RW: I hope the book works for people. That it both helps them appreciate the love that they have and helps them look back at the powerful loves in their lives. Even if a breakup was hard, there’s still something there to be mined, to be processed, to be appreciated. And the experience of letting go of one’s old identity … to move into a different modality seems really relevant right now.
In terms of everything happening internationally, we have to be fluid, but we’re also asking ourselves just how fluid can we be? Is there something that’s nonnegotiable? And that was definitely something I was thinking about as I was writing. To think I could go anywhere and then later to realize I do actually appreciate where I come from. There are boundaries. That’s an interesting sort of moment, a realization.
TR: Travel, of course, is a huge theme in the book, almost like another character in and of itself. How has travel changed your own life as it did Farida’s?
RW: Traveling has always been a big part of my life. When I was 15 … I backpacked through Mexico and hung out with the Huichol Indians and took peyote. I learned so much from them about nonattachment and beauty. I’ve always traveled. I traveled a lot with my mother to Indonesia and Jamaica and the Caribbean. I just was a born traveler.
As a woman of color it was really important for me to be able to leave America and to leave the narrative of slavery and the tragic mulatto and to be in an environment where those stories were not the dominant stories. I got to be free in a way. Travel does that.
I think when Farida is in Cairo and Giza and she’s going behind the Pyramids and meeting people in their very small, very modest homes, I lived that. It’s very healing to connect with someone you don’t know. It reaffirms our common humanity. And I think you get that from travel — freedom — freedom from your own ideas about yourself. You get bigger; you expand.
TR: Speaking of your main character, Farida, we never learn her name until she meets Adé. Why?
RW: I wanted that idea that her identity was part of what Adé gave her, to give her a name that was outside this other world. The only way to give that moment when he names her this magnitude was to take her other name away so that you really feel the depth of what he offers. It’s the whole new definition of who she was.
The flipside of the gift is that originally she basks in her namelessness; she’s open. And then he gives her the name and grounds her in the culture. It’s a gift, but it’s also a kind of limitation that’s being put on her for the first time. There’s a double-edged sword there.
TR: The idea of the double-edged sword also comes up when Farida has to unpack her feelings about Africa and whether or not she’s been romanticizing it. Were you concerned at all with the idea of romanticizing Africa in the book as a whole?