I have mentioned before the value of writing about your life using fiction. Ramon Calhoun did this with Blackanese Boy, recently published. I met Ramon through a Facebook group for half-Japanese people. Most of us grew up during a time when being mixed race was frowned upon. Stares and “What are you” were common greetings. There was residual hate from WWII and racism against blacks was rampant, so imagine being half black/half Japanese, caught between two cultures, belonging to both and neither. And what if you had a Hispanic name? What does it mean to be American? Ramon is my guest today.
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I grew up in San Francisco and have lived most of my life here. My father is Black and my mother is Japanese-American. I am an only child. My parents separated when I was very young and I was raised by my mother and my Japanese-American relatives. I thus had very little exposure to Black American culture and traditions besides TV, movies, and radio. Growing up being immersed in JA culture, I thought I was Japanese. Of course, I never looked Japanese. There was always this brown-faced, flat-nosed, curly-haired person looking at me in the mirror! This was brought to my attention from time to time by my friends. Identity, especially racial identity, has played such a strong role in my life. I think this is very much the case for those who are Black and mixed with something else. As an adult, I’ve tried to reconcile the various strands inside me (Black, Japanese, and American). I embrace who and what I am now, but it’s been a long, continuous, and often challenging, journey.
I wrote this book for a few reasons. My identity as Blackanese has vexed me for a good long time. Growing up, I often didn’t know how to identify—with which group? It has changed and evolved over time. I’ve identified at some point as Japanese, Black, Mexican, Filipino, Indian, Hawaiian, and even Italian! It took me a while to actually identify as mixed, as Blackanese. Fact this happened as an adult. Writing the book was a way for me to process these thoughts and emotions and ideas; to try to better understand the struggles I’ve experienced. The struggles that are borne internally as well as those placed on me externally.
Another reason I wrote the book is that I don’t see stories or books that feature people like me (i.e. Blasians) out there. There’s a small but growing body of work that have white hapas (half Hawaiians) in them, but not Blasians. We seem to not exist, at least in literature, in fiction. I wrote the book as a way to fill that gap, to let readers know that people like us exist. I WANT to read stories and books that feature us as main characters and that take our unique experiences and turn them into fiction.
Whether good or bad, the novel relates directly to my experiences. You’re often told to write what you know; well, that’s the genesis of this book. I used myself and my life experiences to create the main character, Rafael Halifax, as well as the other characters in the story. Now I could’ve written a memoir, but I didn’t want to do that. I feel novels have more power than memoirs because of the use of the imagination, the use of narrative style, and so forth. So I used my experience as the basis, but fictionalized it in order to raise it above the level of direct reportage and journalism. The novel, though simply written, went through various drafts. The first one read too realistically and close to my life. With each draft, I tried to remove elements that were overtly autobiographical and to create something more from the imagination. I hope I achieved that.
I hope readers gain some insight about what it’s like being Blackanese—the challenges and struggles such a person experiences in this highly race-conscious country. I’m not speaking for all Blackanese though, but more from my specific experience. I hope readers are moved by the story, and also I hope they’re able to connect with the main character and what Rafael is going through even though they may not be mixed or Blackanese. I hope that via this specific story, the universal can be gleaned, and that people come away with a greater understanding of all people.
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I’ve read about half of Blackanese Boy so far and am enjoying learning about this different perspective. Definitely a different world from my own Midwestern half white/half Japanese upbringing. Main character Rafael not only struggles with racial and cultural identity, but also with his parents being divorced and with coming-of-age issues. This is Ramon’s first book and he’s learning the ropes of writing and indie publishing. Ramon has a good voice and writes good dialog, and I am loving little Rafael—I want to scoop him up and hug him. I’m looking forward to watching him grow up.