Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Q&A with Asali Solomon

Asali Solomon is the author of the new novel Disgruntled. She also has written the story collection Get Down. She teaches English literature and creative writing at Haverford College, and she lives in Philadelphia.

Q: How did you come up with your characters Kenya, Sheila, and Johnbrown?

A: This book was so many years in the making that it's hard to reconstruct moments like those.

In many ways the book started with the character of Julian Carlton. When I learned the story of the Barbadian butler who had burned down Frank Lloyd Wright's house and killed seven people upon learning he'd been fired, I was fascinated by the story.

It was so dramatic and overdetermined that even though I wanted to write about it, I could not (and did not want to) do so directly. I began by imagining a character, an early version of Kenya, who would be interested in particularly colorful stories of disgruntled workers, like Julian. And then I wondered what kinds of things her life might push her to want to do something similar to burning down a house and axe-ing up the people in it.

So while it was still sometime before I conceived of her parents as distinct characters, I knew that their dynamic would cause her a lot of trouble.

Q: Can you say more about the role of Julian Carlton in the book?

A: Julian Carlton is a kind of terrifying mascot, a specter of violence as a response to feeling disrespected and disenfranchised, possibly as a black person in a hostile white environment. Neither Kenya, nor Johnbrown, are migrants from the Caribbean in the early 20th century, working for an arrogant wealthy white man in Wisconsin, and all that this must have entailed.

(Incidentally, I have been to Taliesin and the house is interesting because Wright is famous for his attention to light and space -- but the areas reserved for domestic workers: their living quarters and the kitchen, are cramped and dark). 

But sometimes they feel that they are.

Q: Kenya tries to grapple with "the shame of being alive." Why was that a theme you highlighted?

A: For me this phrase captures an alienation so profound that it goes beyond embarrassment or shame of oneself in the moment -- it's a shame that seems to coat everything. It's also something that goes beyond the self -- you can certainly feel it someone else's behalf.

Kenya is someone who is acutely conscious of how she is different from other people, and the way that this opens her up to ridicule. On the other hand she is an observer, very keen about social hierarchies and human vulnerability -- so she experiences this shame for others as well. 

Q: How was the book's title selected?

A: It's a somewhat ironic description of the Julian Carlton story. It also sums up, I think, a way of thinking about the post-civil rights disappointments of being black in an America where it seems that slavery has been replaced by mass incarceration, working poverty and myriad forms of violence, including that from law enforcement.

The characters of Disgruntled do not suffer from any of those things; they are relatively middle class. But they find that being black comes with significant limits on personal freedom, personal freedom as it is conceived of in the United States of America.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am an assistant professor in the English Department at Haverford college with a full-time teaching load, and I have two small sons. So I am working on getting through this academic year intact, while also doing a lot of "ripping and running" (as my mother would say) to promote Disgruntled.

Perhaps this summer I will sit down at my desk and write. I do have a new novel idea, a kind of re-imagining of Mrs. Dalloway.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Check for upcoming events. And that reminds me that I really need to update that as well! So far I know that I'll be reading at Book Passage in San Francisco on June 15, and Green Apple Books on the Park on June 18. I also know that I'll be at the Brooklyn Festival in the fall. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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