Art Imitating Life Author Talks About His Debut Novel Greenland 

Author brings to life the story of British novelist E.M. Forster's torrid love affair with the Black Egyptian tram conductor, Mohammed el Adl.

D. Santos Donaldson Photo by Billy Bustamante

David Santos Donaldson was raised in Nassau, Bahamas, and has lived in India, Spain, and the United States. He attended Wesleyan University and the Drama Division of The Juilliard School, and the Public Theater has commissioned his plays. The Urban Stages Emerging Playwright Award finalist has worked as the Artistic Director for the Dundas Centre for the Performing Arts in Nassau, Bahamas. Donaldson is currently a practicing psychotherapist and divides his time between Brooklyn, New York, and Seville, Spain. Greenland is his first novel.

PrideIndex had the pleasure of interviewing this fascinating author via email. As a Black male, he discusses the importance of finding a local Black Barbershop, his influences, and what he would like readers to take away from his work. 

PrideIndex (PI): Tell us about your background and the journey you have taken right now. 

David Santos Donaldson (DSD): I grew up mostly in Nassau, Bahamas, but we traveled a lot and lived in different places — London, California, etc—then I came to the United States for university. I’ve lived chiefly here but back and forth to India and Spain—where I still live and Brooklyn. I have never felt a strong attachment to any one nationality. There’s an amazing Black British-American author, Taiye Selasi, who says, “Don’t ask me where I’m from; ask me where I’m local.” Right now, I’m local in Brooklyn, Nassau, Seville, and somewhat in Rome too. Being a Black man anywhere, it’s always important to find your local Barbershop; and I go to Rome enough that they know me by name at Black Barbershop across from Termini. Something about a Black barbershop always feels like home, no matter where I am. Even though nationality is not so important to me, there is a common bond in the Black experience wherever I go.

The United States, though, has been the most challenging. When I first came here for college, I had assumed there would be an instant embracing of me by my fellow Black students, but being from another country with a “funny English accent” only signaled to the African American students that I was “acting white.” This was an odd concept to me, coming from an all-Black country. I didn’t realize there were certain signifiers of behavior and speech to be considered “really Black.” Fitting in at college wasn’t helped because I was queer too. It’s a complicated issue, I know. Billy Porter made a social media video a few years back, and he was quite fierce in his read of homophobia amongst African Americans. So writing my novel Greenland became important for me to give some visibility to us queer Black men of the African diaspora. We exist, and even if we may not fit into some Americans’ ideas of what it means to be Black, we are still Black. Toni Morrison said Black (as an identity) “might as well be a rainbow.” 

PI: What is your earliest memory of being a writer? 

DSD: I was one of those kids who always wrote plays and forced neighborhood kids to be in my productions. I must have been a pain in the ass. But all the kids all went along with me! I’ve been writing as far back as I can remember. I’m old enough to have started writing on a typewriter. When I was 12, my mother bought me an orange Olivetti typewriter. I used it to write my first novel, The Bombs—an international spy thriller. It’s hilarious to look at now—I still have it. 

PI: If you were not a writer, what would you be? 

DSD: This is an easy question to answer—I just have to give you my job resumé: I started as an actor. I trained at Juilliard and acted in plays, films, and TV until my thirties. Then I went back to school to become a psychotherapist—and I’m still practicing now. All along, I’ve been writing plays and fiction. I like having several different careers at once; it gives me the balance I need. It allows all parts of me to feel used and useful. If I weren’t any of these things I am now, I’d love to be a filmmaker. 

PI: Name at least three people who have influenced your artistic style most. 

DSD: I can’t say that my writing style is influenced by any particular writer but only that I am inspired to write when I read certain writers. I used to try to write like Toni Morrison, but no one can write like Toni Morrison but Toni Morrison. (But I have to admit Robert Jones, Jr. with The Prophets feels very much like a child of Morrison—and brilliantly so.) But the three people I have been most inspired by are Toni Morrison, Leo Tolstoy, and August Wilson. But it’s not fair to limit it to only three. Baldwin, Ellison, Dostoyevsky, Faulkner, Rushdie—all have left an indelible stamp on me. And I get a lot of my sensibilities from certain playwrights and filmmakers: Satyajit Ray, Pedro Almodóvar, and Tony Kushner. There are so many more too, but these are the main ones.

PI: Where did you find your muse for the story Greenland?             

DSD: Does anyone ever find a muse, or does a muse find you? I feel like the process of writing Greenland came in stages. It started as a simple historical novel about the great British novelist E.M. Forster’s first love affair with the Black Egyptian tram conductor, Mohammed el Adl. But when an editor asked me to rewrite my novel in the voice of Mohammed, I got frustrated with the task. I was sick of telling the story all over again, and I didn’t want to rewrite it. So out of frustration, I wrote what I was feeling about doing the rewrite. “Why am I doing this just to please a white editor? I feel like I’m doing this with a gun to my head!” Very dramatic; over the top. But that desperate voice then morphed into a character apart from me. He was Kip, the young Black gay author struggling to find his voice amidst Whiteness. And this is how the idea came to make Greenland a novel about a man writing a book. And then I started to see how the two stories (Kip’s and Mohammed’s) could be in a dialog with one another—both had the same themes and issues, only repeated 100 years later. But I can’t say how this “muse” came to me. I suppose I just got out of the way and listened to the inner voices, allowed the unconscious stuff to flow, then grabbed and shaped it into a novel.

PI: What were some of the challenges you faced in bringing this book to the marketplace? What did you do to overcome them? 

DSD: The first version of my historical novel never got sold. It had a lot of interest, but ultimately it wasn’t commercial enough for most publishers. I think the themes of colonialism and a gay love story with a Black man felt risky at the time. Then when I rewrote the book entirely, making it about a contemporary gay Black man too, it was when Black Lives Matter was rising across the country—just after the murder of George Floyd. Suddenly publishers were eager to find Black stories of all kinds. And with more push for inclusion, in general, queer stories were also being more recognized. With the success of TV shows like “Pose,” editors now realized they could sell these stories; there was a viable audience. Getting published is about business as much as art. The two have to come together. It was finally a moment in history when my work and the market converged. 

PI: Did your own life story influence any parts of Greenland? If so, which parts? 

DSD: I would say a great deal of me is in the book, yet it’s not truly autobiographical. I recently heard an interview with Michael R. Jackson, who wrote the Pulitzer-prize-winning A Strange Loop, and he was asked the same question; I’d answer this almost the same way: Kip is not me; he’s younger and less mature and more confused about who he is. But there is also no experience Kip has that doesn’t also reflect my emotional truth. I’ve been tricky in Greenland (mischievous, really) because I start the story with Kip almost being the same as me—Black, queer, British-educated, living in Brooklyn, writing a novel about E.M. Forster and Mohammed. But then the demands of fiction and storytelling take over, and Kip morphs into himself. 

PI: What would you like for readers to retain from your work? 

DSD: I don’t believe fiction should be didactic. It’s about opening questions that hopefully resonate with the reader. Questions that lead a reader to find their own answers. Some of the questions I hope my readers will ask of themselves are: How can I be my true self? What am I afraid of when it comes to loving another? What forms of Blackness or Whiteness operate in my worldview, and how is that helping or hindering me from loving myself or others? These are some of the questions I hope Greenland provokes in the reader.

PI: When and where do you plan on promoting this book? 

DSD: Well, I’ve been very fortunate to be published by Amistad at HarperCollins. They have a terrific team of marketing and PR folks who have been so supportive and enthusiastic about Greenland from the very beginning. It helps to have a great publicist focused on promoting the work and getting some articles and pieces I’ve written into various magazines. And my editor, Tara Parsons, is a powerhouse in so many ways—she’s helped shape the novel and propelled it out into the world with all of her powers. So I’ve been in excellent hands and been very lucky in this respect. The independent booksellers and libraries have well-promoted us. 

PI: What does the future hold for you? 

DSD: I don’t know. I wish I had a crystal ball! Well, scratch that. I’d rather wait and see what happens when it happens. Now is where I’m trying to be. There is always enough going on now if we allow ourselves to truly be in this moment. That’s my goal. There is an old 60’s hippy mantra from a book by Ram Das: “Be here now.” That’s where it’s at!