When Cersei Simmons faced opposition on her wall as a black student in the North, she and her nine other Scottish compatriots had to find their footing.
Author Iain McLeod begins his third novel about them, titled I Am Young, a heady mix of humorous take-offs on Shakespearean plays, centring on the first black Scottish playwright, James Morrice Shaw.
Published last year, the book ultimately explores class, race and identity, and the drama between different communities in the North of Scotland.
I talked to writer Iain McLeod about his book and Lor Sabourin, who recently spoke with cultural producer Alina Blandford.
Blandford: Lor Sabourin doesn’t reveal her racial identity. How did you decide to avoid it?
McLeod: In a story, maybe the major character’s identity is used so that the story can then unfold. I think for a story to resonate, it needs to be about more than just that individual.
It needs to be about the character’s circumstances. Without the character, you’re just trying to guess the identity and that’s not a story that quite fully engages with the other voices.
So in I Am Young, I wanted to have a character who, by all appearances, was white and enjoyed the privileges that go with that, but instead, discovered that she was actually a black woman of very mixed race.
The character had a rather naive self-belief, so she tells herself, “OK, I’m white”, and then over the course of the book, she discovers that she’s not white, and what she thinks of it is ridiculous – that she’s white and she wants to believe that she’s white and feel white.
So instead of feeling this inward sense of being white, I wanted to leave a character who wasn’t quite white, who was just not quite a white woman, in terms of a society that has had centuries of redemptive history. I wanted to ask the reader, as a white reader, “Would I ever try to make myself feel white enough?”
Blandford: So you decide to highlight Lor Sabourin’s experience of identity and to see how she experiences that through the prism of the wall.
McLeod: I think it’s really important to know who you are when you’re a small part of a diverse society. Identity in the past is really not at the forefront of what we tell and think about today.
When Lor Sabourin finds out that she’s actually a black woman of mixed race, it’s an interesting moment because this is a theme that I think is really important: Identity feels a little like a commodity, it feels a little like, “Oh, why can’t I just define myself through my race?”
So that’s what I wanted to ask – the reader, Lor Sabourin, what is it to be a black woman of mixed race? What is it that makes you, you? What is it that makes you an African-Caribbean woman?
Blandford: As the book goes on, we learn about Lor Sabourin’s love story, the very first one, which was with Alexander Aitken at the university in Edinburgh. Alexander Aitken isn’t the star of this story, he’s the name the character takes on when he gets to Scotland and his relationship with Lor Sabourin and his family.
Cersei Simmons is the central character of this novel, but what was it about Lor Sabourin and her relationship with Aitken that struck such a chord with you?
McLeod: One of the first things I realised about my story is that Lor Sabourin was once another story. They’re one of several very articulate black people in Britain. They’re at the most segregated university in Britain, so that gives you something to do.
I realise the story had changed, the identity had changed and all the characteristics and characteristics of the main character are so vivid that I’ve just started to see her the way she saw herself – as a woman who went to Scotland to study Shakespeare, but ended up becoming an playwright of a very specific type.