Jocelyn Nicole Johnson taught elementary school for two decades before becoming, as she jokes, “a 50-year-old beginner.” She has been writing since elementary school, but Johnson says her first collection of stories, My Monticello, which came out this month, maybe couldn’t have come much sooner: “I think the world has to be able to take and care about what you have to say,” she muses, “Some .. … things are in your control and others … just aren’t. You know, you can write something absolutely gorgeous and that doesn’t mean it will find its readers. “
The world, it seems, is finally ready. My Monticello investigates issues of home and community and belonging in and around Charlottesville, Virginia. The book, which consists of short story and short story, mainly follows black and brown characters as they navigate what it means to live in a community that contains so many contradictions. It was inspired in large part by the Unite the Right 2017 gathering, but also by the tight-knit communities Johnson came to know after living in Charlottesville for many years.
In a country grappling with ongoing questions of race and identity, Johnson has found his readers. And soon, it seems, its viewers: My Monticello is being produced as a film for Netflix.
I told him about the characters that inhabit his world and what they can shed light on the places we all call home. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Who did you write for My Monticello?
I really start by writing to myself. I often start with something that has happened to me personally, or that I navigate in my community here in Charlottesville, Virginia, or around the world. And when I see something that I can’t seem to understand or that really annoys me or bothers me or agitates me, writing is a way for me to sit down with it and look at it in different directions and to try to untangle it. So a lot of the stories and especially the short story asked me a series of questions that I was asking myself.
Your description of the rioting fury of Unite the Right was quite graphic. Talk a bit about why it was important to capture the rage and anxiety of that night.
A lot has happened since this rally. You know, we saw the capture of the Capitol. We have seen much longer and larger rallies, rallies and counter-protesters across the country and around the world. But that first gathering here in Charlottesville was really hard and overwhelming for those of us who lived here, and for other people as they saw it unfold, because we really experienced what led to it as well. So there was a lot of accumulation, anticipation and wonder.
And then after that, it was as bad as we thought it would be. These weren’t just people saying, “I really don’t want these statues to be here”, but they were people who were really raising flags about past genocides and carrying guns and really with impunity. , saying, “We are claiming this place and it is not yours.”
And I thought, well, I live here and this is my home with my family. My son was young, maybe seven or eight at the time. And I thought, what does that mean? And what would it mean if it continued and wasn’t resolved somehow? I think it was also a feeling of not necessarily feeling supported by some of the systems, both local and national, that I was hoping to have a better answer.
So in the short story, I really wanted to push: what if this continued unhindered? What would happen? What is the natural consequence of supporting this extreme movement? And ask these questions in the hope that we can do something different.
Your narrator in the short story, also called My Monticello, is a young woman named Da’Naisha. Da’Naisha is a union descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. This story has been passed down through his family for generations. Da’Naisha usually doesn’t talk about this part of her heritage because people don’t believe her. But her mother, before she died, told a very young Da’Naisha to “keep it as yours”, this story. What did she mean by that?
Da’Naisha’s mother is really warning her because she had these very bad experiences as a child saying, “I am related to Thomas Jefferson.” And she was treated not only with disbelief, but really with a kind of disgust that it could be true.
For me, living in Charlottesville, near Monticello, which I have visited a lot over the years, the story has really changed, as has the way they present the idea of slaves there. And certainly the idea of Sally Hemings and Jefferson’s black family and black descendants has changed remarkably in the last 20 years since I’ve been here.
But I do think there is a consciousness that many black Americans feel as they navigate the idea of slavery and certainly the idea of slavery and its relationship to the founders and these revered figures of it. American history. There is a way to create your own walls to protect yourself before it even gets there. And certainly this character did that.
In the news, white supremacist rioters don’t just stay in downtown Charlottesville – they spread out in neighborhoods near the university and hunt down people of color, burn their homes, ransack the neighborhood. Da’Naisha and her grandmother flee with some neighbors in Monticello itself and the group of them becomes a kind of refugee camp in this national monument. Their small community is multiracial, multiethnic. What are you telling us here?
So, in the story, Da’Naisha is forced to leave her home with her grandmother at a time when she is falling apart with her neighbors. They flee to Monticello in this bus, then Da’Naisha is forced to reckon with, What is my relationship with this place? What can I claim? What can I touch?
You know, there is a little air of “Night at the Museum”, because they are there and they are in fact in the House. so. And they make the choice that this will be our temporary home and our refuge, and we are going to touch everything and we are going to be in these spaces.
So I think it’s kind of talking about this larger idea of how we as Americans can expand that access to a story, to include all people who saw Monticello as their home, even those who had no choice but to consider it as their home.
Is Da’Naisha’s neighborhood real? Does it really exist that close to the university?
I used my current neighborhood and all kinds of communities I see there. I’ve seen this over the years living here in this house for 20 years. [In the short stories,] I used a lot of ideas from the public schools where I worked to help people come together in these spaces and build community. And so I wanted to put these things side by side, like the brutality of history and the presence of economic and social fairness side by side with this idea of community and home and people who want to create that.
Are you feeling more or less optimistic since the events that put Charlottesville in the national spotlight in 2017?
This is a really difficult question. It has been a series of difficult years for a variety of reasons since 2017, despite the global pandemic. But I still feel hope. I don’t think I have more hope, but I think there are so many people who are more aware, or talk and think about thingsWe are really working to try to bring attention to these things. And so I don’t know – I choose to have hope. It’s just a way of being. It’s not the result, it’s like you have to have the method to get where you want to be. And I think hope has to be part of it if you’re going to work to make things better.