To belong is a basic human need, something we can all relate to at some point in our lives, and yet, for some it’s much more difficult than for others. Childhood can be fraught with juxtapositions that consistently land you in the grey zone—alone, disconnected, perpetually different. What is it like to yearn to be seen, yet when you finally are, the situation works against you?
Davon Loeb’s lyrical memoir, The In-Betweens, takes us into his experience as a bi-racial youth. Born in 1987, Davon’s mother and biological father meet in the workplace; both are unhappily married and have children from those marriages. He is white, a dentist at the VA, and she’s black, a nurse, and twenty years his junior. Growing up, Davon lives with his mother, who, despite long hours at work, makes time to educate her son about black history and the literature he’s not learning in school. His maternal grandmother shares stories, including one about her own father who built a house from the ground up, creating “an altar for his family.” Davon’s white, Jewish biological father, however, remains largely absent, even though he made the grand gesture of inserting himself in Davon’s childhood. As Davon gets older, and especially as he approaches manhood, he searches for someone with whom to identify and be “like.”
This may be due, in part, to the fact that his paternal history remains relatively unknown as his father. Davon never meets his grandfather, and only when he passes does it occur to Davon’s father to introduce his son to his mother, and only once. After a school trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., Davon seeks to learn more about his Jewish heritage, and calls her:
“Hi, Grandma, it’s me, Davon.”
“Who—” she says.
“Davon, Harry’s other son.”
The In-Betweens explores the here nor thereness of being bi-racial and the many “gaps” and differences in Loeb’s young adulthood that make it so difficult to connect. At home, cousins seize any opportunity to call him “white boy.” And when Davon proudly manages to style his hair into the most popular “look” at school, his older brother responds, “What you wanna’ look like a White boy for?”
At school where all Davon wants is to fit in with everyone else, he’s awkwardly thrust into the spotlight when Black History Month comes around. His class watches Roots, which Loeb dreads because it’s “a thousand-and-eighty minutes of slavery,” during which every wrong committed on TV elicits pitying glances. During English class, students read To Kill a Mockingbird aloud, and Davon does everything he can to avoid getting called on because he knows he won’t be able to vocalize the slur, “Nigger.”
With a touch of humor, Loeb recalls, “I swear I could feel it getting closer, as if this dorsal fin from out of the pages.” And in what seems an innocuous music class, Rap music comes up and the teacher, insisting it isn’t a real genre due to it’s explicit and offensive lyrics, turns directly to Davon because he’s the only black student in the room. “Why do they say nigger so much if they hate being called nigger?” she wants to know.
Davon’s older brother has a wax museum project at school in which he’s supposed to choose a person from current events—a role model—and create a scene to be displayed in the school cafeteria. While his love for computers and engineering were such that he could have picked Bill Gates, his teacher assigns him to portray O.J. Simpson. While O.J. had been an example of Black excellence in the past, it is 1995, the year of the Nicole Simpson murder trial.
One of the major strengths of this memoir is Loeb’s ability to show the messiness and mixed feelings he has about race and identity—and himself. He does this using an episodic style, which echoes the fractured nature of African American history, and deeply personal content. When female classmates return from the Caribbean with woven braids, Loeb’s critical about their appropriation of Black culture, and yet, with cornrows himself, he feels a hypocrite. And learning about Emmett Till in American history class, he’s determined not to feel anything, and yet images of lynched bodies make him question himself and the sadness he feels. Was it empathy or intrinsic, Loeb wonders, “like a piece of me was suspended from those trees”?
Loeb is a trained poet, which comes through in the lyricism of his work, but Loeb is careful not to let the prose distance the reader from the narrative he seeks to share. Literature and art is a mirror that speaks to who and where we are as a society, and some of the most powerful—and painful—metaphors he employs are toward the end of his book. In the chapter “In-Between Sirens,” Loeb gets pulled over by police because there’s been a rash of burglaries in the neighborhood. Before the death for George Floyd, America could live in denial; now, it’s impossible to read the chapter without knowing the danger Loeb could have been in.
“The in-betweens are like waiting for something to happen,” Loeb writes. Stuck in a grey zone, he approaches manhood still yearning “to be like” others. He wants to be a “man” like his mother’s husband who he calls “Dad”—strong; able to fix things. He wants to be athletic and muscular like his older brother at home. He wants to be a creative like his other brother, his father’s son. And yet, despite how much he loves and tries, he can’t; he’s not. The emptiness of the in-betweens manifests in his desire for the “perfect” male body. Obsessively working out, however, proves fruitless. “I am no better because this hole in my identity is the bottom of a landfill, and the bigger I build, the deeper and mightier it grows.”
As readers, we are fortunate the “hole” Loeb describes is not his work—nor life situation. He teaches high school English, has birthed a beautifully-written memoir, and dotes on his daughter. He and his wife are expecting another child, and during this pause, Loeb is focused on getting as much writing done before his life gets taken over by a father’s feedings, diaper changing, and sleepless nights.
Christina Chiu is the winner of the James Alan McPherson Award for her novel Beauty. She is also author of Troublemaker and Other Saints, published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons. Troublemaker was a nominee for a BOMC Stephen Crane First Fiction Award, and winner of the Asian American Literary Award. Chiu has published in Tin House, The New Guard, NextTribe, Electric Literature, Charlie Chan is Dead 2, Not the Only One, Washington Square, The McGuffin, and has won literary prizes from Playboy, New Stone Circle, El Dorado Writers’ Guild, and World Wide Writers.
Chiu received her MFA from Columbia University. She is a founding member of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. She hosts the “Let’s Talk Books” Author Series sponsored by the New York Writers Workshop, as well as the Pen Parentis Literary Salon in New York City.
She is a shoe designer and visual artist.