Heidi Durrow, the author behind The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, recently visited the KQED studios to record an episode of The Writers' Block, which will be released next week (listen to Heidi's reading here). Until then, get to know her a little better with this Q+A, in which she talks about bendy straws, growing up biracial, and why it is imperative to make things "hyggeligt."
In your bio, you reappropriate the question that plagued you as a biracial kid: "What are you?" Did you feel pressure from people to identify more with either your African-American father or your white Danish mother? Do you find that people are still unsettled by your blue eyes, light brown skin combo?
Heidi Durrow: I lived in a mostly black community and felt a lot of pressure to identify as just black. It was a curious thing to me that my home language (Danish), traditions (again Danish), and foods (again Danish) should be negated because it was too complicated for people (black or white) to accommodate the complexity of my experience.
With your father in the Air Force, you moved a lot as a child, living in places like North Carolina, Turkey, Washington state, and Germany. What was that nomadic life like for you? Did any place or culture make a great impression on you or shape you in any way?
HD: We lived for a couple of years in a German town off base. I felt very much a part of that landscape. There were enough American kids on the block that we had a tight little posse and roamed around in the nearby fields, and played in the streets. I got my first taste of "freedom" as a kid there when we were allowed to go to buy gummi bears at the corner store or Nutella. I guess my nomadic existence instilled a wanderlust in me. It is rare that I am in one place for more than two weeks in a row now!
You spent many summers and holidays in your mother's Danish town. What is something you admire about the culture and life over there?
HD: The cultural importance of having "hyggeligt" experiences. It is an awesome word that really can't be translated. It means cozy, home, food, music, family, good company, candles, warmth, love and puppies and anything else good you could think of. There is an imperative to make things hyggeligt. Plus, I like meatballs and in Denmark you eat them in lots of different ways.
Do you think the election of Obama has changed the dialogue surrounding mixed race at all?
HD: I think Obama definitely made a difference during hiscandidacy by introducing America to a multiracial family on the biggeststage there is. It was wonderful to see those photos of Obama with hismother. I think it allowed people to imagine what a family looked like differently.
You've had quite a few professional incarnations in your life: corporate attorney, a journalist, a Life Skills trainer for NBA and NFL athletes. And what made you switch gears and commit to being a writer?
HD: I always wanted to be a writer. I just kept trying out jobs that allowed me to write and still have financial security. I grew up without much and was the first person in my family, ever on either side, to go to a four-year college. Financial security was important to me. I feel so absolutely blessed that I have this chance now to make a living as a writer. It feels like a small miracle.
If your life was adapted to film, who would play you?
HD: Vanessa Williams. I love her!
You're on stage at a karaoke bar. What are you singing?
HD: Don't let me do that! That means I have probably lost my mind. But it would be a toss up between "Eye of the Tiger" and "Someone to Watch Over Me."
In 2008, you created the Mixed Roots Film & Literacy Festival, a free public event that celebrates storytelling of the mixed racial and cultural experience. Tell us a little bit about it and what people can expect from the upcoming festival in June.
HD: We are in the midst of planning for it. We're doing a fun awards program this year where people can nominate their favorite stories and films of the mixed experience. Fanshen Cox, the other co-founder and I, expect this year's Festival to be the biggest ever. Last year, we had more than 1300 people come through for family events, film screenings, readings and the largest West Coast celebration of Loving Day.
What movie can you watch over and over without tiring of it and why?
HD: Terms of Endearment. I love to cry to that movie. And I very seriously weep each time. Also The Way We Were and Ratatouille because I love that little rat!
What's something about you that might surprise people?
HD: I really do drink hot coffee with a bendy straw and I always carry bendy straws with me.
Look for Heidi Durrow's episode of The Writers' Block next Wednesday, February 23, 2011 at kqed.org/writersblock. And be sure not to miss each episode as it becomes available by subscribing to The Writers' Block podcast!