Sunday, July 3, 2022

David Santos Donaldson

photo credit: Billy Bustamante
David Santos Donaldson was raised in Nassau, Bahamas, and has lived in India, Spain, and the United States. He attended Wesleyan University and the Drama Division of the Juilliard School, and his plays have been commissioned by the Public Theater. He was a finalist for the Urban Stages Emerging Playwright Award. His writing has appeared in Electric Lit, Literary Hub, and The Rumpus. Donaldson is currently a practicing psychotherapist and divides his time between Brooklyn, New York, and Seville, Spain. Greenland is his debut novel.

My Q&A with the author:
How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

The title Greenland is purposefully somewhat mysterious—it doesn’t tell you what the book is about in any obvious way. You’d never expect it’s a novel about a young queer Black writer holed up in his basement writing a novel about E.M. Forster’s secret real-life love affair with the Black Egyptian tram conductor, Mohammed el Adl. But as you read on, the title slowly begins to make sense. Eventually the narrator/protagonist, Kip Starling, ends up in Greenland itself, where he hopes to find his true voice in the icy wilderness. For me, the title Greenland has a couple of symbolic references. In the visual sense, Greenland is a land of whiteness—more than 90% of the county is covered with snow and ice; and my narrator is grappling with finding 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 whiteness is assumed to be neutral. I’m also making a literary reference (almost 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 very themes explored in my novel too.

What's in a name?

Kip is short for Kipling. My narrator was named after his father’s favorite writer, the staunch British colonialist, Rudyard Kipling. So the weight of colonial history is placed on him from birth. He struggles to manage this inheritance throughout the novel. His last name, Starling, is meant to remind us of the black bird with its strange and grating cry. Kip is like a caged bird for the first part of the novel—locked away in his basement study where he’s boarded himself in, nailing the door shut, in a dramatic fashion that some have compared to being like an “Edgar Allan Poe madman.” Symbolically, as a Black queer man in the United States, Kip is also caged in, unable to be fly freely due to the confines of racism and homophobia. At one point Kip compares himself to the bird in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy,” from which Maya Angelou took the title of her book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The symbol of the bird also figures prominently in another way—as a path to spiritual freedom. Even the book’s cover captures that, in Devan Shimoyama’s beautiful artwork: a queer Black interpretation of the classical paintings of the myth of the abduction of Ganymede. Zeus appears in the form of a giant bird and sweeps away the beautiful young man. I intended all of these references with the name of Kip Starling. And I also just like how the name sounds—kind of snappy.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

Not only would my teenage self be surprised by the style and voice of this novel, but even me of a few years ago would be surprised. I never liked writing in first person, let alone things that seemed autobiographical in tone. This novel is quite meta but it’s still fiction. Yet, it reads like autofiction and that was on purpose. I embraced the play with reality and fiction. What is real versus not real. I think this question is more and more something we grapple with in our world. So many of our interactions are virtual. Reality TV stars become presidents of the “free world.” We are even now presented with the idea of “alternative truths.” It’s crazy. And yet, in another way, this questioning of reality gets to the core of some of the most ancient spiritual and philosophical teachings—especially from the mystic traditions. They all say our daily waking life is really an illusion, like a dream; and the truth is the deeper “reality” of dreams. Paradoxical. But I love engaging with this idea in the very form and style of the book. Writing is usually strongest when style and content are in accord. So, this novel’s meta qualities demanded a form that was new to me. I’m still surprised it worked!

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I find endings a lot harder than beginnings. E.M. Forster, in Aspects of the Novel, says that a love story can either end in two ways: either the couple lives happily ever after, or one or both of the lovers die. Endings are hard for me because a story can’t just drop off, you need some sense of closure—even if there’ll be a sequel. And real life rarely has such neat closures as novels seem to require. In Greenland, I knew I wanted to end with something satisfying in terms of Kip’s search for his own voice amidst Whiteness, but I wasn’t sure how that could happen, or if it would come off as too contrived and pat. In the end, I think I organically found a resolution that is both realistic and also gives a sense of closure—or rather, a sense of Kip being able to move on with a fuller more empowered sense of himself. But I tried not to artificially tie ends up. And, of course, there is a death. One reviewer called it something like “the most unhappy happy ending—or perhaps the reverse.” That sounds about right to me. But once I have a good ending, I then go back and rewrite the beginning many times over, to make sure all the seeds are planted up front, so the ending feels inevitable when you look back.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

Well, I get this question a lot because this book reads very much like an autobiographical novel—and that’s my fault; I did it on purpose. I’ve been tricky in that I set things up from the beginning so that Kip is almost identical to me: Black, queer writer in Brooklyn, British-educated, writing a novel about E.M Forster real-life relationship Mohammed el Adl. As I said before, I like pointing to the fine lines between fact and fiction. I want the reader to think this is kind of a whacky fiction, but then question, “Is it also real?” Because it’s both. As the novel progresses Kip becomes his own person, not like me at all. However, there is still no experience Kip has, that does not also reflect some of my own emotional truth. But the same is true for all of the characters in the book—even the ones who share none of my obvious markers of identity.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I’m so glad you asked this question because the truth is, some of my strongest influences are not other novelists but filmmakers and playwrights. The works of Satyajit Ray, Vittorio De Sica and Pedro Almodóvar. Together they make up a strange mix of Neo-realism with deep humanism and then stylish melodrama. I feel like all those qualities end up in my writing. I’m also a huge fan of both Tennessee Williams and August Wilson—both of whom I often quote with the same reverence as the Bible or Shakespeare. These are some of my guiding forces as a writer.
Visit David Santos Donaldson's website.

--Marshal Zeringue