Heidi Durrow: Mixed and Remixed

Stage & Studio: The NY Times best-selling author and Willamette Writers Conference keynote speaker talks about her Portland roots and Mixed-Race identity

Heidi Durrow, best-selling author and keynote speaker at this year’s Willamette Writers Conference.

Dmae Roberts talks with award-winning author Heidi Durrow, who is a keynote speaker at this year’s virtual Willamette Writers Conference (July 29-Aug.1).

The daughter of a Danish immigrant mother and a Black serviceman, Durrow grew up overseas before settling in a Black neighborhood in Portland when she was a teenager at Jefferson High School during the 1980s.  Durrow, who calls herself an Afro-Viking, is a frequent speaker on Mixed-Race identity and founded two Mixed-Race Festivals.

Durrow wrote the 2010 best-seller The Girl Who Fell From the Sky and was the winner of the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially-Engaged Fiction in 2008. Her book was chosen as one of the Best Novels of 2010 by the Washington Post and made the Top 10 Book list of 2010 by The Oregonian.

The Willamette Writers Conference is July 29-August 1, and the whole conference is online, as it was last year. As always, the conference has an impressive lineup of presenters for workshops, master classes, one-on-one pitch consultations, and manuscript critiques. If you’re a serious writer who is seeking publishing, this is a conference to attend.  See the full line up of presenters and find out about it and how to register at WillametteWriters.org.

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In this podcast, you’ll hear Heidi talk about:

What it was like growing up in Northeast Portland in the 1980s.

Heidi Durrow: “It’s called the Alberta Arts District now, but when I was growing up, it was just called dangerous. And all of the gang shootings that happened around that time in the ’80s happened within maybe a five-block radius of my house. So, my experience of dealing with issues of race was very different than what it is now. That neighborhood is thoroughly gentrified. When I go there, I experience the city as a grownup who has a lot more wealth than I had as a kid. And, and so it’s hard for me to tell, is it just class or is it also a race? The other part is, you know, I miss those communities. I don’t often see Black people when I go back to Portland, even when I’m back in my old neighborhood. And that’s a little bit strange and disorienting for me.”

You’ll hear her read from her award-winning book, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky.

And why it’s never a good idea to ask a Mixed-Race person, “What are you?”

Heidi Durrow: “I think that’s the start of the problem. It’s the ‘what are you?’ Like you’re a thing – something that has to be labeled, contained in some way. I think the ‘what’ as opposed to ‘who’ is very disorienting because I’m lots of different things. I’m a coffee drinker. I’m a writer. I am a wife. I am a friend. I am a reader. I am someone who likes to drink out of straws. What are you? (That) doesn’t really allow me to include all of those things, which are all actually important to me. Not in that order at all. (laughs). It’s that feeling of being not normal, What are you? Makes you sound alien? It makes you sound like you don’t belong to anything that could be imagined. And that’s a terrible feeling to have that you don’t belong to anyone or anywhere or anything.”

And find out about the Mixed Remixed Festival, a free festival celebrating Mixed-Race people and interracial families that she founded in Los Angeles to celebrate Loving Day. That day marks the end of the ban on interracial marriage. Mildred and Richard Loving were sentenced to a year in prison 1958 for getting married. They won the U.S. Supreme Court case Loving versus Virginia in 1967. (Oregon repealed its anti-miscegenation law in 1951. Read about all of Oregon’s exclusion laws against Black, Native American, Asian, Hawaiian, and Mixed-Race people from 1802-1959, compiled by Dr. Jacqueline Peterson-Loomis at Oregon Encyclopedia.org.)

Heidi Durrow: “I think people are stunned still when I tell them that my parents got married in 1965 and it was illegal for them to marry.”

Heidi Durrow with Keegan-​Michael Key & Jordan Peele, who attended the Mixed Remixed Festival she founded in Los Angeles.

***

Heidi W. Durrow is an American writer, author of the best-seller The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, and the winner of the 2008 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially-Engaged Fiction. The Girl Who Fell From the Sky has been hailed as one of the Best Novels of 2010 by the Washington Post and a Top 10 Book of 2010 by The Oregonian, and was named a Top 10 Debut of 2010 by Booklist.

Durrow, the daughter of a Danish immigrant and an African-American Air Force man, grew up in part overseas in Turkey, Germany, and Denmark. In 1980 her family settled in Portland, Oregon, where she attended Jefferson High School. She majored in English at Stanford University and wrote a weekly column for the Stanford Daily, graduating in 1991 with Honors. She continued her education at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and received a M.S. degree in 1992. She then attended Yale Law School and received her J.D. in 1995. She is the first generation in her family to attend college. Durrow’s career began at Cravath, Swaine & Moore in New York City, where she worked as a corporate litigator on antitrust, commercial contracts, and employment discrimination cases. She left Cravath in 1997 to pursue a literary career.

In 2008 Durrow became a founder of the now defunct Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival. The Festival—which ran from 2008 to 2012—celebrated stories of the mixed-race experience, including stories about biracial identity, trans-racially adopted families, and interracial and intercultural relationships and friendships. Durrow created a new festival called the Mixed Remixed Festival, which premiered June 14, 2014 and ran through 2019.

The Festival presented films, readings, workshops, a family event, and the largest West Coast’s Loving Day celebration, which recognizes the landmark case Loving v. Virginia that ended the ban on interracial marriage in the U.S.

Durrow was named a Power 100 Leader by Ebony Magazine in 2010 and was nominated for a 2011 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Debut.

About the author

Dmae Roberts is a two-time Peabody winning radio producer, writer and theatre artist. Her work is often autobiographical and cross-cultural and informed by her biracial identity. Her Peabody award-winning documentary Mei Mei, a Daughter’s Song is a harrowing account of her mother’s childhood in Taiwan during WWII. She adapted this radio documentary into a film. She won a second Peabody-award for her eight-hour Crossing East documentary, the first Asian American history series on public radio. She received the Dr. Suzanne Ahn Civil Rights and Social Justice award from the Asian American Journalists Association and was selected as a United States Artists (USA) Fellow. Her stage plays and essays have been published in numerous publications. She published her memoir The Letting Go Trilogies: Stories of a Mixed-Race Family in 2016. As a theatre artist, she has won two Drammys, one for her acting and one for her play Picasso In The Back Seat which also won the Oregon Book Award. Her plays have been produced in Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles, NYC and Florida. Roberts is the executive producer of MediaRites, a nonprofit multicultural production organization and co-founder of Theatre Diaspora, an Asian American/Pacific Islander non-profit theatre that started as a project of MediaRites. She created the Crossing East Archive of more than 200 hours of broadcast-quality, pan-AAPI interviews and oral histories. For 23 years, Roberts volunteered to host and produce Stage & Studio live on KBOO radio. In 2009, she started the podcast on StagenStudio.com, which continues at ArtsWatch.

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