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.
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.
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.