Greenland

British author E. M. Forster, best known for his novels “Howard’s End,” “A Room with a View,” and “The Passage to India,” was a conscientious objector to military service during World War I. His community service took him to Alexandria, Egypt, where he worked for the British Red Cross. There, he met an Egyptian tram driver named Mohammed el-Adl and began a relationship that violated racial and, of course, gender boundaries.

Even after Foster left Egypt and married Muhammad, the two exchanged letters that eventually led to Muhammad’s death of tuberculosis in 1922. Mohammed’s widow gave Foster her husband’s gold wedding ring.

In his debut novel, “Greenland,” David Santos Donaldson takes Foster’s important but necessarily secret relationship from his Brooklyn basement to the icy white expanse of Greenland the novel’s title refers to. Greenland is a clever and exciting novel about racism and self-discovery, its awkwardness more than made up for by its boldness.

The premise: A black British aspiring writer named Kip Starling has three weeks to revise his historical novel about the love between E.M. Forster and Mohammed el-Adl. Eleven publishers rejected it; the only one interested was about to be bought by a media conglomerate; Kip needed to sell his book before that happened. So, like a lunatic, he banged Edgar Allan Poe’s plywood on the inner door of his basement study, on the brownstone he shared with his estranged husband, a white psychotherapist. Fueled by boxes of saltine crackers, tins of coffee and 21 gallons of spring water, Kip sits at his laptop, waiting for inspiration. and naps. and eat salt.

Kip felt connected to Mohammed: He also had a complicated relationship with an older, wealthy white man. Kip wanted Mohammed to tell his thoughts on Foster’s affair, but he disputed Mohammed’s motivations for telling his story and voice. Ultimately, Kip—short for Kipling, his father’s favorite writer—was raised by Bahamian parents who themselves had grown up under “the total domination of British colonialism.” As such, Kip tells us he “raised up in the same Victorian era as [E.M.] Forster,” and his own voice is more Forster’s than Mohammed’s. The breakthrough came when Kip realized that Muhammad might have felt the need to tell him, Kip, his story. Here’s Kip’s revelation:

“Like when I first saw a picture of this young man who lived a hundred years ago, I felt a lightning connection, what if Muhammad had an equally strong connection to his image of a man in the world. ?? … [A] Modern black living a life he can’t? What if Muhammad wanted to tell me about his experiences so I could know from his perspective where our gay black colonial men came from? What if Muhammad needed mine too What about existence, so he knows…we humans have a future…is that possible?”

What followed was a whirlwind of stories: Mohammed and Foster both recounted chapters from Kip’s novel detailing the course of their relationship; and Kip’s recent account of his life in New York, where he worked because of his British language and mannerisms felt ostracized by African Americans. Halfway through these reveries, Kip is freed from his basement typing room by a supernatural voice, ordering him to travel to the wilderness to find his true self.

If these storylines sound a little overheated, well, sometimes they are. In fact, I put the novel on hold twice. But Donaldson’s excellent voice as a writer himself has been holding me back. and his sense of humor. Here are some funny riffs about air travel going nowhere, the gestures of the MFA show and a whole chapter titled Long Live Idris Elba, in which Kip confides on the cheek the man who makes him feel seen A tribute to the black British actor who came and understood in the United States.

Of course, “Only Connections” is Foster’s famous epigram at Howard’s End, a poignant and sometimes desperate plea for connection between those who are as mysterious to themselves as they are to others. In Greenland, Donaldson rewrote “Only Connected” into an anthem of self-connection, integrating contradictory identities into the crooked human beings of our time.

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