Bborn and raised in virginia, Jocelyn Nicole Johnson was an art teacher for 20 years before publishing his first novel, My Monticello, 50 years. Set in the near future as American society collapses, it tells the story of a young black student and her neighbors fleeing Charlottesville, Virginia, pursued by violent white supremacists and taking refuge in Monticello, home of the US President Thomas Jefferson. The book, which the New York Times called “a masterful feat”, is now in the process of being made into a film for Netflix. Johnson lives in Charlottesville with her husband and son.
The doomsday storyline you create in the book has clear roots in the American present – there are terrible storms, power outages, and racial violence. Was it hard to imagine or incredibly easy?
It was extremely easy, because it was me who was bringing up some very real fears that I had after August 12, 2017. That’s when Charlottesville experienced the murderous Unite the Right rally, where we had a public confrontation with a certain type of extremism. All of this was accompanied by a concern for equity, infrastructure and the environment.
The biggest challenge was to think about the psychological and emotional costs of racism and extremism. It meant putting myself in the same mental space as my characters, being isolated and running away from home. It was hard to envision for characters that I have come to love and appreciate.
What memories do you have of the 2017 rally?
It was more than a day for many of us who lived here at the time. I met a group of people every week in the months leading up to the rally, a period that included groups of white supremacists ostentatiously gathering in public spaces, a city cruising in big black SUVs, and a rally. of the Ku Klux Klan. The day before the rally, groups of armed men began to arrive. A group holding Nazi banners spread across the university with lit torches, chanting “In the oven” and “The Jews will not replace us” and “White lives matter.” A huge brawl ensues with counter-demonstrators. On the day of the rally, I stayed at home with my then 11-year-old son, about half a mile from the epicenter of the violence; again the rally dominated our day.
The book is concerned with how people react when systems in society collapse – by coming together or by separating …
I was a teacher in a public school for 20 years and am a strong supporter of the community. I’ve had classes where all kinds of people who wouldn’t have much in common otherwise create a kind of relationship and oneness. I really tried to point this out in the book. I really used the ideas from the teaching to shape how my protagonist, Da’Naisha Love, tries to make her group of neighbors work in this very tense situation. She makes them do what a teacher would do on the first day of school – they commit to making a list of things they all do together, to get by.
Tell me about Monticello and why you decided to send your characters there.
Monticello is the plantation home of Thomas Jefferson, about 10 minutes from Charlottesville, which was built largely by slaves. It was a working plantation throughout Jefferson’s life, and after his wife’s death he had children with one of his enslaved servants, Sally Hemings. Jefferson is traditionally highly revered in Charlottesville, so I wanted to think about how to bring some of his descendants, the black people who also called Monticello home, to the center of the story.
Da’Naisha is one of these descendants. What did this allow you to explore?
After the rally in 2017, we had a year in review in Charlottesville, with a lot of public talk about the breed. I went to an event where a black woman descended from Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings stood up. It connected for me this very difficult current event with this long history – I thought of it as a continuous line. It’s funny that Da’Naisha is related to both the person who designed Monticello and some of the people who built it, and yet she feels like she doesn’t belong to him. If not her, then who?
In recognitionThank you to all the writers who have helped you see the world and your place in it more clearly. Can you name a few?
Octavia Butler was revolutionary in taking the tropes of speculative fiction and other genre fictions and using them to think about gender, race, and identity in really interesting ways. Reading Beloved by Toni Morrison when I was 16 or 17 and thinking about creating art from parts of American history that were so obscene – it was really influential.
What books are on your nightstand?
I am reading again black friday by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, an incredible first collection of short stories that talks about consumerism, grief and race. I also reread Cleanliness by Garth Greenwell – it’s such a beautiful writing. And i read How to fight a girl through Venita blackburn, a short story that uses form in a very interesting way – it has a story that’s a crossword puzzle. I read recently A burning by Megha Majumdar, a first novel set in India that is simply excellent. She is a fabulous writer.
What will you write next?
I have in mind the beginnings of two projects. One is an idea around a constellation of short stories. The other would be a novel, set again in Virginia. I was born and raised in Virginia, I went to college here, I raised my family here, so it’s definitely my home. And yet a large part of My Monticello I was wondering why this is still not quite my home. I feel a slight barrier, in the same way that when entering Monticello there is a slight barrier. As a black American, there is always a bit of distance. And that interests me.