Author: David Santos Donaldson
Publisher: Amistad, HarperCollins
Genre: Literary Fiction
I have just finished reading “Greenland” by David Santos Donaldson, and there is so much unpacking to be done – not only where the book is concerned but also when it comes to my life. As a brown gay man, facing a terrible mid-life crisis, and trying to adjust to the world that’s rapidly changing around him, I couldn’t identify more with Kip, the gay black narrator of the novel.
Kip Starling has decided to rewrite his novel in three weeks by locking himself in the basement. His novel takes him in the mind of Mohammed el Adl, E.M. Forster’s secret lover, who was also a Black queer man like Kip. This is where it all begins for Kip, or rather unravels. His need to be seen and heard, and then the juxtaposition of his life to that of Mohammed’s – both the other, both trying hard to fit in, both with great education and yet feels not accounting for much, each with white lovers, almost not knowing what to do with them. Each with a burden of their own.
While reading this novel, there were so many times I thought I was reading my life, or at least portions of it. It is funny how art and life get mixed-up sometimes, that you cannot differentiate one from the other.
As Kip navigates to find himself in the process of writing the book, I was doing the same with some parts of my life that felt strangely familiar and ones I could relate to from the book. That’s the power of good storytelling – of how it makes you subconsciously see within.
Kip’s struggles are evident – the way not the world sees him as a queer Black man but the way he sees himself in relation to that. Donaldson takes us to the core of the book with Kip’s psyche – the fact that he was named after Kipling – a writer who has been labelled a colonialist, a jingoist, and a racist, speaks volumes about how Kip would turn out to be. The struggle to understand if he is black enough and how much black – when he starts dating white men, to trying to fit in with the “black community” at college, or even when simply trying to overcome his insecurities, he doubts, he second-guesses, he doesn’t have the confidence to perhaps be black.
Kip’s life then became mine – the struggle to fit in, to write my book, to understand where I come from, and be accepting of it, but more than anything else to embrace love when it is in my way. More than anything else, as a reader I was immensely drawn to the novel within the novel – when Kip’s and Mohammed’s voices became the same, when they were clearly different, when they both sought refuge in each other, and when they both tried to hide. Donaldson brings out all these elements with an honesty that shocks, surprises, and ultimately makes you surrender to the text.
Greenland is a book about love, about coming to terms with yourself repeatedly, about knowing when to give up and when to get back up and start all over. It is a book that is tender, full of angst (or at least that’s what I thought as a typical gay man – and proud of it), and about what it takes to be in interracial relationships.
David’s writing is refreshing – at no point did I feel that I was reading something already written, though I am sure there are several books that speak of the LGBTQIA theme, linking it to a novel within a novel, but it shows that David has a fondness for E.M. Forster and that translates sublimely into this text.
The redemptive power of literature is constant – almost in every chapter, as a subtext, moving slowly, seen at times, but reminding the reader that literature can save us and does.
Greenland is a fantastic debut – one that isn’t shy of exploring difficult and complex emotions. It is a grand debut in the sense that it takes it risks and leaves the reader with awe, joy, melancholy, and ultimately with the knowledge that relationships are not easy and take a lot from you.