In July it will be twenty years since I left the United States behind and embarked on an adventure in the name of love in Scandinavia. I only knew a handful of people here–the man I was in love with and his family. At the time, it never occurred to me that this was not something I should do–apply for a residency permit, buy a one-way ticket, sell all my personal belongings, board a plane, take off into the great unknown. There were plenty of nay-sayers. Whenever I told people I was moving for love, they’d tell me I was crazy. More often than not, someone would comment on how I was “giving up my life” to be with a white man–as if the color of his skin had somehow clouded my judgment or made me incapable of rational thought. I tried to ignore their negativity, but every now and then their words would annoy the hell out of me. And they annoyed me because they behaved as though my relationship with the man who would later become my husband was not “real” because he was not black or because he was not American. As if these two factors were the only way a black American woman could be happy.
While all of this was spiralling around me, I was trying to write a novel. I was nearing the end of working on my master’s degree in Creative Writing and putting the finishing touches on my master’s thesis–a collection of short stories I’d worked on for three years, tweaking until each story was a gem (in my eyes anyway). Now the novel, well, it was this unformed thing. I had faceless characters with vague back stories. I had a setting that was probably more detailed than the plot itself. And the plot…well, there wasn’t really one. In short, I didn’t know what I was doing or what I was writing about.
It took several years and a lot of false starts to finally realise that my problem was trying to write about relationships without taking any inspiration from my own life experience. I knew what it was like to be a black woman in an interracial relationship, but I wasn’t really writing about it. And what was crazy was that I was looking for books that featured interracial relationships. They were few and far between at that time. When I found them, I devoured them. I studied them, I thought about what I liked and didn’t like about those novels. The main sticking point was that, in most of the novels, the men were pursuing women who were so hung up on race that they couldn’t accept the love they felt for the man in question because his skin color was wrong. And that wasn’t the interracial experience I knew.
The more books I read, the more i wanted to read a story in which the heroine wasn’t resisting the man who loved her simply because he had a melanin deficiency. Now, mind you, I am being a tad bit snarky here. I know that a lot of it was dealing with the legacy of racism that has left an indelible mark on American society. But I was convinced that readers would love to read a novel about an interracial couple that was not only about their racial differences. I didn’t want racism to be a major part of the plot because I wanted the love story or how the couple fell in love and other everyday problems to be in the focus. So I decided to follow the advice of Benjamin Disraeli and I set about writing the book I want to read.
My first attempt was the novel I wrote to learn how to write a novel. It was called Second Skin, and it was set in my hometown of Philadelphia. I loved writing Melanie and John’s love story, but it was a painful process and the story, no matter how many times I’ve tried to revise or rewrite it, never becomes the story I intended. I’ve never published it, but I am considering simply releasing it and letting my readers decide themselves.
The next novel I tried to write never made it to the finish line. It was a near-repeat of all the mistakes I made while trying to write my MFA novel. No outline, no real plan. It was a meandering mess. Only six chapters of that novel remain. And while there are some great scenes in it, the story itself just doesn’t move me and will probably never be resurrected.
Fast-forward to when I finally wrote Snowbound. By then, I’d figured out that I like writing very flawed characters. I liked writing about people who sometimes do stupid things, who smoke, who sometimes drink too much, who sometimes fuck the wrong people and have to deal with the consequences of their actions. I wanted Mia to be a character who is not always reliable. I wanted her to be a woman who has fucked up and who is trying to figure out what she really wants and how she can prevent herself from making those same mistakes again. She walks away from the wrong relationship with the wrong guy and ends up meeting the sort of man she never expected–a conflict zone photographer who happens to be a white South African.
A few people questioned my choosing to write about a white South African man. I didn’t initially plan for Jake to be South African. I wanted to write about a man whose experiences with race would be different from Mia’s. I thought it would be interesting to contrast their experiences. A man who’s grown up with the legacy of apartheid. A woman who’s grown up with America’s own divisive legacy. But I didn’t want this to be the main focus. The focus was on finding love. And finding it when they least wanted or expected it. And I wanted to set this story in snowy Vermont. Snowbound wasn’t perfect, but it was close to the sort of story I wanted to read and write.
By the time I wrote Maybe Baby, I’d decided that it was time to write about Scandinavia. I’d avoided doing so more from criticism from my writers group. We were all Americans who’d come to Sweden for Swedish partners. And, at the time, no one in the group wanted to read a story about a woman who was in love with a Swede. So I stored it away and, when I was no longer in the group, I decided to write about a love triangle with two very different Scandinavian men being the lovers Laney would have to choose between. I wanted to write about about a woman who was rootless, who was searching for the idea of home. Laney came about, in some ways, because of my own experiences as a black American woman living in Scandinavia. Though my relationship with my Swedish husband was very different from Laney’s with her Swedish partner, Niklas, I knew about the quirks that come along with being with a Swedish man–the avoidance of conflict, the stony silence, how the darkness could affect their moods, the sudden personality change the moment they leave Sweden. I knew I could write about the cultural differences, I also knew I could write about how, for Laney, this would make her feel like she was drifting. I remembered feeling that way when I first moved here. I took all of this and put it into the my writing. And I think that the end result of Maybe Baby is exactly the sort of book I wanted to read but could never find in bookstores. Laney is not an easy character to love. She is indecisive, she is sometimes selfish, but deep down she is vulnerable and lost. And she meets Mads and, though what connects them at first is sex, there is this undercurrent between them–they have both found home with each other. And that’s what love is. And interestingly enough I managed to write a novel about an interracial relationship in which race isn’t a major factor, it’s more the journey to love that is important.
So I guess with all of this, I am trying to say that I write about about interracial relationships to show that they are no different from other relationships. Everyone is searching for love. And the person you fall in love with is the person who makes you feel more alive than you’ve ever felt before. Or whenever you are with them, you feel as though there is no other place you’d rather be. And where they come from or the color of their skin becomes irrelevant.
2 responses to “Black and white in love–or why I write about interracial relationships”
Thank you for sharing. The book I am writing may never see the light of day, but I’m still trying to write the book I want to read. BRAVO you have written the book you want to read.
Keep writing, Ida, even if you only write for yourself. 🙂 I spent a long time writing to make me happy rather than sharing it with other people. It takes a while to get to the point when you’re ready to send your book baby out into the world.