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Carlene Fraser-Harris: This is your first book, congratulations! What was the hardest part about writing this debut?
Natalie Morris: The logistics of it was the toughest. Working full-time and writing a book was deeply exhausting. A lot of the time I really loved it, and I was flying through it. I could feel the sense of achievement, and I could feel myself developing as a writer and developing new skills, and that in itself was amazing. But it’s no joke, writing a book. It’s a lot of thought and a lot of planning. And it wasn’t just the physical writing of 70,000 words or whatever, it was all the research and citations, making time for the interviews and transcribing them, finding the best bits of the interviews and just the wider research around it. And I haven’t read everything in this area, you just can’t.
CFH: You open with a warm dedication to your dad – “For dad, always, always.” Was it because of his culture – a legacy you now have – or his struggle as a Black man in the UK?
NM: Well, it was largely because we lost him so recently; he passed away last summer. And it was really unexpected. He was my biggest inspiration in everything that I did. My motivation was very much to impress him. He read most of it before he got sick, so I know he was buzzing about it. It was my way of recognizing how important he was in this journey and for me to have a better understanding of who I am as his daughter.
CFH: Your dad was Jamaican. Have you ever been back to Jamaica? What sticks out to you the most about that culture having been born and raised in the UK?
NM: My dad was raised by a white woman. His biological parents were on the peripheries of his life until much later on, so he came into all of that [Jamaican] culture recently. And I don’t know if it was something that he actively sought out himself, if growing up in a very white space as a Caribbean man is what influenced him to find it. Or if it was because communication with his biological parents was something he longed for, so he found it through their shared culture.
As a result of that, my sister and I have had to find a lot of those connections to the culture ourselves while growing up. The food and the music stick out…more the music. The reggae and the hip-hop… and I’ve learned to cook a few things…and I’m still learning.
CFH: What was the deciding factor to write this book? You’re a journalist and you write about this stuff, anyway. So, what made you decide, okay, a book?
NM: I was only writing a weekly column about mixed people. And my editors and publishers approached me about it, they enjoyed the writing and thought it was important…really strong stuff. I hadn’t thought about a book before then. I hadn’t thought about how that would look or what that would feel like. And since they said that I thought I at least had to try. I had all this information and content and I thought, Yes, it would be good to have a centralised space for all of it. A handbook for people looking for answers.
CFH: In your book, I read about Meghan Markle’s wedding and you being chosen as the journalist at the forefront of it. How is it being a journalist, knowing that you’re mixed, and being constantly chosen to cover those stories?
NM: It’s an interesting space to kind of inhabit. It’s not something I consciously stepped into. But it’s also not that I’m complaining…I feel compelled to, and I know it’s important.
But it comes with this sort of responsibility that I feel – even with my book I felt this responsibility – to do these stories justice. To not present things wrong…to not only give a limited view or one that’s only my own. Not only one person can tell the mixed story, that’s impossible. And I wouldn’t want to. There are other narratives as well that need to share that space. So, there’s always that kind of conflict that going on in my head.
In a wider sense, as a journalist covering race and racism and social justice, these spaces are difficult spaces to be in, and they are overwhelmingly white. You get a lot of push back and mistrust, and you get a lot of defensiveness. In these spaces you have to have a lot of resilience and thick skin to deal with it. From both sides.
CFH: There is a sense of tokenism there, then, which ties back into your chapter on “The Right Type of Mixed.” Tell me more about that.
NM: Yes, there is. There are conflicts that come specifically from being mixed in those spaces…mixed with white heritage, specifically. Because I have this inherent privilege of being lighter-skinned and having white upbringing, I know how to move in those spaces more than other minorities would. And I’m palatable to look at…and less “other” and less intimidating for certain people. And there’s an awareness of that when I’m invited into these spaces because I’m very often presented as the face of diversity of that organisation or how liberal or how welcoming or open we are as a company. And it’s often difficult when you know that behind the scenes, it’s a very different picture when you’re facing scrutiny and push back and barriers to the real changes you want to make happen. Yet they’re wheeling you out to go do the talks and go be on the panels.
There’s something else to it, I think when you’re mixed there’s navigating what you do with that privilege – the fact that they let you into those spaces – and I feel a responsibility to do something with it. And to open the door up for others.
CFH: Do you see a follow-up to this book?
NM: I don’t know. It was hard. It was hard work. Good hard work.
CFH: Throughout the book, your interviewees share a wealth of feeling and thought – Hannah and Ciarran and Luke, etc. It was Luke who pointed out that back in the day, a lot of people didn’t have the luxury of thinking about their warped identity and how they were perceived. They had work, and they had to fit into these other boxes, with the industrial age and job prosperity and what not. But millennials are making their identity a priority; they want to tackle it because it’s been sitting for so long underattended and been misshapen by the majority, and we’ve recently seen the repercussions of those warped views and more in-depth thoughts like this one.
All of this to ask: How were those interviews? Were there heavy emotional moments when discussing the various struggles and circumstances around them? And how did you feel being the interviewer? Was there a lot of baggage you felt like you took on from these stories?
NM: I loved all the interviews. Doing those talks over the space of a year was the best part of it, talking to all of these people in-depth. These are people who put themselves forward and were willing to talk so already they’ve got thoughts…they’ve got opinions. They’re here wanting to say so many things, so it wasn’t difficult to gather all they had to say. It made my job very easy.
It was very emotional at times, on both sides. There was a lot of deep stuff that came out. A lot of people messaged me afterwards and said that was very cathartic: “I feel like I’ve been in a therapy session.” Some people said that they spoke to me about things they haven’t felt strong enough to share before and hadn’t mentioned to anyone else. And that was really powerful to me to be trusted to carry those stories and to present them. It really shows just how much weight a lot of mixed people carry that isn’t given the space to breathe or to get a voice out there. I think there’s a tendency to minimise these experiences or say look that’s not as bad as being monoracial or being darker-skinned, and in many ways that’s true, but I also don’t think it’s a useful argument to kind of create this hierarchy of whose struggle is more important. They’re just different experiences that should all have the space to breathe and exist.
CFH: Yes. The interviewees in your book are mixed far and wide, from British-Jamaican to Turkish and Philippine to Brazilian and Nigerian. But then you see someone, and the automatic assumption is Black and White when are so many other slices to that ethnic pie.
The research and citations for your book complement the interviews very well. How did you decide what secondary material made it in and what didn’t?
NM: I had to be particularly selective about what I was going to include and what I was going to focus on. Every time I opened a new chapter of another relevant read, I was taken down this other path, and then there were all these other paths branching off from there. And you can get drawn down this…like…web…of all these possibilities. So, keeping yourself focused is hard. I had to sort of contain my research within the focus…always revert to the original focus. And when I think about the book, I think any one of those chapters could be evolved into a book of its own. Easily. There is a wealth of information that never makes it to the daily typical reader that this book can now bring, but not all.
CFH: So, then, onto a second book from here?
NM: Maybe. There’s so much of that that still fascinates me and so much more to say. With the book it was about continually finding the balance to do it justice and not skim the surface of things… I wanted to give everything the depth that it required but at the same time make it really readable and accessible.
CFH: I wanted to circle back to your opening chapters, “Where Are You Really From?” and “Identity.” The first is personally a ticker for me, so I wanted to hear why you opened with that and what your feelings around that are.
NM: Any questions about identity always starts with the logistics of where you are from, where your parents are from, where your grandparents are from, within seconds of meeting people. And, as you mentioned, it’s a ticker for you. I think pretty much everyone I spoke to also mentioned that in some form or the other. And what’s behind it is this inherent discomfort at not being able to place somebody. And not being able to fit them in the boxes and categories in their head where they feel a person is supposed to go. And then it’s your fault that they can’t place you, and they’re annoyed and distrustful and subtly demand that you explain it and tell them. Like: “You need to fix my discomfort now.”
Identity was one of the hardest chapters to write because it’s such a sprawling, abstract kind of vague concept, so it’s different for everyone and completely contextual and subjective and so important.
CFH: In connection to identity, I found it disconcerting that your book presented information on a large portion of the youngest adult generations being very uncomfortable with races outside of their own or with mixed race. Even though, over the past year, I felt like younger people would be the generation to get it and get the urgency of it and especially since they were at the front of the protests and marches. Yet there is still a large percentage that would rather not engage with any of this and just stick to their comfortable whiteness.
NM: It’s scary and, at the same time, less surprising to me. It’s disappointing, but there will always be that contingent. I don’t think it’s the case that this is just a linear thing where the older racist generation will die out, the younger non-racist generation will come of age, and racism will just be gone. It is so deeply embedded in our schools and our societies and the parents at home not teaching their kids about what racism truly is and how they can be more proactive against the little comments and understandings they give and receive.
CFH: Then we must go back and think about where we actually do this work.
NM: I think too often we turn issues of racism into these individual moralistic conversations…“Are you a good person or are you a bad person?” Like it’s that simple. And if we can persuade everyone to be a “good” person and treat people equally then that’s what’s going to do it.
And how it’s presented in the media when it’s reduced to these silly distracting debates that are sensationalised. Like a TV show was racist because they said this or that. And people think that that’s what the fight is about, when it’s more systemic than that.
CFH: You write about feeling displaced at your own grandfather’s 80th birthday party recently because an old friend of his couldn’t compute your biological connection to him. And instead of responding with some sort of positive curiosity she laughed in disbelief. What was that like to feel that her misunderstanding could create that level of distance or disconnection between you and your family?
NM: It was jarring. Constantly, in small ways, being told that you don’t belong…This was one of those moments.
CFH: I’m sorry you’ve had to endure those. From there, let’s lean into your chapter on “Love and Relationships.” You wrote how choosing your [white] partner felt to onlookers like you were choosing the white side of your identity. How often are you confronted with that? Is it ever an internal battle?
NM: It’s not necessarily an internal battle, but sometimes it’s a feeling like have I missed out on something in some way. I grew up in white spaces and knew how to navigate that more than others. So white school and neighbours, etc…I felt like my choice of partner was an organic choice from that exposure. It wasn’t deliberate, but it was where I was.
And the confrontation is mostly on social media when I write about race, and people feel like I’m not qualified to write about it because I’m a traitor, I’m not black enough: My partner is white, so I chose him and therefore chose the white side of me. So, I’m not seen as a legitimate source of primary understanding to any of the struggles.
CFH: Now with your book out and you continuing to write about this topic via work, etc., what other activities or campaigns do you have on the roster to help further combat the problem or sustain some sort of safe space or platform for people with this struggle? Is your workplace championing any of this stuff going forward?
NM: Work…They have been good in terms of allowing me the space to promote the book. I think generally the media in this country is not a great space for black writers – for non-white writers – to thrive. There’s not loads of support for them. There aren’t enough opportunities, and I’ve seen people get demoralised around the chase of it. So, I’m creating my own outlet through non-work stuff.
CFH: when does your book come out in paperback?
NM: Hopefully later this year. I haven’t got a set date, yet.
CFH: So, what’s next?
NM: Creative writing! I want to lean more into this. I’ve got an agent who really wants me to write more, so I’ll take up the opportunities and follow that new dream.