A searing literary debut that not only contains multitudes in terms of its reverberations of past, present, and future, but also lovingly creates within its pages a timeless home for its characters. A literary tour de force, it is a powerful call for the collectivism that is likely America’s only true hope.
by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson
Holt, October 2021
(chez DeFiore and Co.)
Jocelyn Nicole Johnson first broke onto the literary scene with a short story, ‘Control Negro,’ originally published in Guernica and later collected in Best American Short Stories (2018), as selected by Roxane Gay. In that story, a Black professor conducts a lifelong experiment on his own son to test America’s promise of racial equity and liberty for all. Since that piece’s publication, Johnson has crafted MY MONTICELLO, a work of debut fiction which encompasses five shorter stories, inclusive of ‘Control Negro,’ plus a high-concept, 41,000 word novella from which the book derives its name.
In that novella, ‘My Monticello,’ Johnson relays the near-future experiences of a diverse group of Charlottesville, Virginia neighbors who, in an effort to escape a band of marauding white supremacists, stake claim on founding father Thomas Jefferson’s historic plantation home. Unfolding over nineteen increasingly harrowing days, this unforgettable tale is narrated by a young Black descendant of Jefferson and Sally Hemings (an enslaved woman of mixed race owned by President Jefferson, who fathered her six children).
The book’s other four short pieces range from the life story of a woman determined to escape her own name and home state, yet held in place by unforgiving roots (‘Virginia Is Not Your Home’); the moments leading up to an elementary-school bully encouraging a group of male classmates to commit an act of violence against the lone African immigrant in class, even as they all struggle to find sweetness in their days (‘Something Sweet On Our Tongues’); the trials of an immigrant father‘s precarity and loss of dignity as he struggles to ensure his son’s future (‘The King of Xandria;), and the urgency of a mother hoping to own a home, at last, for herself and her estranged daughter in the face of an ever-apocalyptic present (‘Buying A House Ahead of The Apocalypse’).
Jocelyn Nicole Johnson’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Guernica, The Guardian, Shenandoah, Phoebe, Prime Number, and elsewhere. In addition to the Best American Short Stories 2018 anthology, her work has been read live by LeVar Burton and broadcast as part of PRI’s Selected Shorts series. She has received fellowships from Hedgebrook, Tin House, and VCAA. Johnson lives and teaches art to public-school children in Charlottesville, Virginia.