by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson
In the essay “The Sight of Memory”, Toni Morrison describes the crafting of her fictional world as a quest to access the inner lives of her ancestors. “It’s a kind of literary archeology,” she explained. “With some information and a little guesswork you go to a site to see what remains and to reconstruct the world that it means.”
The title novel at the end of Jocelyn Nicole Johnson’s shocking and powerful debut collection, “My Monticello,” is a fitting example of Morrison’s concept. Not only do we join Johnson’s characters on a visit to Thomas Jefferson’s plantation in Monticello—Virginia—but we also witness as they rifle through and discover everything that lives in that sinister, abandoned place. retrieve it, altering his legacy to his liking. Our proximity is part of the awe of this story, which forces us to have an intimacy with Monticello’s many physical spaces, from the reception pavilion to the gift shop to the museum and then up a hill to the house, full of its rooms. “The loot of artifacts from the native peoples,” and Jefferson’s personal, “rambling suite,” which includes a cabinet room, library, and bed room, as well as the narrow staircase that slaves once climbed. Up close, we cannot ignore our present involvement with history, even as the novel veers toward the inevitability of tomorrow. Simply put, an outstanding achievement.
Johnson pulls off this survival story with a spectacular setup: In the near future, a persuasive group of black and brown neighbors band together as they run for their lives, their homes being vandalized by a militia of armed white men. are burnt, who chant vicious patriotism and proclaim “Ours!” Our storyteller, Da’Naisha Love, once worked for a security in Monticello, so she knows the place very well; She suggests the displaced group, including her grandmother Maviolet, should seek refuge there. They occupy Jefferson’s estate for 19 days, during which Da’Naisha reveals that she and Maviolet are descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. As she approaches the majestic presidential plantation built by slaves on top of a hill, Da’naisha reflects: “I kept the real life in one place, and the imagined life of my ancestors in another unknown place, without It was like a room with windows. Now my real life ran after me and smoked. Now that was my life.”
The novel reminds us what the novel does best: reflect our reality back when we need it most. “My Monticello” pains with both resonance and timeliness, engaging in rich dialogue with recent real-life events that are never far from our minds: the white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville; “A record number of wildfires … heat waves and brown-outs” and demonstrations are reminiscent of the Black Lives Matter protests; And the white crowd, waving torches, remembers both the January 6 attack on the Capitol and the 100th anniversary of Tulsa Caste Massacre (And its representation in shows like “Lovecraft Country” and “Watchmen”). A teen “killed with the butt of a rifle” exposes the ongoing abuse and murder of black men and boys in police custody; And the group inside Monticello, trying to survive against an invading threat, bears an uncanny resemblance to the pandemic lockdown.
The preceding stories in the collection are presentational and broad, drawing dark characters in subtle attacks, even as they strive to be more. In the chilling “Control Negro”, a university professor uses his son to conduct a grand experiment to see if life is as a so-called model African American – “otherwise the average American would have children than those of Caucasian men.” equals who used to roam in my classrooms” – will save from the tyranny of casteism. In “Virginia Is Not Your Home,” a woman named Virginia tries to outrun the eponymous birthplace that inevitably pulls her back. Black boys bully another, black boy because they develop self-loathing in the painful environment of a public school; A woman makes an impossible task list to “buy a house before the apocalypse”; A Nigerian father living in Virginia “thinks of this exile place as Zandria, as Alex is the name of his only son, his last best hope”—feeling tied to a place that will not yield.
Johnson dedicated the book to “my parents, who put me in Virginia and made it home,” and their deep connection with the state—its land, its sites, its history, its brutality and its beauty. It’s exhilarating to imagine the stories coming from this talented bard of a site whose remains she knows so well.