Born and raised in Virginia, Jocelyn Nicole Johnson was an art teacher for 20 years before she published her debut novella, My Monticello, invecchiato 50. Set in the near future as American society is unravelling, it tells the story of a young black student and her neighbours fleeing Charlottesville, Virginia, pursued by violent white supremacists and taking refuge in Monticello, home of US president Thomas Jefferson. The book, which the New York Times called “a masterly feat”, is now being turned into a film for Netflix. Johnson lives in Charlottesville with her husband and son.
The apocalyptic scenario you create in the book has clear roots in the American present – there are terrible storms, power failures and racial violence. Was it hard to imagine or unnervingly easy?
It was extremely easy, because it was me nudging forward from the very real fears I had after 12 agosto 2017. That’s when Charlottesville experienced the deadly Unite the Right rally, where we had a public run-in with a certain type of extremism. All this was combined with worrying about equity, infrastructure and the environment.
The biggest challenge was thinking 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 run out of home. That was hard to contemplate for characters that I grew to really like and care about.
What are your recollections of the 2017 rally?
It was more than just a day for many of us who lived here at the time. I met weekly with a group of people in the months leading up to the rally, a period of time that included groups of white supremacists showily gathering in public spaces, cruising town in big black SUVs, and a Ku Klux Klan gathering. The night before the rally, groups of armed men started to turn up. A group holding Nazi banners poured on to the university carrying lit torches, chanting “Into the oven” and “Jews will not replace us” and “White lives matter”. A huge fight ensued with counter protesters. The day of the rally I remained home with my then 11-year-old son, about half a mile from the epicentre of the violence; still the rally dominated our day.
The book is interested in how people react when the systems of society break down – by drawing together or pulling apart…
I was a public school teacher for 20 years and I’m a huge proponent of community. I’ve had classes where all kinds of people who might not otherwise have a lot in common create some sort of relationship and unity. I definitely tried to highlight that in the book. I really used the ideas of teaching to shape how my protagonist, Da’Naisha Love, tries to get her group of neighbours to work together in this very tense situation. She has them do what a teacher would do on the first day of school – they commit to 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 Thomas Jefferson’s plantation home, di 10 minutes outside of Charlottesville, which was built largely by enslaved people. It was a working plantation throughout Jefferson’s life, and after his wife died he had children with one of his enslaved servants, Sally Hemings. Jefferson has been traditionally very revered in Charlottesville, and so I wanted to think about how to bring some of his descendants, the black people who also called Monticello home, to the centre of the story.
Da’Naisha is one of those descendants. What did this allow you to explore?
After the rally in 2017, we had a year of reckoning in Charlottesville, with a lot of public talks about race. I went to an event where a black woman who was a descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings stood up. That connected for me this very difficult current event to this longer history – I thought about it as one continuous line. It’s funny that Da’Naisha is related both to the person who designed Monticello and to some of the people who built it, and yet still she feels she doesn’t belong. If not her, then who?
In the acknowledgments, you thank all the writers who helped you to see the world and your place in it more clearly. Could you name a few?
Octavia Butler was revolutionary in taking the tropes of speculative fiction and other genre fiction and using them to think about gender, race and identity in really interesting ways. Reading Beloved by Toni Morrison when I was 16 o 17 and thinking about creating art from parts of American history that were so obscene – that was really influential.
What books are on your bedside table?
I’m rereading Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, an amazing debut short story collection that talks about consumerism, grief and race. I’ve also reread Cleanness di Garth Greenwell – it’s such gorgeous writing. And I’m reading How to Wrestle a Girl di Venita Blackburn, a short story writer who uses form in really interesting ways – she has one story that’s a crossword puzzle. I recently read A Burning by Megha Majumdar, a debut novel set in India that is just excellent. She’s a fabulous writer.
What will you write next?
I have the beginnings of two projects in my mind. One is an idea around a constellation of short stories. The other one would be a novel, again set in Virginia. I was born and bred in Virginia, went to university here, raised my family here, so it’s unequivocally my home. And yet a big part of My Monticello was thinking about why it still isn’t quite my home. I feel a slight barrier, the same way that walking into Monticello, there’s a slight barrier. As a black American, there’s always a bit of distance. And that’s interesting to me.