The dangers of a single…setting?

My baby cousin—who’s almost eighteen but whatever, she’s still my baby—wrote a romance! It’s a sweet contemporary YA and I’m so delighted and proud I could burst. She emailed me her manuscript a couple of days ago and as I began to read it, I saw that she’s going through the very same thing I went through when I was her age.

At few years ago, I watched Chimamanda Adichie’s wonderful TED talk on The Dangers of A Single Story. At the beginning of the talk, she explains how in her first attempts at writing fiction, she found herself emulating the American and British novels she’d read all her life, despite her never having lived in any of those places. I was speechless as I realized I’d spent most of my life doing the same thing.

Though we grew up in different parts of the world—she in Nigeria and I in the Spanish Caribbean– our experiences with the consumption of foreign media were remarkably similar. I devoured all the American and British books that lined the shelves of my bilingual school library and along the way, became intimately familiar not only with the English language, but also with American and British culture. I knew all about prom and lemonade stands and Thanksgiving.

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Why yes, I do still keep all the books I read in elementary school handy and I do still reread them every once in a while.

By the time I started university, I’d started to diversify my stories. I began to write a contemporary YA fantasy with a mixed race protagonist and her glamorous, demon-slaying Haitian mother. The story was fun (okay, it was super dark) and I loved the characters. But something still felt wrong. My characters were called Alma, Freddie and Kate. And they were demon-slaying in what might not have been a recognizable British or American city, but was definitely inspired by New York and London.

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It felt…weird. It felt inauthentic, even though I’d traveled through North America and Europe and most of the media I’d consumed was set in those continents and I knew I hadn’t gotten any of the details wrong. I wrote about 10,000 words before I grew frustrated and turned to another project, another YA fantasy in a vaguely historical setting that, I thought, would eliminate the struggle of choosing between mobile and cell phone. I started worldbuilding, creating these fantastic settings…that were still based on various European cities.

Even in my twenties, it hadn’t occurred to me that I could set the kind of stories I wanted to tell in a place similar to where I lived.

I was 26 when I started to write historical romance, fiddling around with different setting possibilities. I can’t remember now what sparked the idea of setting the romances in an island in the Spanish Caribbean. I was writing romances for fun, as an experiment. I already loved romance as a reader and as I began what would turn out to be A Summer for Scandal, I fell in love with the genre as a writer. And it was partly because writing about Arroyo Blanco, a fictional town based on the ones I’d known all my life, I felt free of the vague uneasiness that had followed me from story to story.

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I know someday I’ll get back to Alma, Freddie and Kate. They might still demon-slay in New York or in London. But if they do, it will be a conscious choice and not because I still feel that the kind of stories I want to write and read about can only happen in certain places and to certain people.

And when I meet with my baby cousin to workshop her novel, I’ll be sure to tell her that people like us—who look like us and who live where we do—can have all kinds of adventures, in love and otherwise.

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