DiversifYA: Heidi Heilig

The Author and Someone Else's Cat photo by Adrian Buckmaster

The Author and Someone Else’s Cat
photo by Adrian Buckmaster

I’m super delighted to welcome fellow Sweet Sixteen Heidi Heilig to the blog today! Heidi grew up in Hawaii where she rode horses and raised peacocks, and then she moved to New York City and grew up even more, as one tends to do. Her favorite thing, outside of writing, is travel. Her debut novel, THE GIRL FROM EVERYWHERE (Greenwillow and Hot Key, 2016) features a mixed-race main character, her bipolar father, and time travel. (Hey, write what you know, right?) She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, their son, and a pet snake. Follow her on Twitter here.

1. How do you identify yourself?

I’m hapa-haouli–half-Chinese and half-white, for those who weren’t raised in Hawaii—and I’m crazy. Technically, “bipolar,” but I prefer the c-word, at least when used affectionately by friends. Less clinical and sometimes even synonymous with ‘fun.’ But I dislike it when hurled in anger as a way to discredit my experience; that’s important to note.

2. What did it feel like growing up with bipolar disorder and mixed race? 

Bipolar only struck in my teens, but when it hit, it hit hard. I was very confused as to why I was suddenly so wild all the time—or sobbing at the drop of a hat. Of course people said it was “hormones,” or blamed it on my parents’ divorce. I’m sure those things didn’t make it easier, but it was a relief when I learned in my early 20’s that there was a chemical reason for the things I was feeling and doing. By then I was pretty isolated—I wasn’t good at making or keeping friends in high school; my emotional highs and lows were intimidating, even to me. Once I had the diagnosis, I finally started making friends again; it helped that they knew from the start that I was crazy, so they could decide right off whether or not that was something they could handle.

Being hapa, though, been true since birth. My mom—who is white—was enthusiastic about making sure my sister and I had one foot in each world. She would make Swedish meatballs for Christmas and Chinese dumplings for New Year. When I was very young, my mother’s parents used to refer to my father as “the Chinaman,” so there may have been some cause and effect there. But I don’t look white, nor do I look Chinese. People have sometimes been surprised my parents were, in fact, mine. In Hawaii, hapas are much more common, but in NYC my sister and I were sometimes assumed to be adopted. I swear, people actually asked that question: “Are your daughters adopted?” Another important note: I don’t recommend anyone ever ask that question of anyone for any reason. Especially in casual conversation between strangers in line at the cafe which is, weirdly, where it always seemed to crop up.

3. What are the biggest challenges? Conversely, what are the perks?

My craziness presents both the biggest challenges and the greatest perks. Bipolar disorder has always been dangerous to my closest relationships. Right now I’ve managed to create a life I love, but I feel like destruction is perpetually one wrong turn away. I’ve driven away so many people in my life; those I love most fiercely—the ones I’m closest to—are the ones square in the danger zone when my moods are stormy.

The perks, though! When I’m on a high, I’m in love with the world and I can see and do anything and I have so much energy and it feels like nothing will ever end. And when I’m low, everything is so intense—sometimes I get in the shower and shut the door and cry and revel in how raw and deep I can feel despair.  It’s beautiful and terrible all at once and very dramatic.

Racially, my challenges and perks are one and the same: I feel like I live in a hallway instead of a room. I can look through both doorways but I can’t go in either.

4. What do you wish people knew about having bipolar disorder?

I wish people knew that the same thing that makes me an exciting and passionate person is the same thing that makes me angry or depressed. If my lunacy is a moon, the shining crescent is the part that people love to see—but the dark side is still there. Not to say that that side is beautiful—it is not, it is pitted and desolate and bleak. But it is a part of me and I suppose I wish it were more forgivable.

5. What are the biggest cliches/stereotypes about being hapa you’ve seen?

The mom is not always the Asian one and the dad is not always the white one! I feel like this ties into colonialism and feminism and the gross assumption that Asian women are naturally submissive and all that stuff. My mom is a brash white lady and my dad is a soft-spoken and patient Chinese man and I am the real life proof that type of pairing exists.

BONUS: What is your advice for writers writing diverse characters?

My best advice—and it’s advice I try to live, too, because I try to write diverse characters outside of my realm of experience—is to listen.  So many people have such different experiences—experiences you cannot even imagine unless you’ve lived them—and it’s important to hear those experiences and honor them and absorb them so you can write a character and not a caricature.  Twitter is an awesome place to “listen”—you can do it unobtrusively. Reading blogs and fiction by marginalized people is another great way to hear things you might not otherwise notice. This series is an excellent resource, in fact. Thanks for letting me be a part of it.

3 Responses to DiversifYA: Heidi Heilig

  1. Love love love everything about this interview – thank you so much for sharing!

  2. Fabulous interview! So glad to hear from a “crazy” WoC 🙂

  3. Great interview! Thanks for sharing.