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Jocelyn Nicole Johnson talks home, identity, and 'My Monticello'

Author Jocelyn Nicole Johnson alongside the cover of her new book, <em>My Monticello.</em>
Billy Hunt
Author Jocelyn Nicole Johnson alongside the cover of her new book, My Monticello.

Jocelyn Nicole Johnson taught at an elementary school for two decades before becoming, as she jokes, "a 50-year-old debutante" author. She's been writing since grade school, but Johnson says her debut story collection, My Monticello, which came out this month, might not have been able to come much sooner: "I think the world has to be in a place to accept and be interested in what you have to say," she muses, "Some...things are within your control and some...are just not. You know, you can write something absolutely gorgeous and it doesn't mean it will find its readers."

The world, it seems, is finally ready. My Monticello investigates questions of home and community and belonging in and around Charlottesville, Va. The book, which consists of short stories and a novella, follows mostly Black and brown characters as they navigate what it means to live in a community that contains so many contradictions. It was inspired in large part by the 2017 Unite the Right rally, but also by the close-knit communities that Johnson has come to know after living in Charlottesville for many years.

In a country that is continuously grappling with questions of race and identity, Johnson has found her readers. And soon, it seems, her viewers: My Monticello is being produced as a movie for Netflix.

I spoke to her about the characters that populate her world, and what they can illuminate about the places we all call home. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

For whom did you write My Monticello?

I really start by writing to myself. I often start with something that has happened either to me personally, or that I'm navigating in my community here in Charlottesville, Va, or in the world. And when I see something that I can't make sense of or that really irks me or bothers me or agitates me, writing is one way that I can sit with it and look at it from different directions and try to unravel it. So a lot of the stories and particularly the novella were me asking a set of questions I had for myself.

Your description of the fury of the Unite the Right rioters was pretty graphic. Talk about that a little bit why it was important to capture the rage and the anxiety of that night.

A lot has come since that rally. You know, we've seen the storming of the Capitol. We've seen much longer and bigger rallies and gatherings and counterprotesters all over the country and the world. But that first rally here in Charlottesville was really stark and upsetting to those of us who lived here, and to other people as they saw it unfold, because we really lived what was leading up to it, too. So there was a lot of buildup and anticipation and wonder.

And then afterwards, it was as bad as we thought it would be. It wasn't just people saying, "I really don't want these statues to be here," but it was people really raising flags to genocides past and carrying firearms and really with impunity, saying, "We're reclaiming this place and it isn't yours."

And I thought, well, I live here and this is my home with my family. My son was young, maybe seven or eight at the time. And I thought, what does this mean? And what would it mean if this continued and isn't addressed in some way? I think it was also a feeling of not necessarily feeling supported by some of the systems, both locally and nationally, that I had hoped would have a better response.

So in the novella, I really wanted to push: What if this went on unfettered? What would happen? What is the natural consequence of supporting this, this extreme movement? And asking those questions in the hopes that we might do something different.

Your narrator in the novella, also called My Monticello, is a young woman named Da'Naisha. Da'Naisha is a descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings' union. That story has been handed down through her family for generations. Da'Naisha usually doesn't talk about that part of her heritage because people don't believe her. But her mother, before she dies, tells a very young Da'Naisha to "hold it as your own," that history. What did she mean by that?

Da'Naisha's mom really cautions her because she has had these really bad experiences as a child of saying, "I'm related to Thomas Jefferson." And she was treated with not just disbelief, but really a kind of disgust at that idea that that could be true.

For me, living in Charlottesville, near Monticello, which I've visited a lot over the years, the story has really changed, and so has how they present the idea of enslaved people there. And certainly the idea of Sally Hemings and Jefferson's Black family and Black descendants has changed remarkably over the last 20 years since I've been here.

But I really think there is a consciousness that many Black Americans feel when navigating the idea of slavery and certainly the idea of slavery and its relationship to the founders and these revered figures in American history. There's a way that you create your own walls to kind of protect yourself before you even get to that point. And certainly this character has done that.

In the novella, the white supremacy rioters don't just stay in downtown Charlottesville—they fan out into neighborhoods near the university, and hunt down people of color, burning their homes, ransacking the neighborhood. Da'Naisha and her grandmother flee with some neighbors to Monticello itself and the group of them becomes a sort of refugee camp in this national monument. Their little community is multiracial, multiethnic. What are you telling us here?

So in the story, Da'Naisha is forced out of her home with her grandmother in a time of unraveling with her neighbors. They flee to Monticello on this bus and then Da'Naisha is forced to kind of reckon with, What is my relationship to this place? What can I claim? What can I touch?

You know, there's a little bit of a "Night at the Museum" feeling, because they're there and they actually are in the house. so. And they make a choice that this is going to be our temporary home and our refuge, and we're going to touch everything and we're going to be in these spaces.

So I think that's kind of talking about this bigger idea of how we, as Americans, can expand that access to a history, to include all the people that considered Monticello home, even ones that had no choice but to consider it home.

Is Da'Naisha's neighborhood real? Does it actually exist that close to the university?

I used my actual neighborhood and all the kinds of community I see there. I've seen that over the years of living here in this house for 20 years. [In the short stories,] I used a lot of the ideas of the public schools where I've worked to help people to come together in these spaces and create community. And so I wanted to put those things side by side, like the brutality of history and the presence of economic and social equity side by side with this idea of community and home and people who want to create that.

Do you feel more or less hopeful since the events that put Charlottesville in the national spotlight in 2017?

That's a really hard question. It's been a hard set of years for a variety of reasons since 2017, notwithstanding the global pandemic. But I still do feel hope. I don't think I'm more hopeful, but I do think that there are so many people who are more aware, or speaking and thinking about things [like racism and nativism and the environmental crisis.] We're really working to try to bring attention to these things. And so I don't know — I choose to be hopeful. It's just a way of being. It's not the outcome, it's like you have to have the method to get to where you want. And I think hope has to be a part of that if you're going to work towards things being better.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.