by G’Ra Asim
Jabari Asim is an Associate Professor of Writing at Emerson College, Executive Editor of The Crisis, the NAACP’s magazine, and the author of twelve books, including The N Word: Who Can Say it, Who Shouldn’t and Why; What Obama Means; and A Taste of Honey. Asim sat down with Columbia University MFA nonfiction writing candidate, Mosaic contributor (and his #2 son) G’Ra Asim, for a conversation on the elder Asim’s debut novel, Only The Strong.
G’Ra Asim: You contributed an essay to Literary Hub exploring how themes in Only The Strong intersect with the Black Lives Matter movement. You’ve also said that your primary goal in writing the novel was to tell a good story. In what ways is fiction a useful vehicle for social commentary? When does social commentary take a backseat to telling a good story?
Jabari Asim: Where fiction is concerned, I think social commentary should always take a backseat to telling a good story. When I want to create straightforward social commentary, I’ll usually choose to write an essay or an op-ed piece. I guess when writing fiction I’m more into description than prescription. Chinua Achebe said that writers don’t give prescriptions; they give headaches. Similarly, I think it was Mao who said if art is to succeed as propaganda it must first succeed as art. I try to focus on the art. If some kind of credible commentary emerges from that, fine, but it tends to be organic rather than intentional.
GA: At a few of your signings you’ve mentioned the ambition of completing more novels that portray particular decades in African American life, somewhat in the mold of August Wilson’s playwriting oeuvre. What draws you to that terrain?
JA: I’ve always been mesmerized by writers who create fiction about life in the city, from Ann Petry and Gwendolyn Brooks to folks like John Edgar Wideman and Edward P. Jones. In some way, all of them have been influences. The impulse to follow a specific urban community over time comes from August Wilson more than any other source, as well as his loving, thorough depictions of men just hanging out and spinning tales.
GA: One of the novel’s protagonists, Lorenzo “Guts” Tolliver, is based on your grandfather’s muscled and mysterious right-hand man that you have memories of from childhood. When did you know that he was going to become a character you could build a novel around?
JA: Initially I didn’t know that Guts would be so central to the events that unfold in Only The Strong but I did know he would be present in some capacity. I got fascinated with him when he emerged in A Taste Of Honey, my earlier book in which he plays a supporting role. I wanted to know more about him and gambled that readers would too.
GA: In an era in which TV shows more commonly follow anti-heroes than traditional, ethically laudable ones, your readership is perhaps more prepared to accept and contextualize characters like Ananias Goode and Guts, men of fluid morals forged by their circumstances. Do you think humanizing morally ambiguous black characters and sketching the ways they are shaped by social and historical forces helps to undermine some of the myths about black pathology?
JA: I’m skeptical that the approach you describe can contribute substantially toward undermining those myths. People who want to adhere to what Toni Morrison calls the master narrative will continue to do so, regardless of black artists’ resistance to that narrative. Many authors whom we revere and continue to discuss, writers such as Chester Himes, Walter Mosley, Morrison and Ernest Gaines to name just a few, have brilliantly presented black characters as wonderfully complex and ambiguous human beings. Yet the myths persist.
GA: Even though Gateway City is an invented, embellished stand-in for St. Louis, critical reception of the novel has heralded your ability to capture a particular Midwestern sensibility, of a particular community under specific historical circumstances. Do you feel any kind of pressure to do your hometown justice? What was especially important to capture about St. Louis in both Only the Strong and A Taste of Honey?
JA: I didn’t feel particular pressure because there hasn’t been a lot of fiction set in the St. Louis I know. I remember reading one or two of Jonathan Franzen’s novels that refer to a fictional St. Louis, but the setting was unrecognizable to me, more like another planet than another city. I’ve always admired writers like Quincy Troupe and Eugene B. Redmond, to name a couple, who’ve created great writing about the St. Louis area, albeit in poetic form. I thought that I could capture important things to know about the city by creating persuasive portraits of its people.
GA: The dialogue especially seems to achieve a substantial verisimilitude with the distinctive rhythms and twang of Missourian speech. How conscious were you of the unique way that St. Louis people spoke when you were growing up?
JA: I didn’t realize that we had a notable accent until I went to college in Chicago. Even though St. Louis was just six hours away, my friends from the Windy City frequently marveled over the way I said words like “car” and “park.”
GA: Your first collection of related stories, A Taste of Honey, was written in the evenings, somewhat as an unwinding exercise, after spending daytime hours writing and researching The N Word. What were the circumstances surrounding the creation of Only the Strong, and how was the experience of writing it similar or different from writing A Taste of Honey?
JA: Well, A Taste of Honey, really laid the groundwork for Only The Strong. I had plenty of characters and no shortage of settings. My primary work involved giving them all something to do and conflicts to negotiate. I didn’t want it to be a novel in which “nothing happens.”
GA: Particularly at the college and grad school levels, young writers are often placed in positions in which they are expected to specialize in one kind of writing, whether that’s fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or journalism. As someone who has continually produced in each of those mediums, what advice do you have to up and coming writers who would like to achieve the same versatility?
JA: Forcing young writers to stick to one genre doesn’t make any sense to me. I always practiced every genre, when I was coming up. I had a portfolio divided by category: poetry, drama, fiction, journalism, and I continually refreshed it. I kept samples in an accordion file case with a handle on it. My wife actually used to lug it around with her. That’s how I got my first poem and short story published. In each instance, she met an editor who was looking for work and was able to show mine on the spot. Even if your workshop or MFA program discourages working in multiple genres, it would be prudent to do it anyway, even if you have to do it on the side.
GA: You’re the Graduate Program Director at Emerson College’s creative writing MFA program. How has your dual life as both writing instructor and practitioner influenced your approach to those respective roles? Was there anything you learned via creating Only The Strong that became a lesson to your fiction students?
JA: I always try to lead my workshops as a writer talking to other writers. Whenever my personal experiences can help lead to a particular insight, I share them without hesitation, and my students can ask me anything about my process. One thing that I often share about writing Only The Strong is the importance of listening to one’s characters. I had done a lot of preliminary work around the idea that the novel would trace the lives of three characters, Guts Tolliver, Dr. Artinces Noel and Charlotte Divine. But a fourth character, Ananias Goode, kept elbowing his way into the story. At first I fought him off but I eventually gave in and sought ways to fit him into the narrative. I’m glad I did because the book is stronger as a result. Based on that experience, I encourage my students to maintain a flexible attitude even if they have scrupulously planned the structure and direction of their story or novel.
GA: You’ve said that your work is greatly influenced by your life experience as a father and husband. How is that sensibility manifest in this book?
JA: I’m very fulfilled as a husband and father; my relationships with my wife and children are most important and most satisfying. That probably has a lot to do with my artistic inclinations. But I’m not just interested in family relationships in literature because of that. I’m also interested as a reader and writer. Relationships and households pique my curiosity. Accordingly, I try to portray them with utmost care and deliberate selection of details. For example, Only The Strong contains only one scene featuring Detective Grimes and his wife; they are minor characters. But I wanted their scene to be as evocative and memorable as the scenes between Guts and Pearl and the interaction between Artinces Noel and Ananias Goode.
GA: To write The N Word, you had to immerse yourself in some virulently racist materials. Did you look to any 1970s culture to inspire the right mood for Only the Strong?
JA: I did spend some time with 70s-era artifacts, and it was considerably more fun than the research I did for The N Word. I made a Guts Tolliver playlist that included a number of wonderful songs from various artists of that era, including Jerry Butler, Tyrone Davis, The Dells, The Originals and the Jackson Five. I also spent time with Johnson Publication magazines like Ebony and Jet; most of the references to them in the book are taken from actual issues.
GA: Since The N Word is one of your better-known titles, the use of that epithet in the novel’s dialogue is sure to turn some heads. In The N Word, you establish some terms and conditions under which use of the n word in literature is acceptable and perhaps instructive and useful. What makes you comfortable employing the term in Only The Strong?
JA: I argue in that book that art is one of the categories in which usage makes sense. Not gratuitous use, mind you, but when employed in art that reveals something about a character and/or advances our understanding of the world we live in. That includes a whole range of art, from N.W.A.’s “Fuck Tha Police” to Stevie Wonder’s “Living For The City” to nearly everything by August Wilson. While it’s not for me to suggest that my work merits comparison with those, I am comfortable with placing it in that tradition.
GA: I’m interested in the novel’s subtitle. That the story is “an American novel” might be something that would be taken for granted if the novel wasn’t set in the inner city and centered on black characters. It’s a provocative subtitle in view of the frequent ghettoization of black authors and black literature, or their confinement to the “African-American interest” section in bookstores. Is the subtitle a way of hinting at the novel’s broader relevance?
JA: Yeah, I had this terrible fear that it would be mislabeled as “urban fiction” because it takes place in a city. “Urban fiction” tends to comprise books about pimping preachers, ballers and strippers. There’s a place for those books, to be sure, but I’d like to think that Only The Strong has more in common with the works of John Edgar Wideman, Walter Mosley, Stuart Dybek and Richard Russo. The “American” subtitle is meant to encourage that kind of thinking.
GA: After the New York Times published a recommended summer reading list totally devoid of works by writers of color, Melissa Harris-Perry shouted out Only The Strong as a book by a black author that was an especially incisive read in an era increasingly defined by racialized police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement. Talk about your own efforts to elevate writers of color and encourage diversity awareness in literature.
JA: I’ve been working as an advocate for writers of color since the ’80s, when I co-founded a literary magazine called Eyeball. Many of the writers we featured in the publication and in a companion reading series have gone on to great things, including Kevin Powell, Paul Beatty, Tracy K. Smith, Elizabeth Alexander, Willie Perdomo, John Keene, Sapphire and many others. Around the same time I became book editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and subsequently deputy editor of Washington Post Book World. In both of those positions I worked tirelessly to bring critical exposure to writers of color. The most distressing part was knowing I could never bring them all the attention they deserved, nor could I secure coverage for every book. But I did the best I could, and I continue to do so in the pages of The Crisis.