Note: this interview was written in January 2015, answered in April 2015 and published in July 2015.
As The Plot Thins (ATPT): Lets jump right in with Disgruntled. Kenya’s story starts a bit like your own, at least in the same geographic area. Is this semi-autobiographical or did you just use some parts of your life to build the story?
Asali Solomon (AS): I grew up a half-block from Kenya, and I attended some different kinds of school. A majority black public school in the city and a predominately white private school in the suburbs. (I also went to a publicly funded daycare and a private hippie kindergarten, maybe the next book?) I celebrated Kwanzaa and pretended to say the pledge of allegiance. But everything else — anything interesting that happens to Kenya is fictional. My parents still live together in the same house in West Philadelphia, and they keep coming to my readings asking a question designed to get me to say that they are not the parents in the novel.
ATPT: I need to ask about the cover. Did you design it or was it inspired by something in particular?
AS: I had no hand in designing the cover except that I expressed enthusiasm when I saw it. I think the ripped sheets with tape evoke Johnbrown’s manuscript, The Key. And the off-center jagged quality of the strips do a good job of evoking the sentiment of being disgruntled. I also like that there’s pink in it — the favorite color of my 2 year old son, who describes food he likes as “juicy pink.”
ATPT: Your first short story collection, Get Down, was also based in Philadelphia. Is this an area that you find lacking of stories being told?
AS: I don’t know that Philadelphia lacks stories, so much as I like the idea of continuing to build it up in that way. From the writer Edward P. Jones, who has written so beautifully about black Washington DC (an entity that is in some ways disappearing), I got the idea that to set your stories in the place you’re from — barring Manhattan — is novel and will mythologize that place, no matter how mundane it seems to you.
ATPT: Disgruntled is based in 1980’s West Philly. Presuming you grew up in that time, what was the racial tension like?
AS: Philadephia was extremely racially polarized then, in terms of the black and white communities. I felt very frightened of white racism in the white working class neighborhoods in the city, and when I attended school on the main line in the suburbs, many of my classmates were very afraid to come to the city at all — but particularly the black neighborhoods. I left Philadelphia for 20 years, attending school and then teaching in different places. The city has changed a lot. The city is not so overwhelmingly black and white; there’s a much more significant and varied Asian American as well as Latino population. Many of the traditionally African American neighborhoods — as well as working class white neighborhoods are more white and yuppiefied. I got to Italian BYOB’s in neighborhoods where one might recall being called the n-word as one walked down the street 20 years ago. In this way Disgruntled is a time capsule in a way that I didn’t intend when I began writing it.
ATPT: Interwoven in Disgruntled is a story of Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio Taliesin. Did you add this in just for another factor of disgruntledness or was it deliberate to the story?
AS: This book began as an interest in the story of Julian Carlton burning down Taliesin: thus the title Disgruntled. And then came the main story. Writing this novel was a rather circuitous and tortured process!
ATPT: So you’re a professor at Haverford College. What drew you into teaching writing and literature? Was it something you always wanted to do or was it inspired by you being a writer?
AS: I guess I knew I wanted to be a writer. I made the ill-informed calculation many years ago that the way to support oneself as a writer was to get a job. And the job I felt would be support writing was being a professor. So I got a Ph.D. in English at Berkeley. But guess what? Getting a Ph.D. is like going to war with your soul as your shield and sword. And the academic job market is a nightmare, which takes up your whole everything. So it’s not so easy to just use that as some little side gig to support your writing. The situation I have, a tenure track job teaching wonderful students in the place where I want to live, is amazing. And it only took about a cool 20 years and some major organs and to put it together.
ATPT: What are some of the selections you are having your students read in the class you’re teaching this spring?
AS: I’m teaching two classes: Satire in the African American Tradition and the Advanced Fiction Workshop. When I reread nearly all of the titles I’m teaching for these classes, I think: This is the best book I have ever read. In Satire we are reading: Puddn’head Wilson (not black satire, but a precursor) by Mark Twain, Black No More by George Schuyler, The Simple Stories by Langston Hughes, Native Son by Richard Wright (not a satire), Insivible Man, Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed, Oreo by Fran Ross and Erasure by Percival Everett, which contains a full-length satire of Native Son, which is why we read Native Son. We are watching the films Dear White People and Black Dynamite.
In the workshop I am teaching Who’s Irish by Gish Jen, Tenth of December, Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks, The Beast in the Jungle, stories by Aleksandar Hemon, You are Not a Stranger Here by Adam Hazlett, Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis, A Visit from the Goon Squad and essays by Toni Morrison and Grace Paley.
ATPT: Can you speak a bit about “Cold Water For Blood Stains” as a story and as the piece that was combined with music by composer Jason Moran?
AS: Several years ago Jason, who is a friend, was commissioned to perform at the Philadelphia Museum of Art at the opening of its exhibit of the quilts of Gee’s Bend. He, in turned, commissioned me to write that story. At the performance, and at several subsequent performances, including one at the Whitney Biennial in 2012 and one quite recently at the Village Vanguard, his wife, the vocalist Alicia Hall Moran (a very old friend) read passages from the story. Jason and Alicia are some of my favorite people; I loved the performance and I have an unreasonable affection for the characters in that story, more than I do for many other characters I have written. I want to also mention that Jason is the person who originally told me the story of Julian Carlton.
The other thing that came out of that performance was my desire to have Jason play music for a reading that I would give. So this past February, I gave a reading at Barnard College called The Disgruntled Mixtape Event. Jason performed interpretations of some of the many songs mentioned in the novel, including “Bonita Applebum,” “One Nation Under a Groove,” and “Young, Gifted and Black,” the Donny Hathaway version. It was dreamy to have my own soundtrack! And Jason is actually a genius, not just because the MacArthur Foundation says so.
ATPT: Are there any novels coming out this year that you’re extra excited to read?
AS: I’m very behind in my reading! My friend Daniel Torday who teaches up the road at Bryn Mawr College has published The Last Flight of Poxl West to great acclaim and I need to get into that. Then there’s The Star Side of Bird Hill, the debut by Naomi Jackson, which sounds juicy and delightful. Do I have to even mention God Help the Child, by Toni Morrison? The Queen of America?
ATPT: Can you share with us if you’re working on a new project now?
AS: Working on a new project? It took me 3 months to answer these questions. And now, I am going to turn off the computer and get a much-needed haircut to prepare to give some readings in Austin, TX next week.