by David Santos Donaldson
Kipling Starling has three weeks to rewrite his novel about E.M. Forester and his lover, Mohammed Ed Adl into Mohammed’s point of view so he boards himself up in his basement vowing not to come out until he is finished. He struggles to make progress while the appearance of a winged goddess is only the beginning of the strange journey his search for his voice takes him on.
AUTHORLINK: What was your first thought about writing this novel?
Initially, I really didn’t want to take it on.
DONALDSON: It’s an odd beginning with this novel. Initially, I really didn’t want to take it on. I had written a previous novel on the real-life secret love affair between the great British novelist E.M. Forster and a Black Egyptian tram conductor, Mohammed Ed Adl, during WWI. When that novel was rejected by several editors, I got a suggestion from a well-known editor that it would be more interesting if the story was retold from Mohammed’s point of view. At first, I had been interested in understanding how such an unusual and daring gay relationship developed between a white middle-class Brit and a poor Black Egyptian, especially in that era when Egypt was under British colonial rule. I myself grew up in The Bahamas under British colonial rule and have always felt conflicted about my affection for, and yet repulsion of, the British ways that were forced upon us. Including their highly revered writers. Nothing about them seemed to validate my identity as a Black man. Even me loving Forster’s novels seemed like a bit of a betrayal to my race and nationality, I thought he seemed to be a representative of British Imperialism. But in fact, he wasn’t. He quietly challenged colonialism and that was due in a large part to his involvement with Mohammed. I became curious about how that relationship developed because it also resonated with my own life, and my relationship to my colonial history. So, I took on the task suggested by the editor, and I tried to write Mohammed’s version.
AUTHORLINK: How did it develop from there? Did you always intend to include the strange things that started while Kip was locked in the basement and grew from there?
“Whatever I’m feeling at the moment I sit down, I let it rip from there onto the page.”
DONALDSON: After I took on the task (and that’s what it felt like at first: an assignment, of sorts) the problem was, after six years of working on the other Forster novel, I was sick and tired of the subject. Tired of being immersed in England and Egypt of the early 1900s. It began to feel like torture to write it all over again. After writing two chapters from Mohammed’s point of view, I was bored to death. One day, angrily and very frustrated, I approached the desk to write. I have a way of working that I don’t filter out anything when I start writing each day. Whatever I’m feeling at the moment I sit down, I let it rip from there onto the page. So angrily, I sat down and wrote. “I feel like I’m writing this damn novel with a gun to my head!” I went on ranting and complaining, and then that voice became its own. Not exactly me, but the desperate part of me, exaggerated: “I feel trapped in this study like I’m locked in here! Why am I doing this?” Like that. And then a full persona emerged.
“It was like I was allowing a dream to take over. I was only a conduit.”
It was Kip. He had locked himself in the basement, boarded up the doors, determined to finish this damned Mohammed story. And he had a gun with him. Now it was life or death. I had no idea where things were going. I didn’t plot out the novel. All the “strange things,” as you say, that occurred came from my unconscious. It was like I was allowing a dream to take over. I was only a conduit. Later on, in rewrites, I tied things together and echoed the themes where it made sense. But to be honest, as strange as things get in the novel, it is also based on the truth—things I’ve known in my life. I’m a lifelong meditator and I have faith in “things unseen.” I’ve been “visited” by goddesses. So it’s not so strange to me. But I guess that makes me sort of strange!
AUTHORLINK: When a writer writes a novel about a writer writing a novel, one can’t help but wonder how much the character has in common with the actual author. You’ve described some of that. What else do you have in common with Kip?
DONALDSON: I have to admit that Greenland is an odd and somewhat confusing piece of fiction if you’re looking to find pieces of my real life in there. It is complete fiction, but it is also complete truth—both for Mohammed’s story and for Kip’s. I recently heard an interview with Michael R. Jackson who wrote the Pulitzer-winning play, A Strange Loop. Another Black queer story of a play- within-a play. Jackson was asked a similar question, and I would have to answer in the same way he did. I can say that Kip is not me—he’s younger and less mature and more confused about who he is—but there is also no experience Kip has that doesn’t also reflect my emotional truth. Kip has borrowed a lot from my experiences to inform how he reacts to his world. And it’s all very tricky of me as a writer (kind of mischievous) because I start the story off from a place where Kip is almost the same as me—Black, queer, British-educated, living in Brooklyn, writing a novel about E.M.
Forster and Mohammed. But then the demands of fiction and storytelling take over and Kip morphs into himself. But there is a lot of me on the page, only fictionalized wildly.
AUTHORLINK: When I read that “A Strange Loop” had won a Tony award, I couldn’t help but notice the similarity to your book. Can you say more about that?
DONALDSON: I think this is such an interesting question. I’ve also thought about this seemingly coincidental similarity. Both Michael R. Jackson and I have been writing for decades, trying to get our work recognized without much success until now. So I wonder if there’s something about the process of trying to be recognized as a queer Black man that has forced us both to understand that the visibility—or rather, historic invisibility—of our work and our very identities are linked; cannot be separated. For so many years I was told “Good work but sorry, there’s not really an audience for your stories.” When you hear this over and over for years, you can’t help but take in the message that your story, your existence, doesn’t matter. As writers, we write what we know—and as Black queer artists we know that there is indeed a strange loop: we can’t get published until there is an audience for us, but there can never be an audience for us unless we get published. Finally, with the murder of George Floyd and the rise of Black Lives Matter, it became clear that it was incumbent upon the powers that be to break this loop and give Black voices a visible platform.
Black voices of all kinds—which includes queer and immigrant voices. In fact, finally, the market was calling for it.
Also, navigating being Black and queer and an artist (and for me also being an immigrant; and dealing with that intersectionality) dictates that we exist on many different levels at once—so our art naturally reflects that multidimensional reality. There is, too, an immediacy to the meta quality that is applicable to our time. We are in an age of Reality TV and real-life issues having a certain pull. So art that strips away the artifice may be especially appealing at a time when people are finally feeling an urgency to grapple with the real underlying social and geopolitical issues facing us. After all, the planet is in danger: coastlines are disappearing; rising global temperatures will mean the end of life as we know it. We don’t have time for escaping into fantasies anymore. Similarly, as Black queer men, we’re also saying you can no longer get away from contending with the reality of our existence, our right to exist. We are saying “Come and see my art; and also see who’s making this art—the two things cannot be separated if you are to understand the fullness of the work.” Our existence is on the line. The meta artform seems appropriate, if not necessary for us.
AUTHORLINK: Why did you pick Greenland for Kip’s wilderness? And how did you research your details about the land and the characters you created there?
DONALDSON: The title Greenland is purposefully somewhat mysterious—it doesn’t tell you what the book is about in any obvious way. But eventually Kip Starling ends up in Greenland where he hopes to find his true voice in the icy wilderness. For me, Greenland has a couple of symbolic references. In the visual sense, Greenland is a land of whiteness—more than 90% of the country is covered with snow and ice; and Kip is grappling to find himself amidst a world of Whiteness. He is
also socially, politically and artistically finding his own voice on the blank page—which appears to be a neutral thing, but that is only because white is assumed to be neutral. So I’m playing with that metaphor in a way. I’m also making a literary reference (an inside joke, really) nodding to the work of Graham Greene. Literary scholars have nicknamed his oeuvre “Greeneland.” Greene’s work deals with British colonialism and its spiritual and moral consequences. These are the themes explored in my novel too.
Since I’ve actually never been to Greenland, I needed to do enough research to credibly represent the people and land. I read Tété-Michel Kpomassie’s 1970’s classic travelogue, An African in Greenland. It’s an amazing book in many ways, but particularly in that Kpomassie is able to recount his experiences without judgments or critiques of the people and situations he encounters in Greenland. We get a very objective view of the customs, foods, language, and the land, too. He has
a documentary-like style. That was immensely helpful for my research.
Then, I also watched countless hours of video footage from documentaries and personal YouTube entries from Greenlandic people themselves. I’m sure I could never do full justice without knowing the culture intimately, but since the novel is told from an outsider’s perspective, I think I came close to something real. People who have been to Greenland and also read the novel, have assumed I’ve also been there—so that feels gratifying.
AUTHORLINK: You write plays and are involved in theater yourself. How did your experience in that area impact your experience in writing a novel?
DONALDSON: In moving from writing plays to fiction one of my biggest challenges was to remember how much of the characters’ interior lives have to show up on the page. In plays and screenplays, you rely a lot on the actors to interpret and relay underlying emotions or intentions. Reading a play by Harold Pinter, for example, is very interesting because there is so little information on the surface, it’s almost all in the subtext that the actor has to bring to life. But in fiction, all that text either has to be on the page in terms of the characters’ thoughts or actions. In writing fiction, I kept feeling like I was being too obvious in stating so much of what everyone was feeling, but my early readers and editors kept asking for more of that. On the other hand, I think my playwrighting background helped me with knowing how to develop dramatic conflict quickly (as you have to in a two-hour play or film); and also in developing story and conflict through dialogue. That has been a real help for writing fiction too. Some of my strongest influences are playwrights and filmmakers, maybe even more than other novelists: Tennessee Williams, Thornton Wilder, Pedro Almodóvar, Tony Kushner, Satyajit Ray and August Wilson.
Something of each of these playwrights has influenced how and what I write.
AUTHORLINK: What do you hope your readers gain from your novel besides enjoying a good
“It’s about opening questions that hopefully resonate with the reader.”
DONALDSON: Well, if the readers just enjoy a good story, I’m very happy. I know the pleasure of being swept up and taken on a journey by a book, and it’s a wonderful thing; so if I could do that for someone, I’d be very happy. As far as meaning or messages, I don’t believe fiction should be didactic. It’s about opening questions that hopefully resonate with the reader. Questions that lead a reader to find their own answers. Some of the questions I hope my readers will ask of themselves
are: How can I be my true self? What am I afraid of when it comes to loving another? What forms of Blackness or Whiteness are operating in my worldview; and how is that helping or hindering me from loving myself or others? These are some of the questions I hope Greenland provokes in the reader.
AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?
DONALDSON: I’m a little wary to share too much about any future projects. I started out in theater and theater people are very superstitious. I can only say, I’m still drawn to the idea of historical literary figures showing up in the lives of Black queer people today. I read a lot and writers from the past are very much alive for me. We cannot escape our history, even from past generations. My literary ancestors are still haunting me and threatening to show up in my present work. That’s all I can say for now.
About the Author: David Santos Donaldson was raised in Nassau, Bahamas and attended Wesleyan University and the drama division of the Juliard School. The Public Theater has commissioned his plays. He was a finalist for the Urban Stages Emerging Playwright Award and worked as artistic director for the Dundas Centre for the Performing Arts in Nassau. He is a
practicing psychotherapist and lives in Brooklyn, New York, and Seville, Spain. Greenland is his first novel.