“In this story I wanted a young descendant, a Black descendent, of Monticello, and have her grappling with how she feels about her enslaved ancestors in the past. How she feels about her founding father great-great-great-great-grandfather; how she feels about that space.” Jocelyn Nicole Johnson discusses My Monticello with host Alka Joshi on NPT’s A Word on Words.
Jocelyn Nicole Johnson: Hello, my name is Jocelyn Nicole Johnson and this is My Monticello, a collection of short stories and a Novella about belonging, freedom and home.
Alka Joshi: I would like to start by asking you what inspired you to write My Monticello.
Johnson: I really started writing in reaction to big and small irritations and things I was drawn to and things I was irritated by. Sometimes, it was just this relationship to Virginia. It’s my home state. I was born here. All these little collective memories of things I was drawn to that I know about Virginia, but then also these ways in which I slightly felt outside of Virginia. And then some of that brought into more sharp relief with events, public events, like August 12th here in Charlottesville, Virginia, where we had this Unite the Right rally that was really violent in our community. So it was this push and pull of how I’m drawn to and how I feel apart from this home state of mine.
Joshi: Your character’s names are very meaningful. What’s the significance of your main character’s name, Da’Naisha Love? And what about her grandmother, MaViolet, and her boyfriend, Knox? I feel that you design these names to give us another layer of information about these characters. What is that?
Johnson: Oh, that’s so interesting. Names are so fun. I really just go by ear what sounds right for this character that I’m developing. But then I really do have fun looking up what does this name mean and going on the baby name list and all that. I will say though, with MaViolet in particular, I started off with this idea of adding Ma to a name without realizing that’s my own grandmother’s name. We called her MaPansy. My mom is named after her, so my mom is Pansy. And Pansy is a purple flower, so I literally named the grandmother in the book, MaViolet as this echo to my grandmother’s name without realizing until much later that I’d done it. I always think about that connection.
Joshi: And what about Knox? I feel that the white boyfriend named Knox has a significance somehow. Does it?
Johnson: Yes and no. I like this idea of the name Knox meaning this little hill. So the whole story, the title novella, My Monticello, takes place on Monticello, which is Italian for little mountain. This is where Thomas Jefferson’s plantation home is. The idea of naming Knox after a little hill, this idea of a little fortress, its own little thing as an echo, is just a little inside press to myself in the ways that he relates to this place as this white character. But also, he’s in a camp with Da’Naisha, with these neighbors as they’re trying to create a community outside of this idea of white supremacy.
Joshi: Let’s talk about Monticello a little bit. At first, this group of black and brown people, and then Knox, are reluctant to enter Monticello, Jefferson’s home. Describe what that feels for this group to be inside this historic monument where some of the descendants are actually part of this group.
Johnson: The title novella, My Monticello really is the story of Da’Naisha Love and her grandmother who are descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. They’re black descendants that live in Charlottesville, Virginia, which is where I live. In a time, a near future time of unraveling, they’re forced to flee their neighborhood. They go with a bunch of neighbors and with Da’Naisha’s boyfriend, Knox, up to Monticello. Da’Naisha’s fully aware of her relationship, her historical relationship, with Thomas Jefferson, with Sally Hemings, but she has this reluctance about going into the house; they all do. I mean, for people who live here in Charlottesville, Monticello is really literally up on a hill, but it’s this very beautiful and protected and curated space. And so these characters, they’re refugees from their community and they’re reluctant to go and be in this space.
They’re forced by circumstance. They make this decision to inhabit the house and it’s a really pivotal moment. I think it says in the story, walking into Monticello that day was like breaking a seal. They’re choosing to use the space as a real space to live in and not as an historical monument. They’re reclaiming it. I think of it like Night at the Museum. It’s a little bit of that fun of being able to touch things that you would never be able to touch if you’re a visitor to Monticello, but they do keep a kind of reverence for it. It’s a shaky reverence. They’re thinking about what do we touch, what do we use, what do we leave?
Joshi: How do these descendants of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson feel about their heritage? How do they feel about claiming Monticello for themselves, but also not really being able to claim it in the larger world?
Johnson: One of the projects for me of writing the novella, My Monticello, was to think about who gets to have the center of the story or who’s included in the story of Monticello. In this story, I wanted to send a young descendant, a black descendant, of Monticello and have her grappling with how she feels about her enslaved ancestors in the past, how she feels about this founding father, great-great-great-great-grandfather, how she feels about that space. And so I think it’s complicated. Real descendants that live in this area of Monticello, black descendants, have all kinds of feelings about it and all different feelings, depending on their specific experiences and their personalities. I tried to have Da’Naisha really wrestling with things she feels good about, things she feels really pushed outside of. Her grandmother, her mother, and Da’Naisha all have slightly different ways that they relate to the place. It really is a moving target.
When you’re writing, you follow the story and it seems so interesting to me to think about this character dealing with life, dealing with being a young woman, dealing with who do you love and how do you create your life in the future, but in this other space. There was a way in which I wanted her own physicality to mirror what I thought was really fascinating about Thomas Jefferson’s history, which is that he had white children who claimed Monticello and went on to have their ancestors buried there, but he also had these black children who could not claim Monticello and who were not protected in the same way.
After his wife Martha’s death, Jefferson had children with one of the enslaved people that lived there, Sally Hemings. I thought it would be interesting to put this character in a similar kind of triangle where she’s dealing with both race and intimacy, but in present time. I also really wanted to press on the fact that Da’Naisha’s character, even though she’s living at Monticello, is a young woman. Even in an apocalypse, we still have our bodies, we still have what’s happening to us, we still have who we’re drawn to. And what does that mean? How are the pressures of the world going to press on a young person who’s really just trying to figure out how to be?
Joshi: It’s almost as if there’s the outside world and then there’s our internal world. And oftentimes, those two are in conflict with one another. You brought out a lot of those conflicts.
Johnson: Yeah. I think I really spent a lot of time in that story in Da’Naisha’s head. But there’s a lot going on around her, too. They’re surviving up there, they’re dealing with their interpersonal relationships and trying to create a community, there’s threats from outside. There’s a lot of Da’Naisha really thinking and feeling and being in this space. I wanted that internal conflict to be woven in with the external action of the story.
Joshi: We talk a lot about America’s racist past, but we don’t often finish the conversation. Do you hope that My Monticello is going to further that conversation? Do you hope that people will understand a little bit more about the conflicts that we’re all living with today?
Johnson: I mean, absolutely, I hope. I think there’s a way. There are so many talented people in all kinds of spaces that have told stories about racism in the past, told stories about racism in the present. There’s a way in which I feel really humbled: what can another story do? But I still felt compelled to write it because it was about my experience living in Charlottesville, right now, today. I’m thinking about the past and the future and those ties between past and future. There’s a way in which fiction and stories center people. You’re with the hero, whether you’re a black reader, whether you’re a white reader, regardless of your heritage or beliefs, you’re put in the space of this character and you’re with her and you are going, I hope, to empathize and to appreciate the world through her eyes for those moments. And hopefully, you can bring that back into your present life.
Joshi: You also made Da’Naisha a leader in this group. Was that a very conscious decision or did that just come about as you were developing her character?
Johnson: That’s a really great question. Was it a conscious decision? Yeah, I think I knew that she would be a hero, but a very subtle one. I was a public school teacher for 20 years in Virginia and she’s a hero the way a public school teacher would be a hero. She’s not someone who is wanting to necessarily be out front, but she’s realizing what needs to be done, she sees what has to be done, and she’s going to try to do it. She’s going to use the kind of power she can as a young black woman in this group that includes all kinds of other people who may be used to asserting power in different ways. She creates the power of luring them and seducing them with this idea of community and showing them one another and using her voice to try to get them to do the best they can with what they’re given.
Joshi: You have had fellowships from TinHouse, from Hedgebrook, from VCCA. How do you think they helped you in your writing of this particular manuscript and the short stories that are in it?
Johnson: One thing I really appreciate is that this novel came out when I was 50 years old. So I had a long history of working and writing in these spaces and other spaces and all those workshops with different teachers that I admired. The community, the back and forth between other writers in those spaces and just time to develop my own voice and think about what I wanted to say outside of a pressure of trying to create audience was really helpful because I think it’s hard to know how something will be received. The only control that you have is in your own choices with community. TinHouse, Hedgebrook, VCCA: there’s a way in which that creates this community of people that you hear from, you see how they’re doing things, you see what you admire about how people bring things into the world, and you can emulate that and refine what you’re doing.
Joshi: I understand that Netflix has optioned My Monticello for a screen adaptation. Tell us a little bit about that.
Johnson: Netflix is going to create a film from the novella, My Monticello, through the Chernin Group. We’re in the screenwriting phase right now. And yeah, I’m really super excited to see how it will be adapted for the screen.
Will you be involved in the writing process or in the consulting process?
Johnson: I am an executive producer. I will be consulting, but I’m not writing it. I did get to meet the screenwriter when he came to Monticello. It’s really nice to live right beside the place that you wrote about because everyone has to come here eventually and you get to talk with people. So yeah, I’ve been in contact and talking with them about that.
Joshi: Will you get to film inside the building?
Johnson: That is not determined yet. My guess, and knowing Monticello, is that that will not happen just because it’s such a precious space, but we’ll see. It’ll be interesting to see how they use that space and I’m hoping that they can use a lot of the outside spaces.
Joshi: Tell us a little something about yourself that most people don’t know.
Johnson: I am a compulsive list maker. I really, really love the idea of having a plan, having a list. And in fact, in the collection, My Monticello, there’s a story that takes form in the place of a list and I think it’s because I think there’s something so beautiful and telling about a list, even if it’s a list of someone’s groceries. What have they crossed out? How do they include this? Are they aspirational about their health? There’s this way in which this form can reveal everything about a person. I’m also really addicted to court shows. I love a daytime court show. I love The People’s Court.
Joshi: I share that with you. I love court shows. For a writer, it is so telling of the human condition, it’s so telling of the way we interact with one another, the kinds of things that upset us about other people.
Johnson: Lots of material. Just different people coming into that one little space. It’s really interesting.
Joshi: Do do you have hope for black, white, brown relations in the United States?
Johnson: I absolutely do. It’s a hope that is couched in a long history with a lot of difficult things in it, but also there’s this way, from the time of the founding bothers to now, that we’re intimately intertwined in each other’s lives. We have these intimate relationships with people who are different than us and we love them. So regardless of some systematic issues and interpersonal ones and all the complications that racism has in our lives, we are bound together. There’s a big idea in this story that we will rise and sink together. And yes, there are people who are going to struggle because of this, but ultimately, we have to have hope. We have to work at it. It’s an imperative that we have.
Joshi: Jocelyn Nicole Johnson, thank you so much for being with us today. I’m Alka Joshi. Keep reading.
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