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Susan Straight on the lessons of the mixed-race novel

LiteratureArts and CultureUC Riverside

The novelist Susan Straight is uniquely positioned to write about being mixed race in America, even though she’s not mixed race herself. She had three children with her former husband, who is black. When they were younger, thinking about her daughters' future helped inspire her critically acclaimed novel, "A Million Nightingales."

"I looked at all three of them and thought, 'If they'd been born in 1800 Louisiana, people would have had one thing in mind. One thing,' " Straight told The Times in 2006, when "A Million Nightingales" was released. "Can you imagine what their lives would have been like, with their looks and their brains?"

Now, as she recounts in her column for KCET, Straight is teaching a course at UC Riverside -- called “The Mixed Race Novel and the American Experience” -- that explores the issue's future. Straight recently took up one class with an intensely personal discussion about racial identity — in her own family and in her students’ families.

“We began with pictures of my family and my high school, just down the street from the university campus,” she wrote. ”That's because when a short blonde woman whose heritage seems pale as possible begins a discussion of what it feels like to be biracial, it's best to start with my three girls, whose faces are varying shades of copper and almond and freckles and gold, and their father, who is massive and brown-skinned.”

The rest of her column (well worth a read) takes up the many experiences Straight's multiethnic students have had when strangers try and pin down their ethnicity, including a Mexican American woman whose daughter is often mistaken for Persian.

The novels Straight assigned for the class are  "Wingshooters" by Nina Revoyr, about a young girl who is half-Japanese and "half-Wisconsin," as Straight writes; "American Son" by Brian Ascalon Roley, about a young man who is half-Filipino and "half-military-American"; "The Girl Who Fell From the Sky" by Heidi W. Durrow, about a young girl who is half-Danish and half-African American; and her own novel "Highwire Moon," which is about a girl who is "half-Oaxacan-Mixtec-Mexican and half-Coloradan."

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hector.tobar@latimes.com

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