'My Monticello' Is a Stunning Collection of Dark Love Letters to Home

Posted by Cybil on October 1, 2021
When it comes to writing, Jocelyn Johnson is about that life. 
The Virginia native—born, bred, and wed—has had aspirations of being a published author since she was a child. And, I know, many authors say that, but you need look no further for proof than this tweet of Johnson’s first author photo, taken at the ripe age of seven.
Still, the road to publishing wasn’t without its many potholes. Even after gaining the representation of an agent, her first two manuscripts didn’t lead to book deals. "The main obstacle then,” as Johnson tells it, “was deciding whether to keep doing it or not.” Fortunately for us, she didn’t give up, and this tenacity to achieve her lifelong dream culminated in her debut short story collection, My Monticello, which includes five captivating short stories and a knockout novella.
My Monticello, as you’ll soon read more about, was born out of Johnson’s need to make sense of what happened in her hometown of Charlottesville on August 12, 2017. “A very stark event,” she calls it. With Virginia as the setting, this collection focuses on everyday individuals on the pursuit for life, liberty, and happiness, not only allowing us to see ourselves reflected in their stories, but also reminding us that perhaps the strongest weapon any one person can wield against hate is that of hope. 
In addition to this theme of hope, Johnson spoke with Goodreads contributor and author of Black Buck Mateo Askaripour about writing with intention, Virginia, and some of the books she’ll never forget. Their conversation has been edited.

Goodreads: There’s so much going on in My Monticello. When I read “Control Negro,” I said, “Yo, YO!” That story. Ah, man. It just spoke to me in so many ways. It reminded me of how John A. Williams, and people like Chester Himes, wrote this fantastic type of fiction in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. Just the whole conceit, and how the main character was performing a social experiment on his son from afar. So cool. And “Something Sweet on Our Tongues,” which was really funny, but also sad. I remember what it was like being a Black kid in school, the shenanigans boys get into, and what it feels like to see that kid, who’s left out or different. Whew. So, first question: What was your intention with this collection?

Jocelyn Nicole Johnson: That’s a good question. I had two big things that were important to me. One is just that I’m a native Virginian, and a Black woman in Virginia, at that. These stories are kind of a weird, dark love letter to Virginia because I grew up here, I was born here, I went to school in the Shenandoah Valley, I live in Charlottesville, I got married and started my family here, and there are things I know about Virginia, places I’m familiar with—so I wanted to include a lot of that in this book. It’s what I know, it’s what I can speak to with some sort of authority.
Also, on the darker side, it’s this almost vengeful response to these really obscene, brutal, and racist things that have happened here, in Charlottesville, particularly over the last couple of years. Places where I’ve felt excluded from this idea of home, here in Virginia, so I was thinking about those two things, side by side.

GR: Wow. What you just said brings up the concept of two Charlottesvilles, or two Virginias, which you’re reckoning with throughout the collectionshowing the triumph of everyday people while also presenting their struggles, and some people, such as in the titular novella, who are even attempting to reconcile their own blood and the conflict within it. So who would you say your audience is?

JJ: Honestly, when writing, I was writing very much to myself. In a sense, I was trying to figure out how to manage and how I think about these things that were happening in my community.

The fact that there are racists out there is no surprise to anyone, but, for me, August 12, 2017, was still a very stark event. That people would raise torches, raise these images that signify such violence, half a mile from my house—the place where I used to push my kid in a stroller on the downtown mall, where my local bookstore is—and think that was OK. It made an impression on me, and I was writing to figure out how do I respond to this, and this collection was one way I responded.
I also want readers of color, and Black people, to see the characters I centered. Every story is centered on a Black man, woman, or children. Hopefully readers will identify with bits and pieces of that, if they’ve had similar experiences. And then I wanted to invite people who might not understand how any of this feels from my perspective, and some of the nuances of it, to sit in those spaces and consider it, because Black people can’t fix white racism.
GR: I definitely felt that while reading it. I also got the sense that you’d spent a lot of time, within yourself, figuring out how you felt about these events, which have transpired in the world, and then, on a more micro level, in our nation, and, on a more granular level, in Charlottesville and Virginia. What did you have to do to perform that emotional work so that you could then transfer it onto the page?

JJ: Because I started writing this in 2015 through 2020, every story—even the ones that aren’t about Racism, with a capital “R,” of which there are several—was a reaction to something, and that’s how I write.

For example, the story “The King of Xandria” is about this Nigerian immigrant father, and his longing and love for his children, especially his son, and his feeling of displacement being in Virginia. That came from a friend who teaches in Northern Virginia just telling me a story about a parent who came in and was irate. I didn’t know anything about that parent’s nationality, or anything else about him, and I just imagined this father and tried to think of why he was so upset.

A lot of times, if I see or hear something that doesn’t make sense to me, I create a story of why it makes sense. So I created this person, who’s using really big words but is kind of incoherent and self-important, but within him I saw so much vulnerability.
In these bigger stories, too—and by “bigger” I mean more broadly about America, with a capital “A”—I’m responding to the world that’s happening around me. Sometimes it’s tiny things. I was a teacher for 20 years, the last four years in Charlottesville, so I’m seeing people all the time—all their weirdness, all of their little moments of beauty and strange behavior, and I collect all of these little bits, and they become part of the stories.

GR: Got it. And that makes sense, because in these stories, you’re witnessing so much. “The King of Xandria” was one of my favorite stories, and in it we’re seeing what happens when someone comes to the States in search of a better life, and the frustration they experience, which is an unfortunate and common byproduct of that search. But within that, and especially at the end of that story, there’s hope. I’m not going to give it away, but when I read the ending, I said, “Damn, she snapped.” The imagery. The metaphor. Why was it important for you to also include hope in these stories?
JJ: I’m so glad you feel that way. I really want these stories to explore issues and problems but also have hopefulness in them. There’s this essay I recently read by Octavia Butler, called “A Few Rules for Predicting the Future,” in Essence, which she had written many years ago. In it, she talks about how trying to predict the future, and to issue warning of things that are going badly, is in itself an act of hope, because you’re saying to people, “We need to pay attention to this. This is a cautionary tale.” And some of my stories do that, particularly the novella. They leave you with this idea of “We’re in this predicament together.”

With the ending of “The King of Xandria,” I’m conveying that we go toward hope as a way of being. In order to get through, we have to have a little bit of hope, and I am hopeful, for both my characters and the world.
GR: Yeah, me too. And your hope is evident and appreciated. If these stories were devoid of hope, it would have still been OK, because where we are in our own minds is what comes out on the page. But what feels more authentic, especially related to the Black American experience, is that there is always hope, in one form or another, despite everything. Talking about “My Monticello,” the novella, I thought, “This could actually happen.” The devastating storms, power outages, all creating the perfect opportunity for these extremistswhite supremaciststo literally send others running for the hills. What inspired the novella?

JJ: Absolutely inspired by August 12 in Charlottesville. I started writing it around the one-year anniversary. We had so many events, not about August 12 but about local Black history, and I went to an event that was a panel of people talking about an opera sung in the voice of Sally Hemmings.

At the end of the panel, this local woman in the audience, who was a descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, stood up and spoke, and I literally saw her the next week, pumping gas, and said, “Oh, that’s that lady.” It was so interesting to me to think about living here in Charlottesville with that history, with that body, and thinking about how we’re so affected by Thomas Jefferson here, how we kind of live in the shadow of Monticello. 
There are all of these emblems around, not to mention the Confederate statues, so I folded in very specific details from August 12 and the city into the novella: the helicopter crashing, First Street, my own environmental anxieties of what might happen if we continue in this way and if these movements are empowered and other infrastructure isn’t taken care of, where might we be? So I thought of it as a cautionary projection of what could happen if we emphasize this over something else.

GR: I have so many questions. Earlier you spoke about how you centered these stories on Black characters, and in the novella, what I liked was that there was this Rainbow Coalition of folks, all with their own nuancesyou had Mr. Yahya, the white characters, like Ira, the security guards who were initially reluctant to help out. Why did you decide to include so many different races in this group that banded together for safety at Monticello?

JJ: In the novella, this group of neighbors ends up getting into this abandoned bus and driving to Monticello. Because of the first idea of this story, it had to center Black people, including a descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. The main character, who tells the story, Da’Naisha Love, is a descendant of Jefferson and Hemmings, and her grandmother and her are there together. Her neighbors, which are predominantly made up of Black people, include the Yahyas, who are Black but from Congo. They’re a part of the diaspora.
I wanted to have a variety of people, a variety of ages, and a variety of perspectives within the group of Black people to emphasize that Blackness isn’t a monolith. And then I added other neighbors, like the Floreses, a Latinx family that lives around the corner from Da’Naisha, and the students who arrive, who represent different backgrounds. Da’Naisha’s boyfriend, whom she met at the University of Virginia, is white. The reason I had so many diverse characters is that the neighborhood I live in, while being predominantly Black, is diverse. Within First Street, who lives there? All kinds of people of all nationalities, and I wanted that to be reflected. In the 20 years I’ve lived here, the neighborhood has been gentrified more and more, so I wanted to include people who might live adjacent to First Street, too. I’m also a public school teacher, and I teach all the kids, so I wanted to have this idea of, “What happens when we’re forced into this space together, and how are we going to address this threat with different peoples’ perspectives and experiences and prejudices all together?” Because that’s how Charlottesville felt when we were talking about August 12. All of that comes out—how do we respond together, and, separately, what do we bring to this conversation?
Also, I wanted to think about how race, and racism, affect intimate relationships. That was in part because we do live in proximity, and we do have business and neighborly relationships, as well as friendships, across all races, but also because of Thomas Jefferson. I’m thinking about this founding father, this former president, and what his relationships were like with his white family, his Black family, with the enslaved people, and other visitors, and I wanted that to be reflected in Da’Naisha’s intimate relationships with others.

GR: There’s a lot in that novella. I’m tempted to ask what the main takeaway of it is, but I’ll leave that to the readers to find out. For me, when I think about the whole novella plus short story combination, I think of Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth. I also read another, called Diary of a Murder: And Other Stories by a Korean writer named Young Ha-Kim, which I enjoyed. Did the idea of turning My Monticello, the novella, into a novel ever cross your mind?

JJ: No, and this is why. Because I’ve been writing for so long, I had a sense of intention that was helpful to me, so I looked for partners who shared my vision. When I was writing “My Monticello,” it started as a short story, and then I saw where it needed expansion. I wanted those characters to each have their moments and to be developed. I wanted to show the change, the days moving and building to the climax of the story, and so it ended up being just the right length, because I included enough for the reader to be immersed in that space, but I left these big spaces that I think are important for a story to retain a sense of openness.

With novels, there are sometimes expectations of closing the loop, filling in, and of expansion, and I really loved the compression in that particular story and what it was trying to do.

GR: Hmm. You just brought up intention, which is how we started this off. In my opinion, it’s very important to understand an author’s intention, before diving into anything else, because it sets the stage, not for how someone should think about a work, but for how it can be contextualized, at least from the perspective of the creator themselves. Building off of this, how did you choose which stories to include? This collection didn’t feel disjointed in any way. In fact, it felt more like a concept album.
JJ: I love that, the concept album. I love short stories, because they’re compressed, and everything points to everything else, and I like collections where one story points to another, or one idea is continued elsewhere. I started writing stories, and then about three stories in, when I wrote “Virginia Is Not Your Home,” I thought, “Oh, this is all about Virginia. This is all about home, longing, belonging, being dispossessed, and then the themes became apparent to me, and that informed the remaining stories.

But I was writing other stories, too. And so, as I selected what was going to be part of this project, I figured what would go best with this particular idea. There are even places where the title of one story is repeated as an idea in another story—these places where things echo one another, and I hope that’s satisfying to readers.

[Side note: the novella is going to be published as a standalone in the U.K.]

GR: Ah, that’s cool. I can’t wait to hear what readers over there think. You mentioned that you were looking for the right people to partner with on this work, who would understand your intentions. Did you face any obstacles while looking for that publishing partner?

JJ: Most of the obstacles that I came across were more internal. Writing can be challenging—it’s fun, but it can be challenging, too—so just life. Teaching full time, figuring out whether this was going to work or not, if the writing mattered. But as far as publishing, this was my third time bringing work to the publishing industry. By third time, I mean having an agent and sending work out, so I knew that even if you get an agent, even if people are interested in your work, it doesn’t mean it’s going to be published.

The main obstacle then was deciding whether to keep doing it or not. It’s that hope again. Deciding to keep trying, because it was important to me. And I continued to try because there’s something about closing the loop and having readers that was important to me. You’re making something, you’re trying to communicate something, and you want it to be communicated to someone, eventually, so I had to have that tenacity. But once we got rolling, things went really well this time.

GR: This is similar to my own experience in that I wrote three manuscripts, and it was the third one that got published. So it’s not hard for me to imagine you having an agent, sending work out twice, then thinking, “Oh my God, maybe I’m not cut out for this.” But you did it. And everyone’s about to find out. Related to your own desire to not give up, in all of your stories you have characters with a desire for more, who pursue life, liberty, and happiness. The American dream. Why did you weave that into the fabric of your collection?

JJ: Because it makes sense that we want things. I want things. In “Buying a House Ahead of the Apocalypse,” the character’s worried the world’s falling apart, but she still wants a nice outfit for the apocalypse, and she’s trying to figure out how she can have her hair look good. There’s this innate desire in us for comfort in the moment, to be happy, to have what we want.
Against this idea of systemic and more visceral, face-to-face racism, I hope I made every character an actual person who is experiencing the world and wants things—to be comfortable, to have community, love, material comforts, to be in nature, whatever it is. In fiction you press on want, and the tension of when there’s some kind of barrier to what you want, so that’s what I tried to create.
GR: I hear you. I think the fact that you gave these characters their own desires, free of judgement, was generous, and I appreciated it. Switching gears a little, you said you’ve been writing for a while. How did you first come to it?

JJ: I loved writing, and art, from day one. My pinned tweet is this image I found of myself in a book full of pictures I made when I was a kid. I’d stuck my school photo in there and wrote, “This is the author. She was 7 when she made this,” which I think is hilarious, because I had somehow realized you write it in third-person. My handwriting is all crooked, it’s funny. 
So I’ve always loved both of those things. I ended up going to school to study visual arts, and then, since I’m super practical, I said, “I’m going to be a teacher.” I absolutely love teaching. It fits my personality really well. But I’ve pretty much written my whole life. I read S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders when I was a teenager, and I knew that she had published that when she was around 18, and had written it when she was 16, and I thought, “Oh, you can write a book.” So I wrote a novel when I was 17 or 18, which I still have. It’s a pretty silly road novel.
At some point, my husband and I ended up traveling around the world for a year. We wanted to tell our families how we were doing, so we had a website, UltraSmooth, where I’d write essays, and he’d take photographs. This was before it was easy to blog about what you were doing, so we even had to put in the HTML tags. After that, when we moved back to the States, to Charlottesville, I took a writing class and decided to be more serious and intentional about it. And then, slowly over time, I began to think about having a bigger audience for my work.

GR: I see. So you’ve been about this life for a while. You’re not new to it, you’re true to it. This next question excites me even more now: What’s an aspect of writing you really love and one you’re not the biggest fan of?

JJ: It’s the same: I love and I hate that you don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know if it’s going to come together. You’re just diving in there and trying to see what’s going to come, and hoping that, by magic, it comes together, and, in the end, means something to some reader. It’s exciting and scary.
GR: Oof. I’m right there with you. With that said, what’s your writing routine?
JJ: I try to write in the mornings, before everything goes crazy. I have a teenage son, two really bad dogs—there’s always something happening. I wrote all of these stories, including the novella, while teaching full-time. I end up emailing myself a lot of sentences. I try to work in the summers a lot, to get drafts together. And I do have a couple of writing groups, so I use that as a way to force myself to pull something together to share and get feedback on.
GR: There's nothing like helpful feedback. I'm also big on having a ritual so I can do my best work. Speaking of someone's best work, what are some of the books that have influenced you as a writer?

JJ: Oh, my God. So many books. I do have to say The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. That was a book I loved when I was 13 or 14. I love Richard Wright’s Native Son. I also read that as a teenager, and the way he shows himself as the protagonist, a complicated person—the vulnerability he writes about and the poetry he uses; he has these lines in there, these little vignettes that are like poetry. 
Everyone says it, but it has to be said: Toni Morrison. I read Beloved when I was 17 or 18, and it blew my mind. Taking this act of obscenity, which I think she read from a newspaper headline, and creating art out of it, a fully realized world—I just think that’s fabulous. 
Octavia Butler. I love Kindred. I read it as a young person. I also love Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, which is a more recent short story collection. The way he’s just pressing things together to talk about race, consumerism, and grief is just so creative and inventive.
GR: Nana is the homie, for sure. All props to him. So you mentioned Friday Black and a couple classics. Are there any other contemporary reads you’ve messed with over the past few years?

JJ: Yeah, from the past year or so, I loved Dantiel Moniz’s collection, Milk Blood Heat. It’s a story collection about Black and brown women in Florida. I heard her style described as “Southern Gothic.” Her stories are like little puzzle boxes—so beautiful. I loved the memoir Aftershocks by Nadia Owusu. I have such respect for anyone who makes art and puts it out in the world, because you’re really putting yourself out there, and, in that book, she’s talking about her own life and experiences, and it’s all just so brilliant and smart. The metaphor she uses to describe her experiences, of an earthquake, is beautiful. 
Land of Big Numbers—have you read this short story collection? It’s by Te-Ping Chen. I read it during the pandemic, so I couldn’t go anywhere, and she was taking me to China. One thing I love about short story collections is that you’re not going to only one place—the stories in this collection are all about China, but they’re all different. It resists this idea of one story, even within itself. There’s this way that, especially when talking about a place or a country, there are as many stories about that thing as there are individuals, insects, animals—there are so many ways into it, and there’s a way that a story collection acknowledges that.
GR: Those are all wonderful collections written by wonderful writers. We’re coming up to the end of our time together, and I have one final question for you: Why do you write?

JJ I can’t help it. I’ve told myself multiple times—especially after having two huge projects that I sent out there that didn’t end up being published—I’m just going to take a break because this is hard, but I truly enjoy writing. It’s how I figure out what I think and how I feel. I’m an introverted person, and I can present myself in front of people to the purpose of doing something, but I have all of these little observations that I’m constantly collecting in my own mind, and writing is this place where I can make them part of the world.

There’s a part of me that wants to keep them safe, but there’s a part of me that wants to put them out there. In a way, I feel a responsibility to do it, even though it’s a little scary. And so writing is just my thing—it’s my way of communicating. You have a bit of space, you get to look at it on the page, and then you press send, and your baby’s out in the world, and it’s up to other people to make something of it and see what they think.
GR: And I am so happy that you did it.


Jocelyn Nicole Johnson's My Monticello will be available in the U.S. on October 5. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

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