Fulfilling a dream
The call took Timothy Durham by surprise.
An old pal in New Jersey, Randy Roller, wanted his input about something so sensitive that he wouldn’t talk about it over the phone.
“I go to Philadelphia and New York frequently for rest and relaxation, but the last three times I’d been I hadn’t seen Randy,” Mr Durham said. “He said the next time I was in the US to stop by, he had something to discuss with me.”
The pair had been friends for three decades; a month later, he hopped on a plane. It turned out Mr Roller wanted help writing Mulatto, a book he’d been mulling over for nearly 30 years.
“Timothy is a very smart gentleman,” he told The Royal Gazette. “If you wanted anyone to be with you, it’s him. I write from the heart. I am not a writer where I have 25 books under my belt. I just wanted to get the story out of my head.”
Mr Durham was especially excited by the project as he’d been meaning to write a book of his own for years.
He became interested in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, through his godmother who lived there.
In 2003, he started collecting notes and photos about the development of the planned city and stored them in a box for safekeeping. They sat there for six years before water from a leaky pipe made its way in and destroyed them.
“It may have been a few days before I noticed,” he said. “I was very upset about that. Some of the people in the photographs had passed away.
“I could recapture it, but I couldn’t remember a lot of the finer details.”
He put his dream on hold.
Set in 1920s Harlem, Mulatto follows the life of a biracial woman, Jenina Gia Louis. She falls in love with an Italian who is connected to the mob; the two try to keep their relationship a secret, fearing social reprisals.
“It deals with a mixed relationship, power and murder,” Mr Durham said. “It has lots of intrigue, but no vulgarity.”
Mr Roller, who is black and has an Italian-American wife, was inspired by their daughters, Jenna, 26, and Nina, 20.
When they were little he grew frustrated filling out applications asking their ethnicity.
“Often the only race options given were black, white, Asian or other,” Mr Roller said. “What is an ‘other’? That sickens me that my child is under an ‘other’.”
He’d grown up using the word mulatto when referring to people with one black and one white parent.
“You never hear it said any more,” he said.
He thinks that’s due to a misunderstanding over the word’s origins. Some people think it is derived from the Spanish word for mule, mula — an animal that is half-horse and half-donkey.
“But it has nothing to do with that,” Mr Roller said. “It is actually from the Arabic word muwallad, and simply means on the borderline of black and white.”
He hoped that writing a book about a biracial woman would help bring mulatto back into use.
“He wants to elevate the word and put it back in its rightful place,” Mr Durham said. “I felt that this was a story that needed to be told, because a lot of mulattoes didn’t get the rights they needed in that era, the 1920s.”
It took Mr Roller decades to get around to writing the story because he had been busy with life.
“You know how that goes,” he said. “I just didn’t have time to write a book.”
He found the time a year ago, while recuperating from neck surgery, but decided he didn’t want the publicity that can come with being an author; he’s listed as ‘Randy R’ on the book’s cover.
“He is a private person,” Mr Durham said. “So he asked me to be the face of the book.”
The pair started writing Mulatto in January 2017. “Sometimes the way I think is a little sporadic,” Mr Roller said. “[Mr Durham] gets great ideas. He would call me late at night with an idea, then I would analyse it and we would work it in.”
It took them a year to get the story down. They then sent it to self-publishing company, AuthorHouse.
Advice came from Peter DeFeo, an actor and producer Mr Roller met 11 years ago.
He was working as a chef in a Philadelphia restaurant as Mr DeFeo made his 2008 film, Sleeping with Fishes, on the street outside.
Intrigued, Mr Roller asked if he could have a part and was given a walk-on role.
“Then Peter DeFeo came in asking where his actor was,” he said.
The two became great friends. Mr Roller is hoping put Mulatto on the big screen.
“I have someone who is turning the book into a script,” he said. “That’s exciting.”
Mr Durham is excited to finally have the finished product in hand. “A lot of people were buying two and three at a time for Father’s Day and are now looking for it for Christmas,” he said. “I started off with 200 and I have 30 left to sell.
“The response has been very positive. There was one lady that read the book and said it was right on point and captured the time period just right.”
The two are already hard at work on follow-ups to Mulatto although Mr Durham would like to get back to writing about Abuja one day. He hopes to be able to go back to Nigeria next year and reconnect with some of his friends.
“I do a lot of travelling,” he said. “I like cultures, artefacts and history. As long as the place isn’t a threat to my life, I’m willing to explore it. My friend says I could make friends with a tree.”
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