The Cultural Identity of a Character

credit: www.blackwomenhaveitgoingon.wordpress.com
credit: http://www.blackwomenhaveitgoingon.wordpress.com Annette Harrison

I am working on my second novel now, with a working title: Refugee Queen.

This book is set in Eastern Africa and Europe (the UK and Italy) and centres on the journey of survival/ coming of age of a multi-ethnic refugee girl.  As with the first, it is an international novel, set in several countries.  It’s more ambitious than The Disobedient Wife as I change setting and characters frequently.  She escapes civil war, then sexual bondage to a pimp in Nairobi.  Later she has to survive life in the camp, a refugee ‘haven’ where her life is in danger.  She is another survivor who prevails; the kind of person I love to write about.

As with the first book, I had to think long and hard about the nationality of the person with which the protagonist has her main relationship.  In the Disobedient Wife, I chose to make the husband of my British Expatriate character Belgian.  Partly because I adore the french language, but also because I wanted him to have certain turns of phrase and personality traits suitable to the misogyny of an older husband with a trophy wife: A masculine, sexy Poirot, if you will.

In this second book, I was initially attracted to the idea that the main love interest for the girl should be a fellow exile:  Rootless and unable to return to his country, either through fear or because of a deep sense of mistrust in his homeland.  I imagined him as an Iranian Communist, a person with a deep sense of lacking, who misses the sights and smells of a childhood gone forever because the Iran of the 1960s and 70s has ceased to be.

I wrote the passages of their courtship but realised the idea of an Iranian man in a position of authority, however well traveled and educated, falling in love with a woman like her, was rare to the point of unrealistic (or vice versa).  I searched my memory to think of a single example of a Persian-African couple in my many years abroad.  I do not why it is so rare, whether it is cultural barriers or not.  I work with West African men and Afghan/ Pakistani/ Iranian men at a refugee centre in Rome.  They rarely mix as friends, even though they have much in common:  English/ Italian as a communicating language; religion (many of the West Africans are Muslim); and, their present situation and living conditions as migrants in Italy.  Even with so many things in common, disagreements and misunderstandings are a daily reality and we employ ‘peacemakers’ to negotiate the cultural divide.  I noticed this in the classroom too, as clear as a bass relief.  Yet Iran does, in fact, have an African origin community of Afro-Iranians, the descendants of Zanj slaves brought to Persia to do domestic labour from Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique.  I could not think of a single example of such a couple from all my years working in the region however, so it simply made no sense to me.  Write what you know, or at least, what you have experienced.

Instead, I have made him a Southern Italian, with an Iranian, Communist revolutionary ex-wife.  I think that many Italian men in authority would risk all for love, they are romantic, they like to bend the rules, as though they are only there for the bending.  So no, he is not himself an exile, nor does he suffer the great Lack that I described, but it is enough that he understands the dilemma of exile, rather as I do, married to a Bosnian for nearly twenty years.  An Italian-Rwandan marriage makes perfect sense in my mind.  Most Italian men adore beautiful dark women and treat them reverently, like living Goddesses, though of course, this can take the form of sexual harassment at times, especially as there are many trafficked Nigerian girls lining the streets of Rome’s outskirts.  I know many happy interracial couples here and I see examples before me every day.

Perhaps it is a cop out, to accept the negative aspects of a reality many would rather gloss over and then to change my characters to fit.  Making realistic decisions about ‘my people’ is important to me as a writer though.  They are mine to make as they are my creation, but still, I agonize over the detail.  I have no political motives with my writing, I just want a good story.  The way I figure it, someone else with greater knowledge than mine can explore the Iranian-African love affair.  I need it to make sense, to have continuity, and though the characters are all figments of an overactive imagination, my readers need to believe in them as much as I do.

For more on being a black girl in Rome, check out this fantastic short film by Pizzoli Media: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AznUhel2LqQ&feature=youtu.be

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