Saturday morning, June 16, 2012: I take the Metro from North Hollywood to the Tokyo Arts District in Downtown Los Angeles. My destination is the 5th Annual Mixed Roots Film and Literary Festival at the Japanese American National Museum and the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy. This is a three-day event, but I can be there for just this one day, and my first goal is to meet Steven Riley, the creator of the website, Mixed Race Studies.
I have not attended an event centered upon the mixed experience in many years. I walk through the glass doors. The volunteer staff is welcoming and energetic. The imagery is colorful, ambiguous, and stimulating. The overall vibe is positive and hopeful, and for a moment I am taken aback to how I felt at my first mixed-experience event, the 2000 Harvard-Wellesley Conference on the Mixed Race Experience.
Skeptics say that this type of event, which brings together individuals of diverse mixes and backgrounds, is unsustainable. Do Hapas, blacklicans, latalians, jewasians, and standard black/white multiracials really have that much in common? Apparently many do, and this Festival holds together amazingly well and continues to grow thanks to the diligence, intelligence, and creativity of its founders, Fanshen Cox and Heidi Durrow.
The artists/writers whom I see present or talk to this day have strong personal voices and are very talented at what they do. Overall, their work complicates received understandings of multiracial identity, experience, and art.
Eliaichi Kimaro is a visual artist of Tanzanian and Korean descent. She is the creator/director of her own auto-biopic, A Lot Like You: the Truth Has No Borders. In her workshop, she talks about her own creative process over the course of making her film. She also gives advice to the audience about getting into the zone of creativity and about the value of telling one’s own story.
I am also present for readings by Jamie Figueroa, Lauren Loften, and Mat Johnson.
Jamie Figueroa is a creative writing student at the Institute of American Indian Arts. She reads prose poems in a voice that is confident, melodic, and intense. She is Puerto Rican, grew up in Ohio, and then returned to Puerto Rico. The work that she reads conveys her multiracial experiences growing up in Ohio and upon returning to Puerto Rico. White supremacy, white privilege, and the entrapments and contradictions of American consumerism are some the themes that she develops in her work.
Lauren Lofton is both mixed and a member of LBGT community in San Francisco. She is personable, enthusiastic, and sincere. She performs autobiographical sketches in which she reflects upon her experiences growing up mixed, and describes ethnoracial distinctions within the LBGT communities of which she has been a part. She conveys what it feels like to be adept at changing presentations and performances to navigate amongst different groups and inter-group factions. Through her work, creative and professional, she seeks to heal divisions within herself and within the communities in which she interacts.
Mat Johnson is a rising literary star who has already published several novels. His forte is satire, and as I listen to him read he reminds me of Percival Everett in terms of subject matter and style, though Johnson is much more humorous. His latest novel is Pym, a hilarious satire which I am finally in the process of reading. I really like his critique of white liberalism in academia at the start of Pym. His main protagonist/narrator is Chris Jaynes, an Americanist of African descent who is denied tenure at Bard College for refusing to be on the Diversity Committee and for shifting his scholarly focus to Edgar Allen Poe. Bard replaces him with Mosaic Johnson, a hip hop theorist who is more than happy to be on the Diversity Committee. This conflict ends Jaynes’ academic career and makes the novel unfold.
After the readings, I leave the building to get cash to buy Pym, but by the time I return and make it to the front of Johnson’s table all copies have been sold. As he signs copies of Pym and talks to his admirers, I take notice of the man sitting next to him in relative silence with his own book.
That man is poet Neil Aitken, the author of The Lost Country of Sight, an award-winning book of poems. I talk to him about his artistic vision and about how he negotiates racial categories and mixed experiences in his work. He tells me that he does not directly reference them, but that they are present in some of his poems, in the background, abstract, yet noticeable if you read closely. I read his book a few days later, and indeed his poems are purposefully shorn of direct references to national, ethnic, racial, cultural group categories and identities. Aitken is a poet of strong cosmopolitan yearnings, and his poems express ideas such as loss, detachment, forgetting, memory, travelling, and self-becoming.
Some may conclude from this description that Aitken is a white modernist whose work has little to do with race and racism. However, I am of the opinion that his work also sheds oblique light on multiracial experience and identity. Aitken is Chinese and white, and he grew up in Canada, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Taiwan. So we could call him Hapa, though I think that he is probably uneasy with this designation insofar as it limits the meaning of his work and his evolution as an artist. Hence, he stands in contrast to Hapa artist Kip Fulbeck and other multiracial artists and writers who rely on established ethnic, racial, and cultural categories to create and develop their work. In other words, Aitken stands amongst multiracial artists, writers, activists, and metatheorists (to use Rainer Spencer’s term) who see the need and feel compelled to contemplate and depict mixed experiences and complexities without direct recourse to categories that, historically speaking, undergird forms of collective pathology such as tribalism and racism.