After the first Breaking Ground excursion to the USA in November 2015 we asked the Black British writers who were part of the tour to write a short piece about their experience of being part of it. Here Jay Bernard explains how her latest work was formed through time spent in the US:
My latest book is called The Red and Yellow Nothing and is a prequel to a middle dutch story called The Tale of Sir Morien. I did my first proper reading from it at Rutger’s University during the tour. Morien is described as being ‘black from head to toe’ and Moorish in appearance. His origins are bleached out by the story of his father’s escapades while searching for the holy grail. Although he is clearly a European construction, he is also an interesting prism with which to separate out the fact of skin colour and the notion of race.
I think there’s something interesting about a character who, despite his obvious difference, is also presented as linguistically and culturally fluent in whatever language the other characters are speaking. Despite an awkward introduction, Morien’s quest for legitimacy and identity is just another quest for identity and legitimacy in a world populated by sages who need to be wise, monsters that need to be fought, strangers who need to be strange. Morien is not racialised (except through contact with anyone reading this in the last five hundred years) though he is othered; but I sensed a difference between the things from the first time I read the story.
I came across it in 2013 in Mexico. It was while looking out at the Southern part of Mexico City that I first began to draft who Morien might be and what kind of world he inhabits. Then I wrote a significant part of the text while at Yaddo which is up in Saratoga Springs, New York state. I had a spacious room that overlooked the lawn and the ultramarine fountain that no-one was brave enough to skinny dip in. Most of the body of the text was re-worked there, then stewed upon in Los Angeles. I don’t know why but LA struck me as a wasteland. I wasn’t fooled by the fact that some low-level buildings had been strewn across it; the desert was as present as if the tarmac had been made of glass.
I added a section in which Morien is eaten by a dinosaur; cut it; shortened it; turned it into prose. I realised that this dinosaur figure had come from a trip I’d made back in 2013 when I visited Joshua Tree. The desert there is just as it is depicted in the Flintstones. Somehow it felt fitting to be thinking about stone-age all-American nuclear family in an ancient desert landscape while writing about a literally black Moor riding into Camelot to find his (presumably) white father. I don’t know why. Maybe because that’s how power perpetuates itself, by injecting itself into the past as well as dominating the present.
It’s also the opposite of the expected medieval aesthetic –emphasised, I hope, by the images that accompany the text. When I pictured Morien, it wasn’t always in a woodland, it was very often in the pages of George Herriman (whose desert landscape accommodates Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse). And it seemed to fit that, I, a British writer of African descent would be reading this work, an interpretation of a European story, for the first time at Rutger’s University, to an audience of Americans.
Anachronicity as a container for exploring race, a concept which is neither natural nor inevitable… Morien’s transmogrifications (he is genderless, he is disgested by something unspecified, he is dreamed by a modern day boy listening to Kendrick Lamar). He is not yet where he will be – he is free-falling, wandering, mutable. His history and his narrative have not been solidified. His world is one concurrent story before he meets the characters who will eventually seal the Tale of Sir Morien as we now have it. He is not raced, but he is dark skinned; he isn’t nowhere, but he’s nowhere in particular. Many elements are smashed up against each other – a strange journey, blackness personified, the figure of St Maurice – but the particular history that produced the author that reproduces him is not inevitable.