Friday, July 25, 2008

The Meltingpot Interview- Heidi W. Durrow

I first met Heidi W. Durrow in 2007 at the Loving Decision Conference in Chicago. I'd been reading her fantastic blog about the Mixed Race experience for awhile, so it was cool to meet this African-American/Danish woman in the flesh. Little did I know that Ms. Durrow was such a powerhouse. Besides being a former corporate lawyer and consultant to the NFL and NBA, Heidi Durrow is an amazing writer. She just won Barbara Kingsolver's Bellwether Prize for Fiction for her first novel and is at work on two more books. And in her spare time she hosts a weekly podcast called Mixed Chicks Chat.

Well we at the Meltingpot decided we wanted to chat with Ms. Durrow since she's got so much going on and she's got such an interesting perspective on race and identity. Check out the interview and remember you read about her here first!

The Meltingpot: So Heidi, you have a law degree from Yale and a Master's Degree in Journalism from Columbia University. Not to mention you're an award-winning novelist. Are you just an overachiever or did you get all of your degrees because you couldn't decide what you wanted to be when you grew up?

Heidi Durrow: I gave up my overachiever badge a long time ago. Once I left my legal career, I set out on an unchartable course in the arts. You know, a lot of my drive to get degrees was simple curiousity. I love school. I love being a good student. I love new notebooks. But dude, I would still love to get a Ph.D one day!

MP: Is writing your first love?

HD: It’s the thing I love to do. But it makes me suffer greatly. But really, when I am writing—I am feeling most alive.
When I was a kid, my mother—then a stay-at-home mom--embarked on a writing career. She was enrolled in a correspondence course—I will never forget the day that she sold her first story. She sold an essay to American Dane magazine about the word “hygge” which has no good translation into English –it means something like comfort and home and goodness and hospitality all mixed into one word. There’s a photo of her holding the check (it was maybe $20!) and she’s got this amazing smile. So, I’ve always associated that kind of extreme pride in self and joy with writing. I wanted that happiness for myself too. I wanted to be like my mom and be a writer.

MP: Can you tell us what your award-winning novel will be titled and give us a brief description?

HD: Right now, the novel is called Light-skinned-ed Girl. Yes, I know it’s a mouthful! That’s why it might change. It’s the coming-of-age story of a young biracial and bi-cultural girl, Rachel, who loses her family in a terrible accident. She moves to a racially divided community in the Pacific Northwest where her African-American grandmother becomes her new guardian. She’s eleven and struggling with the regular difficulties of puberty but she’s also trying to find a place in the mostly black community, a community she knows nothing about. She has light-brown skin and blue eyes and is confused by the mixed attention it brings her at her new school and neighborhood. It’s a story about a girl who is becoming a young woman without her mother. It’s a story about a girl’s journey into womanhood, a journey complicated by society’s ideas of race, beauty and intelligence. Ultimately, I hope it’s a good read.

MP: Wow. That sounds so good. We can’t wait for our advanced reading copy to review!! Switching gears here, are there a lot of Black Danish folks like yourself populating the planet? Can you drop some knowledge about the Black -Danish experience in general? People probably don't often think of Black Americans and Danes having much in common.

HD: You may think this is funny, but a couple of years ago there was a whole conference at the University of Copenhagen about the Black Danish connection. I would tell people I was going to the conference and they’d joke: so who will be there, you and your two brothers? Well, actually, it was a conference of more than a hundred writers, filmmakers and scholars from all of Scandinavia and several Americans including myself.

I know people think that Danish means white—blond hair, blue eyes, the whole Nordic ideal, but like the US, Denmark has a multicultural past. So the conference dealt with connections between Denmark and the Danish West Indies (now the U.S. Virgin islands); American black jazz musicians who settled in Copenhagen in the 40s, 50s and 60s to escape the racialized United States, and Harlem Renaissance author Nella Larsen (who like me, was Black and Danish). There’s a wonderful documentary called Slavernes Slaegt/Slaves in the Family about “native” (read white) Danes who have traced their family histories back to the slaves of the West Indies. Many of the freed slaves –who had been acculturated as Danish—sailed to Denmark upon Emancipation and made lives there –and eventually “passed” into Danish society. Today, if you want to hear some really fantastic jazz, find a Scandinavia musician because he or she has probably been schooled by some of America’s best Black jazz artists who became expats in Copenhagen

MP: What's Next for Heidi Durrow?

HD: I like that you write that with a capital N! Next for Heidi Durrow: hmmmm . . . well, the novel comes out Fall 2009 from Algonquin Books. Whoo-hoo! Dear Lord, how I love Barbara Kingsolver for this prize. I’m so glad that the book will finally get out there. I’m also working on a collection of stories about the connections between African-Americans/Africans/West Indians and Copenhagen, focusing particularly on the Black Vaudevillians and other artists who went there at the beginning of the 1900s including Nella Larsen.

And then there’s another book I’m working on inspired by the life of Miss Lala, a Victorian era mulatta strongwoman who was painted by Degas in a famous portrait called Miss Lala at the Cirque Fernando. I’ve received a couple of grants for the research (I got to go to Paris for four weeks thanks to the Elizabeth George Foundation) and now I am in the thick of the writing. It’s a fascinating story—Miss Lala was very famous in her time, but her biography has been lost to history. Here, she was in the late 1800s, a strong, muscular, Mixed woman, who was celebrated for her beauty and strength. At the same time, freak shows were at their most popular. Miss Lala performed as a star at the same revue where a young particularly hairy Laotion girl was exhibited as “Krao” the Missing Link. What was that like? That’s the story I’m trying to tell. How as it that a colored European-born female performer who defied traditional Western ideals of beauty became a success, but then still, was forgotten.

I’ll continue the work on Mixed Chicks Chat each week; I continue to blog about the Mixed experience and the creative life; and next year expect another bang-up Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival –We’ll announce the dates soon. Doesn’t look like I have time to do that Ph.D. yet, huh?

MP: Geez. I’m tired just thinking about everything on your plate, but I’m so excited to read/devour everything you put out there. You do it so well. Good luck, Heidi Durrow!


glamah16 said...

What a great interview. I first heard of Heidi Durrow through your blog a while back. Its fascinating. I'm particularly interested as a part of my life is now in Sweden. So that whole Black /Scandinavian mix really piques my interest. I can just imagine that conference. We had a few Danish descent /Black friends in the islands.

Kohana said...

Yeah! I love Heidi Durrow ever since she gave me the mocha baby nod. :) How interesting to hear about her mother's piece, as there is a Dutch word that means the same thing but has no english equivalent: Gezelligheid. Perhaps Europeans have a corner on comfort?

Alex Zealand said...

I'm really looking forward to her book!

Former Mushroom-Haired Child said...

I can't wait to read this book! All the reviews I've seen of it sound wonderful, that the book is like poetry in prose form. I have no idea where Heidi finds the time and energy to do all she does, but I'm so glad she does!