When You Don’t Belong

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Photo Courtesy of National Park Service

When I studied Comparative Religious Studies in college, I had one class where we’d have to write personal reflections on various religious topics, and I always got a B on my reflections. Apparently, I wasn’t digging deep enough or reflecting correctly (insert rolling eyes emoji). However, I finally received an A on one assignment. I reflected on a fictional short story we’d read about the millions of Africans who’d died on the transatlantic slave voyage transporting people from Africa to the Americas. The story imagined what happened to their spirits which remained forever in the ocean, stuck between their birth country and enslavement; and without proper burial, stuck between life and death. I wrote about how I often felt stuck between different worlds, too. Though that was over a decade ago, that feeling grows more and more each day over the past couple of years.

I was a child of divorced parents – an immigrant South African mother, whose family was politically exiled to the UK before she came to the US, and African-American father. I attended a predominantly white Catholic school from kindergarten through high school. And while I always had friends I considered dear, I always felt like I didn’t quite fit in. Skin color, hair texture, and body shape made me physically different from people who weren’t black. And growing up with a Catholic mother who spoke with a foreign accent, primarily watched BBC, and sipped tea instead of cooking soul food, made me feel culturally different from the black community. It took me years to get to where I am now: a mix of my heritage and culture, community, and history. I attend mass and regularly watch Pastor Michael Todd of Transformation Church’s Youtube sermons. I pray the rosary and listen to gospel music. I take interest in both African and African-American issues. I’m confident in who I am, and appreciate my diversity.

So, while being different and never quite fitting in isn’t new, I hadn’t expected to again encounter it as a writer. Though my first novel, Blaming the Wind, alternated between four characters: two male and two female, I learned about different genres and queried it as women’s fiction. Since two of the perspectives were male, and men enjoyed the book, I didn’t think it was the “typical” women’s fiction novel, but every book needs to fit somewhere, and my publisher and I were fine with it in that category. I was a “women’s fiction author,” so I joined an association and tried to fit in a community and belong. I made great connections and learned a lot.

My second novel, Everything She Lost, tells the stories of two women and has a lot of psychological suspense. I didn’t doubt it was women’s fiction with suspense, and I submitted it to the association for marketing purposes. So, when I received an email that said my book did not meet their criteria for women’s fiction because it sounded more like psychological suspense/thriller, and therefore I was not able to reap the benefits of the association, I was floored. Not only because I’d spent four years paying membership dues and building community, but also because, once again, I didn’t fit it.

As an expert in being the other, I moved on. Though still connected with women fiction authors, I’ve also found a new community of mystery, suspense, and thriller writers of color that I still don’t quite fit in with, but that I enjoy and have learned a a great deal about the genre. But writing aside, my sense of being stuck in between different worlds grows every day.

As a devout Catholic, I’m stuck in another raging battle. While more traditional Catholics pray for the downfall of the pope because of the more inviting and accepting direction he’s trying to take the church, I agree with the pope in that respect. But I’m still very disgusted by the horrible and inexcusable child abuse scandal and cover-up. As an African-American, I don’t face the very real threat of deportation like many immigrants who call the US home, but I have to endure a president that called my mother’s country a “shithole” and uses his voice to push debunked conspiracy theories about the plight of white farmers over the real issues faced by many African countries still reeling from the effects of colonization, unjust debt, and prejudice. And at home, I’m stuck between a middle class existence where my kids can attend a good desegregated public school as a result of the civil rights movement, yet I worry every day that the next black male killed for no reason other than the color of his skin could be one of my sons.

When stuck in between two places, it’s a fight to stay afloat and find a sense of belonging. But as a descendant of people who survived the middle passage to America, I dare not sink. The thing about being in between is you see both sides – whether you agree with them or not. So in life, as well as my writing, I will continue to build bridges by giving voice to those without one and exploring topics that often aren’t discussed. Building bridges means choosing not to argue with people on social media who have differing opinions, but instead praying for them. It means not being a registered Republican or Democrat, but still voting in every election for people and ideas that I support. If never fitting in means I don’t have the privilege to stand comfortably on the sidelines, than that’s a position I’m glad to have.

As I write this on the anniversary of the horrific September 11 attacks, I recall how most Americans came together as one nation to stand firmly and declare that no terrorist could destroy all that our democratic nation stands for. My prayer is that our country is able to heal its divisions and finally become a country where all people feel that they belong.

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