by Zoe Ramos
The memoir Heart Radical: A Search for Language, Love, and Belonging by Anne Liu Kellor, a Seattle-based writer and teacher, is praised by Cheryl Strayed as “insightful, riveting, and beautifully written,” and it lives up to every bit of those words. Heart Radical is a well-rounded and truly transcendent book, with relatable sentiments and experiences for readers from a diverse range of backgrounds.
Heart Radical, Kellor’s first book, begins with young Anne as a newly independent, mixed-race Chinese American college graduate. She embarks on a journey to China with the hopes of securing a job as an English teacher in Chengdu. Not only is she far from her home and the people she knows best, but she also experiences an identity crisis while learning to balance her heritage from a new perspective. She goes from being a Chinese outsider in America to an American outsider in China within the span of a few days. Multiracial and multilingual readers will appreciate the extent to which Anne exhibits the base struggles that come with being the literal embodiment of unity between two cultures, but never being allowed to truly be a part of either as a result. She feels both too Chinese to be American and too American to be Chinese.
For example, Kellor details her struggles with not being able to share the fullness of her true self with her boyfriend in China because of the language barrier. In Mandarin, she struggles with connotations and colloquialisms, despite the fact that it is her first language, and one that she was fluent in as a child. Kellor exemplifies the conflicting feelings of shame and pride that come with being proud of your heritages to outsiders, but not feeling authentic enough within either to have a right to claim what’s running through your veins.
Readers follow Kellor’s quest to understand her cultural identity through stories of her religious awakenings, language immersion experience (along with its ever-accompanying culture shock), and interactions with travelers and locals she befriends in her travels through Tibet and China. Though she studies her Chinese vocabulary and characters regularly, and practices meditation, it is still obvious to Chinese locals that she is not one of them when she speaks.
Her memoir draws attention to the fact that being mixed race is still newly recognized in society, and not accepted enough to be considered a norm or something that it makes sense to be. There is still always a need to choose one or the other. Yet, mixed-race POC are expected to be a representation of one side of their heritage depending on the context. Kellor sums this idea up when she talks about her experience enrolled at a predominantly white college in Minnesota: “Now, despite my college’s purported focus on multiculturalism, I was aware of my presence as one of the few non-white people in the classroom, and implicit expectation that I should now represent from this place of identity … [No one] ever talked to me about what it was like to grow up multiracial — neither white nor fully Chinese, nor yet invited into a wider inclusivity as a person of color. Instead, everywhere I went, even at family reunions, I was simply reminded of my difference.”
Heart Radical does a great service to our society by shedding light on contemporary race issues with its deeply authentic portrayal of what it means to belong everywhere and nowhere in a world where being biracial is increasingly common, but not yet truly understood and accepted.
The travels Kellor details throughout her memoir represent a search for her professional career path and permanent home. But more than that, her journey is an effort to establish a foundation for her identity as she enters adulthood and beyond. Kellor shares how her religious explorations, deep romantic and social involvement in China, and personal pursuit of long-lost family all helped her to connect the gaps in her heritage that she felt she didn’t have access to before.
Heart Radical: A Search for Language, Love, and Belonging transcends the simple task of recounting one’s life story. More than being an autobiography, Heart Radical is a love letter: a love letter to Kellor herself saying that she is not only a product of both of her heritages, but that in embracing her hunxue blood, she is her own perfectly acceptable, fatefully made person as well. And a love letter to her mother and all she symbolizes finally becoming a piece of her identity that she not only feels proud of but has a right to claim, no matter how much or how little that side embraces her back. Finally, Heart Radical is a love letter to her readers.
As a fellow biracial (African American and Puerto Rican) writer, so many parts of Kellor’s story resonated in my soul. I knew exactly what she felt, always being expected to pick a side and never allowed to just be her entire self at once. I know what it’s like to not be taught how to embrace my own cultural identity because to claim one is to shame or lose authenticity with the other. Even more, I understand the language barrier that comes with not being fluent in what should be your own mother tongue, and the resulting disconnect that happens with fluent family members. It’s a long journey to learn how to be unified with yourself in a society that tells you you can only truly be half.
Reading this memoir, regardless of personal experience, is a gift anyone on a journey to find self-love and acceptance should give themselves, and one that those who have already reached that point at least once in their lives should revel in nostalgically as they rejoice with Kellor in her own triumph.
Zoe Ramos is a proud Afro-Latina writer based in Little Rock, Arkansas. She has a passion for language learning and intercultural education. She has a Bachelor of Arts from the University of South Carolina in Spanish and global studies. In her free time, she likes to learn new languages, play video games, dance, and travel.
📸 Featured image courtesy of Anne Liu Kellor.
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