Searching for Who We Want to Be: A Conversation with Trisha R. Thomas
Trisha R. Thomas’s latest work of fiction is a departure from the Nappily Ever After contemporary fiction series for which is widely known. In What Passes as Love, a historical novel set in the Civil War era, Thomas delves into passing as white and the sacrifices enslaved peoples made to secure their freedom.
At the outset of the novel, Dahlia has been removed from the slave quarters to live in the master’s home as a servant to her sisters, Annabelle and Leslie. Dahlia’s move to the master’s house also severs her relationship with Bo, her childhood friend who doesn’t benefit from the special attention of the master or his mother. On one outing to town with her sisters and paternal grandmother, Dahlia meets an Englishman who does not suspect her true heritage. Dahlia creates a new identity—Lily Dove—and within a short period of time agrees to marry him.
But the new life Dahlia creates away from the home she has always known doesn’t reflect the freedom she wants. Her new life is also complicated by Bo’s arrival as a new slave. Dahlia struggles with maintaining her new life and identity, and saving Bo.
Thomas is the author of Un-Nappily in Love, Nappily in Bloom, Nappily Faithful, Roadrunner, Would I Lie to You, and Nappily Ever After, which was a finalist for the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work. Her debut novel was optioned by Halle Berry and Universal Pictures for adaptation to film. Thomas lives in Riverside, California.
I spoke with Trisha R. Thomas about writing historical fiction, searching for love and identity, and the growth of literature about passing.
The Rumpus: There’s so much being written now that’s focused on passing. There’s your book, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’s The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois, and Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half. Passing as a theme in literature is becoming a bit popular of late. Why do you think that is?
Trisha Thomas: I started writing this book about five or six years ago—maybe more, now that it’s taken a year for it to come to the publishing world. I was thrilled, really happy when Brit Bennett’s book became such a success because it kind of opened the door to this world. This has been going on forever. But it seemed like no one was really looking at it.
I was told by an agent that no one’s interested in this kind of thing anymore, and that was pretty early on. I didn’t know if they were talking about slavery or the idea of passing. So, I was a little bit discouraged but I kept going and kept writing and rewriting.
Passing is part of the story but it’s mostly a story about identity. I was determined to get the story out and talk about where we are, even now, where we’re judged completely on what people see. I just wanted to reinvent that story that we’re more than what people see, and sometimes we’ll never know because we stopped at what we see.
Rumpus: Can you talk a little bit about where the idea for this story came from?
Thomas: I already had the idea of the characters Dahlia and Bo being children that grew up together on a plantation. I started researching areas where slavery was most prevalent but yet there was a balance, where there were free slaves, people that avoided it altogether, and then slaves. I didn’t want to go straight to the South, where there wasn’t a bridge. I wanted to focus on the Northern part of the country, where it’s just like a fine line.
Once I started researching areas and I came across pictures, that’s where I turned the corner—that this Dahlia character was going to pass for white and not just make the journey to freedom. I already had the idea that these two children grew up together and basically fell in love when they were young and were going to be separated. But then all the intricacies came from knowing the area, the imports and exports and who was coming to take advantage of slavery, and to try to financially make a start or restart. All of that came from just information overload, constantly finding out more information about people from Great Britain coming over here wanting a piece of the pie because they couldn’t get the pie at home.
Rumpus: So you had the idea, and then you started researching. Were you physically in the area where you wanted to set the story?
Thomas: I lived in Virginia for a while. Everywhere they have these tours to see where battles happened, and the plantations are still letting people onto the land and charging museum prices for you to see where people lived and everything. I already had that background from writing Nappily Ever After and I actually used a lot of that research. But I was writing that to talk about hair, and how the slave owners made the slaves put lye on their head to remove their hair entirely because they thought it was unclean and wanted it gone. That lye was a powerful activator for me.
When I first started writing Nappily Ever After it was nonfiction, and I was kind of told the same thing, that people are not interested in this. So, I created this character to carry the day and tell the story about hair. I’d already had a lot of that information. I always wanted to write a historical novel, even then. This was just the best feeling for me and that’s why I stuck with it for six years.
Rumpus: Why did you always want to write historical fiction? What draws you to it?
Thomas: I’ve always, always, always wanted to write historical fiction. It’s probably the hardest genre to write and be accepted, or at least that’s what I was led to believe. I wrote my first book as a nonfiction historical evolution of Black hair. It didn’t go over well. A lot of rejections. I took the research I had and turned it into a contemporary fictional story and things opened up very quickly. That was a long time ago, so you could say I’ve been waiting to write historical fiction and I’m so happy to be here now.
I like the feeling that I’m offering something you haven’t seen or read before. But mostly I’m painting a picture and to do that you have to include details. When it comes to writing historical timelines, especially, the more details the better. That way the reader can feel and breathe the moment. I put in a lot of hours researching and getting the right balance of information. I like details. I want it to be true to the time and story. If you learn something new out of reading one of my stories, all the better. It’s not my intention to teach or preach. I just want the page to be visual, whether it’s the color of the room or the emotions of the characters.
Rumpus: How much of a departure was writing this book for you? Did you find yourself reaching into a different part of your brain to write this book versus the Nappily Ever After series?
Thomas: No, I actually didn’t, because it’s the same journey of identity. Dahlia finds herself, just like Venus found herself. It really wasn’t different for me at all. I think the historical part, getting the research and everything correct, that took more time. I was even told by an agent, who actually was a past editor, “This is going to be hard for you because no one sees you as a historian and, you know, Nappily Ever After is fun and light.” It is; I did make it more accessible. When you read it, you feel all of that but you’re still getting a lot of emotion, a lot of information. And there was a lot of history in it actually, before it even made it to the editor and the publisher, so they’re almost the same to me. It’s just that the time frame is different.
Rumpus: One of the things that I’ve heard is that it’s usually so difficult for writers to change genres. Did you get a lot of pushback when you got ready to sell the book?
Thomas: I only got pushback in the early stages. You know, telling me this kind of thing’s not going to sell and it’s going to be hard to make the leap from contemporary to historical. But not direct pushback, like I sent it out and it was just the worst experience ever. None of that. Because I had framed it in the same way—about a character who has to go on a self-enlightening journey to find herself. It’s the same to me, it speaks to colorism and identity, stress, and, you know, just being a Black woman, knowing what you’re up against every single day.
I didn’t consider it pushback. It’s just what you have to do when you want to be heard. If you want to be heard, you have to keep talking. I’m a talker but I have longevity and I have determination and perseverance. Those are the characteristics of my character. I don’t really have the luxury of just being able to tell a story. I have to push.
Rumpus: How did you come up with the title, What Passes as Love, and what does it mean to you?
Thomas: I really wanted the word “passes” in it. And the love part was just the bottom line because that’s what Dahlia wants and that’s what she’s always wanted—family and being accepted and finding love. She was receiving a type of love, but it never felt like enough.
Rumpus: Do you think of the book as a love story, a romance, in a way?
Thomas: I really see it as a romance. I didn’t in the beginning. I didn’t read that much romance or know the rules of romance, but once I did I was like, Oh my gosh. I think it’s a romance. That wasn’t my goal but it kind of meets all the criteria. Dahlia knows Bo, she loves Bo, but they don’t connect until they go through all of this turmoil and trial. People used to tell me Nappily Ever After isn’t a romance and I said, “Good, it’s not. It isn’t meant to be.” But I am not arguing with this one. This is definitely more in the romantic column.
Rumpus: Do you think Dahlia finds the love and acceptance she’s looking for when she gets married?
Thomas: She’s searching. She doesn’t find it there either and I think that’s the fun part of the story. That was one of the things I was battling. How much can I make this an adventure? Whenever you’re dealing with slavery and that part of history, no one wants to consider that there’s adventure and there’s intrigue and suspense along with it, unless you go full fantasy or full sci-fi. I wanted to keep this story grounded and still find a way to make this story an adventure. And when she comes out of it, she’s braver, stronger, more resilient. I had to find a balance to tell this tale and still show her strong and surviving and enduring, and still not broken.
Rumpus: So, what about Bo? He is very protective of Dahlia and I imagine that is coming from the fact that he loves her. What was the catalyst for creating him?
Thomas: Bo is a symbol of all the men in my life. I’ve always had strong role models—fathers and brothers and friends, husband—who are really strong in character and faith. He’s a culmination of all of that. I want him to have faith and question everything around him. Even when he’s tired and on his last leg, he still has faith and believes things can be better than they are. And Dahlia, he’s always been there for her and I think he has a protective spirit. When you see that someone is being treated poorly, you gravitate towards them. That’s what he did. He gravitated towards her and wanted to protect her. He didn’t realize he loved her the way he loved her till he got older.
Rumpus: How did you go about drawing the other characters working in the household?
Thomas: I wanted Dahlia to have another family. Pretty much every place she lands, there’s a family and she becomes part of that family. I wanted her to be surrounded by literally the same format—the patriarch, the matriarch, the jealous sister. Wherever she went, she was in the same dynamic.
A lot of times we think when we run to a new place that things are going to be different, but when we’re the same, we’re usually surrounded by the same characters. And we always wonder, Why did I end up like this?
You can change your name, you can do all that stuff, but you’re going to have the same situation. Dahlia was unhappy because she wasn’t being herself or she couldn’t be herself, and so I wanted her to have that same dynamic. She’s still the bottom rung on the totem pole. She was hoping things were going to be different in this new home but she’s still carrying around the insecurity that she’s just a slave and she’s just Dahlia, and no one cares about what she has to say or who she is. A lot of that was her own thinking.
Rumpus: Dahlia is indeed quite a character. Can you talk about how she came to be?
Thomas: I want to write characters that start out questioning where they fit in. Do you need to be a wife? Do you need to be a mother? Do you need to be a professional this or that, or can you just be? And where does it begin and end for any of us?
It doesn’t matter what decade we’re in. Searching for yourself is just never going to be old because you’re told what you are from the very beginning—through your family, your status, whatever, constantly. It’s a road to get to shake what you’re taught or what you’re told. I think every story I write is about searching for who you want to be versus who people are telling you that you are.
Photograph of Trisha R. Thomas by Kristen Potts.