Matt Kelley doesn’t speak much Korean, and his grandmother, Jin Hyang Lee, doesn’t speak much English. Still, they eat dinner together in her tiny Seattle apartment four times a week. Lee, 82, cooks, and Kelley, 20, eats (and eats).
“If you don’t eat a lot of what she makes, she gets mad,” he says, gesturing toward his grandmother, who’s busy deep-frying pieces of battered squid. “She always makes a lot, too, so usually after a meal I’m all bloated and full.” He rubs his stomach, rolls his eyes, and mock-groans. “It’s a test of my loyalty, I think.”
Not that any test is needed. Since he left Wesleyan University and moved home a little over a year ago, Kelley has been a regular grandma’s boy. He rented an apartment just blocks away from Lee’s place, and the two have spent hours together, eating, watching TV (the PBS series Nature is one of her favorites), and talking–after a fashion.
But Kelley didn’t leave college just to know his grandmother better. He came home to start Mavin, a magazine for young people from mixed-race backgrounds. Spending more time with his halmuhnee (Korean for mother’s mother) is a fringe benefit, one that’s helped him understand why he wanted to start a magazine in the first place.
“All my life, I’ve straddled two cultures,” says Kelley, who grew up on nearby Bainbridge Island with his Korean-born mother and Midwestern American father. “For a long time when I was younger, I didn’t think about it, but as I got older I realized I was different, and that being different is a big part of who I am. I’m still trying to sort it all out, but knowing that I’m not alone is important. The magazine does that for me and for the people who read it, and also for our families.”
In magazine-speak, those people are a big, untapped market. While the concept of race is difficult to quantify using traditional survey methods, and mixed race even harder, statisticians have been working to define the demographic trend. The number of mixed-race marriages in the United States today has been estimated at more than 1.6 million–a tenfold increase since 1960. About one in 25 married couples today is interracial, and there are more than 3 million children of mixed-race parentage living in the United States.
No matter how you look at it, that’s a lot of people. Even at such a young age, Kelley’s got natural business savvy. He understands that the audience for his magazine is booming. And if reader response is any measure, he knows that young multiracial people are hungry for a magazine like Mavin, which speaks to their experience without sounding preachy, parental, or whiny. A typical issue of Mavin, whose name comes from the Hebrew word for “one who understands our experience,” includes newsy articles about issues affecting mixed-race people around the world, interviews with multiracial celebrities, humor pieces, fashion spreads featuring mixed-race models, and updates on campus activities and conferences.
“Mavin is not a support group,” Kelley says. “We’ve all done that. It’s about celebrating who we are, plain and simple. We get so many e-mails and letters each day from people who are so passionate in their response [that we] almost take it for granted. Then, every once in a while, you actually realize what a profound impact it is already having. It’s amazing.”
It’s especially amazing when you consider that Mavin is all of two issues old. Kelley has paid for the 7,000-circulation, four-color, nationally distributed magazine through a combination of ad sales, subscription revenues, and gifts from friends and relatives. He’s also dumped about $10,000 of his own savings, money he earned mostly from part-time jobs, into the endeavor. A third issue is due out in the fall, and he hopes the gathering buzz will soon start to pay off–in increased ad revenues and newsstand sales. If not, Mavin‘s future may be in question.
“We’re at a crossroads, ” Kelley says. “The market is there. The niche needs to be filled. I’d hate to miss [that opportunity].”
Going for broke may mean forgoing college a little while longer. Kelley originally planned to take a one-year leave to start the magazine and then return to Wesleyan and work on Mavin part-time from Connecticut. But it’s become an all-consuming passion, and Kelley’s not sure just when he’ll go back to the academic life.
“Maybe because I want to go back to school isn’t a good enough reason to stop,” he says. “There are a lot of people who say they really need this magazine, and I feel like I have a responsibility to them. Besides, I’ve found out that putting Mavin together is a full-time job. I’m not sure I could go to school and produce a magazine at the same time. So I still have to weigh my options.”
“Mavin world headquarters” is what Kelley likes to call his tidy one-bedroom apartment in Seattle’s First Hill neighborhood. He used to be crammed into a nearby first-floor studio, complete with a fold-down Murphy bed. But after three attempted break-ins, he packed up and moved to his current address, where he can spread out his computer, printer, and scanner–and still have a place to sleep. The walls are decorated with large, shadowy paintings by Kelley’s 24-year-old sister, Joanna Lee Kelley, and the sound track is generally hip-hop or jazz. It’s a relaxed place, and Kelley makes his visitors feel at home, serving up refreshments (cookies and spring water in plastic squirt bottles) and rapid-fire conversation.
On a deadline, Kelley lopes around the office, distractedly running his hands over his close-cropped black hair, fussing over touchy computer programs, and answering the ever-ringing telephone. “I probably have a slight case of ADD,” he says, sheepishly, wiping his hands on his baggy khakis. But he’s actually remarkably focused, especially for a young man busy juggling the details of a fledgling publishing business.
Mavin is, to a large degree, a one-man band. Kelley is founder, editor-in-chief, publisher, public relations executive, staff writer, and, for the first two issues, chief production designer. His sister, Joanna, a fashion designer based in Brooklyn, New York, directs the magazine’s creative side, organizing fashion shoots, recruiting models, and, for the upcoming issue, coaxing a graphic designer friend to help develop a more professional look. There’s also Kelley’s college friend Risë Nelson, who serves as Mavin‘s long-distance assistant editor, and Mariko Kawabori, Mavin‘s on-site intern and associate editor.
The magazine is nearly all Kelley thinks about these days. In fact, he says, he has “no social life. I never see anybody except for my grandma and my mom.” Kawabori comes into the office three days a week to help out with mailings, answer the phone, and respond to subscriber inquiries. The two have an easy, joking relationship, sharing their multiracial heritage (Kawabori, adopted at birth by a Japanese American family, is half Japanese, half Filipino), their love of music, and their tongue-in-cheek fascination with biracial pop star Mariah Carey.
“For mixed folk, Mariah’s a big bonding point,” Kelley says, eyebrows raised but voice serious, and Kawabori nods her agreement, laughing. “Mariah and Tiger [Woods] identified themselves as multiracial way before that was accepted by society. They paved the way for us. . . . When my sister and I drove out to Wesleyan, we listened to Mariah all the way. She’s singing our song.”
Well, maybe. But it seems that Kelley’s humming his own tune just fine. He’s done so many interviews about the magazine that he’s got his message down pat–he can tell the same stories over and over without sounding rehearsed. He’s a man on a mission, and he speaks with the conviction of a person who’s seen the future and knows that he–and other young people like him–will play a key role in it.
“We’re on the verge of a national, collective mixed-race consciousness,” Kelley wrote in Mavin‘s Spring/Summer 1999 issue. “It finally seems like recognizing and identifying with our mixed-ness is legitimate in the eyes of greater society.”
It’s not clear whether Jin Hyang Lee sees her grandson as such a change agent. During dinner, she proudly pulls out a worn copy of an article about Mavin that appeared in the local newspaper. It’s written in English, so she can’t read it, Kelley explains, but she still took it to church to show her friends. When the local Korean paper published a story about him written in Korean, she was bursting with pride, Kelley says, and showed it to everybody she knew.
Before we leave, Lee takes a carefully wrapped package of homemade bean-paste cakes and presses it on her visitor.
“She wants you to take this,” Kelley explains, interpreting his grandmother’s gestures and heavily accented English. “So you’ll remember the meal. It’s a gift.”
Just like Mavin, maybe.
Andy Steiner is associate editor of Utne Reader. Intern Sara Rubinstein provided research assistance on this article. For more information on Mavin, write to 805 Cherry St., Suite 311, Seattle, WA 98104, or visit www.mavin.net.