Lee Ann Roripaugh on Biracial Identity
The theme of racial identity has been frequenting my writing as of late. Being biracial half-Mexican and half white, I have gone exploring my heritage in both my poetry and fiction. Of course there many joys in being of mixed race, such as having the opportunity to claim and celebrate both cultures. However, for me a sense of inadequacy always resurfaced, that is concerning my inability to satisfy a certain racial identity. With that there sometimes came the alienation, feeling out of place, and as though I belonged to neither parent’s side.
One of the many poets coming to Douglas Anderson Writers’ Festival is Lee Ann Roripaugh who explores this theme. This confusion, and hurt is peppered throughout her work but especially prominent in the poems Snake Song and Transplanting. When I read these poems I thought of my own struggle with claiming my father’s identity. There were times I was insulted and openly made fun of by Spanish speaking strangers at my hesitant use of the language. Several times I drifted apart from that crowd frustrated, embarrassed, and trying to create distance between myself and my father’s culture.
Likewise in Roripaugh’s image driven poem Snake Song she captures rather perfectly being torn between two identities, and struggling to navigate both through the metaphor of the snake, and her birth. Here she especially targets how she communicates through both English and Japanese.
“I was born in the year of the snake
and maybe this is why
I speak with a forked tongue.
I open my mouth to talk,
a strange song, not mine, comes tumbling out.
Ai-noko, half-caste, I tilt
my head in the mirror first this way
cheekbones, Caucasian nose, my ojii-san’s
feathering like ink strokes
My blood runs hot and cold.”
In her poem Transplanting Roripaugh plays more subtlety with her isolation, and estrangement. In this poem she talks of how her sneeze is different from her mother’s and the unexpected distance and criticism that breeds.
My mother sneezes in Japanese. Ké-sho!
An exclamation of surprise—two sharp
when ragweed blooms, I wonder why
her sneeze isn’t mine, why something
so involuntary, so deeply rooted
in the seed of speech, breaks free from
my mouth like thistle in a stiff breeze,
in a language other than my mother’s
tongue. How do you chart the diaspora
of a sneeze? I don’t know how
you turned out this way, she always
After reading these poems, I was in awe of Roripaugh’s approach to such a highly personal subject. Indeed, reading it gave me flashbacks of my own experiences and my own questioning and confusion. Yet she can’t help but touch on the importance and beauty of Japanese culture to her identity. In my own life I’ve made peace with my Mexican identity, and Caucasian identity like Roripaugh. I’ve realized they are both an enormous part of me, one I have to learn and love on my own terms, despite what others say. Inasmuch, I’m excited to attend her workshop at Writers’ Festival, and glean some inspiration and technique to further my exploration of identity and culture.
-Aracely Medina, Senior Poetry Editor