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City of real people who have escaped struggle to belong; Letter from Paris.

A skinny nerd with a genius IQ, Ms Janet McDonald felt like an outsider in the New York housing projects she still calls home, and later in the mainly white domain of American corporate law.

Now a successful lawyer in Paris, Ms McDonald has written about her struggle to reconcile two opposing worlds in a new book, Project Girl.

Her experience recalls those of other talented African-Americans - jazz singers Josephine Baker and Billie Holliday, novelists James Baldwin and Richard Wright, who all fled America for Europe, where they blossomed.

"Paris is where Americans, especially African Americans, have always come to begin again," said McDonald, aged 45. "I feel more human, not like some black object the way I felt in the United States, where you're objectified by race."

In Project Girl, Ms McDonald recounts a struggle "marred by spectacular failures and salvaged by unlikely comebacks".

Despite rape, arson and drugs, the daughter of a postal worker managed to earn degrees from Vassar, Columbia University School of Journalism and New York University School of Law.

These days, Ms McDonald's well-cut pant suit cultivates a corporate image. But when she takes off the jacket, the imposing tattoo of a roaring lion spread across her shoulder tells another story.

The 18-year old tattoo is a reminder, Ms McDonald said, of the anger that nearly derailed her journey from the housing projects where she grew up in the New York borough of Brooklyn, to a flat overlooking the Eiffel Tower, where she lives today.

"I saw that lion, with its mouth wide open, and I knew I had to have it," she said. "It was who I was at the time. But it's still a part of who I am today. I like it and I don't plan to have it removed."

Ms McDonald was the only one of seven children in her family who shined academically.

"Everybody I knew as a kid is either on drugs or dead," she said.

When she goes home nowadays, she calls ahead to have someone meet her. "People don't know me any more. They just think I'm some well-dressed, wealthy person who's gotten lost," she said.

The book has turned her into something of a hero at home.

"I felt scorned and rejected as a nerd in my youth, and now I . . . belong in a way I never did," she said. "They cheer me on, 'Hey, you're representing us."'

Ms McDonald said she wanted the memoir to show a different side of the projects and to inspire minority youths drawn into the downward spiral of drugs and teenage pregnancies. The book, to be released in paperback early next year, is being considered for use in New York City schools.

"The trauma - it's all in the book," Ms McDonald said. "It's like a little bundle I'd like to leave behind so I can move on. I suppose I'm taking it with me, but at least, it's not taking me."

As a teenager, she hobnobbed with militants who condemned the white military-industrial complex, skipped class and let her grades slip.

She finished high school at 16, not even knowing she should have applied to college before graduation.

Ms McDonald's severest trauma came when she was raped in her room while a student at Cornell University law school.

A whirl of neurotic episodes followed, including a suicide attempt.

A year later, she was caught lighting fires in the dormitory at New York University law school, where she had transferred. After a journalism degree and much therapy, she was readmitted to NYU.

Her choice to live abroad, she said, may well be a way of opting out of her lifelong "struggle to belong".

She hopes to quit law to write full time and has just completed a young adult novel about an unmarried teenage mother who competes in a spelling bee - a competition - to earn scholarship money for college. The Spelling Bee will be published next year.

Meanwhile, she's working on a new book, Paris Girl - a book that she said "strips away the stereotypes like the great fresh vegetables and great wines."

"It won't be about the Paris you see on post cards, but about the multi-racial, multi-ethnic city where real people like me live."
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Author:August, Marylyn
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Sep 22, 1999
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