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October Books & Brews with Jocelyn Nicole Johnson

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Author Jocelyn Nicole Johnson’s new book “My Monticello” features a series of stories with one being set in a future version of Charlottesville where things have broken down. Cell phones no longer work and gas and electricity are unavailable. Johnson will discuss the themes in the book tomorrow night at Pale Fire Brewing in Harrisonburg for Books & Brews. WMRA’s Chris Boros spoke with the author and asked her to discuss the book’s main novella.

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Author Jocelyn Nicole Johnson’s new book “My Monticello” features a series of stories with one being set in a future version of Charlottesville where things have broken down. Cell phones no longer work and gas and electricity are unavailable. Johnson will discuss the themes in the book at Books & Brews (Tuesday, October 11, 2022) at Pale Fire Brewing in Harrisonburg. WMRA’s Chris Boros spoke with the author and asked her to discuss the book’s main novella.

JNJ: I call it just dystopian light because it has some elements of dystopia in it, but it really could be next week or tomorrow. The world feels very familiar but for these few things that are falling apart and they're falling apart in ways that I think we are really seeing. We are seeing the pressures of our infrastructure, if it isn't being taken care of, or the pressures of the environment. So, it's just me taking all the things we're seeing in the world and just pushing them a tiny bit into the future and really thinking about August 11th and 12th in Charlottesville 2017. When we were the unwitting hosts to the Unite the Right rally here in Charlottesville. And what would happen if that kind of energy went unchecked? What would it look like here if we don't do something different?

WMRA:  Do you feel that we're close to living in that type of society?

JNJ: I think that we are unfortunately closer than when I wrote the novella. I finished the novella in 2020 and we've moved a little bit closer to that reality, but I don't think we’re there and I think that we still have so much agency and choice and how we respond. And what we do in these moments that will make the future. We have the opportunity to decide how we want to treat our environment, how we want to think about how we treat one another, what are we going to do? How are we going to treat the other? And that's going to shape our future?

WMRA: Can you talk a little bit about Monticello and why you chose to use it as a setting in your book?

JNJ:  In the year after August 12, 2017, Charlottesville did a lot of programs with the history of black and brown communities here and in one program a woman stood up in the audience and was introduced as a descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Sally, Hemings, a black woman. Seeing that woman for me connected the present moment to a long history in Virginia to Monticello. I live about 10 minutes from Monticello. I've been there, taking family or guests there. There are things that are very beautiful about it. And then there's all the things that are also troubling about it. And somehow, to me, there's a connection between where we are now and our beginnings and it just kind of compressed it for me. So, in the story, I took my characters not to the Monticello of the past, but to the historic plantation home that also has a gift shop, and is a museum, and it decides which history to tell, which parts of the story they emphasize. And so I wanted our characters to be there.

WMRA:  You mentioned in an interview a year ago that you're full of dread. Do you still feel that way?

JNJ:  I think that when we look at some of the social and justice issues that we’re confronting, it's easy to feel dread sometimes, but I'm not a person who lives in dread. Dread is something that washes over us. And then I get up. And I think, what next, what do I want to do? How do I want to be? And I think writing the novella for me was how do I want to respond and the way I wanted to respond was with a vision of community. And I think for me as a fifty-something year-old former public school teacher, I have dread, but I have hope as well.

WMRA:  If there's one thing you want someone to get out of reading your book, what is it?

JNJ:  It's a pleasure for me if anyone wants to spend time with anything I write, I think as an artist you really have to be open to what people are going to bring to it. So I think you're in conversation with what the writer intends. But I wouldn't say I have an exact outcome except for that I really think people should pay attention to outsider stories. I think stories where you have people who are outside of something, outside of the idea of home, outside of the idea of kind of the American promise, those can be really useful in instructing us of how to take care of one another and how to recognize how we're connected and how to recognize how our choices affect other people. And so, I hope that just being in that experience brings that to people's minds and makes them want to work towards a better future.