An Interview with Asali Solomon

  • By Niki Shepperd
  • July 8, 2015

The author’s latest novel explores the challenges of growing up black in a white world.

An Interview with Asali Solomon

Disgruntled is a riveting story about Kenya Curtis, a young girl growing up with Afrocentric parents in mid-1980s Philadelphia. Throughout the novel, Kenya learns to deal with her disintegrating family and find a sense of self as she navigates race and class issues. Here, author Asali Solomon discusses the book, alienation, and her real-life experiences growing up in Philly.

Disgruntled is an interesting title. How was it chosen?

The title comes from the fact that the original kernel of this book was the story of Julian Carlton, who does make an appearance in the novel. I was so interested in this completely crazy (and true) story of this murderous butler, largely because, though I had known about Frank Lloyd Wright, I had never heard this story until recently. Disgruntled is not a very dramatic word; it has a rather distant emotional tone, and yet it when one reads stories of employees doing things like going back to their former place of work with a machete, it is the term used. Julian Carlton set a house on fire and killed seven people with an axe — disgruntled.

The term also interests me because it describes the quality of disappointment that I see in Kenya and, to some extent, in her parents. It is a disappointment that many African Americans, living in a post-Civil Rights era, feel with the promise of the United States. The term disgruntled is not dramatic enough to describe people who are desperately poor, incarcerated because they are poor or black, or people who are murdered in the streets by police officers — but more people who perceive invisible barriers to the pursuit of freedom and happiness in more abstract ways. Basically, in the 1980s of the novel, or in 2015, things were supposed to be better for black folks.

Both Kenya and Johnbrown are interesting characters. Are they based on anyone you knew?

Kenya and I share some demographic details; she is a black girl from West Philadelphia who attended two of the schools I attended. She and I both grew up celebrating Kwanzaa in a politically conscious and active household. But Kenya, as passive as she can be sometimes, is much more of a doer than I ever was, and I have said several times (and will continue to reiterate) that anything interesting that happens in this novel is fictional.

Doesn’t everybody know someone like Johnbrown: a very male kind of seeker, very confident in his opinions, voracious in his attempts to invent himself and be Significant? He is not based on any one person at all, but many people (none of them my father, I should say). One curious source for his character is the character Causabon in the George Eliot novel Middlemarch. Causabon, the elderly and highly self-regarding husband of the young, idealistic Dorothea, is working endlessly and fruitlessly on something called “The Key to All Mythologies.”

You are from Philadelphia. Is that why you selected the city as the setting for the story?

One of the things which interests me greatly is differences in black urban communities. There are aspects of Philadelphia which make it unique, including a strong strain of politically engaged, Afrocentric, post-hippie blackness one finds in different parts of this city. I don’t know if this is a strong community everywhere. I know from getting responses from readers that one could set a very similar novel in Oakland and perhaps in Baltimore. But this is the city I know!

Kenya’s mother, Sheila, was an independent woman who took care of her family. Was it her need for a man to take care of her that made her blind to her new love interest?

I think Sheila feels burned by the huge investment she made in Johnbrown. So for one thing, she moves aggressively in another direction in terms of what she decides to seek in a man. With Johnbrown, she went for smart and deep; I guess she’s like, “F*** smart and deep” (which maybe turned out to be not so smart or deep), “let’s do hot and shallow.” I think also now that her family has been destroyed, she begins to doubt her instincts.

I think she’s also furious with life and perhaps while she’s appearing to embrace a new life she’s also quietly embracing a kind of nihilism. I should also note that this doesn’t seem to be about having a man take care of her. She took care of Johnbrown; she basically takes care of Teddy except for a brief interlude. She was raised by a mother who imparted to her that women take care of themselves and their families.

Kenya is very intelligent and educated. She’s exposed to many Afrocentric cultural celebrations and political issues, yet she seems alienated. She doesn’t have any real relationships, which makes it hard for her as she becomes a young adult. What caused her alienation and lack of real friendship? 

I have not thought about this before! I would say that rather than a psychological attribute, Kenya’s level and type of alienation is a useful character trait for exploring many of the dynamics in the novel. I would not do this on my own, but a reviewer compared the novel to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. While I am not trying to put myself anywhere near Ellison, who is one of the greatest writers in the English language, I would say that Invisible Man, which, in many ways, is a retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey, has given birth to a kind of bildungsroman of American Others, one which is episodic, and in which home, the kind of home one finds in relationships, is always elusive.

After that reviewer (in Ms. Magazine) mentioned it, I saw it in my own thinking about this story, and recently I’ve been reading a new novel called The Sympathizer by a debut novelist, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and I see the Ellison influence there, as well, in a story about a Vietnamese communist spy who comes to the U.S. I think Ellison’s influence is and will become even more pervasive among writers interested in difference in America. And, you know, writers interested in being good writers.

Does Kenya’s experience attending an affluent private school and her ethnic rearing make her disconnected with others?

Question: What if a wealthy white girl from the suburbs suddenly moved to a predominately black working-class neighborhood in West Philadelphia and went to an overwhelmingly black AND Afrocentric school? I’m being flip, but I hope in a useful way. But to push even further on the issue of what puts Kenya at odds with the Barrett School for Girls is the fact that, in many ways, Barrett is a strong affirmation of social hierarchy in the United States. So it’s not just that Kenya is different and out of place there, but, in some sense, she is at odds with the wider world, run, as it is, by wealthy white people who are quietly or more violently racist.

In the wake of this book and my first book, I have gotten a lot of emails from readers who felt like I was speaking to their experience of being different. But only some of these people were African Americans who had been raised by black nationalists or who had attended private schools. Many of them were white and felt alienated in different kinds of predominately white settings for one reason or another. So this book is about being black in America, but it is also about negotiating your past and your identity when you feel at odds with the mainstream.

What’s next for Asali Solomon?

I want to write another Philadelphia novel. This plot hinges on a fateful dinner party, a la Mrs. Dalloway. I may need to clean off my desk first. I feel that Virginia Woolf would applaud the fact of my home office but be scandalized by the sight of my desk.

Niki Shepperd is a Washington area resident with a long-term love of literature.

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