“I need a friend in London,” I told my husband.
He looked serious. “What kind of friend?”
“The kind of friend who I can call up and say, ‘I want to do this,’ and they’ll come along.” I want company to be at my beck-and-call. Hey, it’s my dream scenario. As my lovely as my husband is, following me around is not actually his role.
“I know someone from when I was at Oxford. Tom. The four of us lived together, Tom, me, and his best friends, Beth and Jim. He’s a nice guy in that educated English way. He might be just the guy you need. Although he later had an affair with Beth and Jim’s daughter. They don’t speak to him anymore. She was only 16. When we were there, I didn’t want to introduce him because we had our son with us and he was only seven and I was worried, but you’ll be there by yourself, so…”
I am completely capable of traveling by myself. I can even do it in foreign languages. But when I go away on business, I have trouble. I stay late at the office. I get so tired that I can’t stand to go to a restaurant, so I get a sandwich and eat in front of the TV, or I manage to go somewhere but eat in a succession of museum cafes. In three trips to London, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve eaten in an establishment not run by a cultural or ecclesiastical institution.
There is a way that I’m not myself when I travel alone. Some of it is that I can’t be part of what makes me me is my existence as part of larger things. Remove me from those—family, friendships, neighborhood, city—and I’m not quite me.
I’m also a moodier me, cut off from the things I love. So I’m a me that I enjoy less. I don’t write when traveling alone, although with the family not around, it should be a great time. Instead, I’m either exhausted and spacey, or determined to have a cultural experience. I rarely make the time to have a few hours of just letting myself work on a story. It’s just work.
My co-workers, lovely though they are, are devoted family men who are off like a shot by shortly after 5:00. We’re happy to see each other at the office in the morning and to say goodbye at the end of the day. Suggesting a trip to the Tate or that we meet for tea seems off. If I suggested a few pints they might be into that. But I wouldn’t, and they don’t, with probably the same relief on both sides. There’s nothing like a trip to Europe to make me feel like a big priss for being who I am: a tea- art- and literature-loving Latina who writes children’s novels in her spare time. I love traveling, and yet, alone in a foreign country, I get melancholic. One morning I found myself counting off all the different ways that you can be alone (alone in a crowded public place, alone in a place meant for couples, alone in a private place that isn’t yours, alone in a place with other people who are alone…). That’s how I get.
I brood a lot about identity. As an American in London, I’m a very specific type of outsider—except I’m not. The last time I was here, I took a Transport for London (the group that runs the Underground and buses, their version of the MTA) survey. At the end they asked for demographic information—age, income level, gender, etc. We reached an impasse at race.
“How about African?” the man suggested.
In Europe, they know who the other is: it is always African, and when I don’t embrace the label, an argument usually ensues. But I’m not white and I’m not black. They don’t have a category for someone like me. In the US, racism is specific: Asian, black, Indian. People who hate Latinos tag me unfailingly: Spic.
I was with a good friend the last time someone called me that, a couple of years ago. Sometimes it frightens me. If you’re comfortable with racial slurs, what other societal boundaries would you cross.? This time I was two blocks from my office in the Financial District, it was lunch time, my friend is over 6’2″ and husky. I could keep walking.
“How did he know?” my friend wondered.
“They always know.”
“But…you just look the same.”
But I don’t.
I hate it when people pretend the world is homogenous. “I don’t see color,” is as big a lie as “You all look alike.” We look for each other; it’s a way not be alone in the world. That’s a big deal. I’ve had people run after me in Pennsylvania, Vermont, France’s Vaucluse and Oxford, to say hello and ask where I’m from. Sometimes, magically, our families are from the same places and we are instantly cousins. At the very least we are distant relatives, from the country of Latino.
I actually get asked about race directly less often in the UK than in the US, where I’m usually offended by it (unless the asker is Latino, as above,). Latino doesn’t exist as a group in the UK, much less Puerto Ricans. I could claim my Spanish heritage, but is that what I want? I spent years consciously purging my grandparent’s Castellano accent, learned during the years they lived with us when I was very small. I wanted to better fit into the New York Latino community, where I was easily tagged as Puerto Rican, but without some kind of “naturally Spanish” identifying mark, it was the equivalent of speaking English with a phony British accent. The accusation was that I wasn’t authentic. Speaking Spanish was a fraught enough experience without getting a lot of attitude about it. My response was to lose what was authentically mine, in order to fit in better with people who were as judgmental as the whites whose racism they deplored. Their assumption was that I wasn’t really Spanish. Just the way Spic accuses me of not being some kind of other, an inauthentic American.
“Why are you wearing an American flag?” my neighbor’s kid asked our doorman about his lapel pin. “Aren’t you Puerto Rican?” There are so many levels of misunderstanding there that it makes me dizzy to look at them all.
I love that I hear so much Spanish on the streets of London. It brings my grandparents back to me, visits to their house in Galicia, their stays with us. But Spaniards don’t recognize me as one of them outside of my family’s home town, where the family resemblance overpowers my outsider status. That may be unfair. But I wonder, what kind of reception would I get if I was a few shades darker, my hair a little kinkier?
Which is a very roundabout way of explaining why I took Daniel José Older’s SHADOWSHAPER to London. And why it meant so much to me.
I’d been listening to the pre-publication buzz. I was excited because DJO is a Puerto Rican from New York, that we share that and in a time of dismal diversity in publication, here was a guy who had published a story about us with a prestigious imprint.
And then there was the cover art: a gorgeous Afro-Latina, dark skin, big hair. No white washing here.
If I wasn’t going to be able to find a friend to drag around, I could drag Sierra. As soon as the book arrived, it went into the suitcase to wait for me in London.
As a reader, it was what I had hoped for. As a lonely traveler, it was the friend I needed. As a Nuyorican, I saw the recognition of our shared experience, so beautifully written, so real, from the food to the relationships to the neighborhoods and subway.
In the aftermath of the Charleston, SC mass murder, when no one at our London office said a word to me about it, SHADOWSHAPER kept me from feeling completely alienated from decent people who either didn’t make the connection, or perhaps were too diffident to discuss it. SHADOWSHAPPER reminded me about my connection to my own community and family. Because it’s the book’s base, too.
Although Sierra is frustrated by her mother and her grandfather, her connection to them—–especially her responsibility towards her grandfather—isn’t effected by quotidian annoyances. I especially loved the arguments between Sierra and her mother about her hair. (Is there a Latina mother in existence who doesn’t hate her daughter’s hair? Or is this not just a Latino thing? Maybe we could get together and discuss later.)
Robbie doesn’t hide who he is; he wants you to see where he comes from. He wears his family on his skin—a more explicit statement of what is true for us all. Sierra confronts the prejudice that exists and is allowed to persist in our families, where being too brown or black is considered less attractive than the looks of our fairer, more Anglo-looking sisters. I remember taking my son to get glasses on 181st St. in Washington Heights when he was about 7. We spoke Spanish to the ladies in the store, who crowed, “He’s Spanish [i.e., Latino], but he looks white!” I told them he would be our stealth weapon for infiltrating white society and we laughed like crazy. Now, almost 16, he feels that he can’t claim to be Latino because, for all intents and purposes, he has it too good by looking white. He has my features and my dark curls. And he has the same problem of identity and skin color, turned upside down.
I love the characters in SHADOWSHAPER moving to self-acceptance and self-knowledge, that acceptance of one’s own beauty is part of DJO’s message. I love that Sierra and Robbie are artists, people who create. I love that every single character is authentic and individual. And I loved the villain, a university professor who attempts to highjack the family’s heritage and beliefs for his own purpose.
What I admire most is the natural and loving nature of the spirit world, which supports and protects Sierra and her brother. Their ancestors are present, as we always want ours to be. The attempts to hijack them are doomed, ultimately, by the professor’s lack of authenticity. You can’t take on what is not yours. Sierra’s power comes from her authenticity and her community. Her friends love and trust Sierra enough to go with her and make a stand (in Washington Heights, another thing I love). And she gave the feeling right back to me
A friend keeps you from feeling alone. Sierra has those kinds of friends. SHADOWSHAPER kept me from being the lone Puerto Rican in London. It will keep a lot of kids from being alone right here.