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Jennifer Neal on race, magic and the politics of passing

Jennifer Neal's novel 'Notes on Her Colour' explores race in the US through the story of a girl who can change the colour of her skin.

Photo: Makar Artemev

One of Berlin’s most interesting literary debuts this year has come in the form of Notes on Her Colour, the first book by Australian-American writer, journalist, visual artist and occasional comedian Jennifer Neal.

The novel tells the story of Gabrielle, a Black, indigenous teenager growing up in 1990s Florida who discovers she has the ability to make her skin take on many different colours. Gabrielle’s mother is loving and creative but unstable; her father is selfish, cruel and determined to press her into a lucrative career in medicine. The boys at her school are even worse. When Gabrielle begins taking piano lessons with a charismatic young Queer woman named Dom, she discovers her prodigal musical talent – and learns a couple of things about the nature of love. We caught up with Neal to talk about familial inheritance, the wilds of Florida and how stand-up influenced her book.

Congratulations on your novel! Has it been in the works for long?

Yes, ever since I moved to Berlin! I moved here in 2016 specifically with the idea of writing a novel. Originally, I wanted to write a novel that was based in Berlin – hence the whole point of moving (laughs) – but the first two drafts I wrote just weren’t working. They weren’t saying what I wanted them to say. I think it was because I didn’t yet have the relationship with Berlin that I had with some of the other places where I’ve lived, where I grew up.

When we talk about passing, we talk about changing a core part of ourselves for public consumption.

When you’re someplace else, you think a lot about home – about where you come from. So I started writing the book set in Florida, and I really liked the direction it was taking, so I just kept going. All that was sandwiched between the two scandals around Rachel Dolezal and Jessica Krug, which I had been writing op-eds on. And privately, I found it so interesting, the idea that you can just ‘change’ your race. I started reading or revisiting a lot of literature on that subject – Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler – and I decided I wanted to write something that took on these themes of ‘passing’.

How did you come up with the novel’s central conceit that this teenager Gabrielle, like her mother, can change the colour of her skin? 

I was looking at discussions of race, gender and sex, and how the attitudes we have about all those things are often inherited from our parents. And I thought, instead of looking at that literally – like, a mother explaining that her daughter is a woman of colour in the American South at this weird violent political time – how about condensing all of those conversations into a single device that makes her say, ‘your skin changes colour, and here’s how this is going to affect you in different environments’?

Because everything we learn about this, we inherit from our parents. And we pass it on to our children, with the idea that we improve as we go. But what if the daughter, who gets it from her mother, doesn’t necessarily know how to improve? She needs to seek out a community to help her learn how to manage her own abilities, and to work out how to see herself, because she’s been so isolated by her family. So I also wanted to explore how attitudes change – how we can change our environments, how we can explore and reach out and seek new information to challenge ourselves on what we think and where we come from.

Does Gabrielle inherit anything from her father? He’s so awful…

The mother and father are complete opposites. The mum is really emotive, kind of volatile, but very loving in some strange and interesting ways. Whereas the father is very controlling – he doesn’t know how to demonstrate love at all. Growing up in this environment, for Gabrielle, is like a tug of war between these two different people. So what she inherits from him is this sense of self-loathing and this desire for complete self-control. It becomes a worldview, but she eventually leaves it behind. I know this is a really dark book, but something I see in it that’s irredeemably hopeful is that Gabrielle chose differently for herself in the end.

Because of the magical realist aspect, the word ‘passing’ begins to take on all sorts of other resonances in the novel – not just fitting into racial hierarchies, but also passing something on, passing from one state to another, and so on. Likewise, ‘white’ and ‘black’ take on a range of different meanings and connotations. Were you hoping to enrich or complicate this familiar language around race?

Yes! I hope everybody else sees that too. Obviously, in the real world, ‘passing’ is confined to this idea of Black and white, or cis and trans. But I wanted to add some multi-dimensionality to all that. Black and white, in the real world, are based on a construct that doesn’t really exist, but the discourse has taken on this whole life of its own. It has its own ecosystem that operates on a lot of people, from skin colour to hair texture to manner of speech. In the book, I wanted to explore many different colours and how they can be attributed to different kinds of behaviour, different attitudes, different matters of speech.

Photo: Makar Artemev

When we talk about passing, we talk about changing a core part of ourselves for public consumption – for others. And I wanted to ask: what does that mean? What does that look like? How does it feel? As a woman of colour, and as a queer woman, I think this is something that really affected me subconsciously as I grew up. In the mid-1990s, when this book is set, there wasn’t a lot of language available to describe it all. This language – critical race theory and its broader applications – is something that’s only become more recently popularised. 

You’ve had a fascinating range of career experiences – you’ve done journalism, production, music, visual art, even stand-up comedy. How do all those things flow into your novel? It doesn’t necessarily read like a stand-up comedian’s novel…

Oh I thought it was funny sometimes! (laughs) Like, darkly funny. I feel like I’m someone who explores different things at different times. When people ask what my discipline is, I say I’m an artist who writes, or I’m an artist who does comedy, or something like that. But I do think all these pursuits affect each other. I’m a very visual writer. I actually started doing stand-up comedy in order to become a better writer. Because it’s about turning a punchline as quickly as possible so you don’t lose your audience, right?

Berlin is a city that really cultivates eccentric and weird ideas.

I tend to be quite naturally verbose in my writing, and I wanted to figure out how to get to my point more quickly. My style of comedy was more storytelling, not one-liners, which gave me the opportunity to put on different accents, to do different body imitations, to take on the voices of different characters. I probably looked mental during some of my sets, to be honest, but I had a great time. And when you can tell something effectively, making people laugh and being poignant, then that’s the same thing you’re going to do in your novel. 

Notes on Her Colour is very vividly set in Florida. Was that just a setting you happened to know well, or did it feel essential to the story?

I was raised all over Florida – Miami, Orlando, Clearwater, Tallahassee. We moved around a lot. So most of my upbringing is hurricanes, tornadoes caused by hurricanes, property damage caused by hurricanes, flooding, snakes, crabs, stingrays. I feel like it’s a place that just shouldn’t exist. Like, 20-foot alligators in the backyard, reticulated pythons eating deer in the Everglades, manatees letting you rub their tummy at Wakulla Springs. It’s like a magical place run by evil forces (laughs). And I felt that because of all this magical-seeming ecology, it would be the perfect place to tell a magical story. There’s probably a million places like that out there, but it’s the one I know. 

And how has living in Berlin affected your novel?

There’s no way I would have written a book like this if I was in Florida, because I would be thinking, ‘Oh, this place is normal.’ And Berlin is a city that really cultivates eccentric and weird ideas – it attracts people who have them, for better or worse, and encourages them. Whereas in Florida, which has become this conservative wonder-world, you’re told to steer clear of anything that deviates from the standard. And your environment really shapes how experimental and creative you want to be. I feel like if I were still in the United States, I might have become one of those political talking heads who get called onto CNN to give a take on critical race theory or something. I would have been stuck in this loop of news for entertainment, which I really despise. The distance here has allowed me to have more perspective – and to really dive into my weirder brain.