Jocelyn Nicole Johnson brings “a voice that is vital and unlike anything else you’ve known before” (Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah) to her stunning debut collection of short stories: My Monticello. In six captivating stories centered around Charlottesville, Virginia, Johnson explores burdened inheritances and extraordinary pursuits of belonging, and bears witness to this country’s fraught legacies.
Award-winning short story writer Deesha Philiaw, whose short story collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, depicts generations of Black women navigating love, sex, death, family, and faith through the sanctuary and structures of the church, joined Johnson in conversation. The two writers discussed the craft of the short story and their use of the form to interrogate urgent and interwoven questions about the complexity of personal identity, the impacts of systemic racism, and the past, present, and future of America and beyond.
By Jocelyn Nicole Johnson
Published by Henry Holt and Company
A young woman descended from Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings driven from her neighborhood by a white militia. A university professor studying racism by conducting a secret social experiment on his own son. A single mother desperate to buy her first home even as the world hurtles toward catastrophe. Each fighting to survive in America. Tough-minded, vulnerable, and brave, Jocelyn Nicole Johnson’s precisely imagined debut explores burdened inheritances and extraordinary pursuits of belonging. Set in the near future, the eponymous novella, “My Monticello,” tells of a diverse group of Charlottesville neighbors fleeing violent white supremacists. Led by Da’Naisha, a young Black descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, they seek refuge in Jefferson’s historic plantation home in a desperate attempt to outlive the long-foretold racial and environmental unravelling within the nation.
In “Control Negro,” hailed by Roxane Gay as “one hell of story,” a university professor devotes himself to the study of racism and the development of ACMs (average American Caucasian males) by clinically observing his own son from birth in order to “painstakingly mark the route of this Black child too, one whom I could prove was so strikingly decent and true that America could not find fault in him unless we as a nation had projected it there.” Johnson’s characters all seek out home as a place and an internal state, whether in the form of a Nigerian widower who immigrates to a meager existence in the city of Alexandria, finding himself adrift; a young mixed-race woman who adopts a new tongue and name to escape the landscapes of rural Virginia and her family; or a single mother who seeks salvation through “Buying a House Ahead of the Apocalypse.”
United by these characters’ relentless struggles against reality and fate, My Monticello is a formidable book that bears witness to this country’s legacies and announces the arrival of a wildly original new voice in American fiction.
Jocelyn Nicole Johnson
Jocelyn Nicole Johnson
Jocelyn Nicole Johnson’s writing has appeared in Guernica, the Guardian, Phoebe, Prime Number magazine, and elsewhere. Her short story “Control Negro” was anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 2018, guest edited by Roxane Gay, and read live by LeVar Burton as part of PRI’s Selected Shorts series. Johnson has been a fellow at Hedgebrook, Tin House Summer Workshops, and VCCA. A veteran public school art teacher, Johnson lives and writes in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Photo Credit: Billy Hunt
Deesha Philyaw’s debut short story collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, won the 2021 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the 2020/2021 Story Prize, and a 2020 LA Times Book Prize: The Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction; the collection was also a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies focuses on Black women, sex, and the Black church, and is being adapted for television by HBO Max with Tessa Thompson executive producing. Deesha is also the co-author of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce, written in collaboration with her ex-husband. Her work has been listed as Notable in the Best American Essays series, and her writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, McSweeney’s, the Rumpus, Brevity, dead housekeeping, Apogee Journal, Catapult, Harvard Review, ESPN’s the Undefeated, the Baltimore Review, TueNight, Ebony, and Bitch magazines, and various anthologies. Deesha is also a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow and will be the 2022-2023 John and Renée Grisham Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi.
Photo Credit: Jared Wickerham