Anita Gail Jones on Crafting Fiction From Family Heirlooms
"Objects can carry the heft of memory, uplifting or debilitating, but never passive."
For a decade while I was drafting it, my debut novel The Peach Seed had a different title, Peach Seed Monkey, which referred to a tiny monkey carved from a peach pit that had been a present to me and my sister when we were children. A book title has power to pique interest, crack open a gateway to readers, allowing the work to take it from there. But I always knew I could never publish a book about Black folks with the word “monkey” in the title because many underserving words hold too much pain, too much trauma, due to America’s heinous racial past that persists in the present. It was fitting, though, as a working title, since in my stories I explore ideas around simple objects and their power to hold cultural and personal histories and become links to a past.
My childhood was a blissful time growing up in Albany, Georgia on Hazard Drive, a street that dead-ended at the HBCU, Albany State College. One summer in the 60s, our Youngstown, Ohio relatives visited. An elder cousin gave my sister Bettye and me each a peach seed monkey he had carved. What an exquisite object! Imagine the sharp edge of a peach pit as the little monkey’s spine. He sits with his tail curled forward, cradling it. Although we were both intrigued by cousin Paul’s gifts, at the ages of thirteen and nine, Bettye and I were not sure how these strangely wonderful things fit into our lives. They didn’t quite belong among the small figurines on our mother’s triangular what-not shelf mounted in a corner of our living room. Nor were they jewelry in the strict sense, so they became hidden charms that we’d never wear but somehow knew we should keep. We never spoke about them as they languished inconsequentially in our separate lives, until an event that changed everything, forever.
In January, 1997, we tragically lost Bettye in a plane crash. Among her things I found her little monkey tucked away in her music jewelry box. Many years before, my own monkey’s tail had broken. I had not seen Bettye’s for decades, and didn’t recall that our cousin had given hers rhinestone eyes, making for an even more exquisite charm. Although she was no longer with us in the flesh, I felt bittersweet joy finding her sparkling little monkey completely intact, linking our family to her across a thin veil of time and death. Objects possess alluring powers. Whether held in your hands, or in those of a story character, objects can carry the heft of memory, uplifting or debilitating, but never passive. This became a valuable lesson: to listen to the things around us for what they have to say about then and now. They may not just be clutter, sitting idly in our lives. I paused and truly listened, and heard the peach seed monkey; a living, breathing emotion and my sister’s spirit resided in the quiet it inhabited.I felt the urgency even more deeply to give my fictional family more to grasp.
Over ten years after Bettye’s death, I began writing the manuscript that became Peach Seed Monkey and then, The Peach Seed. For reasons he has yet to reveal to me, her little monkey jumped into my story-planning. Had he been an object looking for a story all along?
This project began with a question for my father, Mr. Silas Jones, who was born in 1921 in south Georgia, a place where Black men of his generation lived in what James Baldwin called “the teeth of the Southern terror”. I wanted to know how they managed to be leaders in their families, churches, communities when the domineering culture, and the US government through laws and policies, considered them less than human? By the time this question formed in my psyche, sadly, my dad had passed away, so I was on my own to find an answer and chose fiction as the mode. As I approached the project, I was certain of only one thing: I would write a story set in southwest Georgia, centering multi-generations of Black men in one family; living free, showing their strength, creativity, and devotion to family, self and country. Too few stories in American life and literature show Black men in this light. What I could not yet know is how Bettye’s monkey would show us all how an object as small as a seed can ripple through generations; first showing up as a glimmer of hope in the shackled hands of an enslaved character.
I leveraged Bettye’s peach seed monkey’s eccentricity to harness forward motion year after year. He became both muse and interlocutor, requiring that I provide proof of my literary choices at every step.
My Dukes family characters elevate this wondrous animal from damaging stereotypes assigned by bigots. Across the globe, monkeys symbolize: loyalty, intelligence, mischief, playfulness, innocence, generosity, community, courage and family.
Who has the right to choose whose objects are worthy of being held aloft; whose stories should be told? Time and time again on this journey, as I faced this question, my peach seed monkeys, even my broken one, became as precious as any gold watch or silver service. When time delivers an object complete with its story, such as Ashley’s Sack, we have added reason to celebrate. But for many Black citizens on any part of the globe, family heirlooms beyond one or two generations can be rare, as is the case in my family. Even though my peach seed monkeys are from a more recent past, they went largely unnoticed for decades, and I can’t trace their origins beyond my cousin. Because of this, I felt the urgency even more deeply to give my fictional family more to grasp; to flesh out their imagined story since my factual family story is still lost. So I gave them a full blown heirloom and rite of passage tradition. I wanted The Peach Seed to show that even though an object’s origins remain locked in a nefarious past, it can become talismanic, because its impact can still be felt in the present.
The Peach Seed by Anita Gail Jones is available from Henry Holt and Co.