Jabari Asim on Decolonized Souls, Black Love, and Writing the Past
The Author of Yonder Speaks With Jane Ciabattari
When I reviewed Jabari Asim’s first short story collection, A Taste of Honey (2010), I knew him to be a prominent essayist and cultural critic, author of What Obama Means and The N Word, former Washington Post deputy books editor and editor in chief of the iconic The Crisis, the journal of the NAACP founded by W.E.B. Dubois in 1910. He also, it turns out, is a remarkable fiction writer.
A Taste of Honey, set in Gateway City, a stand-in for his native St. Louis, begins with the “hot and foreboding” summer of 1967 and ends with the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. the following year. Asim creates a vivid cast of characters—the tightly knit Jones family, their friends and neighbors, including Curly, an unarmed black man who is killed by a policeman in the opening story, and the newly radical young “Warriors of Freedom.” In each of the 16 stories, he is attuned to “the sting of racism and the balm of tenderness and joy that comes from being with the ones you love.”
Asim’s first novel, Only the Strong, which tracks characters in the same community in 1970, made it into my Best Books of 2015 for NPR. It was a standout for creating characters “so complicated, flawed and beguiling you can imagine you know them as well as your friends and neighbors.”
Asim brings this finely honed gift for infusing his characters with emotional depth, weaving them into complicated interrelationships, and tracking communities under siege to Yonder, his powerful, inventive, transformative new novel. Our email exchanges occurred during the last days of 2021 and early 2022.
Jane Ciabattari: On the cusp of 2022, can you describe how you’ve managed the past two tumultuous years? Teaching? Writing? Social activism? Family?
Jabari Asim: Since March 2020, I’ve been teaching classes, meeting with students, and conferring with colleagues exclusively via Zoom. Every interaction feels exhausting, and one feels helpless to counter the fatigue. During the two summers preceding the pandemic, I’d taught a course in Europe that welcomed students from HBCUs. We studied African-American literature, worked on our own writing, and travelled in the footsteps of various Black expatriate artists. I’m saddened that we had to put the program on hiatus just as it was gaining momentum.
In contrast, the writing experience has been comparatively smoother because it remains a solitary process, and I’ve done most of my writing at home for some time now. Because our five children are grown and scattered in different cities, our opportunities to see them (and our two grandchildren) have depended upon the whims of COVID and our abilities to circumvent them. We haven’t crossed the thresholds of any of our children’s homes, but they have all managed to spend time with us.
JC: How did you settle upon the subject and title of your new novel, which is set in the mid-19th century at Placid Hall, a southern plantation? What visions do you want Yonder to evoke?
JA: It started with the story of William “Billy” Lee, a captive of George Washington who assisted him during the American Revolution. After the war, Washington promised Lee that he would be reunited with Margaret Thomas, the woman he loved. According to the Mount Vernon website, Washington “did not like her very much.” There’s no evidence that Margaret, a free woman, ever went to live there, and records from 1799 indicate that William lived alone.
Of course, examples of this kind of forced separation were relatively commonplace, but the saga of William and Margaret resonated with me. I began to imagine scenarios in which people who wanted to be together were prevented from doing so. I moved my story forward in time and gave the names to characters of my own devising. I wrote the first lines more than ten years ago, in one of those little Moleskine notebooks. I would revisit them from time to time when taking a breather from other projects. Regarding the title, I wanted to suggest the reality of captive Black people engaging in philosophical speculation about death, freedom, and the future—each of which can be referred to as “yonder”—all while in the midst of struggling and loving in hellish circumstances.
JC: Can you tell us about the Jacob Lawrence image on the book jacket?
JA: It’s a detail from Panel #4 in Lawrence’s Harriet Tubman Series. I love Lawrence’s work, and I’ve always been struck by this image of defiant joyfulness in the thick of intense oppression. I kept a copy of it within sight as I worked on the novel.
JC: Your opening lines are evocative of W.E.B. DuBois’ double consciousness: “All of us have two tongues. The first is for them. A broken joke of language, it is a lament cloaked in deception, a blood strangeness in our throats… The second is for us. It is a song of dreams and drums, whispered promises and incantations… This tongue is rich, savory, and, if we’re not mindful, can bring us to ruin. This tongue reminds us that, despite everything we love.” Love is forbidden, potentially ruinous, but it’s at the core of Yonder. Your love stories in this novel are eloquent, sensual, and nuanced. What drew you to emphasize the power of love over the cruelties, deprivations, tyrannies and dehumanizing elements of slavery?
JA: I’m a hopeless romantic who thinks a lot about love. I’m always curious about couples, and I’m a sucker for wedding columns and how-they-met stories. My fascination may have something to do with coming from a family of long marriages. My parents met in Sunday School as toddlers, fell in love in high school, and were happily wed for seventy years until their deaths. Both sets of my grandparents were married more than fifty years. My wife and I have been married 35 years. In Yonder, my interest in romantic relationships coincides with my interest in history.
As a reader, I’m drawn to relationship stories; as a writer, I’m often inclined to try my hand at creating them. I’m also aware that the last thing oppressors of Black people want is for them to love one another; in that context, love is perhaps the ultimate form of resistance.
JC: Yonder is a story told by many voices. As Margaret, one of your narrators puts it, “a story depends on who’s telling it, what they choose to mention, and what they leave out. There’s also the way they tell it, and the way they tell it has been shaped by everything that’s happened to them. They might tell it plain, like William, or with fancy words from books, like Cato or Pandora. My Ancestors’ notion, that speaking of things can make them real, has stayed strong in me, so sometimes I’ve been partial to telling what I hope will be.” How did you settle upon the voices of the Stolen you weave together—Margaret, William, Cato, Pandora, Ransom?
JA: At first, I thought the story would enfold strictly through William’s eyes, but then I realized that a passage I was working on sounded quite different from the voice I had established for him. I came to see that a multiple-narrator framework would enable me to continue my fascination with the interaction between narratives, the ways in which they either conflict or confirm. A couple of the narrators—Pandora and Ransom—inserted themselves so forcefully that I made room for them that I hadn’t intended to create.
JC: Good for Pandora and Ransom! The world of Yonder is divided between the Stolen and the Thieves, including Norbrook, William’s first captor, and Cannonball Greene, a wealthy planter who purchases William and brings him to Placid Hall, the “experimental farm,” where Greene conducts studies of Stolen behavior. (And which Cato refers to as “the bitter confines of Greene’s terrible kingdom.”) As William explains early on, “We called them Thieves; they called themselves God’s Children. We called ourselves Stolen; they called us niggas.” How did you come up with this Stolen/Thieves dichotomy to shift the traditional slavery narrative?
JA: I was opposing those white supremacist narratives that suggest that colonized people regarded their invaders as deities or superior beings, instead of amoral hypocrites. And, to offer a subpar paraphrase of DuBois, I wanted these characters to see themselves not through the eyes of those who despised them, but through their own rigorous but loving self-scrutiny.
JC: I’m curious about the research that helped you imagine this world, down to such details as Silent Mary’s special recipe for biscuits. Plantation archives? Correspondence? Historical texts? Stories passed down from one generation to the next?
JA: I started with Betty DeRamus’s Forbidden Fruit: Forbidden Love Stories from the Underground Railroad. I re-read Frederick Douglass’s three memoirs, which were very helpful. I spent time with Yuval Taylor’s Growing Up in Slavery, a collection of narratives by young enslaved people. I believe it was Taylor’s book that led me to the Narrative of the Sufferings of Lewis Clarke, during a Captivity of More Than Twenty-Five years, which I read more than once.
I also read with interest an essay by Mary V. Thompson, “And Procure for Themselves a Few Amenities: The Private Life of George Washington’s Slaves,” along with An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America by Henry Wiencek. I was also influenced and inspired by Lawrence’s Tubman series we mentioned earlier, and these lines from “A Love Poem” by Etheridge Knight: “Our love is a rock against the wind, / Not soft like silk and lace.” Eventually, though, I learned to tuck all that into a corner of my brain and put my nose to the grindstone. I was mindful of Toni Morrison’s suggestion that at some point you have to let the research go and give your imagination free reign.
JC: Speaking of Toni Morrison, Little Zander, who is fascinated with the tales Stolen men and women handed down to their children, including the adventures of Buba Yalis, or flying Africans, brings to mind Milkman in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. Milkman’s great grandfather Solomon flew back to Africa (hence the lines “O Sugarman done fly away / Sugarman done gone / Sugarman cut across the sky / Sugarman gone home”).
One powerful aspect of Yonder, which reminds me of Morrison’s work, including Beloved, is the spiritual and supernatural heritage that connects the Stolen, including the idea taught by elders that “words were mighty enough to change our condition.” The elders “whispered seven words into the ears of every Stolen newborn before the child given a name, seven words carefully chosen for that child alone,” and to be repeated morning and night, else they would see the world as the Thieves saw it. Yonder also includes supernatural creatures who help the Stolen, including a haint and Buba Yali, and ghostly figures like Guinea Jack, the “old African” who talks with William. How did you go about constructing this layer of your novel?
JA: The cosmology of Yonder acknowledges a permeable barrier between the material world and what we might call the spiritual realm. This is a widely held belief in the communities where I was raised, so it’s in my blood and bones. I made up the whispering ceremonies described in the book, but they spring from discussions I’ve heard and read about decolonized minds and decolonized canons; I wanted to explore the idea of decolonized souls. In that context, what would spiritual practices look like?
The reflections on flying, I hope, are in conversation with sequences from books like Morrison’s. I published a poem about flying Africans in Painted Bride Quarterly back in the 1989, and my interest goes back further. My primary inspiration has been The People Could Fly by Virginia Hamilton. She was an amazing writer to whom I’m forever indebted.
Because I’m obsessed with Ancestors, characters like Guinea Jack tend to appear in some fashion in my fiction. Whenever someone begins a conversation with “when my grandmother arrived from Hungary” or “my uncle was the first to arrive from Jamaica,” I’m all in. I think also of Hansen’s Law, which observed, “What the son wishes to forget the grandson wishes to remember.” I am very much the grandson who wants to remember, no matter how painful the story. In some respects, to write about the past, even in fiction, is to dare to recall things that others might prefer to conceal. It’s remembering as an act of resistance, but it’s also paying tribute to our ancestors’ endurance, which was often nothing short of magical.
JC: The ways in which you describe this close-knit band of Stolen fleeing north toward freedom from Placid Hall underline the courage and discipline required, the deadly risks, and the difficulty trusting any outsider, even those apparently wishing to help. Did you travel the landscape you describe? Are any of these characters based on real life fugitives who fled slavery and survived?
JA: I had done research for an Underground Railroad project that never came to fruition. I went to a number of sites in Michigan, Ontario, Canada, and Savannah, as well as to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. That was some years ago, however, and I didn’t do any additional travel before starting Yonder. While the characters were partly inspired by the adventures of real-life fugitives, I made them up out of my imagination.
JC: In addition to writing fiction and teaching at Emerson College, you write nonfiction books (including We Can’t Breathe), poetry, theater, and children’s books (including Preaching to the Chickens: The Story of Young John Lewis). You are an influential cultural critic and, I see, you still have time for book reviews. Does one form feed another? What are you working on next?
JA: I’m not always sure what genre to pursue until I’ve filled several notebook pages with rambling thoughts. Only then can I say, “this looks like a novel,” or “this looks like an essay.”
My next projects include two works for young readers: a picture book and a book for middle-schoolers slated to be published later this year. I also have a fiction project underway but it’s too shapeless to talk about just yet. I’m also working on a book of essays for Simon and Schuster. The working title is American Struggle.
Yonder by Jabari Asim is available now from Simon and Schuster.