When Nativism, Racial Animosity and Climate Change Go Unchecked: An Interview with Jocelyn Nicole Johnson

My Monticello, Jocelyn Nicole Johnson’s debut novella and short story collection, was published to great critical acclaim in 2021, and recently released in paperback. Colson Whitehead called My Monticello “A badass debut by any measure.” The book was named a Best Book of the Year by the NY Times, NPR, Time Magazine, and the Washington Post, and was a finalist for the Kirkus Prize.

Set in Charlottesville, Va. in the near future, the novella My Monticello tells the story of Da’Naisha Love, a Black Charlottesville native and University of Virginia student who is a direct descendent of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, Jefferson’s enslaved mistress and mother to six of his children. In the novella, the author images a scenario where climate change has caused massive societal unrest and power outages, which in turn has spurred increased racial violence. When gangs of white supremacists overtake Charlottesville, Da’Naisha leads her grandmother, a group of neighbors, and her white boyfriend up to Monticello to shelter from the violence.

Johnson wrote the novella as a response to the Unite The Right Rally of August 11-12, 2017, when groups of  Neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and alt-right protesters marched through the streets of Charlottesville with lit Tiki torches, onto the University of Virginia campus, shouting racial and religious hate speech as they gathered around the statue of  Thomas Jefferson, founder of UVa. As David Duke, the then KKK leader, declared, “We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump because he said he’s going to take our country back.” As a result of that weekend’s violent clash between protesters, one woman died and over thirty people were injured.

Netflix has optioned the movie version of Johnson’s novella, My Monticello, with producers Jenno Topping and Peter Chernin.

Jocelyn Johnson’s writing has appeared previously in Guernica, the Guardian, and Best American Short Stories, guest edited by Roxanne Gay, and read by LeVar Burton as part of PRI’s Selected Shorts.

We recently caught up with Jocelyn Johnson in Charlottesville, where she lives and works.

Jocelyn, thanks so much for meeting with me today. I loved this book so much, and it broke my heart. Let’s start with the first short story in the book, “Control Negro,” which was published in Best American Short Stories 2018. The story is haunting, particularly as the narrator reveals his part in the young man’s clash the police. Can you tell me a little about the inspiration for the concept of a control Negro?

“Control Negro” was inspired by a real incident on the University of Virginia campus in 2015, when a Black honor student was approached and bloodied by police officers at a bar; he was turned away presumably for having a fake ID. His ID ended up not being fake but from out of state. The interaction over what seemed a small thing escalated to him having stitches in his head. In the video of the event, the student is asking how this could be happening.

The story came about after thinking about that incident of violence. I imagined the student might be wondering — “What does it take to be treated with respect and without violence?” And then I was also thinking about how, as parents (especially parents of children who are “other” in some way, whether that be their race or gender identity or gender expression or country of origin), in trying to prepare children for the world, we often have to ask them to present themselves in certain ways, to protect themselves, and how that seems like its own kind of injury.

All of the stories in My Monticello seem somehow prescient, like you had your finger on the pulse of a nation pre-George Floyd, but post-Charlottesville Unite the Right rally of August 2017. How much were you influenced by the rally that day? Had you written some of these stories before then, or did they all come after the rally?

I started writing the stories in 2015 and finished them in 2020. I wrote the novella (My Monticello) last, and I wrote the novella in direct reaction to the Unite the Right rally. Some of the stories had been entirely finished by then, and some I was still editing. Certainly, in the novella, I was looking at the very real details of that event and what the event seemed to be suggesting about the future, and imagining what would happen if we didn’t confront that energy of nativism and racial animosity. And also, if we didn’t respond to the impending climate crisis, or invest in our social and physical infrastructure.

Have you seen any substantive changes in Charlottesville since the Unite the Right rally in terms of local government policies? I’m thinking in particular of the school system, which has been widely criticized for underfunding Black students.

First of all, I’m not an expert on how the schools budgeting is handled. I was a public school teacher for a long time, and it seems to me is that there is a general de-funding of the public schools. It’s not called defunding the schools, but there’s a concerted effort to have fewer resources available for the public schools, and that creates a lot of tension it terms of where those funds should be allocated.

I would say as a community, in Charlottesville, in the year after August 2017, we did have a series of events — sometimes coming from the Black community like the Jefferson Center, but also from the wider community — focusing on Brown and Black histories. I have attended a number of events that were informative and helped me to understand some of the specifics about why things are the way they are.

I think individuals and schools, including Charlottesville City schools, we were forced to think about racial inequity, at least for a moment. I think there were a broad array of responses, including attempts to try to create more equity, like changing the way the gifted program works. But you also now have what I would call a backlash of fear, in Virginia and across the country. You can see this in recent efforts to try to make it difficult to discuss historical facts like slavery in public schools. 

Every writing course I have taken has stressed the concept of “show, not tell” and you do that beautifully in this book. Can you talk about your writing process and what you think about when you create your characters and the situations they are facing, particularly the micro-aggressions inherent for each of them living as a Black person in America?

What comes out in the story is a little bit of luck and magic and timing all mixed together. With the novella, it started with not a micro-aggression but a macro-aggression, with extremists performing the violence. So that was the starting point, and then developing characters with full lives who are responding to that — love interests and school, ideas about the future and the family history, then putting the characters against those moments.

Whereas in some of the other stories, like the “King of Xandria,” the character comes first. That story explores how Mr. Attah is going to be treated; he is from somewhere else and has different ideas, the tension comes out of there.

In the novella, My Monticello, the narrator, Da’Naisha, references being related to Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman who bore six of Thomas Jefferson’s children. Was it important to you to stress the link with Sally Hemings rather than the link with Thomas Jefferson? How do you see that matriarchal link between Da’Naisha, her mother, and her grandmother inform Da’Naisha’s sense of herself?

It was important for me to highlight and empower the girls and women in the novella. In addition to Da’Naisha and her grandmother, we have a bunch of strong women. As far as Da’Naisha and her relationship to her family history, she is a descendant of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. As a Black woman, she is put in a unique position of how she is going to talk about and think about and value that connection to someone who owned her great-great-grandmother. As a writer, I imagine she would feel some kind of way about that, and there would be a weight, a friction, to the relationship with Thomas Jefferson. And so she is going to have a different amount of ease with her great-great-grandmother, not because she’s a woman but because she wasn’t an enslaver.

It’s not that Da’Naisha negates her relationship to Thomas Jefferson, because there’s a scene in the book where she stands in front of his portrait and acknowledges that he is her great-great-grandfather, but it feels like her mother and grandmother have done a good job of stressing the relationship with Sally Hemings, which you don’t often see in literature about the Jeffersons. You get the patriarchy, not the matriarchy.

I wanted the novella to center on the people in the story, not to erase or negate the importance of the other people, but just to change the point of view, to allow us to see something we don’t get to see that often. 

I recently read a piece by the late author Hilary Mantel in which she said what she likes to hear about in interviews with writers is their beginnings, what made them begin to write, especially if they come from non-literary backgrounds, such as herself. So, I wanted to ask you — what made you want to write?

I’m not entirely able to say why I write, except that I’ve done it for a long time, since I can remember. I was always making things when I was young, doing theatre in my basement, all the creative things. For writing, in particular, it’s a place where I can take in all the things I notice. I can collect and consider them, have some power and agency over them. So often, I’m writing to figure out what I think, how I want to respond to something, step back and look at it and then create a story from it, put it into a fictionalized version.

Where do you see your writing develop from here? What kinds of things are you working on now?

I retired from teaching after I sold the book, as we were entering a global pandemic. I’m still writing, working on another project for my publisher. I’m always interested in outsider characters, still thinking about the relationship between how we treat one another and how we treat the other, and then there’s the climate crisis, how we treat our planet, and how we can have a better outcome in all of those cases. In writing, I’m exploring questions like, “How do we become the people we want to be?” “How do we deal with grief?” “How do we take care of our children?” “How do we find power in big and small ways in our lives?” I’m just thinking about all that.

Thanks so much for your time, Jocelyn. It was a pleasure to speak to you. 

My Monticello
By Jocelyn Nicole Johnson
Henry Holt and Company
Published October 5, 2021
Paperback October 11, 2022