top of page

Q&A with Jennifer Neal - Notes On Her Color

Notes On Her Color

By Leah Golder

We are thrilled to welcome Jennifer Neal to The Reading Corner to talk about her new release Notes On Her Color out on the 23rd of May 2023.

Gabrielle has always had a complicated relationship with her mother Tallulah, one marked by intimacy and resilience in the face of a volatile patriarch. Everything in their home has been bleached a cold white—from the cupboards filled with sheets and crockery to the food and spices Tallulah cooks with. Even Gabrielle, who inherited the ability to change the color of her skin from her mother, is told to pass into white if she doesn’t want to upset her father. But this vital mother-daughter bond implodes when Tallulah is hospitalized for a mental health crisis. Separated from her mother for the first time in her life, Gabrielle must learn to control the temperamental shifts in her color on her own. Meanwhile, Gabrielle is spending a year after high school focusing on her piano lessons, an extracurricular her father is sure will make her a more appealing candidate for pre med programs. Her instructor, a queer, dark-skinned woman named Dominique, seems to encapsulate everything Gabrielle is missing in her life—creativity, confidence, and perhaps most importantly, a nurturing sense of love. Following a young woman looking for a world beyond her family’s carefully -coded existence, Notes on Her Color is a lushly written and haunting tale that shows how love, in its best sense, can be a liberating force from destructive origins.

Notes On Her Color

I would like to start by thanking you for providing me with your amazing book and for speaking with me about how Notes On Her Color, a powerful book that explores a magical journey about race, queerness, identity, family relations and passing. Most other novels in the passing genre I have read simply explore a passing of whiteness and yet Gabrielle can pass into a multitude of colours. Could you please tell us more about your inclusion of colour in your novel and pushing the boundaries of what we understand as ‘passing’?

Thank you so much for reading! I’m very glad to hear that you enjoyed it. What I love about speculative fiction more than other literary “genres” is how it gives us an opportunity to revisit the seemingly mundane experiences, terminology, and interactions that make up our everyday lives—to dissect their meanings and problematize them, or gain a deeper understanding of their historical roots, components, and implications, and to make them bizarre. And it doesn’t always have to be profound! Usually, it can begin with a very simple idea. With “Notes on Her Color,” I began with the term “person of color,” which is such an ingrained term in our collective vocabulary that it almost doesn’t bear any further inspection, does it? But the word has had an incredible evolution, from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, to pre- Civil War, to Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and present day—we’ve had “negro,” “colored,” “minorities,” “person of color,” and most recently “person of the global majority,” which I totally dig—along with many horrible, racist epithets along the way. But I wanted to investigate the term “person of color” when that is a term that was, at least initially, coined to refer to people who are also referred to “Black.” And we still use those terms in that way; it’s an unspoken rule that everyone just accepts, and doesn’t really question. We do this despite the fact that a lot of people who are Black are actually dark brown— although there are Black people with literal black skin, or light brown skin, yellow-ish (“yellowbone”) or reddish-skin (“redbone”). And someone from European descent is likely more peach-colored, not white, though they could also be olive-skinned, pink, tanned, beige or something else. And it’s really interesting how, despite the fact that we all know this, we still subscribe to that binary—because of the construct of race itself. So I really wanted to “attack” the meaning behind the terms “Black” and “white,” and to do that, I began with color theory.

One of the first things you’re taught in an art class is that Black and white aren’t colors, but neutrals or shades. And then, you’re taught that white paint is the absence of color, and that Black paint is all colors mixed together (the opposite is true when it comes to light). So why is Black always interpreted as this flat, empty, hollow shade? Why can’t it be reimagined as the full, total, complete spectrum that it actually is? The primary, secondary, tertiary, metallics, and pastel colors—all put together? That’s what I love about Gabrielle. When she’s passing her color, it doesn’t take away from her Blackness—it just adds another dimension to it. She’s still her. But her emotions, which trigger her passing, are a manifestation of how three-dimensional that experience of Blackness actually is. Plus, given her lineage, I felt it was important to look beyond pure Black and pure white.

I wanted to put color theory in dialogue with race theory to see how they would work together. I wanted the story to participate in a discussion on how we talk about color and race together. I think a lot of people usually believe that they’re talking about both at the same time when they are really only discussing one of those things—race. This isn’t a unique concept. In fact, visual artists have been leading the charge on this for decades. Carrie Mae Weems did the same thing with a series of photographs of Black children tinted in different-colored dyes at her retrospective show at the Guggenheim nearly a decade ago. The series was called Colored People. Pretty cool, huh?

In terms of how I applied the colors themselves to Gabrielle’s moods and misadventures in the story, I mined a very rich literary and linguistic history where colors are applied to human emotions and experiences. Examples of that would be: Feeling blue. Seeing red. Yellow-bellied. Green with envy. You probably make those associations without even thinking about them, because they’re such a ubiquitous part of how we express ourselves and communicate with each other. These colors have also been weaponized in racist and homophobic language, in terms like: yellow fever, r*dskin, or pink team—and not to mention, Black as death. Black as a kind of evil. Black as the most sinister kind of magic. Black cats as being the unluckiest omen known to man. Black sheep as unloved family members. Black markets as illegal entities and Black lists as inventories of people to be excluded from broader society. And white is just always...right, somehow? In Notes on Her Color, it’s actually the most boring “color.” It’s the absence of life, or warmth, or beauty, of personality—as is exemplified in Gabrielle’s house.

So, I looked at color theory as a language that is inextricably tied to how we express ourselves, but also tied to the language used to describe people who are already existing on the fringes of society as the nebulous “other” so that they are forced to remain there. That is how a construct like race functions—by restricting the roles, attitudes, behaviors, opportunities, and perspectives that we assign as “acceptable” to people from different racial and ethnic designations, even though it’s subjective and not based on any kind of empirical evidence. So, I wanted to revisit the essence of passing that underscores all of these constructs: what it means to perform an experience as a means of fleeing the one that can feel so burdensome it “has” to be escaped. And I wanted to expand on that so that I could better untangle the shame that underscores this idea that a person has to be someone else in order to be accepted or loved—because “shame” is one of if not the most powerful emotions to drive most aspects of social mobility and change. If it weren’t for shame, “passing” wouldn’t be an issue at all—because it doesn’t just apply to race. It also applies to sexuality and gender, and socioeconomic status. It can affect behaviors like speech, language, mannerisms, and accents. These can be big or little performances that people put on to give themselves the illusion of something that they feel they may not be, to be accepted in spaces where they feel they don’t inherently belong. And given the breadth of emotional range that can accompany one’s own journey to that acceptance, I wanted each one to have “their moment” so to speak. My protagonist might have this extraordinary ability passed down from her mother, but it’s really an expression of her humanity at the end of the day, and how she’s impacted by her surroundings.

With Notes On Her Color being your debut novel, did you find the writing process for a novel being any different to your work for magazines and other publications?

Well, it was a lot longer. When I’m writing for magazines or websites, I approach a subject from a place of deep scrutiny i.e. “What can go wrong and how quickly?” I’m quoting research, statistics, and other people so it’s important to prioritize factual accuracy. For my novel, I was able to move at a pace where the only urgency I felt was in meeting the deadlines I set for myself. When I felt myself getting weighed down by the logistics of narrative devices, I reminded myself that I was building a universe where I alone wrote the rules. At first, it was daunting. It was being responsible for building an entire world! Or, perhaps, just a few square blocks. But it was a lot of fun. I read this conversation between Colson Whitehead and Marlon James—I don’t remember when or where I was in the writing process—but they said that with genre writing, you don’t have to always justify why you wanna blow things up. You just can. And if there are no reasons as to why you blew that thing up, you can just make up the reasons to go with it because reality only applies as you want it to. I felt that.

The other thing is that when you’re writing for a publication, you go in with a specific idea of what you want to say and what you’re going to investigate. You already have a pretty solid idea of what you’re going to uncover—and it’s usually very exhilarating when you’re wrong! When I was writing this novel, I went in with the idea that my preconceived plot outline or themes would probably be wrong at some point, and need multiple revisions. And it did. But it was also exciting because that meant I was closer to sculpting a story. From a block of nothing to a slowly defined something. At times, I felt overwhelmed with the infinite number of possible directions it could head in. And I wrote out many before scrapping them. That’s just par for the course. I think it was just important that I tried them out so that I didn’t limit exploring the potential of Gabrielle’s journey.

As we follow Gabrielle through an exploration of herself, we also follow her learning to play the piano as music accompanies much of the narrative even to the details of the novel being organised into parts that corresponds to the movements in Mahler’s Symphony No.3. What

drew you to music, more specifically classical music, as an accompaniment for your novel?

I explored a few different modes of creative escapism at first. In the beginning, I thought “Maybe she wants to make movies!” because I was intrigued by the idea of going to a movie theater for escapism, even though you’re sitting in a dark room with a hundred other complete strangers for two hours. But I became put off by the idea of telling a visual story within an already visual story, and getting too meta for my own good, so I abandoned that idea. Then, I outlined all possible creative disciplines that I wanted to consider—ranking them from most to least escapist. Poetry and painting really embody the presence of mind and the need to sit with difficult circumstances. Whereas music is an escape, and that’s the only thing she wants. I knew it would have to be some form of artistic craft because art is the ultimate form of personal freedom—and I wanted her to have that.

The choice to use classical music was also rooted in modes of passing and how music itself has become color-coded to reference certain audiences and convey certain narratives. For a person so removed from her actual ethnic background and community, living in this bleached white house, it wouldn’t have made sense to make her a jazz, gospel, or hip-hop aficionado—because those are deeply rooted in the African-American experience. But I read something that said only two per cent of musicians in America’s classical music industry are Black. Two per cent! And only 4.3% of conductors are Black. So, I thought— “hey, this sounds like the right genre for Gabrielle.” Something her father would have approved of, given his own internalized racism. The pieces I reference and discuss in the book are definitely a commentary on power and the social ambitions her parents lay out for her because I’m basically saying—many of these composers were very problematic with some unusual proclivities. What does it say about the ambitions her father has for her if she should aspire to be among them?

And then again, what does it say about Gabrielle that she uses that particular creative practice to free herself from the burden of whiteness so entrenched in her home life? I think that’s an interesting question.

I chose Mahler for a lot of reasons: One, I just love his music and I was heavily under the Mahler influence at the time. I saw the performance of his Third Symphony at a critical moment during the editorial process and it blew me away. I live in Germany, and his music has enjoyed a rabid fanbase since his work was rediscovered after WWII (as a Jewish-Czech-Bohemian, his work was banned under the Nazi regime). But initially, the book was structured in four sections, corresponding to the seasons. The idea with that was to show Gabrielle’s growth in correlation with the seasons, and some of those descriptors are still there—like the sky being turned upside down as autumn ends, or shaking off the cirrus of winter. There’s a kind of nature-witch element to the backdrop I describe as she grows into herself that mirrors her own emotional upheaval and self- actualization. And nature was also very important to Mahler. I read somewhere that Mahler was reading a collection of German folk poems called Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn) around the time that he wrote his third symphony. And the various moments are incredible reflections of that: sunshine, darkness, and one’s journey to finding a kind of light or enlightenment. Even some of the instrumentation itself mirrors the sounds of birds and nature. It was literally like sitting through the sounds of the seasons, and I felt the dynamics of the piece really mirrored Gabrielle’s journey towards personal liberation. I also love the idea that this piece is inspired by writing and that the resulting composition of music can, in turn, inspire another piece of writing. They can converse with each other from over a century apart and create a kind of polyphony of their own.

As music is an accompaniment to your novel, a hurricane is an accompaniment to the tumultuous ending where Gabrielle is finally released from the chains of her haunted family home. Your descriptions of nature throughout the novel are rich and vivid, as are your descriptions of colour, was there any specific inspiration for these?

That’s just the magic of Florida. I’m a lifelong fan of the beauty of inherently dangerous ecosystems. It’s not just Florida, for example. It would also be certain parts of the Amazon or Australia (which answers the question of, “What if Florida were an entire continent instead of a single US state?”) But the dynamic between Tallulah and Gabrielle, which is the heart of this story, would have been completely different if it had taken place in, say, the Rocky Mountains or the Alaskan wilderness. I can see it becoming more of a subdued, creeping thriller in that case. Florida is a wild, intense place. And given the complexity and beauty of the relationship between these two characters, I wanted their interaction to be a reflection of their environment. I’m fascinated by the concept of Florida Man for a number of reasons (and some of them are rooted in disdain for how the concept has become a manifestation for how we turn mental health and addiction into punchlines) but I think what is interesting—is how a place can build a person, or a relationship, or destroy it. After all, if the times make the “man” then why not the place?

Living in a house void of colour and love, Gabrielle finds love and flavour in the house of Dominque and her mother. Amidst an overwhelming field of heterosexual romances, was it important for you to include a queer love for the main character? Was it always the plan to have Gabrielle and Dominque have a love beyond platonic friendship?

There was one heterosexual romance that ended catastrophically. I wouldn’t describe that as an “overwhelming field.” There were also examples of her queerness early on when she became infatuated with a college student showing her around campus, but it isn’t overt because Gabrielle is still figuring herself out along the way. Keeping in mind that this story takes place in the mid-90s, I thought it was important to note how complicated and difficult it can be, under the wrong circumstances and certainly in the wrong environment, to fully become oneself. Sexuality would be even more complicated for a character who is denied basic freedoms of self-determination. In G’s case, it means behaving in a way that she feels she must before she even entertains the idea that she can simply be who she is. That’s something that Dominique and her family help with, simply by virtue of being themselves—celebrating and loving who they are. Dominique was always going to be her great love, and their romance is a result of the trust that builds up between them.

Gabrielle experiences traumas that many female readers will also have experienced. From the sexual assault of her fellow male classmates to the racism and sexism of her father, Gabrielle feels and manages a multitude of sufferings. Did you feel her character was strong enough to shoulder all the trauma or were there ever any moments during the writing/editing process that you felt Gabrielle had taken too much?

I don’t think anyone is strong enough to shoulder the trauma of sexual assault, and I didn’t want to write her as a character who could. I don’t think anyone should have to be either. She has a superhuman ability, but she herself is just a young woman figuring her life out. I didn’t want her reaction to these horrors to be dignified or sanitized because there’s nothing dignified about assault. I also didn’t want her to be a “Strong Black Woman” who shoulders these traumas with a stiff upper lip. Instead, I wanted to highlight this deep internal vulnerability that she embodies as she is stripped of her agency from so many moving directions.

The question of how much trauma is “too much” is strange to me because what amount of trauma is “just enough” to be deemed publicly acceptable? What forms of trauma should people be able to take on and still function meaningfully? These are questions I did ask myself during the writing process. What may be “too much” to one person, may be nothing to someone else—I’m thinking specifically of how conservative lawmakers with deeply internalized misogyny can try to minimize horrible experiences that women endure. And I didn’t want to invest in that belief system because it is also intertwined in how women are “supposed” to act, especially women of color who are often forced into tight little boxes, alongside the respectability politics so pervasive in misogynoir.

The connection between Gabrielle and her mother is beautiful albeit heart-breaking at times. With such a strained relationship with her father, who expects white perfection daily from both Gabrielle and her mother, did you feel it was necessary to craft a strong maternal figure for Gabrielle, the woman who provided her with such a precious gift for passing?

I wanted her presence in Gabrielle’s life to be strong, but I didn’t want her to be a strong figure herself—at least, not in the “strong female characters” sense. I wanted her to be complex and loving and generous and selfish. G’s father is such an emotionally stunted figure that he doesn’t have a lot to give her. He’s the house itself—completely flat, void of life. Her mother, by comparison, is someone with whom she shares this deep intimacy that’s established from the very beginning because she’s so much more accessible— physically, emotionally, and psychologically. Not just because they share this ability. Their dynamic has much more room to breathe through the highs and lows as the relationship begins to fall apart because Tallulah is embodying her own humanity in such a spectacular fashion. It’s a major factor that makes her Gabrielle’s entire world at the beginning of the story. They really cling to each other. That closeness, while beautiful, is also kind of unsettling and stunts G’s evolution. Gabrielle doesn’t even fully hit puberty until the end of her senior year of high school, and her self-realization is in part delayed by the emotional intensity she shares with her mother. The deterioration of their relationship, in a way, simulates a kind of post-partum separation that can be very unravelling—because we first encounter them in this kind of womb-like embrace. And that serves as a testament to the power of their bond. If it wasn’t so strong, their separation wouldn’t have been so severe.

Continuing from the previous question, despite initially crafting a strong relationship between Gabrielle and her mother, her mother was always an unstable figure within Gabrielle’s life and the novel. Was there any reason for her mentally instability and eventual demise? Was her complicity to the strict rules and standards of her husband, the demands for her and her child to pass for white in his presence, a part in her downfall?

Their bond is so strong that the only way Gabrielle could have disrupted the connection to find her own way was through some violent rupture of their relationship. I didn’t want to make Tallulah into a saint. Her story has tragedy, but also agency. Turning her into a purely tragic character removes her own complicity in creating the circumstances that eventually destroy her relationship with her daughter. She’s a survivor, using whatever means at her disposal to protect her position. Sometimes, that’s Gabrielle.

I also thought it would be beyond the realm of belief to be in a relationship with such an unkind, unloving man without having been affected by that relationship. The way that T and G are kind of using each other as a buffer against his rages is really messed up. But for a mother to do that to her daughter, I think, gives the reader a bit of insight into her desperation and state of mind—which she clearly struggles with early in the book. The mental crises she suffers further in the story are a reflection of how terrorizing her daughter also accelerates her own suffering. In a way, she has to become a completely different person to justify the violence she is capable of inflicting upon Gabrielle—and that’s also seen when she loses the ability to pass. It doesn’t mean she loves her daughter any less. It means that—just as passing makes her take on different personas— taking on a different persona has also affected her ability to pass.

The novel ends with Gabrielle about to perform her audition for the music school in Berlin, but this is where you leave the reader, on the cusp of Gabrielle’s future. Where do you imagine Gabrielle after your novel ends? Has she made it as a musician or is she pursuing her father’s dreams for her and is studying to be a doctor?

That’s actually a question I would pose to the readers! I want to hear their interpretations of how the story ends. What do you think happens to Gabrielle after the audition, Leah?

Finally, where can our readers find your exciting, heart-breaking, and vivid book Notes On Her Color? Thank you so much for your time Jennifer!

Thank you for these wonderful questions! Notes on Her Color can be purchased on Bookshop, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, or your favorite independent bookstore in North America. In Australia and New Zealand, you can order from Readings, Dymocks, Booktopia, or your local fav bookseller (Mary Martin and Amplify are elite). In Germany, you can preorder online at Dussmanns.

I hope you enjoy the book as much as I enjoyed writing it!

Notes On Her Color

Jennifer Neal is an American-Australian author, musician, writer, cook, and occasional standup comedian (really) currently living in Berlin. Born in the US, she has also lived and worked in Japan, Spain, Mexico, Australia – and now, Germany. One of her career highlights was working with Anthony Bourdain (RIP) for Explore Parts Unknown. She works as a freelance translator and producer at Deutsche Welle, and her writing has appeared in Playboy, NPR, CNN, Gay Magazine, The Establishment, SBS, Atlas Obscura and many (many) other titles. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for her essay 'In Search of Better Skies' in 2019, and she was a 2021 MacDowell Colony artist in residence. Her essay Good. White. Friends.™ will be published in the anthology Could This Be Love? in August 2022 with InterKontinental Press. Notes on Her Colour is her first novel, and will be published in May 2023 with Catapult US/Penguin Random House Australia. She is currently working on her second book, My Pisces Heart: A Blaxit Story, a non-fiction exploration of Black migration movements told through the lens of her own personal experience, to be published in 2024 with Catapult.

Jennifer's Instagram: @chocolatejenn


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page