Friday, August 14, 2015

Q&A with Jabari Asim

Jabari Asim is the author of the new novel Only The Strong. His other books include the short story collection A Taste Of Honey. He is an associate professor at Emerson College and is editor-in-chief of The Crisis magazine. He lives in Newton, Massachusetts.

Q: Why did you decide to go back to some of the characters you had written about in A Taste Of Honey, and why did you write a novel this time? 

A: When I was working on A Taste Of Honey, I knew even then that I would return to some of the characters I introduced in that book.

In Only The Strong, I took the characters that had been in the forefront and put them in the background, while moving characters that had played supporting roles to center stage.

My ambition is to tell the story of that community decade by decade, working my way up to the present. I envisioned all the Gateway City books following A Taste Of Honey taking the form of novels, although that could change. 

Q: Why did you pick 1970 as the time period in which to set this book, and did you need to do a lot of research to recreate that era? 

A: I think I ended up in 1970 because I wanted to pick up a narrative thread that has its roots in “Burning Desires,” a story in A Taste Of Honey.

In that story, which takes place on the night after Dr. King’s assassination, Guts Tolliver drives through riot-torn streets. But he doesn’t say anything because he exists merely as a plot device; only the central characters are given the privilege of speaking.

While I writing the story I kept wondering what Guts was thinking, how the events of the day would influence him. I was so curious about him that I decided to make him one of the protagonists of the book that would follow.

I also wanted to give him enough time to react to King’s murder in a substantive, purposeful way, and two years felt about right.

I didn’t have to do much research because I was in elementary school in 1970. I still have vivid memories of the era. 

Q: Why did you call the city Gateway City as opposed to St. Louis? 

A: I wanted to take creative license, to portray events that never actually happened in St. Louis, in places that don’t actually exist. For example, I wanted to create intersections of streets that never meet in the real world.

I also wanted to comment, however subtly, on St. Louis’ self-proclaimed status as the “gateway to the West”; in reality, in terms of its folk culture and Jim Crow aura, it’s more like the gateway to the South. 

Q: How did you pick the book's title, and what does it signify for you? 

A: For a reason I can’t put my finger on, I was drawn to song titles early on while compiling lists of tunes that were popular during that time.

Jerry Butler’s “Only The Strong Survive,” while addressing romantic love, also manages to describe the nature of struggle in our inner-city communities. Staying alive and thriving requires many different kinds of strength, including character, intestinal fortitude, patience, vigilance and self-confidence. 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I have a few irons in the fire. I have a book of poetry under contract, as well as a children’s picture book. I’m not sure yet which of them will publish first.

I’m also shopping a nonfiction proposal and working on a novel set in the 19th century. It will probably be a while before I get back to the Gateway City series. 

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: Readers can fully appreciate Only The Strong without having read A Taste Of Honey. I won’t be mad, though, if they decide to buy them both.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Jabari Asim, please click here.

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