RW: Yes, I obsessed about that. It’s one of my greatest concerns with the book and with the experience. Farida’s really struggling to come from a place of being conscious of that and refusing to do that. But it doesn’t matter if you’re mythologizing Africa as a place full of famine and war and tribalism or a place of pure potential for honest love — you can still get caught up in that process. There was something about being there that made Farida feel like anything was possible, and that was her projection onto the place.
TR: Were there any other reservations about the setting of the book?
RW: My biggest fear is the trope of the noble savage, of the great other man that helps my main character have this transformation, and then she gets to go back to Japanese delivery on the Upper East Side. I definitely had that concern, but at the same time it is a story of redemption and of love that takes place in that environment. There is a truth in that that can’t be denied. I hope I succeeded in avoiding the pitfalls.
TR: The subject of feminism versus interdependence also comes up often in the book.
RW: I can’t help myself. I did think a lot about how important it is for us to have a deeper appreciation of interdependence, as opposed to thinking that we’re losing ourselves, especially in [a] culture were women appear to be subjugated. But what we don’t see is the power that they do hold. And I was fascinated by that.
The more time I spent with [my Lamu friend’s] family in real life, the more I realized how much power the women had. His mother managed all the money. She made the decisions about how it would be spent; she was the one who figured out who was going to school, what food they would eat, who could travel. And she did it very quietly. Those were all powerful, archetypal ways of being that surprised me in real life.
TR: The community in Lamu is traditional Muslim, and eventually Farida decides to cover herself. Was that an issue you ever grappled with in real life?
RW: In terms of being covered, I started to realize [that] in order to bond fully to the women I was becoming familiar [with], I would need to sort of match them. It was almost like an aesthetic matching more than an ideological matching. The covering facilitated a closeness as opposed to oppression.
I also realized I had the privilege to take it off. But I had to really kind of open my mind to not seeing everything as simply a mark of subjugation, but some of those choices actually built relationships. They built community and kept them strong. In the same way that we think independence as women is the end-all and be-all … there are things that are wonderful about it and things that are very problematic. It’s important that we look at the whole picture. To see the limitations of our independence that we so cherish and so fetishize.
TR: What’s next for you?
RW: Well, right now I’m doing a lot of stuff in TV development, and I am writing the screenplay for Adé, which has been optioned by a great company. So that’s coming up. I’ve also been developing both Black Cool into a docuseries for TV and Black, White and Jewish into a sitcom for NBC. But definitely I’m working on another novel. It’s nascent right now, so who knows what’s going to happen, but it’s exciting.
I’m really enjoying this next phase in my career. I’m grown up. I don’t have as much to figure out now. I feel like I can be more free to create and to just explore.