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Reimagining The 'Tragic Mulatto'

Like so many children of mixed marriages, the author Heidi Durrow has often felt like she's had to straddle two worlds.

She is the daughter of a black serviceman and a white Danish mother.

Her own personal search for identity inspired her debut novel, The Girl Who Fell From The Sky. The story revolves around a girl who moves across the country to live with her grandmother after surviving a family tragedy.

The book has received breathless critical acclaim, and it was awarded the Bellwether Prize for fiction that addresses issues of social justice.

A Future And A Voice For A Survivor

Preteen Rachel, the daughter of a black GI and a white Danish mother, is the protagonist. And as the story unfolds, the reader discovers just how unfathomable her family tragedy was. Her mother, brother and baby sister all died after leaping off a Chicago apartment building — a jaw-dropping turn of events that was actually based on a real story.

"It was a real newspaper story that I read about 15 years ago," Durrow tells NPR's Michele Norris. "A mother went to the top of the building and the only survivor of this fall was this girl. I remember reading that and just being haunted by, not the questions that the other people were asking about why this happened, and how could we live in a world where it would happen, but I wondered what would her survival look like."

Durrow wanted to give Rachel a future and a voice, she says, and a life that wasn't solely defined by tragedy.

On Biracial Identity In The U.S.

But Rachel faces other conflicts in the book, among them the pressure to choose a race or a culture. Durrow discusses the difficulties that mixed race children often face.

"I think they can [embrace both cultures] if they're not faced with this question, 'What are you?' " Durrow says. "The satisfactory answer isn't usually, 'I'm black, and white.' Other people want mixed race kids to choose who they are."

Durrow began working on The Girl Who Fell From The Sky in 1997, and she says the language about biracial identity has changed between then and now.

"Obviously when President Obama began his candidacy and we started to talk about biracial, it suddenly didn't sound like a scientific term," she says. "Still though, now, I think people are uneasy with that. And I think we can see that in the fact that once there was the inauguration, President Obama became our first African-American president. Which I believe he is, but we stopped talking about biracial again. I think it's a little unsettling for people — just trying to understand, what does it mean to be both black and white."

A Departure From Tragedy

Durrow also talks about the tradition in literature of a 'tragic mulatto' and how her book departs from this by separating the tragedy from the character.

"The tragedy is outside of her, it's not something that's part of her character," she says. "I think that's something that's been frustrating about other stories about the 'tragic mulatto,' that somehow it was an inherent difficulty within the character. For Rachel ... she's still able to be whole, ultimately, and I think ultimately triumphant."

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