When I was a little girl, I lived in the torrid Arabian Peninsula. My schooling there was heavily influenced by American culture, and my father, an English professor at a university, had lots of thick books designed for literature students filled with short stories written by Americans, for Americans.
I learned about Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou and the vibrancy of the early years of New York, I listened to the voices of African American writers and singers, and my view of America, although informed by the media, was mostly shaped by this romanticised idea of the biggest, brightest city in the world; New York. My favourite place there? Why, Harlem, of course. The dentists and doctors of Harlem, the mothers and aunts, hardworking and unfortunate, the white supremacy felt deeply by all the growing children of Harlem, the red popsicles and the hanging onto the back of pickup trucks, getting ankles scraped and leaving trails of blood everywhere.
I was British at heart, of course, that comes with parenting and daily living. In writing, however, I was North American. I was influenced by Anne of Green Gables and Jean Louise Scout. My style was American in the way I used slang and my views about freedom and coming of age.
When I first heard the word skyscraper, I imagined tall buildings that literally scraped the sky. Maybe shavings of cloud drifted down on the streets of New York as they floated lazily by. Maybe Langston Hughes, at nineteen, put his hand out the window and caught the sprinklings from the tips of the skyscrapers.
I never wanted to go to New York, I just wanted to drift through its gaudy streets and meet its uncertain inhabitants. I wanted to hide behind a door as I watched an old lady slap her son silly because he stole somebody’s purse. I wanted to hear all the stories by the evening window, and I wanted to be privy to the arguments that took place behind closed doors. It was life. It was living. It was people and magic and light and electricity flooding through the minds and souls of children just like me.