Review: A Black gay novelist explodes the margins, with help from E.M. Forster, in ‘Greenland’

On the shelf

Greenland

By David Santos Donaldson
Amistad: 336 pages, $27

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The novel-within-the-novel is nothing new; neither does the novel-as-a-cross-time-cultural-interrogation. David Santos Donaldson’s debut Greenland is certainly both. But not since Iris Murdoch’s The Philosopher’s Disciple have I read a novel crammed with so many ideas and tropes that they threaten to spill over the edges.

Allegedly about a young queer man in Manhattan, Greenland is also an identity and place novel, but it’s less about claiming your territory and more about deciding who gets in. As the story begins, Kip (short for Kipling) Starling has barricaded himself in his basement study with “five cases of Premium Saltine Crackers, three cans of Café Bustelo, and twenty-one one-gallon pitchers of Poland Spring Water,” determined to write the novel , which an editor told him she would read if he could finish it in three weeks.

“Throughout all the ups and downs of my life, I’ve only had one abiding dream: to be a published author,” Kip tells us. He also adds, “I’m useless for anything but writing.”

Kip wanted to write a novel about the great (and long-abandoned) English writer EM Forster and his young lover in Egypt, a ticket collector named Mohammed El Adl. When the editor objects, he asks her to tell her what kind of novel would catch her attention: “‘Well,’ she said, focusing on me again, her voice firm, ‘maybe if you tell it from the perspective of would Mohammed. That would be interesting!”

As you’ve probably already figured out, Kip has problems. Mom issues, dad issues, husband issues (his wife of 7 just filed for divorce) and more. If he didn’t, he probably wouldn’t be trying to write a novel in three weeks, let alone locking himself in a room on meager rations. He’s not just looking for a bookstore; He wants answers: “What if Mohammed wants to tell me about his experiences so that I know from his perspective where we gay, black colonial men come from?”

We know the exclusion. (Same goes for Kip’s editor, who sees commercial value in focusing on the “other” in the Forster relationship.) But Donaldson wants us to include those like Kip, Mohammed, and himself (a New Yorker from the Bahamas) take into account those who feel left out even by the fringes. People who grew up in the habits of colonial life but have no membership in it, whose combined identity means they don’t belong anywhere. Kip moved from England to work on his MFA at Columbia University, where he feels snubbed by a community where he’s not black enough, not queer enough, not enough for anyone. “Here I was with my black gay brothers and I was still the pariah. Would I ever fit in anywhere?”

The book cover of "Greenland" by David Santos Donaldson

And so Kip pinned his hopes, perhaps foolishly, on book publishing. If Donaldson had done nothing in this novel but tell Kip’s story, his sensitive examination of isolation would make it remarkable. Kip admits he was “obsessed with the idea of ​​being recognized by the publishing world” because “for some surely problematic reason, as a black gay man, the world has to say, See you soon. You Matter. I know you exist!”

But Donaldson is after something bigger than the blind spots of literary New York. The braided narrative jumps between Kip, the frustrated 21st-century writer, Mohammed, the 20th-century gay black Egyptian, and “Kip,” a character in his own novel, The Nowherians — yes, the Nowhere Men. Those Toggles aren’t just fancy jump cuts; the stories and epochs blur like overlaid transparencies. In a powerful juxtaposition, Mohammed is attacked by a British soldier: “He smashed my skull in and I went deaf. But it wasn’t until he put his boots on my neck and pushed me down so I couldn’t breathe that I knew for sure I was going to die.”

A few pages later, Kip recalls incidents of police brutality against Black Americans and mentions many familiar names — Till, King, Diallo, Rice, Garner, Castile, Lopez, Martin, “and so many more I can’t even bear to keep naming them.” ‘ – but never Floyd. We understand that his story has already been considered.

In the midst of it all, there’s a lot of sex – all of meaning in Donaldson’s hands. A man refuses to let Kip penetrate him and says he’s saving himself for their wedding night. He declares his love by gifting Kip a Glock 22, a gun as Czech as it comes. His firing will prove essential to Donaldson’s finale, the happiest unhappy ending you’ll ever read – or is it the other way around?

The narrative braid – the superstory – meanwhile becomes more and more confused. As Kip progresses with his novel, Donaldson ventures into the realm of spirituality and magic. The author is a practicing psychotherapist; given the archetypes that inhabit this book, he must be Jungian at heart: the downtrodden Englishman, the passionate young lover, the beleaguered spouse.

Most of them are male, but one of the most important characters is the Great Goddess Tatha-agata, who variously morphs into a sultry Southern voice, an unstoppable erotic cargo, an Inuit baker and a staid black matron on an airplane. Perhaps the missing part of these men’s psyches is actually their inner women, the warm, caring, and intuitive parts of them that have been crushed and crushed by their upbringing, culture, and education.

Or at least that’s part of it. “Greenland” (the title refers to where Kip ends up after a sudden departure en route to London) is full of philosophy, psychology, politics, literature, family sagas, food, beauty, style, history, geography. This is a book that respects neither the margins nor those that limit us in the real world. Some may find its lavish overflows confusing or unnecessary; I found them mostly captivating. Whatever your personal tolerance for the mess along the way, Donaldson maintains a storyline that ends in ecstasy, action, and reconciliation, ending with a satisfying novel of ideas that also addresses being a queer black man finds his true north.

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-06-08/a-black-gay-novelist-explodes-the-margins-with-help-from-e-m-forster-in-greenland Review: A Black gay novelist explodes the margins, with help from E.M. Forster, in ‘Greenland’

Sarah Ridley

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