Tag Archives: mixed ethnicity

An Interview with Janet Stickmon

21 Aug
Janet Stickmon is the author of Midnight Peaches, Two O’Clock Patience and the memoir, Crushing Soft Rubies.

Janet Stickmon is the author of Midnight Peaches, Two O’Clock Patience and the memoir, Crushing Soft Rubies.

Janet Stickmon is the author of Midnight Peaches, Two O’Clock Patience and the memoir Crushing Soft Rubies, which has been used as a course textbook at U.C. Berkeley, San Francisco State University, Santa Rosa Junior College and Gavilan College. Stickmon is a professor of Humanities at Napa Valley College and a former high school teacher in Richmond, CA. She founded and facilitates Broken Shackle Developmental Training, a program that promotes the use of healing techniques to help reduce the effects of internalized racism.

In this interview, Stickmon discusses dangers of identifying people as “just human,” her unexpected love of the sci-fi novel Heirs of Prophecy, and hybridity in both writing and community.

To read Stickmon’s essay, “Blackapina,” and an exercise on narrative voice, click here.

Michael Noll

You write, “I longed to identify as ‘just human.’ This didn’t fully capture what I was about either, especially since being both Black and Filipina shaped my human experience.” When I teach an essay like Richard Rodriguez’s “‘Blaxicans’ and Other Reinvented Americans,” one of my students will inevitably say something like this: why can’t we just be people? It’s almost always a white student, and so I’ve come to think of this question as a white question. Yet here you were, with the same idea. Was there a particular experience that made you realize that being “just human” was an insufficient description of yourself?

Janet Stickmon

Actually I never really longed to identify as “just human.” In that line, I wrote, “Though such things were limiting, I never felt so frustrated by racial categories or questions reflecting binary thought that I longed to identify as ‘just human.’” Perhaps I could have phrased this sentence a bit differently. To clarify, I never longed to identify as “just human” even though I did find questions like, “What are you?” and “Are you more Black or Filipino?” to be frustrating and limiting.

However, I do remember when I was around 17 or 18 thinking that clubs organized around ethnic identity undermined integration. Attending my first National Society of Black Engineers (N.S.B.E.) conference during my sophomore year at U.C. Irvine completely changed my mind. There was something extremely powerful about being surrounded by hundreds of African Americans of every shade, every eye color, every hair texture.  For the first time in my life, I did not feel strange, unattractive, or undesirable. Instead of being the only Black person in the room, I was one among many; being Black was the norm; we were the majority. As diverse as the students at that conference were, we still shared a common ethnic heritage that we could detect in each other’s voices, gait, concerns, values, complexion, hair, and more. I felt a sense of relief that I could share certain aspects of my life experience and be understood without offering detailed explanations.

Gradually, with my involvement in N.S.B.E., and other groups, I began to understand that organizations centered around ethnic identity served as a home people of color could return to and have their/our existence validated and supported. In Crushing Soft Rubies—A Memoir, I go into more detail about how other college organizations/programs helped me understand that ethnicity is an integral part of our humanity.

When I talk about racism or multiracial identity in my classes, I also have at least a couple of students each semester who will ask, “Why can’t we just be human,” or make statements like, “People are just people,” or  “We are just one race:  the human race.” I’ve also found that usually these questions/statements are made by white students. Occasionally they come from students who pass for white and/or are multiracial students. Students who say these things are unaware of the implications of what they are saying. They don’t understand that such a mentality fuels color-blind racism. Some of these students believe that if we just stop talking about race or stop talking about our differences then racism (and other systems of oppression) will just go away. Instead, precisely the opposite happens. Ignoring the real differences between groups of people prevents us from seeing the real ways, for example, such differences are used as a basis for giving one group a set of privileges at the expense of another group. If we don’t see difference, we are incapable of seeing injustice clearly, and therefore are not in a good position to end the injustice. Though on the surface, the “just be human” mentality may look and sound appealing and innocuous, it’s actually a fear-based mentality that perceives difference as potentially divisive or something that “complicates” human interactions. Instead of being feared, our differences can be recognized and celebrated. Conversations about our different and similar ways of experiencing the world in terms of ethnicity, class, gender, and sexuality, disability, religion, and more have the potential to deepen relationships amongst human beings.

Michael Noll

Many people have probably experienced something like this:

“I felt pressured to believe I had to turn on and off each side of my ethnic identity depending on who was around. I thought that in order to be accepted as Black within an all Black social environment, I had to “turn on” my Black side (whatever that meant) and leave behind or downplay my Filipino side; when I was in an all Filipino environment I felt that I had to “turn on” my Filipino-ness (whatever that meant) and downplay my Black side.”

You write that you grew weary of these expectations, saying, “I wanted to bring all of me wherever I went,” but this seems easier said than done. Our communities exert a powerful influence on how we see ourselves—who they say, and we say, that we are. If you’re choosing to identify yourself in a different or new way, is it a constant battle with the community? Do your family and friends and acquaintances eventually come around to your way of seeing things? Or, do you find or form a new community?

Janet Stickmon

These are great questions! Yes, bringing all of me wherever I go is easier said than done. Indeed, people always have their opinions about how multiracial people should identify. Personally, I was tired of viewing myself as a fraction and feeling compartmentalized. Changes in how I chose to identify were informed by a substantial amount of self-reflection, research, and interaction with other multiracial people, particularly at conferences. In general, I never formally announced to all of my relatives or friends how I identified.   For some reason, I didn’t feel the need to do so.

With my closest friends and family members, how I identified ethnically was one of many things that inevitably came up in conversations since I shared a certain level of intimacy with them. In such cases, no matter how I identified, there was acceptance and understanding.

In more formal settings, like during a performance, presentation, or class introduction, I explicitly state how I identify. In such spaces, no one has ever confronted me or questioned why I identify the way I do. Perhaps, this was due to the clarity and conviction with which I publicly defined myself. Maybe identifying so strongly discourages people from openly questioning me. (Perhaps, some just prefer to criticize me in private.  Who knows?) It is also possible that some might think twice before questioning how I choose to identify (or before questioning my Black or Filipino authenticity) because I teach both Intro to Africana Studies and Filipina(o)-American Heritage. Though I don’t believe that teaching these histories makes me an “expert” in each culture, I do find it interesting that teaching both of these classes affords me the privilege of not having my authenticity routinely questioned—at least not in an academic setting anyway.

Today, when I share with my students why I identify as Blackapina, my students listen carefully and make a genuine attempt to understand a more nuanced approach to speaking about ethnic identity.  Judging from class discussions and one-on-one conversations, many students, especially multiracial people, transracial adoptees, and those involved in interracial romantic relationships, find it liberating to hear a professor articulate something that reflects some aspect of their own experience. Many of my students, including those who may identify as monoracial, welcome the possibility of embracing a both/and/and mentality to challenge binary thinking.

In response to your question about community, I actively seek out an unofficial circle of support that is made up of the people I confide and trust with various aspects of my personal and professional life. Some may share my way of thinking, while others may not. Those within my circle of support are generally compassionate and have a good sense of humor. This group consists of people of color and white allies with education in critical consciousness and intersectionality. This circle also consists of those of various backgrounds who may not have been exposed to an education in critical consciousness, but have a basic sense of justice and integrity and demonstrate a desire to learn from others and share of themselves. As I reflect upon this, my circle of support seems to mirror my own hybridity.

Michael Noll

I love that you found a model for your identity from a novel—and not some highbrow literary work but a fantasy novel, Heirs of Prophecy, with a main character who was half elf and half human. Was this just a happy accident of your reading, or do you think that genre fiction (especially science fiction, fantasy, and comic books) have something to teach us about how we identify ourselves?

Janet Stickmon

I must admit, my knowledge of science fiction, fantasy, graphic novels, and comic books is fairly limited.  My husband is far more well-versed in these worlds than I am. Years ago, we used to go to one of his favorite science fiction and fantasy bookstores called The Other Change of Hobbit. He usually knew exactly what he was looking for, while I would wander around the store trying to figure out what book seemed interesting enough to commit to. I happened to stumble across Heirs of Prophecy, part of the Forgotten Realms series. I read the back cover and the words “half elf” and “half human” caught my attention.  I bought it and began reading it right away. It turns out, yes, it was a happy accident.

Heirs of Prophecy is part of the Forgotten Realms Trilogy by best-selling science fiction author Lisa Smedman.

Heirs of Prophecy is part of the Forgotten Realms Trilogy by best-selling science fiction author Lisa Smedman.

I was pulled into this fantasy world set in the country of Sembia, and I wanted to stay. The characters were so believable.  The landscape of Sembia was breathtaking. The author, Lisa Smedman, didn’t just write a story, she painted a world, and I had the pleasure of sitting on the canvas. Witnessing the experiences of the main character, Larajin, gave meaning to my reality as a biracial woman. The extremes presented in this world inspired me to feel the realness of the spiritual force that I could invoke from both sides of my heritage and be able to benefit from both. In the past, I had attended a couple presentations where people talked about being biracial as having double the happiness. However, this book seem to speak to something deeper than possessing double the happiness; it seemed to say I had double the power.  No longer was I seeing myself as one condemned to a lifetime of confusion and rejection for being mixed.  Heirs of Prophecy seemed to create in me this audacity to believe I had special gifts that monoracial people did not have. Indeed, there are some issues with this idea, especially pertaining to exoticism and privileges given to light-skinned African Americans at the expense of dark-skinned African Americans; but I would need to expand on this in another essay. Nonetheless, I felt empowered as a biracial woman through this book.

I tried to recapture that same feeling and search for something just as meaningful in other books in the series but had little success. I enjoyed fantasy, but these latter experiences weren’t nearly as magical or as meaningful as the first time.

Shortly after reading Heirs of Prophecy and a couple other fantasy novels, I became exposed to the work of Octavia Butler and the His Dark Materials Trilogy. Around the same time, I became a fan of Star Trek (The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine) and Lord of the Rings. Although I am a fan, I consider myself a novice when it comes to science fiction and fantasy and gained appreciation for these genres through a combination of literary works and cinema.

I think the creation of fantastic worlds have the potential to push, destroy, or bend the boundaries of our reality to cause us to think we are bigger than ourselves and more capable of having a greater impact on the world than we ever imagined.  Science-fiction, fantasy, graphic novels, and comic books have the potential to shape our identity and influence our self-efficacy.

Michael Noll

This essay is, in a way, a kind of hybrid, employing scholarly language like “the more one critically examines racial hierarchy and essentialism and their impact on the dynamics between racial groups” and also more informal language and structures:”I had to “turn on” my Black side (whatever that meant).” How do you find the right balance between the formal and the colloquial in your writing?

Janet Stickmon

That’s funny that you noticed that. I don’t think I fully realized how much of a hybrid this essay was. The first part of the essay was originally written for a scholarly article on Obama. While writing it, I was on a flight to Chicago and one of my favorite movies, The Adjustment Bureau, came on. Perhaps it was a couple of scenes from the film or maybe its soundtrack that became my muse for that introduction.

Race and the Obama Phenomenon The Vision of a More Perfect Multiracial Union, from the University Press of Mississippi, was edited by G. Reginald Daniel and Hettie V. Williams.

Race and the Obama Phenomenon:
The Vision of a More Perfect Multiracial Union, from the University Press of Mississippi, was edited by G. Reginald Daniel and Hettie V. Williams.

About a year later, I wrote “Blackapina.” I decided to reshape the introduction of the Obama article, use it in “Blackapina” and call it “First Movement: The Intersection” as if it were the first part of a musical composition. I wanted to use it for “Blackapina” because it accurately represented how I felt about the benefits that come from being born from and living within the intersections of life.  Throughout the writing process, I noticed most certainly my use of scholarly language, but there also seemed to be a flow and a pulse to that flow, that seemed to lack the rigidity that often characterizes scholarly writing.  It was as if the writing process itself became a bit of a dance that was magical and majestic at the same time.

I think the hybridity that exists throughout “Blackapina” is a reflection of my own hybridity as a professor.     I have teetered between valuing the language I’ve learned from graduate level education in theology and ethnic studies and valuing less formal ways of speaking. I never want to be too “academic” that everything out of my mouth is so jargon-laden that no one understands what I’m saying. I don’t want language to create a chasm between myself and another. I want it to create greater understanding and connection. I want my students to learn the “academic” language so it can serve as an additional tool they can use when a social context requires it. I discourage students from using it to alienate or impress people. I think if what has come to be accepted as “academic” language does not obscure the meaning that I want to communicate, then I use it. However, if a more colloquial voice expresses what I want to communicate in a way that is more meaningful to the target audience, then I use that. My objective is to use a combination of tools that create the greatest amount of understanding of and connection to the writing. Perhaps then with time, if enough of us continue to use this approach—another way of being bilingual—we can collectively change the face and sound of what is considered “academic” or “scholarly” language.

Another way I try to find balance between these voices is to pay attention to my heart and my intellect.  Lately, I have been toying around with telling stories to evoke a certain feeling. I enjoy sharing and listening to people share their personal stories and when they do so, there appears to be a difference between where they reach from: if they are reaching from their heart first or from their intellect first.  There seems to be greater honesty, rawness, vulnerability when an attempt is made to draw from the heart first. I have great admiration for those who allow their intellect to be informed by their heart—their emotional and spiritual selves. Consequently, I also make sure my intellect is guided by my heart’s needs and wants. I try my best to do this first in my personal life in order to be able to do it later in my writing.  The final product then becomes the hybrid that you see in pieces like “Blackapina” and other selections from Midnight Peaches, Two O’clock Patience.

August 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Bring Other Voices into Your Writing

19 Aug
Janet Stickmon's book, Midnight Peaches, Two O'Clock Patience, is a collection of poems, stories, and essays about the creative power of women.

Janet Stickmon’s book, Midnight Peaches, Two O’Clock Patience, is a collection of poems, stories, and essays about the creative power of women.

When creating a narrator’s voice, either for a story or our own voice in an essay, we often struggle to find the right voice. Writers talk about this all the time—they struggled with their work until that moment when they finally discovered their voice. It’s tempting to believe that this voice is a single vein of consciousness and diction and that we’re just hacking away at the rock of our exteriors until we uncover it. But sometimes there is no single consciousness. Sometimes the best or most authentic voice contains different kinds of diction and syntax. If that’s the case, what do you do?

Janet Stickmon demonstrates how to handle multiple voices in her essay, “Blackapina,” about her multiethnic background as an African-American Filipina. The first part of the essay was published as ““Barack Obama: Embracing Multiplicity—Being a Catalyst for Change” in Race, Gender, and the Obama Phenomenon: Toward a More Perfect Union?, co-edited by G. Reginald Daniel and Hettie Williams. It was later incorporated into a larger essay, “Blackapina,” in Stickmon’s book Midnight Peaches, Two O’Clock Patience. You can read it here.

How the Essay Works

In her famous essay, “Mother Tongue,” Amy Tan writes about a lecture that she had given many times but never in front of her mother. Only then, with her immigrant mother in the audience, did she realize that it was “a speech filled with carefully wrought grammatical phrases, burdened, it suddenly seemed to me, with nominalized forms, past perfect tenses, conditional phrases, all the forms of standard English that I had learned in school and through books, the forms of English I did not use at home with my mother.”

That is the kind of English that Stickmon uses for this essay. An excerpt was published in a scholarly book. As anyone who’s written an academic, scholarly essay knows, there are expectations for the kind of language that will be used. Here is Stickmon’s first sentence:

People of multiethnic backgrounds are accustomed to existing at the intersections of multiple worlds and multiple identities, holding and juggling those spaces in tension.

This is Stickmon’s academic voice, and it would seem that it leaves no room for the diction and syntax that Stickmon might use outside the classroom or lecture hall—just as the voices we create for any piece of writing often seem narrow (purely serious with no room for humor or too smart or too naive or too whatever to leave room for sentences that contradict the dominant voice). Yet Stickmon manages to include other voices.

She starts by inserting other languages. The first is Filipino:

Momma was from the barangay of Labangon in Cebu and left a clerical job to come to the United States—the country she considered the “land of milk and honey.”

The second is a form of English:

Da’y (Daddy for short) was from Shreveport, LA and hopped freight trains to California—one of approximately six million African-Americans who fled the oppression of the South during what came to be known as the Great Migration.

With those proper names (barangay of Labangon in Cebu) and (Da’y (Daddy for short) was from Shreveport, LA) comes an entire dictionary of words that are rarely found in academic texts:

My biracial experience began with the very basic influences of food and language, eating Momma’s biko and bijon and Da’y’s hoe cakes and hot cakes, hearing Da’y sound “country” and Momma speak Cebuano.

The presence of these new voices has a marked impact on the dominant academic voice. Here’s the next paragraph:

It was 1989 when Momma died and Da’y was put in a convalescent hospital; I was 15 years old. Three years later, Da’y died, and I officially became an orphan, continuing to juggle my dual heritage along with the meaning of life in the absence of parental love. I was tossed around from one social worker to the next, telling my story over and over again, becoming attached to no one. Though the most immediate lifelines to my history were gone, my sense of self was informed by the memories my parents left behind, the Filipino relatives I moved in with, the holidays spent with my African-American relatives, and close high school and college friends.

The language is still addressing the “intersections of multiple worlds and multiple identities” from the essay’s first sentence, but it’s now doing so in language that isn’t necessarily more colloquial but certainly more understandable to non-academic readers (“tossed around from one social worker to the next”).

The essay even begins to gain a sense of humor (something that scholarly writing is not at all known for). Here is an example:

I had to “turn on” my Black side (whatever that meant) and leave behind or downplay my Filipino side; when I was in an all Filipino environment I felt that I had to “turn on” my Filipino-ness (whatever that meant) and downplay my Black side.

Those parenthetical asides—”(whatever that meant)”—almost seem like the commentary of another voice on a sentence that puts turn on in quotation marks. In short, because Stickmon has introduced these different voices in the essay, they begin to form a kind of dialogue with each other—that dialogue, as Chimamanda Adichie has explained in her popular TED talk, is far better than listening to a single, dominant voice.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s introduce and use different voices, using “Blackapina” by Janet Stickmon as a model:

  1. Choose a piece of writing whose voice feels too homogenized. It can be a story or essay sitting in a drawer or in a folder on your computer. Sometimes when we get stuck in a draft, the problem is that we haven’t given ourselves enough to work with. We had an idea that made us begin the story/essay in the first place, and we took it as far as we could. Introducing more voices can provide more grist for our imaginations.
  2. Introduce a piece of information that can’t be told in the dominant voice. This might be something from another culture or language, like the Filipino places and foods referenced by Stickmon. But that other culture/language doesn’t need to from some foreign land. In America, there are particular Englishes for different regions and professions, and with those Englishes come different vocabularies. You can’t talk about tort law or raising hogs or heart surgery or road construction without using the dictions of those fields.
  3. Expand the reference. Stickmon references her parents’ origins in the Phillipines and Louisiana and then builds on those references by talking about everyday experiences (like food) that are associated with them. In your writing, every reference to something outside the frame of the narration is an opportunity to let in other voices—if you’ll let them speak. So, stay with a reference for a paragraph. Give more details about it.
  4. Mesh the reference with the primary voice. We usually reference something because it carries some weight or importance. Use that importance to make the reference a crucial part of the primary narrative. For example, once Stickmon introduces Da’y, she’s able to tell a story about him that connects to the very academic idea of “intersections of multiple worlds and multiple identities.” Because Da’y is from a difference linguistic world that intersections, the language of that story and its analysis becomes a different language that previously existed—not less academic, as some people sometimes argue, but a hybrid of pure academic language (whatever that means) and something non-academic that is essential to the narrative. Another way of looking at this is as a lens. Very often we start a piece of writing by looking through a particular lens. If you change the lens slightly (by adding characters or changing setting), you also change the story and voice.

This can be a fun exercise. Like Amy Tan, you might realize that you’re speaking different languages or forms of a language without knowing it.

Good luck!

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