A long-time friend from San Francisco, Hapa author Ramon Calhoun of “Blackanese Boy” (his first, freshly published book, and now on sale in both print and e-version at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00H0OSV6Y), answers questions via email:
DN: First of all, congratulations on your new book, “Blackanese Boy!” I am thrilled that it is in print! As a Japanese/European American Hapa, I feel it is a very important book and I hope that your book will inspire more of our fellow mixed-heritage folks to also write about their experiences.
When did you first start writing “Blackanese Boy?” And do you remember any particular experience/s that asked you to write the book?
RC: I first started writing “Blackanese Boy” back in 2006. I believe I was in between jobs, and so had the time to write. I finished in 2013; I’d been writing on and off since I began. The novel has gone through at least 4 or 5 versions. In fact, I’d written an earlier novel, in the early 2000’s, that was autobiographical too; and tried to get it published, but to no success. I’m glad it didn’t because to be truthful, it wasn’t very good. So I kinda used that novel as the template for this book; I guess you could say it was an extension of that earlier work.
I don’t think there was any one experience per se that made me want to write the book. I think it was a host of various factors and experiences that led me to creating it. I’d seen other books by Hapa and mixed-race authors out there, and wanted to get mine into the world too.
DN: Did you feel a sense of relief and/or satisfaction, finally having told your story and now also sharing it with world…? Were there ever moments of doubt, as in, to write your own story was too personal or difficult?
RC: I do feel satisfaction that the book is now out in the world for others to read. I’d worked on it for so long, and after having tried to get it published via a traditional publishing house, or acquiring an agent, and being rejected on all fronts, I wasn’t going to let that dissuade or disappoint me. That’s the beauty of self-publishing.
I don’t think there were moments of doubt in telling such a personal story. I knew I was going to take aspects of my life and experiences, and fictionalize them (that’s a common practice with coming-of-age novels). I knew many of the characters would be based on people (friends and family) that I know. Though I was self-conscious about doing this, I didn’t want to censor myself. I think especially if you’re Japanese American there may be a tendency to not expose your private emotions of private life to the public. But as a writer, that’s what I must do; to take these raw experiences and turn them into art.
DN: At what age did you feel certain you were destined to write, that it would be your life’s work? Are there any particular writers that you were guided/mentored by… not personally, but through their books? Any writing teachers/mentors or family members you’d like to mention or thank?
RC: That’s a tough question. I’m not sure. I do remember in my senior year at college, where I was taking an English class, instead of writing a paper, I wrote a short story. I don’t know why I did that. But it felt really good, and I think that was a turning point. From then on I wrote, whether plays, poems, travelogue, and fiction. It’s been a constant learning process and evolution.
I must mention that my father is a poet and of some recognition, as least to those who read Black poetry. His name is Conyus Calhoun; he’s published. I’m pretty sure that influenced me too; wanting to use words and sentences to create literary works.
I must also mention my mother. She’s a huge reader, and reads all kinds of genre of fiction. She kept many of these in a bookcase. In my early and mid-twenties, I clearly remember combing through the bookcase at home, and picking out books that were incredible, and hopefully formative, such as “Beloved,” “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” “Invisible Man,” and books by Mishima, Vonnegut, and Kerouac. In terms of writers, there’s so many.
I think what I’m realizing now is that I’m influenced by all kinds of genres, not just literature. I really like sci-fi and fantasy, mystery, crime, and graphic novels. So I’m hoping to combine these all together one day!
DN: In terms of being Hapa or Blasian, what do you think is the biggest responsibility we have as people of mixed heritage? I realize that many mixed folks don’t feel any responsibility whatsoever, that they just want to be happy and healthy in their own personal lives. But simply being of mixed race and culture… perhaps there is something we can share with the world that needs to be shared, being able to see the world through the eyes of various and mixed cultures?
RC: That’s tough to say. Everyone will live the life they want to live, whether they’re mixed, Hapa, or otherwise. I know for me being creative and writing will play a huge part. I don’t think I have any responsibility per se as someone who is Blackanese. I’m passionate about writing, and hope to have more books and stories in the world. If my fellow Blackanese and Blasians read them, than that’d be cool. If they’re inspired or moved, then all the better.
It’s through my writing that I want to reveal what it’s like being mixed, being fractured, or confused, or blessed, about one’s identity and place in the world. Of course I want to write about the complexity of mixed race identity and people — because we do have special lenses and insight into things like race, society, class, background — but I also want to write about the complexity and history of other people in our society, such as those who are Black, or Japanese American.
DN: What is the main reason that propels you to write? That’s a hard question, haha, as a writer myself, there are many reasons. So what are the reasons, then, that drive you to write? Can you imagine living a life not writing? If you could not write, what would be an alternate form of creative expression you might choose?
RC: Hmmm, I guess the main reason is that writing is something I’ve pursued and developed over the years. Having a poet as a father, and a mother who is a huge reader helps a lot. I write from an inner compulsion to express some idea or emotion inside me (or some image I see in my head).
I also write because there’s a void in the literary/fiction landscape insofar as books by Blasians (let alone Blackanese). There’s so few of us out there right now; I could probably count them on one hand. Maybe this is understandable, given that Blasians are such a tiny percent of the population. But still, it grates on me, and thus motivates me. So I’d like to add my work and my voice, and contribute to the existing works of mixed-race authors in general.
No, I don’t think I can imagine a life without writing. That would be very tough! Like not having food, or nourishment. If I couldn’t write, then I would probably take up an instrument, or paint. I’ve always been attracted to music and the visual arts; I have a love of jazz, especially the tenor saxophone and piano. And I love painters, but also street artists and muralists and graffiti artists.
DN: What are you currently writing about? Where do you get your ideas? Are you part of any writing groups? Would you say that writing groups are an essential part of your growth as a writer?
RC: Currently I’m working on some short stories. After writing a few novels, I figured it was time for me to now write in this genre. And I’m really glad to be doing so. I really like the form; you can write about so many different subjects and/or characters via stories. It’s so open, which is cool. The stories are quite a bit different from the novels, in that they’re not so based on reality, and are not autobiographical. I’m liking that a lot.
I get my ideas from life, from people, from the news, from things I read, or hear, or see. Ideas may come from a newspaper clipping; or something may just pop in my head, some kind of character, or some setting. Also, living in San Francisco gives me lots of ideas too; the different kinds of people, and cultures and lifestyles.
Currently, I’m not part of any writing group. I used to belong to one, around 4-5 years ago, while I was writing “Blackanese Boy.” It was very very helpful to receive comments and constructive criticism, about my writing. I think it’s essential at some point in a writer’s life to join a writing group. Though it may be difficult, you have to expose yourself, and make your work subject to other writers’ opinions and feedback. This will make one’s writing that much better.
DN: Finally, what have been the responses from your family and communities to “Blackanese Boy?” What are the responses you’ve received from other Blasians re: your book? Do you think your book will inspire dialogue that may not have occurred in the past?
RC: It’s a bit early to judge, but so far the responses have been positive and favorable, from family, friends, and community. I’ve received favorable comments from those who’ve read the book. The Blasian communities have responded positively, at least regarding the publication of the book. I haven’t heard from anyone yet whose read the book. I’m hoping readers will tell me what they think. I’d really like to learn of their reactions, and hear their comments. (Comments may be emailed to Calhoun [email protected])
I’m not sure if the book will inspire dialogue that may not have occurred in the past. Around mixed-race issues, specifically Blasian or Blackanese? It’s possible. If dialogue is created, then I’m all for it. We still live in a very racialized society, and it seems to be still very polarized (even with Barack Obama as prez). Perhaps the book can open peoples’ eyes to the issues surrounding mixed-race peoples, but specifically those who are mixed Blasian. If it fosters dialog regarding this, and greater understanding, then cool.
My second cousin on my Japanese American side read the book, and he said he was “ashamed” to admit that he had no idea what it was like being mixed race like Rafael (the main character in “Blackanese Boy”). And that it exposed what such an experience would be like. If such an awareness is created, then I’ve done something good.
Ms. Nakayama writes from New Orleans, La., and formerly wrote “Tomi-Talk” for The Hokubei Mainichi in San Francisco. Email questions or comments to [email protected] Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.