief of disheveled men and women living under trees or whatever  makeshift shelter they could construct.

Having read the book a while ago, I decided to reread it. I found the following entry I most likely glossed over because I wasn’t writing a novel then:

When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to catch whole for they will break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and lift them gently into your bottle of sea water. And perhaps that might be the way to write this book—to open the page and let the stories crawl in by themselves.

With that in mind, and with the end in sight, the new approach to writing the novel is to set aside a time—one hour, thirty minutes, whatever, and show up to write. If the symbolic flat worms crawl into my bottle of sea water, great. If not, I practiced my craft and didn’t injure any marine animals on my knife blade.

Okay, the analogy fell apart, but you get the idea.

National Native Media Conference 2014

NAJA_Icons_Color2Because I usually post about creative writing, some of you may not know about my start as a photojournalist and news writer. One of my affiliations is the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA), which hosts an annual conference in a different U.S. city. This year, the conference will be in Santa Clara and will focus on traditional storytelling elements with modern, digital tools, hence the theme: Going Tra-Digital. As always, NAJA conferences are good for networking, professional development, and recognizing the best news coverage in Indian Country.

This is the first time a NAJA conference has been held in my area, so I jumped at the chance to be on the local planning committee. My duties include outreach and resource gathering. Oh, and thinking of the “Tech Wow!” or the showstopper. At first, I was thinking holograms would be cool for storytelling purposes, but who has access to holograms? And then I said to myself the Tech Wow! should be something with Google Glass because, although it’s crazy expensive at the moment, it’s so potentially the next step in digital storytelling and could significantly change how the public participates in the process.

On another tech and media note, check out my photography blog at: agnimitrakhan.com. The site remains in the beta stage for now, but will be the cat’s pyjamas once I settle on an optimal design.

Hide Your Wings, Red Boy

One of my favorite books is Autobiography of Red. The sequel, Red Doc > , continues the modern-day, fragmented telling of the relationship between mythological characters Geryon and Herakles in a different format and with changed names, yet maintains in its narrow columns of prose poetry a bittersweet love story.

As older men, Geryon, now known as the musk oxen herder G., and Herakles, the war veteran Sad But Great, meet again accidentally after an artist named Ida takes G.’s favorite ox for a precarious ride through the city. Like Autobiography, Red Doc>‘s narrative is beautifully disjointed and sparse, the details of past and present revealed mostly in essence:

What ever
happened to your
autobiography says Sad
you were always fiddling
with it in the old days. I
gave it up says G.
Nothing happening in
my life. They look at one
another and start to laugh.

Arguably less accessible than Autobiography, Red Doc > is a masterful work of prose poetry, an often polarizing, seemingly contradictory form. In a recent The Guardian interview, the author, Anne Carson, replied with a line from Red Doc > when asked of her definition of poetry: “If prose is a house, poetry is a man on fire running quite fast through it,” which doesn’t make immediate sense given her writing style, yet I get the essence. Maybe that’s the point.

IMG_0186 I saw Anne at my Alma mater on April 10, 2013 for all of 180 seconds between the backs of necks and earlobes of other attendees. I knew she was soft-spoken, given what I’d read of her introverted nature, but even with a microphone, I had trouble hearing her through the sound system; I went to a closer entry point only to be told by the graduate programs director the way was shut. Luckily, we live in the age of streaming video, so I was able to catch Anne’s UC Berkeley reading some weeks later, sans backs of necks and earlobes.

Cirque Du Work

PrintLife can be fabulously challenging and ridiculously fun all at once. Since the last entry, I’ve managed to have three notable writerly experiences and a string of personal battles that have resulted in me walking taller against the rain, as it were.

On March 16, I was a panelist in the “Day Job” slot of the annual Mills College professional development conference for writers and scholars titled “Cirque Du Work.” Our talk was mainly about how we, as working writers, balance creative time with the demands of a career. I was an audience member at Cirque Du Work (then known as Pitch Fest) as a Mills graduate student in 2009, in awe at the alums who had become published authors, so it was pleasantly surreal to sit behind a tableclothed desk on stage with my bottled water and wireless mic, speaking and answering questions about my writing process and career.

The discussion was lively and flowed smoothly due to an interesting crowd / panel dynamic, which I credit to the organizers and, perhaps, good fortune. I came away from the experience energized and happy to have been around such creative people.

The next week, I was asked to judge  a fiction writing contest. I won’t say which one or comment on the stories on the off chance someone reading this post entered the contest, but I will say it was an honor to be considered a writing authority.

Judging fiction is odd because the question of “What is good or award-winning fiction?” never seems to be answered to satisfaction. So, to avoid further complicating the matter, my criteria was kept simple, balancing gut responses with technical aspects in relation to what I thought each writer tried to accomplish.

What has made my writing more compelling over the years is a focus on clean, true lines. My favorite writers are Anne Carson, Ernest Hemingway, Langston Hughes, N. Scott Momaday, E.B. White, Lorine Niedecker, and several others, because their works are often engaging and descriptive without the words being forced to do too much.

Last week, I finally wrote into the novel after what seemed like months of not having done so. No, the heavens didn’t move to shine down divine light on my manuscript, but I felt what I wrote was quite marvelous.