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book review

Mat Johnson and his narrator share many similarities – their racial heritage, birthplace and creative professions, to name a few.

Earlier this year, on St. Patrick's Day, the writer Mat Johnson tweeted "I celebrate my Irish heritage and my African American heritage simultaneously by reenacting the Draft Riots on myself till I pass out." In less than 140 characters, Johnson managed to sum up the cultural incongruity of being mixed-raced in the United States.

This racial tension forms the crux of Johnson's comedic new novel, Loving Day. Warren Duffy, the story's narrator, is a failed comic book artist who returns to his hometown of Philadelphia after many years of living abroad in Wales. Warren's Irish-American father has just died, leaving behind a dilapidated mansion infested with crackheads. Warren's only plans for the house, an "eighteenth-century estate in the middle of the urban depression of Germantown," is to fix it up and sell it as fast as he can. Germantown is, significantly, the birthplace of the American anti-slavery movement. In 1688, local Quakers drafted the first public petition to protest slavery in the new world. (This history makes the present-day "ghetto" a fitting setting for the novel, while the "rotting mansion" functions as an extended metaphor for Warren's European heritage.)

Warren is biracial – half black and half white. He has always identified as a black man, however, spurning any affiliation to his father's Irish forefathers. But Warren has never really fit among black people, either. His black mother died while he was child, and his skin is so pale he is often confused as white. "I'm a racial optical illusion," he says. "I am as visually duplicitous as the illustration of the young beauty that's also the illustration of the old hag."

The history of mixed-race individuals in the United States is a complicated one, stemming from the legacy of slavery and the Jim Crow era of segregation. The reason many people of mixed-race identified as black over white is because there wasn't always a choice. The "one-drop" rule, which was actually a law in parts of the United States, stated that a person who had any known black ancestry was black. And then there is Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who made the news earlier this month because she says she is black, claiming a right that black people have never had the authority to reject. In Loving Day, Johnson flips this derogatory term into a badge of pride by introducing a character described as a "Thor-looking goliath," yet happily goes by the name One Drop.

When Warren discovers he has a teenage daughter, the result of a boyhood hook-up with a well-off white Jewish girl named Cindy, the novel steers toward a concept of race that is plural and inclusive. Warren's daughter, Tal, is a casual racist or, rather, she is ignorant of what it means to be black, and Warren has a fatherly duty to educate his daughter. He also has to ensure she graduates high school, but enrolling her into a Germantown public school is not an option, and, as a broke man, neither is private school. It's this desperation that lands father and daughter at the Mélange Center, a mixed-race community organization that also functions as a charter school.

At the Mélange Center there are two types of biracial people: sunflowers and oreos. Sunflowers deny their mixed-race heritage and cling to their black identity, while oreos embrace the white and reject the black. The center's objective is "to overcome the conflict of binary. To find the sacred balance." However, this noble mission soon deviates into cultish territory in the lead-up to Loving Day, an annual holiday celebrated on June 12 to commemorate the U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down anti-miscegenation laws that criminalized interracial marriage.

At times, the novel feels like a hybrid of satire and autobiography. The narrator and author share many similarities – their racial heritage, birthplace and creative professions, to name a few. But while it takes time for Warren to overcome his mixed-race contempt, it becomes clear that Johnson's greater message is about self-acceptance, that fully embracing one's identity and heritage isn't denying any part of yourself.

In Canada, it wouldn't be so radical for a person to embrace their entire heritage; the idea of a cultural mosaic – a mix of ethnic groups, cultures and languages co-existing in society – is entrenched in the identity of this country. Still, Canada doesn't have the same history that the United States does. Johnson fully recognizes how a place such as the Mélange Center could incite the ire of black and white Americans. It disrupts the reality of a country divided by clear racial lines, black or white. Ironically, the racial tension in the novel unites black and white against the same cause – the creation of a "Mulattopia."

The entire novel is haunted by race. Johnson cites little known events in U.S. history to highlight the destruction of a biracial cultural identity. There are even "ghosts" occupying Warren's home, which attract viral attention when his daughter posts a video of what she calls "the first black and white couple" on YouTube. But ultimately Warren, like many of the characters in the novel, is haunted by his parents' relationship, their transgression in the eyes of society, which blends harmoniously in his skin.

Loving Day tackles a serious subject matter with a biting wit (which will be familiar to those who follow Johnson on Twitter). Racism, as we are reminded daily in news stories and social media, is not a laughing matter. Yet Johnson manages to make light of this reality while remaining sensitive to the facts of racial injustice. But, by the end, the novel's humanity finds a way to eclipse all the pain.

Safa Jinje is a writer and editor living in Toronto. You can follow her on Twitter: @Safajinje