Novelist Heidi Durrow: The Girl Who Fell From the Sky
The looked like they were sleeping, eyes closed, listless. The baby was still in her mother’s arms, a gray sticky porridge pouring from the underside of her head. The girl was heaped on top of the boy’s body, a bloody helpless pillow. And yet there was an old mattress, doughy from rain, just ten feet from the bird-boy’s right arm, which was folded like a wing beneath him.
~ The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, a novel by Heidi W. Durrow, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
ased on a real life tragedy when a mother and her three young children leaped inexplicably off the rooftop of their Chicago apartment building to their deaths (only the oldest girl survived), Heidi Durrow’s novel, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, presents us with a dilemma:
What happens when the person you love most in the world inexplicably betrays you?
Did you ever truly know them at all? How will you ever be able to trust again? Even your own perception?
In Durrow’s novel, the main character, ten-year-old Rachel, the sole survivor of the deadly leap, is bi-racial. After losing her mother and siblings, she moves in with her grandmother in the predominantly Black neighborhood of 1980’s Portland, Oregon, where she is immediately asked to declare herself. Is she White? Or Black? Where will she place her allegiance?
Meanwhile, the boy who discovers Rachel and her fallen family members also struggles with issues of his own duality as well as the duplicitous nature of those around him. What is the Truth? On the day of the tragedy, it’s a swooping egret he at first thinks he has seen pass by his window. When he discovers his mistake, that it was in fact something far less beautiful ~ a boy falling to his death ~ his belief in his own perception becomes fundamentally shaken:
How could he have been so wrong? How could he have made the shadow of a boy into a bird? There were questions he needed to learn to ask, to train his eyes to see…How could he ever be certain of what he saw?
In a telephone interview with the author, Heidi Durrow and I discussed the dilemma of duality in both others and ourselves.
INTERVIEW WITH HEIDI DURROW, NOVELIST
New York City:
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: I love how this conflict the main character has with her own dual identity is repeated throughout your novel, from the conflicting stories told about her dead mother, to the boy who finds the fallen bodies having himself multiple names and personas, and even the duplicitous nature of the boy’s own mother. To me, this is the central theme. Was this your intention?
Heidi W. Durrow: I think all of us in some way or another are unknown to ourselves. We know parts of who we are but there as other aspects of ourselves that are constantly still being revealed. The book is about how events and people in our lives help create us and make us the story of who we are.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: How did this theme come about? Was it something you deliberately set out to create? Or simply how the story organically revealed itself? How much of this were you aware of as you were writing it?
Heidi W. Durrow: I want to sound really smart and say that if you think I had all that thought-out beforehand, well then I must have. But the book truly came out of a twelve-year quest to write a story inspired by a real event that happened, which I then became obsessed with. I read the report and immediately wanted to know more about it. I was also upset about some of the questions that were arising, people asking, ‘What kind of woman is that?’ ‘What kind of mother would do that to her kids?’ Because there were no witnesses to the fall. No one actually saw it.
I was frustrated by the fact that here was this mother who was working hard to take care of her kids on her own. She was raising good kids. But no one said, ‘Where was their father?’ No one questioned his part in all of this or if he might have also been on the scene, up there on the roof with them when they fell. No one explored his possible culpability. So for me, the story became a mystery that needed to be solved or at least better understood.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: So only in the process of exploring this mystery did the theme of duplicity slowly emerge? How each of us has more than one side to ourselves, and that those we come to be in relationship with do as well? This challenge of how can we know which persona is the Truth? And when we find out we have perceived that person to be someone they are not, is it because we projected our own story onto them? Or because they spun a tale for us themselves?
Heidi W. Durrow: You know you described it so perfectly. I don’t know if I summed up the theme with precisely those words, but yes, I am constantly concerned with this idea of: How are we composing the story of our life for ourselves and others? And how are we editing these stories? Either to make everyone feel more comfortable or because we love the other person and want to look the other way about those things that feel too complicated.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: And how does the issue of mixed-race enter in?
Heidi W. Durrow: I’m interested in what occurs when society tries to force you to choose one part of yourself over another. What is lost in this equation?
I myself grew up overseas in Denmark until the age of eleven. My father was African-Black and my mother was White Danish. When we moved to the States, we moved into a poor Black neighborhood. I remember people asking me all the time: “What are you?”
I learned that if I didn’t say I was Black, that then there was a disconnect between me and the other kids at school and in the neighborhood. I couldn’t find any community.
At the same time, there was a profound loss for me in saying that I was Black, because it negated my relationship with my mother, who was clearly this White woman.
So it divorced me from my experience.
Meanwhile, in my home we very much sustained our Danish culture. Holidays were celebrated Danish-style. We held on to the culture as much as we could.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: So there was this constant tension between your two identities?
Heidi W. Durrow: Yes, Sometimes I joke and say that I’m a “Afro-Viking,” but my best advice is that I’m a story and you are too.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Besides being a novelist, you also have a webcast you host: “Mixed Chicks Chat.” The mixed-race experience is a powerful theme in your work and in your life, isn’t it?
Heidi W. Durrow: Yes, finally we are now starting to see more images of mixed-race families and couples in the media. But it’s not enough just to be seen. These families need also to be heard.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Yes, we have become too reliant on getting by with just pictures to tell our stories now. That may be fun for a while to be swimming in so many visuals, but I truly believe people will eventually hunger for something deeper.
Heidi W. Durrow: I agree. There are some things that cannot be known merely by looking.
I remember my very first media event as a published novelist…it was January 2000…and there were 300 packed into an old stone church to hear me read.
Heidi W. Durrow: I still can recall standing up there at the podium and taking a deep breath and then looking out across the room. And my first thought was, “Oh, my God! Here are all these White people! They are never going to get this!” And then I did my reading, and the book sells out, and half a dozen of these “White people” come up and start sharing their stories with me. They are telling me about their own mixed-race families, story after story that they are bursting to tell.
And it was just so profoundly moving. And it kind of shook up my world. Here I had written this small masterpiece of a debut novel about reclaiming connection, and yet when I has shared it with my first audience, by looking at them as just “White people,” I had divorced them from the people they loved. Only through talking with them was I able to recognize them as part of my tribe too.
THE GIRL WHO FELL FROM THE SKY: Rachel, the daughter of a Danish mother and a black G.I., becomes the sole survivor of a family tragedy after a fateful morning on their Chicago rooftop.
Forced to move to a new city, with her strict African American grandmother as her guardian, Rachel is thrust for the first time into a mostly black community, where her light brown skin, blue eyes, and beauty bring a constant stream of attention her way. It’s there, as she grows up and tries to swallow her grief, that she comes to understand how the mystery and tragedy of her mother might be connected to her own uncertain identity.
HEIDI DURROW is a graduate of Stanford, Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and Yale Law School. She is the recipient of a Fellowship in Fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts, a Jerome Foundation Fellowship for Emerging Writers, a Jentel Foundation Residency, and won top honors in the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition and the Chapter One Fiction Contest. She has received grants from the Elizabeth George Foundation, the American Scandinavian Foundation, the Roth Endowment and the American Antiquarian Society. She has also received Fellowships to the Norman Mailer Writers’ Colony and the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference.
Originally from Portland, Oregon, Heidi has worked as a corporate litigator at Cravath, Swaine & Moore, and as a Life Skills trainer to professional athletes of the National Football League and National Basketball Association. She is the co-host of the award-winning weekly podcast Mixed Chicks Chat; and the co-founder and co-producer of the Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival, an annual free public event, that celebrates stories of the Mixed experience.
Durrow’s writing has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, The Literary Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Callaloo, Poem/Memoir/Story, the Yale Journal of Law and Feminism, Essence magazine, and Newsday. She is an occasional essay contributor to National Public Radio. She received writer Barbara Kingsolver’s 2008 Bellwether Prize for Literature of Social Change for The Girl Who Fell From the Sky (Algonquin Books), her first novel, which has been hailed as one of the Best Novels of 2010 by the Washington Post, a Top 10 Buzz Book of 2010 by the Boston Herald and named a Top 10 Debut of 2010 by Booklist. Ebony Magazine recently named Heidi as one of its Power 100 Leaders of 2010 along with writers Edwidge Danticat, Malcolm Gladwell and Ntozake Shange.