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Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2000

A celebration of interracial marriages

GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER?, by Brenda Lane Richardson. Wildcat Canyon Press/Circulus Publishing Group, Inc., 2000, Berkeley, Calif., $14.95.

Brenda Richardson is an award-winning African-American writer and partner in a 16-year marriage to a Swedish-American Episcopalian priest. She set out nearly a decade ago to interview couples like herself, and document the worldwide shift toward mixed marriages.

The result is "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" a book with simple messages and timeless wisdom about mixed marriages based in, but not limited to, the United States. Fifty-five people were interviewed here to cover every conceivable combination of inter ethnic, interfaith and interracial relationships, from Scottish and Native-American, African-American and Japanese, to Mexican and white Anglo-Saxon.

"The good news," Richardson says, " is that when people bring cultural differences to a relationship, it's a bit like each individual bearing a dowry -- trunks laden with gifts."

Richardson has a knack for converting complex life experiences into simple, elegant stories, such as the one involving Nancy Katsura, an African-American interior designer and her Japanese husband, Kohei Katsura, married for 13 years. "It was at two in the morning in their Tokyo home, when Nancy realized that Kohei was tormented by his business. 'My husband is not what some people think of as the typical man. He does talk to me about everything, and for more than 10 years I've listened to his concerns about his business. But on this particular night, there was something different about the way he sounded. He was upset about having to cut back his workforce and let some employees go. . . . I could feel his despair.' "

Nancy was able to turn the conversation around by telling Kohei, "We pay homage to your dead ancestors, and we can honor mine too. They also have something to offer. Black people have been forced to learn how to survive. I'm filled with their strengths and can share them with you. Whatever happens, we get through this together and we do get through it."

From this story, Richardson concludes that couples can take turns bolstering one another. Her insights and affirmations stitch each marital tale together like a quilt, which for generations was the quintessential form of African-American storytelling.

To scrutinize the lives of couples from a safe psychological distance would have required Richardson to keep her opinions and personal experience hidden. But Richardson, a mother of three, plunges in at every opportunity and offers insights from her own marriage and child-rearing experiences.

She returns over and over again to the forces of attraction that overpower seemingly unconquerable differences. Even when marriages fail, as some do here, Richardson offers them not only as cautionary tales. She searches for positive impact.

Take "Elaine," whose marriage to a Japanese American ended in divorce. Richardson writes that "her religious life was phenomenally enriched by her husband's Buddhist traditions. . . . When he explained Buddhism, that opened (her) up to different possibilities, and to a perspective that all religions are one. At the center of religious life, there is a common goodness."

Richardson's pursuit of the larger truths about intermarriage reminds us of how far we've come over the last three decades. We're no longer gawking through a neighbor's fence at the dreaded union of two dissimilar individuals, as was the case in the classic 1990s movie, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?," which inspired the title of this book. That movie brought black actor Sidney Poitier fame for his role as the unexpected dinner-party guest who turns up to meet his future white in-laws.

Between 1960 and 1990, interracial marriages in the U.S. had risen by more than 800 percent. In Japan, between 1965 and 1998 international marriages had sky-rocketed from 4,156 to to 29,636 couples, embracing by 1998 a less than token 3.8 percent of all Japanese marriages.

"Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" concludes by giving the children of mixed marriages a voice.

"I know exactly who I am," said Jessica Patron, who is 15. Her father is Jewish, her mother is Japanese American. "My dad says there are many Japanese and Jewish couples. He says I'm Jewpanese. . . . I have Asian friends, white friends. I feel I know who I am and I've always known. I've been able to move through my childhood without race defining me in any way. With some people, everything you say must be politically correct. That's boring."

Richardson and her husband worked hard to promote a new understanding, teaching "our children to love who they are, often by referring to inherited ancestral traits."

Realizing that trying situations weren't going to end, she wisely concluded that "these incidents are not our lives. Children don't grow up confused about their identity because other people are confused, but because they haven't been given a clear signal from their parents. I imagine one day I'll hear one of our children saying, 'Sure, when I was growing up, there was all kinds of confusion about who I am, but I wasn't confused.'

"If an individual's identity is formed in reaction to others, then her identity will always be in flux, and she'll have no self-identity. When it comes to the way I view myself, I stand on solid ground, and I owe my children nothing less than what I had -- time to grow comfortable in the skin I'm in."

Hear, hear for ancestral pride! Richardson does her family proud in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" She sets a standard worth aspiring to.

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