A few years ago, poco.lit. organized the Green Library event series. Back then, we were already lucky enough to get exclusive insights into Jennifer Neal’s novel Notes on her Colour. Now it has finally been published. The discussion we had stoked our anticipation and expectation – and they have not been disappointed!
Set in a small town in Florida, the novel follows a young Black Indigenous woman, Gabrielle, through her final months of high school and during a gap year forced on her by her domineering father. This year is not for travel or other adventures. Gabrielle must stay at home, is slowed down and constrained by her father, but it turns out exciting and surprisingly gruelling anyway.
While her father works, Gabrielle spends a lot of time with her mother, who teaches her how to deal consciously with her inheritance: They both have the ability to change the colour of their skin. The colour change is caused by emotions, but concentration and practice help to control the changes. They keep their secret in their completely whitewashed house – the work of their father, who is Black and cannot change his skin colour, and who compensates for the powerlessness he often experiences outside the home due to racism through tyrannical behaviour at home. He thus makes his environment white and even demands that his wife and daughter change to a lighter skin colour in his presence. He is unaware of the spectrum of downright rebellious colours the two women try out and enjoy in his absence. When the changes do happen in public, they are often accompanied by code switching, which can bring advantages but also harbours dangers.
Gabrielle is a rather lonely teenager. Through art, she makes connections with others that don’t always bring only happiness. Above all, playing the piano, which her father at some point prescribes for her so that she can show extracurricular activities for her university applications, takes up more and more space in her life. While she immerses herself in music and grows closer to her teacher Dominique, she distances herself from her mother, who feels so powerless over her husband and her life that it breaks her. For Gabrielle, life as she knows it begins to come apart at the seams.
Neal creates a world of extremes into which Gabrielle must fit. And she does so with growing self-confidence, even as she faces losses. Magical moments of joy and connection are never far from malice and disaster. Many scenes in this powerful novel about race, family dynamics, mental health, trauma and queerness are surprising, thrillingly lustful or abysmally ugly – they will likely burn themselves into the reader’s memory.