Sunday, May 7, 2023

Release Day Next Week - Excerpt From Thy Father's Glass

 As hard as it is for me to believe, but my debut novel releases on Tuesday! It's been a long process, with a lot of work, rejection, and imposter's syndrome along the way, but the big day is just around the corner. To celebrate (and maybe entice some readers to buy a copy) here's a scene from the novel.

Cover of the novel Thy Father's Glass by Jeffray Harrison. An attic at night in dark blue tones with a bright moonlight shining through a square window.

    Dane had already made three orderly piles of clothes on the bed and had started to pack when Muriel got home from the gym. He told her what Sabine had said and that his father needed him to stay over for a while.

“It happened that way with my grandfather.” Muriel helped Dane pack an overnight bag. “I was almost ten, and that was back in Haiti, but I remember it was just like this.”

    Dane went to the bathroom and scooped his toiletries into a blue drawstring bag with some faded company logo on it.

    “I remember being very sad about it. He lived with us,” she continued. “A lot of people had their grandparents with them back then. It was like he was . . .” She sat down on the bed, rolled a pair of jeans into a tight tube, and shoved them into the bottom of Dane’s backpack, “Like he was disappearing in front of you, a little at a time, until he was gone.”

    Dane cinched the bag with his deodorant and shaving tools in it and sat down next to Muriel, his shoulder up against hers. She stopped folding his T-shirt and rubbed the back of his hand.

    “He’s a completely different man,” Dane said. “I don’t know how this happened so fast.”

    “The doctors did say it was coming. We were all so focused on Mom for so long, I guess . . .”

    “But I can’t even say I really knew him before. Now what?” Dane took the shirt from Muriel’s lap and started rolling it tightly. She took another from the pile on the bed behind her and folded it into fourths.

    “You know, my dad and my grandfather never got along,” Muriel said, smoothing out the folded shirt and handing it to Dane. “Papa only ever had bad things to say about his father—he was stingy, he was rough—but I don’t remember any of that. People change when they get this way—a lot. I know other families who went through it, and it seems like there are always two ways people change: they either get really mean and difficult, or they get really sweet and gentle.

    “My father knew his father all his life as a hard man, strict to the point of being mean. But all I remember of him was him sitting with me on the couch, all hugs and kisses, being so grateful for anything I did for him. He didn’t always know who I was, but I knew he loved me.” She pushed socks into the front pouch of the backpack until she could barely zip it closed.

   “Once a man, twice a child?” Dane smirked.

    Muriel whipped him with a pair of his own underwear. “Did Sabine tell you that?”

    Dane nodded. “Pop was like that too,” he said, rubbing his eyes with the backs of his hands. “Then he wasn’t much of anything. He worked a lot, I guess, and when he wasn’t working, he wasn’t interested in much of anything I did. You’ve never really met the man.”

    Muriel nodded, put her arms around her husband, and stroked the back of his neck. “You can choose what to keep from your father. You can look at this time you have together as a window of opportunity to create some memories with him that will be full of love and kindness, and you can replace whatever bad memories you have with these good ones.”

    Dane turned his head and kissed her, wishing she could come with him, wondering how he would sleep in the old house, in his old room, without her. Even worse, no matter how hopeful Muriel tried to make it sound, he dreaded the prospect of so much time cooped up with his father. He tried to create a picture in his head of what it would look like to spend that much time with the old man, and nothing but torture came to mind.

    Conversation between them had always been strained and awkward, and now the Alzheimer’s made it nearly impossible. What would they do? Just sit around and stare out the window together? Listen to fifties music on the radio and tap their feet in time? Binge-watch Gunsmoke until they fell asleep? A dispassionate sense of duty compelled him to go through the motions, but he felt no real desire to do it.

    Dane and Muriel had never had kids, never wanted to, but he imagined it would feel a lot like this. Before Sabine had left for the day, she had cooked enough rice and beans and stewed chicken for them all, plus enough for later if the men got hungry. She had also walked Dane around the house and shown him her protocols for getting Branson ready for the night.

    He wasn’t so badly off that he couldn’t bathe himself, thank goodness, but if nobody reminded him, he would go days without taking a shower. Make sure to lock all the doors around the house and hide things you don’t want him to get into.

A mood board in black and white, photos around the perimeter: A chair sitting in front of the window of an empty attic, a Black woman with shoulder-length hair, a vintage black Plymouth from the 1950s, a white man with a sad face, a grizzled old white man looks into the camera with a magnifying glass.The text reads, Muriel nodded, put her arms around her husband, and stroked the back of his neck. “You can choose what to keep from your father. You can look at this time you have together as a window of opportunity to create some memories with him that will be full of love and kindness, and you can replace whatever bad memories you have with these good ones.”

    Fortunately, Branson was a tall man who couldn’t bother to bend over for anything, so putting dangerous items on lower shelves and the backs of floor-level cabinets kept them out of his reach. Make sure he had everything he might need—water, light, books, remote controls—by his bed in plain sight. Think of his mental acuity like a power grid, Sabine said. Too much stimulus, too many stressors, and the whole thing would overload and short out for a while.

    “He needs his picture of Miss Gwen by his bed, his bottle of water on the nightstand,” she said. “You don’t want him waking up in the night and wandering around the house looking for something.”

    “Check,” Dane said, “Everything in its place.”

    Sabine nodded. She stepped closer and looked up into Dane’s face, touching his arm to command his attention. “It’s more than that,” she said, dropping the pitch of her voice. “The way his disease is progressing so rapidly, there’s a chance he could wake up and not know where, or even when he is. Try to look at it from his point of view, how terrifying that could be.”

    Dane’s shoulders drooped and he searched Sabine’s face. “You think that could happen?”

    Sabine patted his arm and dropped her hand, still holding Dane’s gaze. “It’s going to happen, Dane. The plan is to minimize his stress and confusion in any way possible, keep his grid functioning.”

    The sheer urgency of Sabine’s instructions overwhelmed Dane, but she tried to bring him back into focus. It didn’t seem as if he woke up much in the night. He usually settled down for bed when she left at six and got up to sit in his chair, sometimes still in his pajamas, by the time she arrived at nine in the morning. He would sometimes take a short nap in the day, but Sabine said she kept him up and active as much as possible during the day to make sure he slept through the night since he was on his own.

    “You make it sound like we’re prepping a house for a toddler,” Dane chuckled awkwardly.

    Sabine agreed. “Once a man, twice a child,” she said, solemnly.

    Once he walked through Sabine’s instructions meticulously, and left Branson safely in bed sleeping, soundly, judging by the loud raspy noise coming through the door, Dane felt unsure what to do with himself. It was the same house he had grown up in, his old room, the kitchen he had plundered for the first eighteen years of his life. But now it felt foreign, as if he were some interloper, some shadow creeping up the stairs and stalking the quiet rooms.

    He checked and rechecked the door locks, cracked the door to his father’s bedroom, and peeked through the sliver of space to make sure he was sleeping, which he always was, every time. The loud snoring actually reassured him, and he didn’t know what he would do if the droning sound stopped.

    He didn’t dare turn on the television for fear of waking up or, even worse, alarming his father, but he had brought some books. After deciding to sleep on the couch instead of his old room, he remembered to check the attic window to maintain readiness.

    Dane had a vision that made him shiver as he crept upstairs to the attic. He saw his father laughing and leaning out of the open window, with nobody there to stop him or pull him back in. Checking and rechecking the lock put him more at ease, but he wanted more security than the little turning sash lock could provide.

    There wasn’t much left up there since he had cleared it out—the empty bookcases, a few crates, a broom and dustpan, and some folding chairs—but he placed every object strategically to get in an old man’s way if he should try to get to the window.

    Brooms would crash to the floor if the door opened, crates would topple over and clatter, and metal chairs would have to be relocated just to get in front of the window. As he stood surveying his work, he felt a little pride over what he had done, enough confidence to help him fall asleep tonight.

    Still, he needed to check the window lock again. The feeling of having forgotten something or of having left the stove on after going to work compelled him to take one last look and reassure himself that he could rest for the night. He tiptoed around the crates and chairs so he wouldn’t have to reset the trap and turned the lock as far as it would go.

    The window gave a wide, pleasant view of the neighborhood. He could see why his father liked sitting there, even if he did seem to lose himself in a weird way. He got his face as close to the glass as he could and tried to see how far he could look down both sides of the sleepy suburban street. A sort of dizzy feeling came over him as he leaned into the window, as if the height of his vantage point or the memory of his father’s near accident disturbed his sense of ease. Blinking his eyes rapidly to shake off the queasy feeling, he settled back on his heels and looked through the window again.

    Neatly mown and manicured lawns all the way down to each corner showed how much pride and love the neighbors had for their homes. Some houses still had lights on, mostly upstairs, but a lot had gone completely dark already.

    Many of the houses had the same layout, in three or four different variations, and some were exactly like the Shottmers’, although none of them had the round window like the one he looked through. Not much had changed since he had played in those yards and taken the bus to school from that corner.

    One thing seemed out of place. Someone had parked an old black car in front of the Shottmers’ house. Not just old, but classic, like the cars in black-and-white movies from the forties and fifties. To Dane, it looked like a specific one he remembered from somewhere, a Buick, or maybe a Pontiac, but he didn’t really know much about modern cars, much less ones from over a half-century ago.

    Still, it was one of the most beautiful cars he had seen. The rounded hood looked like a bullet or a torpedo, the smooth curve from the back to the front, ending in the raised headlights like eyes on either side. And whoever owned kept it so well maintained, it looked brand-new. The black paint glowed underneath the streetlight. He could barely spare a thought to wonder why someone would park on his side of the street or whose car it could be when he saw something else that made him feel dizzy all over again.

    His father was walking across the lawn toward the car.

    “No,” Dane muttered under his breath. “Dammit, no, no, no.”

    He tried not to yell or make a ruckus that might startle his father, but he skipped every other step as he ran downstairs. The vision of his father wandering the streets at night plagued him until he burst through the front door and leaped off the porch onto the lawn. Once his feet touched the grass, he stopped so suddenly he almost flopped forward. He stood there in the creeping darkness of late evening and looked around.

    There was nobody there—no car parked on the street, no father in the yard.

    He turned to the left and saw his own car parked at the end of the driveway, all the way over to the side to leave room for Sabine to park in the morning. He turned toward the house and then back to the street again, confused and alarmed.

    Could someone have taken his father? A car that old would have made some noise for sure, but maybe he missed it in his panic. Was his father’s door open as he ran downstairs? He dashed back into the house and closed the front door, more quietly than he had run out of it, half sensing what he would find on the second floor.

    His father’s bedroom door was closed. For at least the fifth time tonight, Dane opened it just enough to peek through, but he didn’t even have to look to know his father was still in there and still sleeping. The unbroken drone of his snoring confirmed it.

    Dane wobbled a little, as if he had stood up too fast, and felt his way back to the attic stairway behind him, eyes still on the cracked doorway with his father sleeping on the other side. He carefully dropped onto the second step, his breath coming heavy now, and tried to slow his heart rate the way he had learned to do during an important basketball game.

    Once he felt steady, he closed the bedroom door and crept back up to the attic. Everything just as he’d left it. He again maneuvered around his traps and looked through the window. The black car was back, and his father leaned into the passenger’s seat, rummaging through the glove box.

    He closed his eyes for a moment or two and then looked again, but nothing had changed. True, the darkness of the late evening made it difficult to see the yard, but there was no mistaking his father’s stature framed in the light from the car’s interior—his sharp shoulders, long neck, and his gray hair cropped close. He opened the window as quietly as he could, as if, for some reason, he thought the car and the man might disappear.

    They didn’t. Through the open window, he could see them even more clearly. He thought about calling down there, but he couldn’t wrap his head around the situation enough to worry whether he would be startling his father, waking him up, or shouting at someone else entirely.

    After a few more moments of staring, he closed and locked the window, and as he backed away, tripping over one of the crates he had set for his father, he could still see the old black car, still see the man now sitting in the passenger’s seat rifling through some papers.

    He couldn’t feel his feet touch the floor as he walked soundlessly down to the second floor and approached his father’s bedroom again. He opened the door all the way this time, slowly, quietly, and entered the room. He crept over to the bed, where his father still lay sleeping and snoring, looked down into his face, and then parted the curtains and looked out the window.

    No car, no man.

    He stood there for some time, watching. Afterward, he had no idea how long the window had held him there, peering into the yard. He couldn’t recall how he had gotten out of the attic and back downstairs. All he remembered after standing silently above his father’s sleeping form was sitting on the couch and staring through the front window at the empty yard until he fell asleep, wondering how to talk to his father about all this tomorrow.

Thanks for reading! If you like what you see, please order Thy Father's Glass, releasing Tuesday, May 9.

Sunday, April 2, 2023

Let the Kids Read! An Ode for National Children's Picture Book Day

I was today year's old when I learned that April 2 is National Children's Book Day. Apparently, this day to commemorate and promote children's books, set on Hans Christian Anderson's birthday (get it), has been a thing since before I was born. Now, I know that every day is some kind of national something, but this one happens to be really cool, so I'm going with it. This week, the high school creative writing club I sponsor will be celebrating by reading their favorite children's books and eating appropriate snacks, although I'm not sure Target has a section for that, or at least I didn't see any signs. It might just end up being a lot of Peeps and Cadbury Eggs. We'll also devote some time to a short tutorial on what makes a good children's book, and how to get theirs published. 

Today, however, I'm sharing my favorite children's books, specifically with mixed and blended families in mind. 

First, some caveats, a few provisos, a couple of quid pro quos. Needless to say, this is not an exhaustive list, so if you think that I've left an important book off the list, feel free to mention it in the comments and hype the book yourself. I'm always looking for recommendations. The following is just a list of my favorites, in no particular order, from the books that I read to my kids with our special family in mind. And with all the legal stuff out of the way, here we go!

The Day You Begin, written by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by Rafael López

Cover for the children's book, The Day You Begin. A little brown girl with curly hair peeks into a classroom through the door.

We actually own the Spanish translation of this book, because we bought it for my daughter who's in the Spanish Immersion program at school, and somehow that adds a different flavor to the reading. Either way, this beautiful book is about three kids of different ethnicities who each feel left out sometimes, or afraid to share the details of their lives for fear that they won't be accepted, often with reason. One of my favorite moments is at lunchtime. One girl turns up her nose as she looks into another girl's lunch of rice and kimchi. The Asian girl notices the disdain, obviously, and while she feels insulted by her friend's reaction, she also has enough sense to wonder how the girl doesn't know that most of the world eats rice, literally for almost every meal. In the end, the three students who feel like outsiders become friends and find their similarities not only bind hem together, but also embolden them to share their lives with the class.

Where Are You From? written Yamile Saied Méndez and illustrated by Jaime Kim

Cover for the children's book, Where Are You From? A brown-skinned Latino grandfather walks a curving path through tall brown grass with his granddaughter on his shoulders.

A lot of mixed kids and the children of immigrants often deal with the question "where are you from?" in  a very skeptical or derogatory way. And, of course, the equally cringe follow-up question, "but where are you really from?" This book starts with a child confused by the question at school, from grownups as well as kids. Troubled by the idea that she doesn't belong, she asks her grandfather, because he knows everything. Grandfather tells her the rich history of their family, sometimes beautiful, sometimes sad, in the Caribbean and Latin America as well as the US. In the end, grandfather tells the girl that where she really comes from is his heart, and from the dreams of all her ancestors. It's a brilliant way to deal with the question that our kids inevitably face, in a way that unpacks the complexity of it in a way that "I'm from here, just like you" doesn't accomplish.

Eyes That Kiss in the Corners, written by Joanna Ho and illustrated by Dung Ho

Cover for the children's book, Eyes That Kiss in the Corners. A little Chinese girl in profile holds a pink flower and looks at an orange butterfly.

Another beautiful book, this time with vibrant illustrations of Asian culture, Eyes That Kiss in the Corners deals with the issue of looking different from the majority of kids around you. What sets this book apart from some of the others is that it's pure affirmation. It contains no moments of racial conflict, but instead celebrates the main character's beauty. The Asian girl at the center of the book loves her eyes, loves seeing them in all the generations of women in her family, loves how they remind her of the history and folklore of her Chinese culture, from the dragon dance to the figures of mythology. The art style complements the concept of the book and the lyrical text perfectly. It's a great book to get your child talking about the parts of them that they may need to love a little more.

My Heart Full of All, written by Jia Shao and illustrated by Kat Powell

Cover for the children's book, My Heart Full of All. A brown girl with flowers in her curly brown hair looks over her shoulder as her Chinese mother and African-American father follow behind her.

This book actually has a mixed family at the center, and deals with that issue a little more directly. In the story, a girl whose mother is Chinese and whose father is African wants to put on fashion show with her dolls. Every time she adds a detail to her doll's attire for the show, it comes from a different side of her family - a different tradition, memory, or some place they've travelled together. The doll's hair texture is like her own and her father's, pulled into two puffs. The dress is like her mother's fancy one for Chinese New Year. By the end, the doll has little nuances from so many different cultures and ethnicities, just like the child herself. It's a very fun book, written in rhyme, and very interactive, with space at the end for reflecting on culture and even drawing an original henna tattoo. 

Dream Big, written and illustrated by Joyce Wan

Cover for the children's book, Dream Big. A cartoonish drawing of a light-skinned girl wearing a red parka and glasses stands atop a mountain, planting a flag.

This is a bit of an odd choice for this list, since it's not specifically written about mixed families or even families in general. Instead, it's about girls dreaming big and connecting their aspirations for the future to famous women of all walks of life, from Harriet Tubman to Frida Kahlo. What makes me put it on the list is the way my three-year-old really gets into every panel, talking about what each of the women are doing, and especially the last image of so many women all in one scene, doing everything from running to climbing mountains to flying planes and helicopters. When we get to that part, with so many different women, she likes to point to the ones that look like her mother, her sisters, her grandmothers and aunties, and her friends. She even picks one that she says looks like me, and I try to take as a compliment, in the spirit in which I'm sure it's given. Best of all, when asked which girl looks like herself, she points to all of them. "This me, this me, this me, this me," she says. If Wan was hoping that little girls would see themselves reflected in a diversity of women, she definitely succeeded in my house.

So, those are just five of my favorite children's books that I've bought specifically to help my kids think about their mixed family, but there are a lot more good ones out there that I didn't mention, and, I'm sure, a lot more that I don't even know about. In Florida, where I live, many of these books might be pulled from the elementary shelves, soon if not already, so let's hype them up while we can. If you have a favorite, please drop the title in the mentions and tell everyone why you like it.

Monday, March 27, 2023

When Mom Is Problematic: A Story About Multiracial Families

 Recently, Colin Kaepernick released a memoir in he style of a graphic novel, a really interesting approach to the genre. In the book, he depicts his life growing up in an adoptive, multiracial family, his football career, and his activism. Of course, because it's Kaepernick, the ignorant Twitter users, or Twignorants, went crazy, especially because he discussed some of the nuances of growing up Black in a white family. Observe just a few of the highlights:

There's this guy with the helpfully telling Thomas Sowell quote in the profile pic that refuses to discuss racism with his Black grandkids, but expects them to ignore the "noise" of the racism he doesn't discuss with them.

Twitter post that says "Parents no matter the circumstances are not perfect. However, I have a black family and in no way do we discuss racism with our grandkids. They will grow up knowing they are smart, capable and to stop paying attention to the 'noise' and pay attention to yourself."

Or this one, who quickly dismisses the Black user affirming Kaepernick's experience and completely misses the context of "shut up and dribble." Also, why are some of them so obsessed with purple people. Is there a Grimace fan club I don't know about?

Two Tweets: The first, "It wasn't until I hit adulthood myself did I realize my family has a very 'shut up and dribble' attitude towards the challenges I face as a Black person. Many of which they created." The response: "Telling your kids to 'shut up and dribble' is part of being a parent. White black or purple it doesn't matter. It's all how you process information. You can either be a victim or a hero in your situation. It is up to the individual."

This guy refers to Kaepernick's story about his mother telling him he would look like a "thug" if he got cornrows with wanting to get a mohawk. Aside from not understanding the difference there, he also seems unable to understand that parents generally make their biggest mistakes in the pursuit of what is best for their kids.
A Tweet that says: "My dad told me I couldn't have a mohawk for the exact same reasons. To think that the people who adopted and loved and raised this kid had racist motives for doing what they thought was best for their son is disgusting, and anyone not honest enough to realize this is a coward."

This guy is incensed, livid, I tell you, over the cowardice it takes to openly discuss the racial conflicts in one's own family, especially when Kaepernick's parents risked public ridicule just for adopting him. But why would they be ridiculed? Surely, there couldn't have been any prejudice among their peers and social circles?

A Tweet that says: "Heaven forbid that you sound the least bit grateful that a white family would adopt you. How dare they to do such a wonderful and thoughtful thing for you, knowing that they would be ridiculed by some. Yet they still adopted you. Wow!!!"

Or this retweet of another clickbait article on the topic with a catchy title. The only problems are 1) A slight misunderstanding of what a novel is, and 2) the fact that Kaepernick did not in fact call his parents racist.
A Tweet that says: "Colin Kaepernick calls his white adoptive parents racist in new novel." Underneath, two pictures of Kaepernick smiling with his parents at a movie premiere.

Thankfully, there were also several comments like this one, either from Black children of white adoptive parents who shared some of their own difficulties growing up, or white adoptive parents of Black children sharing the ways they have grown and learned through the process of raising their kids.
Two Tweets: The first says, "Speaking as a black person who was adopted to a white family myself, I totally get it. It wasn't until I hit adulthood myself did I realize my family has a very 'shut up and dribble' attitude towards the challenges I face as a black person. Many of which they created." The response says, "I am a white mom with black children. I'm doing my best to listen to them on their specific challenges and not just say carry on."

The thing that gets lost in all of the defensiveness and racism in many of these responses is the true complexity of mixed and blended (including adoptive) families. People really are complex, and so are their reasons for doing things. Very often, we are not clear about our own motivations. Why do we marry the people we do? Because we love them? But why? Why do we develop different relationships with our different children? Why do our children end up so different in the first place? Parenting can be like a Rube Golderg machine, in which our words and actions, however well-intended, have so many unintended consequences, we often rest on faith that our efforts will carry through and land where we aimed them.

So, do I think that it was "problematic," to use Kaepernick's word, for his mother to tell him he would look like a "thug" with cornrows? Do I think that her words were motivated by a race prejudice, an inclination, planted in her by her upbringing and environment, to perceive Black boys and men in a negative or dangerous light? Yes, to both questions. But do I think that she was also doing her dead level best to raise a son who would have a good reputation and safe passage in a neighborhood that probably shared those same prejudices? Absolutely, yes. It's because I know that people and their motivations are complex that I can both critique her words and actions, but empathize with her intentions. For all I know, her words may have been motivated by love and concern for her son's safety, made all the more powerful by the knowledge that many people in their society will see her beloved son as a threat and a menace if he fails to live up to every single tenet of the racial policies of respectability. In fact, I'm sure that's where her heart was, just as I'm sure that she both knows and fears this danger because it lives in her own heart, too, inexplicably and problematically intertwined with her love for her son.

If that seems crazy, consider the dozens of reasons why people might choose to adopt a child, and add to that math the specific reasons one might choose to adopt outside of their own race. In the complexity of the human experience, there could be a hundred reasons. Now, as a thought experiment, try to think of at least two reasons, out of so many, that might be problematic, or even stemming from prejudice or racism. They really do exist.

Or, on another note, try the same thought process with interracial marriage. Among the dozens of reasons why people choose a marriage, at least a few must be problematic. So then it follows that adopting a child from another race, or marrying a spouse from another race, does not exempt one from prejudice, or somehow prove that the parent or spouse is somehow immune to racism.

If anything, these special, complicated, and beautiful relationships can be crucibles on which one's prejudices, however latent or subconscious, can be exposed and purged. Raising kids in a multicultural home can be hard. Beautiful, but hard. Mistakes get made, but also lessons get learned.

For this reason, another thing I'm sure of, even more than the idea that Kaepernick's mother simultaneously had the best of intentions and the most problematic of tactics, is that she is not in the same head space she was when her son was a preteen, rebelling like they all do and trying to redefine himself with hairstyles and other outward changes. I guarantee that Kaepernick had her full permission to share that intimate and challenging story with the world, probably in an effort to help mixed, blended, and adoptive families everywhere. This is what is so wrong about all the knee-jerk, defensive, and outright racist comments accusing Kaepernick of somehow betraying or embarrassing his family. He seems to genuinely love and cherish his parents, flaws and all. His criticisms of their worst moments seem to come from a place of healing and hope, but that gets lost in the cacophony of hate and backlash against his message. In fact, the fiery nature of the backlash makes me wonder if the loudest of the trolls are really defending Kaepernick's parents at all, or whether they're really defending themselves.

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Book Review: Where Our Closure Begins by Alex Nájera

    I don't know why we don't see more family dramas. It's the one thing that every reader can relate to - the struggles to make families work. Whether that means fighting for a marriage or repairing relationships with parents or siblings, we all have context for understanding that conflict. It's a story that can be filtered through almost any genre, from science fiction to romance, but it can stand on its own as well.

That's my favorite aspect of Alex Nájera's debut novel, Where Our Closure Begins. There are so many relationships in the main character's life that need shoring up, and yet she chooses to sabotage them all, like many of us do, by reaching past them for some sense of closure in the one relationship that ultimately brought her mostly humiliation and pain.

The novel focuses on Dr. Emma Lamb, a young professional therapist with a growing practice, who is succeeding at life, growing relationships with her wife, her father, and even her estranged siblings - baby steps, y'all. She's an insightful and effective therapist, perhaps because of her own struggles in the past, with eating disorders and other self-destructive behaviors. At first, she seems completely healed, but then the sudden return of a past lover, the source of much of her pain and shame, throws her world into increasing disorder. In pursuing the titular closure with Theodore, blurring the lines between seeking answers and rekindling lust and emotions, she risks her practice, her marriage, and her relationships with nearly every friend and family member. As she continues to break her own rules and go against her better judgment in pursuit of the past, she dismantles her future one relationship at a time.

For those of us who have been hurt in the past, it's a concept that resonates - the idea of desiring closure or explanation or, God forbid, apologies, so desperately that everything good in our lives becomes secondary. When life is good, we looks at others in that downward spiral and wonder how they could be so stupid, but if we're being honest, there's something paralyzing about hurt and emotional trauma that leaves us stuck in time until we really work through that pain and release it. Some readers might look at Emma and question how she could risk throwing her life away, starting with making unethical career decisions concerning Theodore that could cost her her license and practice for good. But there is a kind of gravity that pulls us in the direction of unresolved hurt that, apparently, even therapists aren't immune to. Nathaniel Hawthorne touched on this concept in The Scarlet Letter when he wrote about the protagonist, Hester Prynne:

“... it may seem marvellous, that this woman should still call that place her home, where, and where only, she must needs be the type of shame. But there is a fatality, a feeling so irresistible and inevitable that it has the force of doom, which almost invariably compels human beings to linger around and haunt, ghost-like, the spot where some great and marked event has given the color to their lifetime; and still the more irresistibly, the darker the tinge that saddens it. Her sin, her ignominy, were the roots which she had struck into the soil.”

Every time I teach The Scarlet Letter, I have at least a few students who ask why Hester doesn't just leave? Why not put Boston behind her and start a new life somewhere else? But there really is something about unresolved trauma that roots us to a place or a person, or both, so that we end up pursuing even more hurt in the name of healing. I see this same dynamic in Emma Lamb. Her Boston is Theodore Eullie, and she can't leave it behind, can't let it go, because she believes that there are answers out there that will somehow make her whole. She desperately clings to Theodore as a potential source of healing, but only sustains more injuries from his callous, deceptive, and manipulative behavior, while her true medicine, her family slips away from her.

In addition, the novel alludes to a day that Emma almost died, somehow connected to and caused by Theodore, which is both the source of much of her pain and the beginning of her climb out of the self-destructive pit. If I had one critique of the novel, it would be that I wanted more foreshadowing of this event. The novel is obviously working toward that revelation, but I wanted some flashes or teases of it on the way. Still, when the reveal comes, it is devastating in its rawness. It satisfies in the sense that it explains much of Emma's trauma and her fixation on Theodore, but it also gives us a sense of how far she has come, the effort she has put into recovery, and the risks she has taken with all of the good things in her life.

Overall, I really enjoyed Where Our Closure Begins, especially for all of its family drama. It is an honest depiction of how we sometimes neglect or even shove aside the ones who love us most in pursuit of some apology or vengeance that is never going to make our life as sweet as the people we lose in the process.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

"Tagging" - Short Fiction

The following is a short story, a fiction that I've worked and reworked a few times. I'm not sure I've quite got it right, and I know several editors of literary magazines that agree, based on their form rejection letters. So, here it is on the blog.

This story started life as part of a novel I was working on years ago, trying to sort out my thoughts on racialized police violence. I got about halfway through this gritty crime novel about police violence and an FBI trying to investigate bring justice to it, while also dealing with a killer who was targeting cops who somehow kill civilians and evade the consequences. 

I didn't finish the novel, because, while I liked the concept, I wasn't sure I was the right person to write it, and not just ethnically. This gritty story just wasn't my thing, in style and tone. Every other page, I had to look something up or research some FBI or police procedure, and probably still got most of it wrong. Ultimately, after over a year of working on it, with some stops and starts, I finally gave up on it. Ironically, I told myself that even if I could finish it, the whole racialized police violence would probably be much less of an issue before it ever got published, what with all the protests and public officials talking about it. I was so young and naive then. 

Still, before I trashed the thing entirely, I searched through it to see if I could salvage any of it for other purposes, and this scene stood out as a possible short story. I revised it to stand alone, and I still like it, even if it's not getting picked by editors. I had decided to let it die in the "unpublished" folder in my Dropbox, but the recent murder of Tyre Nichols, among others, got me thinking about the story again.

CW: Gun/police violence


by Jeffray Harrison

        Around two in the morning, Louis Ferrer hung upside down from the roof of the Subway restaurant on Annunciation Street in New Orleans. His hips had been resting uncomfortably on the concrete edge of the roof off and on for almost an hour now, and he bet the only reason it didn’t hurt anymore was that the circulation had been completely cut off at the waist. If it hadn’t been for Jean-Pierre, his assistant and lookout, holding his knees down, pressing them into the concrete, pulling him up every five minutes or so when the blood flow to his head became too much and he felt dizzy or lightheaded, he would definitely plunge headfirst into the trash cans and plastic trash bags about fourteen feet below.

This one stretch had been almost ten minutes since he had come up for air, but he had almost finished the underlay for his new design and he didn’t want to stop now. One more minute and it would be perfect, one of the best murals he had done.

“How we looking up there, J?” he called out, his eyes still on the wall in the dim alley, carefully coming around with the spray can of white paint for the last contours of the foundation. 

“Good,” Jean-Pierre grunted back, “we good. Hurry up.” 

Louis felt the jolt as Jean-Pierre shifted his weight and got a better grip on his legs. “Almost done.” 

“Stop,” Jean-Pierre hissed, and as soon as Louis released the top of the can and the spray cut out, his assistant had already dragged him over the edge and onto the roof, scraping the length of his stomach as he went. Louis rolled over onto his back and lay there, feeling the cold air against his face and the blood rushing back into his legs and looking up at his partner. Jean-Pierre shook out his arms like someone who had just set down two heavy suitcases after a run through the airport.

“Sorry, man,” Jean-Pierre said, cracking his knuckles slowly and rolling his shoulders, “another few seconds and I felt like I was gonna let you slip.”

“No problem, J,” Louis said, holding his hands up in front of his face. The white paint splattered and dripping across his brown hands struck him as beautiful, even sublime, framed by the blackness of the night sky and the light from the nearby street light. It made Louis think about all of the hours he had spent drawing his own hands, staring at them in different positions and angles. It had taken months for him to be able to draw hands the way he wanted to, not cartoony and blunt, but real hands, expressive and three-dimensional. One day, he had gotten tired of drawing figures with their hands in their pockets or behind their backs all the time. Men in business suits, women in bikinis, ninjas, zombies, superheroes, an entire nation of them, all going around hiding their hands in the stupidest poses, until it made Louis sick to see them.

A darkened hallway with graffiti covering the walls in pink and purple tones. Photo by <a href="">Hin Bong Yeung</a> on <a href="">Unsplash</a>

He almost felt as if mastering hands had nudged him over the tipping point into embracing a career as an artist, the moment when he said to himself that if he couldn’t find the will and dedication to figure this out and get it right, then this would always be a hobby for him, instead of a true calling. After so many months of drawing hands, getting better at it by the smallest degrees, he found himself a junior in high school, feeling proud enough of what he had done on his own to apply to colleges, something he had never really thought about before. The idea of it alone had been enough for him to get his grades up in all of his classes, from high C’s to mostly A’s, and now, in a few months, he would be starting at Loyola University New Orleans, to study real art from real artists.

“You ready to get back to it yet, J?” Louis asked, adjusting his jacket, pulling the hoodie tighter around his face, and tightening his mask. “Less than five minutes and we’re done for tonight, I promise.”

“Okay, okay,” Jean-Pierre spit into his hands and rubbed them together. 

Louis rolled over on his stomach and set the spray can carefully next to him, about six inches in from the edge of the roof. Then he slid himself forward until his head, and then his shoulders, and then his chest jutted over the side. Once he felt Jean-Pierre’s firm grip on his legs, he pushed against the side of the outer wall with his palms until his waist extended barely over the edge, and he could bend at the hip to reach the bottom-most part of his intended canvas. It only needed one thin stripe there at the bottom, about three feet down from the roof. The mural depicted a wave coming through, like a flood, carrying a whole lot of Mardi Gras beads with it through the streets of New Orleans. Louis could see it as clearly as if it were already painted there. He slowly reached up for the can, feeling around with his right hand on the edge of the roof.

“Stop,” someone yelled, and Louis felt Jean-Pierre’s grip loosen. The vise-like hands now gripped his pants legs instead of his ankles. Louis stopped trying to find the can, held on to the roof for balance, and turned his head to the left in time to see an upside-down view of two cops quickly stepping into the dark alley from well-lit Annunciation Street, their shadows stretching ahead of them twice their size.

“Damn,” Jean-Pierre shouted, and Louis’s instincts told him to brace himself before his partner let go of him completely and ran off across the building towards the other side and another dark alley to disappear in.

As his body slid unchecked over the roof, Louis heard one of the cops say, “You stay with this one, I’ll catch up to the other guy.” 

He still had one hand on the roof, now clutching it tightly, but not finding much to hold on to as his legs fell over the edge and his body immediately inverted. 

Louis held on the best he could with his right hand, but as his body swung down and over like a pendulum, he felt the gritty surface of the roof ripping away from underneath his fingers. He reached up with his left hand and caught the edge, but then both hands were slipping. 

As his fingertips scraped off the edge of the roof, he felt himself suspended in the air for a moment with no options but to fall, and he made his body as limp and springy as he could, his feet underneath him and trying to make sure he could hit the ground with both feet together and crumple up like he did when he fell off of his skateboard.

Even trying to minimize the impact, Louis hit the ground in a heap. His feet hit first, and he tried to be as rubbery as he could, but once his legs ran out of bounce, his body kept falling, hard. He wound up on his back, pain throbbing in his knees and the back of his head, and a police officer a few feet away with a shocked look on his face.

“Stay there, kid,” the cop said, taking a couple of steps closer, one hand stretched in front of him, the other palm down on the butt of his holstered gun. “You all right?”

Louis saw the cop’s hand on his gun and knew that no matter what, he wasn’t all right. Louis stayed still for a moment, taking inventory of all his bones and moving parts to make sure he hadn’t broken anything. The cop looked over his shoulder toward the opening of the alley. Louis grabbed the opportunity and jumped to his feet as quickly as he could and took off running in the opposite direction, into the night blackness of the alley way. By the time the cop heard his footfalls and reacted, Louis already had ten or twelve steps on him.

Louis knew the alley ended in a fence, about six feet high, but he could only guess what lay on the other side. In fact, he didn’t know much about this neighborhood, except for a whole lot of blank walls and dark places he had noticed when he had driven through here a few nights ago to pick up Jean-Pierre. He hoped if he could make it over the fence quickly, he would find a blind turn or an exit to the street. He thought he might be able to hide in a crowd, as long as he kept his paint-covered hands in his pocket.

He hit the fence running full speed, as fast as his throbbing feet would let him go, and he jumped barely high enough to catch the chain link with his foot so one more upward thrust put his hands on the top of the fence and his chest over the top. He grabbed the chain link on the other side, flipped his legs over, and somersaulted onto his feet on the other side.

The moment he landed, he felt needles of pain shoot upwards from his feet through his back, but he pushed the pain back down and started running again, this time down a darker alley than before, the only light coming from a couple of overlooking windows and whatever moonlight shone through the tops of the buildings.

As he ran, he looked over his shoulder and saw the cop scaling the same fence in one leap, grabbing the top and yanking his body over like a high jumper and hitting the ground running on the other side. Louis tried to run a little faster, seeing now he might actually have lost a couple of steps with his stunt.

Another alley crossed this one a few steps ahead, and Louis waited until the last second and turned left into it, hoping to find a way to use the momentary break in line of sight to lose the cop somehow. Instead, he found himself running headlong into a dead end.

A brown-skinned man plays violin in the daytime on a New Orleans street. Photo by <a href="">William Recinos</a> on <a href="">Unsplash</a>

The alley narrowed sharply and stopped in about fifteen feet. Louis reached the end of it by the time he stopped running around the corner. He stood there for a moment, not sure what to do, the thudding in his chest distracting him from being able to plan an escape. Looking around in those two or three seconds, he saw no way to scale the back wall, no ladders or fire escapes to climb, not even any boxes to hide in, just bags and bags of foul-smelling garbage leaning up against a cinder block wall. While he still gasped for breath, he heard the heavy footfalls approaching and turned around in time to see the cop chasing him into the alley.

Now that he could see him, the cop was a young guy, white, not too tall, not too big, but muscular, obviously fit enough to clear the high fence like a hurdle, and probably enough to handle himself too. There were streams of sweat flowing from his shaved head, even in the cool December weather.

The cop had dark brown eyes, or dark eyes anyway, as far as Louis could tell at night. He could see the frustration and rage behind the eyes. On the other hand, Louis saw college and art school and his future disappearing behind those eyes.

“Dammit, kid,” the cop said, punctuating each word with deep breaths, his hand again on the butt of his gun, “don’t move.”

Louis felt his face flush as he slowly raised his hands into the air. He stepped back a foot or two as the cop started to close the gap between them, but stopped when the back of his foot struck a plastic bag full of some kind of soft garbage. No getting out that way anyhow.

“Turn around and get your hands behind your back,” the cop barked, his fingers closing around the butt of his pistol, the index finger releasing the snap.

Louis looked the cop in the eye and saw what he saw, a stupid kid pissing all over good folks’ property and making his job ten times more difficult. He felt stupid, too. This ended any chance to go to school, let alone to get somebody else to pay for it. He pictured his existence for the rest of his life – standing with his hands up at the wrong end of a gun. He had sold his future, his chance to control his destiny, for a beautiful blank wall, and one way or another, he would spend the rest of his life being pushed and forced into doing someone else’s will, working as hard as his parents to make someone else’s dreams possible. He wanted to wipe his face, but didn’t dare to move his hands.

Stupid or not, he couldn’t let it go. About five feet of space to slip between the cop and the wall of the alley, and beyond that, scale the fence again, run through the alley he already knew, and get back into the streets. The cop had moves, and he might tackle him or pull his gun. If he does, Louis told himself, stop running and go quietly, but at least take the chance. 

He focused his eyes on the opening he wanted to take, set his heels, and took off suddenly. Before he went three steps, he saw the cop already with his gun cradled in both hands. Louis stopped immediately, threw his hands up, and said, “Okay, okay.”

Before his mouth had formed the second word, he saw the blinding muzzle flare of the pistol in the cop’s hands, heard the shot fill the alley with noise, and felt the impact like someone poking him hard in the chest, once, twice, and then another in his left shoulder. 

His knees buckled underneath him, and he fell right into a puddle of thick, rotten waste water, looking up at the small patch of sky through the rooftops. Either his eyes had adjusted to the dark or someone had turned on a light nearby, because he imagined he could see much better all of a sudden. His chest burned and he felt wet and sticky all over. He pressed his hand to his chest to see if he could feel the wound, see how bad it was. Then he looked at his hand, held it over his face in the light. The alley framed it, filling the space there, with the sky as a background, a brown and black hand all splashed with stark white and deep red. Beautiful.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

All Hail Our AI Overlords! ChatGPT in the Classroom

Whether you're a writer, artist, teacher, or really anyone who deals with creative work, AI is quickly becoming a boogeyman for all of us. And by boogeyman, I don't mean some made-up threat that only fools are afraid of. I mean an actual terrifying monster with the capability of devouring our livelihoods and turning our lives to misery, like the one that lived under my bed in my childhood home. I have the privilege of belonging to a very forward-thinking and close-knit English department who not only works hard to stay ahead of academic and technological trends, but also communicates continuously outside of meetings, in the halls, and in our department chat. When the subject of ChatGPT came up, as it has for teachers all over the country trying to get honest writing and critical thinking out of their students, the reaction was, in a word, fear.

First, I made an account, because I was the only one brave enough to feed our digital overlords the personal info that I assumed they already had. However, I have to say, I was highly offended by the CAPTCHA test I had to complete before completing the sign-up. You might be familiar with CAPTCHA tests for many other online accounts, which tests whether or not the potential user is an actual human. This is generally accomplished by the uniquely human task of clicking a box, or, if the method of box-clicking seems suspiciously robotic, choosing pictures with street lights or cars or trees in them, or really any object that robots apparently have no knowledge of. One shudders to think what we'll do when the bots evolve enough to recognize a bicycle. What you might not know is that CAPTCHA stands for "Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart." Sorry for the digression here, but I really was offended. Heated, even. How dare you, sir. The unmitigated gall of a machine, a bot, demanding that I prove my humanity. It felt like being required to take a background check to get into the underground gambling den.

Anyway, once I got over my outrage and indignation, I started running the queries we all agreed would be most concerning to our profession, and things got really scary, really fast. The first task we gave it was a simple essay on a prompt from To Kill a Mockingbird. I tried to make it a little more difficult for the bot by asking it to quote both the novel and another source. It dashed off a basic five-paragraph essay in less than a minute - nothing special, but certainly one that could pass for the work of an eighth through tenth grader.

So then I tried to turn up the heat with something more difficult, comparing two texts, each one somewhat challenging, on a very specific theme, with quotes from each. The results are below:

An essay comparing the theme of old age in both Beowulf and Tennyson's "Ulysses"

Again, not brilliant, but the more I tinkered with it, the more "mature" and "insightful" its responses became. If I just fed it the prompt, it seemed as if the bot just quit when it thought it had answered the question, just like many of my students. No flair or style, no elaboration, application, or introspection. But when I added details to the prompt - how many words, what style, specific beats to touch on - it met those demands with shocking facility. On the other hand, I did notice a sort of tipping point. If I gave it just the prompt, it spat out a short essay that got right to the point and did exactly what I asked of it. If I asked for a little more detail or specific style, it delivered that without tipping its hand, so to speak. But at some point, if I asked too much of the algorithm, or whatever is driving the thing, it sort of went haywire and started devolving into gibberish, not in the sense of non-words or poorly constructed sentences, but in that is seemed like an essay put together by a group of students who weren't allowed to see the previous student's contribution to the whole. In other words, the bot ended up saying a lot of things that in themselves made sense, but either didn't contribute to the main idea or didn't respond directly to the prompt. I think one of my colleagues said it showed its lack of soul.

Still, it bothered all of us that it could produce passable text that we didn't know how to detect as unoriginal or plagiarized, because it isn't actually unoriginal. The text it produces is spontaneously created, just not by the student, or by any human. It's the creative work of a bot which has read about five million texts and has learned how to imitate the patterns and cadences of the desired genre it's asked to produce. We wondered what would happen if we asked it for something more human, a personal essay on an emotional topic. Turning to the college entrance prompts, another concern for admissions boards across the nation, we fed it a personal prompt and the results were likewise interesting. I took a video of this one to demonstrate how quickly it writes(?), creates(?), or whatever you want to call it. 

Again, there's a soulless quality to the writing, the trappings of emotion and personality, but no details or human touchpoints. It really does read like a robot read a million personal essays and just distilled them all down to the most common factors, leaving out anything with any heart.

Then we got silly.

What if we asked it to write a sermon? Specifically, a sermon on something distinctly human and somewhat controversial, like marriage. How about an interpretation of Ephesians 5, the instructions to husbands?

Chilling is the word we hit on, although it's interesting that the bot is a little progressive in its theology. 

But forget about sermons. We know that some pastors out there have been caught plagiarizing, and I can see this AI becoming the next wave of that problem. But as disheartening as it might feel to find out your pastor wasn't really writing his sermons or considering his congregation's needs in preparing them, what about wedding vows? How would it feel to find out your husband got his "original" vows from a bot? Results follow:

ChatGPT results to the prompt to write wedding vows from a man to a woman who have dated for six years and met in psychology class in college.

I admit, I teared up a little reading this, not at the touching sentiment or the fear that some guy will inevitably use canned vows for his wedding, but at the idea that bots might some day be professing their love and pledging their troth to other bots. Or humans, I guess.

Jokes aside, all of my colleagues came away fro the experiment with three findings:

1) That the bot can produce solid writing that meets the demands of a simple prompt and could pass for middle school or possibly high school work.

2) That such work is generally unemotional and tends to be very generic in its responses. It does a great job at incorporating quotes into its arguments, but the arguments themselves are passionless and uninspired.

3) Since a good deal of our students' writing is already solid, passionless, and uninspired, we need to develop a strategy for determining whether the text a student submits is their own or AI generated, and we need to do it now.

The major plans that we brainstormed include handwritten first drafts for every assigned essay, written in class under supervision/assistance. That way, we can compare later, typed drafts to the handwritten original to determine if the student has used any unauthorized help. In addition, we're a one-to-one Chromebook school, so we're looking into the possibility of disabling the internet connection and forcing students to use Google Docs offline - essentially turning their laptop into a typewriter, temporarily. This would, hopefully, deliver us the same honest work as pen and paper, without us having to decipher their handwriting. 

Other than that, we're at a loss. There are supposed AI detectors that can determine whether the student used a bot, but they're not perfect, and I have a moral and professional problem with telling a parent I'm charging their student with academic dishonesty based on the word of a bot ratting out another bot. As with so many other developments in academia, this is just one more technology that is not only going to facilitate cheating, but also advantage privileged students with the most access to computers and the highest degree of "benefit of the doubt" from their teachers. For those reasons, we have to deal with this new tech and find ways to either combat it or team up with it, until, of course, it becomes self-aware and decides that we are the real problem, at which point high school essays won't matter so much anymore.

Friday, January 13, 2023

Multiracial or Transcultural: Part 2

I'd like to follow up on a post from last month concerning interracial marriages and the differences between multiracial marriage and transcultural marriage. To recap, multiracial marriage means exactly what it sounds like - a marriage between two people of different races or ethnicities. Nothing more. Transcultural marriage, on the other hand, according to Kyle J. Howard, means "two people of different cultures come together & build a family that represents both of them," where "both spouses' cultural backgrounds are honored and celebrated." I couldn't agree with the distinction more, and I've seen examples of both. I've witnessed interracial marriages where one partner felt consistently disrespected and excluded because of their culture, either by their spouse or by in-laws whom the spouse failed to put in check. I've also seen interracial marriages in which both partners made the effort to celebrate and respect the other's culture and traditions.

So the question to me is, how do I know if I'm in a transcultural relationship, especially before I commit to marriage, instead of a possibly toxic and merely "multiracial" one? How can I be sure that my partner is willing to truly unite with all of the parts of me, my family, and my culture? I'm not an expert in the sense of marriage therapy or counseling, but I do have some markers I would look for based on my own experience.

1) Does your spouse spend intentional time with your family? Do they look forward to seeing your parents and siblings, along with all of the extended family, play cousins and fake aunties? Or do they avoid family events, always finding some excuse why they can't be there? When they're around your family, do they isolate themselves or do they engage as if they're trying to become part of the family? Or worse, are they always making snide remarks about what people are doing, and expecting you to participate in their mockery or laugh at their jokes? A person who tolerates, desires, or even "loves" a person of another race, ethnicity, or culture, but can't stand to be around any others of the same group is very likely tokenizing their partner. It may be that they have some fetish, and only want to dip their ... toe ... into those dark waters to see what it feels like, with no real respect for the actual personhood of those they claim to love. It may be that they think of their partner as "one of the good ones," someone to be tutored and reimagined like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, a prodigy who needs to be rescued from their race. Either way, it's a bad sign if you are the only person of your race that your partner can tolerate being around. It's very possible that you've become their "Black friend." 

However, I would add that some people are naturally introverts, like myself, and find it difficult to fully participate in social events. For us it's draining to be around so many people and feel like we're in the spotlight, expected to perform. That dynamic should be considered. Still, there's a crucial difference between the guy on the fringe of the party watching the festivities and smiling at all the joy and fun and interacting in positive, if more low-key, ways with your family members, as opposed to the guy on the fringe smirking at what he sees as antics and madness, flexing his imagined superiority by refusing to join in, or even joining in as some sort of parody or insult. 

2) Does your spouse or partner make an attempt to speak the language? I'm not talking about the cringy appropriation of slang that often sets out teeth on edge, but actually learning a second language. If your culture includes a different language or dialect, does your partner make an attempt to learn that language and use it around you and your people? Or do they treat it as an inferior language, worthy of mockery or at best, not worth learning? This is especially important for English speakers. As much as I love my language, it has often been used as a weapon, and often forced on others against their will. There's a little bit of that colonizer instinct in forcing in-laws to communicate with you in your language rather than making an effort to really understand them in theirs. It may take time, but in the long run, you gain not only a deepened trust and relationship with your spouse and in-laws, but you also become bilingual, and in ways that other people don't have access to. Immersing oneself in Spanish or Kreyol or Xhosa for a weekend is far more effective in achieving fluency than several months of Duolingo or Rosetta Stone lessons. 

In addition, the desire to learn your in-laws' language should apply if your spouse is a child of deaf parents. ASL is a beautiful language, and becoming not only more popular today, but also more useful in social and professional settings. If you have an opportunity to learn to sign in order to connect with an in-law, as opposed to isolating them or yourself from the family functions, you should definitely do so.

Overall, the effort a partner makes to engage on equal terms with in-laws is a good predictor of whether the marriage is, or will be, merely multiracial or truly transcultural. The desire to separate oneself from in-laws or extended family can be a sign of problems down the road. It's true that some in-laws can be toxic and should probably be avoided even by the blood relative, but barring that danger, a partner's attempt to isolate a partner, spouse, or lover from their family or from other elements of their culture can be a bright red flag warning of impending abuse and toxicity. I've been blessed with wonderful in-laws who have welcomed me and shared their home, food, language, and culture with me, and I've tried to do the same for my wife, encouraging her to form relationships with my relatives. Every time I see my wife engaged with my family, I get a little choked up and think to myself, "at least they're not bothering me for a while."