Race, in terms kids grasp
Sundee Frazier writes engrossing, funny children's novels about families who embody the nation's mosaic heritage
When the 2000 Census first allowed for people to check multiple boxes to describe their race, it signaled an era of increasing recognition of multiracial identities in our country. Now, we are living in the age of Barack Obama, our nation’s first black president who just happens to have a white mother from Kansas, and in U.S. cities such as Seattle, Sacramento and San Antonio, one in six babies is born multiracial, according to the Seattle-based Mavin Foundation, which since 1998 has educated the public on our nation’s durable multiracial identity.
Local author Sundee Frazier has written extensively on the subject of multiracial identity, both in her nonfiction works, such as “Check All That Apply: Finding Wholeness as a Multiracial Person” and in her award winning children’s novel “Brendan Buckley’s Universe and Everything in It.” Frazier’s own experience as a person of mixed race heritage has strongly impacted her work as an author. She was born to a black father and white mother who married in 1968, only one year after the Supreme Court lifted the laws that still banned interracial marriage in 16 U.S. states.
Frazier’s latest novel for children, “The Other Half of my Heart,” tells the story of Minni and Keira King, twin sisters from Port Townsend, Wash. who travel to their grandmother’s home in North Carolina to compete for the title of Miss Black Pearl Preteen of America. The fact that Minni was born appearing white like their father, while Keira looked black like their mother, leads the girls to confront complex issues of race, appearance and self-identity in a story that is both laugh-out-loud funny and deeply thought provoking for young and old readers alike.
Frazier recently took some time to discuss her work with Real Change; her writing process and her own experience as a mixed race person.
What was your inspiration for the characters of Minni and Keira?
Well, in terms of the concept of black and white twins, the idea came from an actual news item from the U.K. in about 2006. Twins were born, and one was being called black and the other white. And my editor’s actually the one who brought the news story to my attention and suggested I consider writing a story about what their lives might be like at 10 or 11. It’s just an interesting situation where you have a family with these twins that come out looking as different as black and white. I took on the challenge—I thought, “Well, I’m a biracial person. I know what it feels like to be both black and white.” And the characters Minni and Keira developed with their distinct personalities, because as much as they look different on the outside, they’re different on the inside as well.
And I’m probably more like Minni, who is the point of view character, the more white appearing one. She’s more shy and retiring and reserved, and she loves animals and is into reading books. I can really relate to her personality. But there’s a little bit of Keira in me as well. (laughs) She’s the more fiery, performance oriented one. As much as I say I don’t like to get up onstage, I’ve had some experiences with performing as well, so I could relate to Keira. And she certainly came out of another part of me, the more outgoing side of me. So I like to say that the twins reflect the twin nature of my own heart and personality.
What do you think the differences, and the similarities, between these twin sisters reveal about the boundaries of race in our society?
Well, first of all, I think that the sister situation reveals that the boundaries between races are not as defined as we like to think that they are, that the definitions that we use for black and white are very fluid and shifting.
The boundaries of who is black and who is white, certainly that’s something that I think about a lot as a biracial person. How we think of race is very much about physical appearance, and I think that the struggle that Minni’s going through in the book, as the white-appearing one is trying to figure out, ‘what does it mean for me as a white-appearing person to be black?’
I hope that it will challenge readers to consider that how we define people by looking at their outsides is not always true to who the person is on the inside, or how they perceive themselves or what their experiences are. Basically, looks can be deceiving. Looks can be very deceiving. I think that’s a major theme in the book. I don’t know, I’ll have to wait till people start telling me what they get out of the book.
The story begins in Port Townsend and follows the girls to Raleigh, N.C., where their experience of race is very different. Why did you choose to begin your story in the Pacific Northwest before transitioning to the South?
Well, I’m from the Pacific Northwest so my roots are here and even though I left for 20 years and traveled around the country and lived in different places, I was born in Seattle and raised in Washington until I was 17. So this is very much the soil. Culture comes from word cultura, which means soil, and my culture is Washington state. Port Townsend is an artist’s community and the mother in the story is an artist, so I can see a strong motivation for the mom to stay there, even though she knows that her black-appearing daughter is having some challenges. They’re very visible minorities in Port Townsend, but the artist community and the openness to diversity is something that keeps them there. So that’s why the story starts in Port Townsend, and because I wanted there to be a setting in which Keira, the black appearing one, is the one who feels like she is a minority, so that when they go to North Carolina, where they’re mostly in a black environment then the shoe’s on the other foot. Then Minni, the white appearing one, is suddenly propelled into this world where she now knows what it feels like to be in the minority, and she starts to have to wrestle with what her sister’s been dealing with all her life up in Washington State.
While reading the book I found myself laughing out loud more than a few times. What is the importance of humor within your work, and how does it relate to your exploration of what is often quite serious subject matter?
It’s so good to hear you say that, because I actually don’t think of myself as a funny person. But I’ve discovered, between “Brendan Buckley’s Universe” and this book
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