The Hybridity Revolution

  • Andrea Thompson (Editor) and Adebe DeRango-Adem (Editor)
    Other Tongues: Mixed-Race Women Speak Out. Inanna Publications and Education
Reviewed by Michelle La Flamme

Societies that pride themselves on an imagined monoracial norm have rare glimpses into the multiracial experience. The contemporary literary phenomenon some refer to as the “boom in biracial biography” (Spickard) has offered nuanced reflections on the ontological impact of this liminal hybrid position. At their thematic core, most bi-racial and multiracial narratives demonstrate the complexity of this form of embodiment and the semiotics of a body continually affected, and constructed, by the racializing gaze. Several thematic issues are repeated in both Carol Camper’s seminal anthology Miscegenation Blues: Voices of Mixed Race Women (1994) and the more recent Other Tongue: Mixed-Race Women Speak Out (2010). The writing in both anthologies is a bold testament to the pervasiveness of multiraciality and ultimately counters many social scientific conclusions. The interest in such anthologies is also in keeping with the rise in autobiography and critical race theories. In both fields, there is a consistent tendency to privilege personal accounts of the mixed race experience and, as Camper claims in her preface, the importance of “speaking for ourselves” as “experts on our own lives.”

The women writers in Other Tongues outline moments of interpellation, the power of the racializing gaze, and the stages of their shifting notions of self based on diversely-coded bodies that challenge monoracial definitions of identity. The work accounts for various individual experiences of “passing” and the complexities of a body that is repeatedly read for signs of authenticity. These writers contest the notion of a “post-racial” world in that these poems, memoirs, short stories, and artwork continually reference the fact that visual identifiers of race are understood within “always already” historical and cultural conditions that lead to the racialization of the body despite the individual’s efforts (or best intentions) to defy these norms. The editors of Other Tongues suggest that it offers unique perspectives on the “changing racial landscape that [has] occurred over the last decade” in order to offer a “snapshot of the North American terrain of questions about race, mixed-race, racial identity, and how mixed-race women in North American identify in the twenty-first century” in a time that is marked by “the inauguration of the first mixed-race Black president in North America.” However, the anthology is more personal than critical, privileges women’s voices, and fails to represent the range of mixedness in North America. Given that the themes and content echo Camper’s 1994 anthology, the uniqueness of this collection is perhaps overstated.

The editors have arranged the anthology in three distinct categories: 1) “Rules/Roles,” where writers grapple with the question “what are you” and the ontological implications; 2) “Roots/Routes,” where “location, immigration, diasporic moments and family” take centre stage with the “politics of hair”; 3) “Revelations” features words of wisdom and “vision[s] of the future.” Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese, black, and Aboriginal mixed-race writers express their identities here in writing and visual art. Every North American anthology of racial mixedness addresses the persistence of the question “Where are you from?” and “What are you?” Here, Kali Fajardo-Anstine playfully and ironically suggests, “You will hear this question 9,652 times in your life.” The work addresses white privilege and the unique negotiations involved in “passing” and otherwise responding to the colour line from within and outside of various communities of colour. Some writers, like Amber Jamaica Mosser in “Contamination,” refer to their very bodies as symbols of the historical legacies of interraciality: “my very existence offers tangible proof of the sullying of various bloodlines; it evokes histories of colonization, conquest, invasion, and pain.” Mosser, like many of these writers, ironically reflects on the “un-(w)hol(e)liness” that the mixed-race body signifies. Others identify the numerous painful and sometimes comic reactions their bodies have evoked.

The utter loneliness of being lost in a sea of monoracial faces and the quest to find community is a staple part of these narratives. Such efforts include searching for the self in photographs of family and deeply personal tableaux involving penetrating ontological questions as one faces the mirror. Photographs and visual art appear throughout Other Tongues, forcing the reader to notice their own reading of these mixed-race bodies.

Transcriptions of several conversations document the “malleability of [our] racial identities” and are predicated on the body being “racially indecipherable” (Quinn). Advice for other mixed-race people is offered by several writers, but most explicitly in “The Half-Breed’s Guide to Answering the Question” by M. C. Shumaker. “Open Letter” by Adebe DeRango-Adem playfully and ironically lists the names that are used to categorize mixed-race peoples, causing the reader to reflect upon the semantics involved in the racialization of mixed race bodies.

Countering the “tragic mulatto” and “tortured half-breed” narratives of yesteryear, writers here identify moments, sites, and places where people find solace and comfort and describe carefully crafted means to negotiate racial boundaries and still feel whole. A challenge to racial essentialism is offered by Erin Kobayashi: “the truth is, I am not a ‘half ’ or ‘bi’ or ‘multi’ human being. I have always been whole. I am 100 percent mixed. Final answer. I hope that answers your trick question.”

While this anthology offers new voices, the content on the whole echoes the symbolism, themes, and quests for selfhood in Camper’s earlier anthology. I am still waiting for an anthology that will include writing from Canadian hybridity theorists like George Elliott Clarke, Lawrence Hill, Wayde Compton, Fred Wah, and Drew Hayden Taylor, who have written poetry, prose, and critical essays on notions of mixedness. Is there a gender difference in the way in which racial hybridity plays itself out in Canada? Do Canadian writers offer new paradigms, symbols, and themes on racial mixedness that are useful in the larger frame of postcoloniality or hybridity theory? What are the unique features of North America that drive our interest in the experience of mixedness and feed our critical engagement with this form of identity? In what ways is Canada distinct from the US and Latin American articulations of these multiplicities? What are the specific socio-cultural frameworks that define and condition these women’s experiences of multiraciality? What are the future directions for narratives as the hyphenated identity becomes increasingly complicated? Will the mestiza consciousness that asserts mixedness as the norm evolve in other North American sites? What effect would such paradigm shifts have on the lived experiences and semiotics of the multiply-coded and polyracial body?

The next generation of writers will at least have anthologies like this one to digest and reflect upon when they navigate their own experiences of racialization. If it is true that all people require some form of mirroring to develop a stable identity, then these anthologies become the very mirrors that the collected writers themselves searched for while they were growing up.

This review “The Hybridity Revolution” originally appeared in Indigenous Focus. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 215 (Winter 2012): 161-63.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.