In the moments we begin to read a story for the very first time, it is utterly impossible to know where an author’s influences and aspirations lie. The same may be said of humans—that only when we are deeply familiar with a new friend or foe may we start to understand the impact and effects of that person’s family, environment, and personal experience. Asali Solomon’s debut novel Disgruntled (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2015) unpacks and explores this idea. It proves that, while our families define the early years of our life and influence our decisions as adults, they are but the groundwork for us to claim our own mistakes for the sake of forging an identity.
Dropping us immediately into the late ‘80s world of young Kenya Curtis, Solomon weaves an intricate tale in four segments that span the distinct regions of Pennsylvania as well as the unique cornerstones of adolescent development. Kenya, plucked from her home in West Philadelphia after a life-altering incident, navigates grief and guilt amidst new surroundings of privilege, racial whitewashing, and the sudden absence of her father. With Kenya’s increasing disillusionment comes the addition of a coy stepfather and a series of near encounters that threaten to crack the foundation of the independent self she has worked tirelessly to forge.
Though of an era past, Asali Solomon’s work speaks to the universal troubles we experience as emergent adults in a world of continuously reordered structure and increasing complexity. And while the language of survival is vastly personal, one needs only be willing to say “I am not who I once was” to find meaning in this exceptionally smart bildungsroman. A National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” writer and winner of the Rona Jaffe Writers’ Foundation Award, Solomon speaks here to the influence of an outsider identity, the mythology of memory and place, and reminds us that there’s a lot more to Pennsylvania than the City of Brotherly Love.
The Rumpus: Your novel Disgruntled beautifully contrasts a series of events that develop to fruition with those that flirt only with the possibility of culmination. Kenya explores the spaces between certainty, such as the threat of molestation from her stepfather Teddy, and we’re with her as she makes decisions that affect not only her but also the many circles that compose her community. As you were creating plot and working through drafts, how do you choose what doors to open and where to get close without stepping through?
Asali Solomon: Somebody was describing the book as being about a bunch of almosts, things that almost happen. There’s not exactly a science to how I arranged that or which things I decided would be the case and which things wouldn’t. I’m interested in the way people often live in their heads, and so things are happening but there’s a kind of level of realness to what almost happened or what people wish happened that’s also going on at the same time. I think that, specifically in the case of Teddy, I was actually really interested in the idea of that suspended threat because often people are dealing with something like that, not necessarily in terms of being sexually molested. In that, I was particularly interested in what that’s like and also where the harm is in something like that, what the morality is. I’m interested in the kinds of trespasses people commit against each other and what people’s responses should be. In some sense making those things murkier and murkier for me is more interesting.
Rumpus: Where does the idea of showing instead of telling factor into that?
Solomon: Something I think about a lot and one of the things that’s helped me to illustrate rather than present images or spell them out explicitly is reading a lot of student work. That helps keep me honest. I once took a summer workshop where Junot Díaz was the teacher and he taught that sometimes you really need to just tell. When it comes to the people designing elaborate systems of hints about something, not everything in a story needs to be a mystery. I like to keep a balance between the things that are more pleasing to learn because you figure them out with a lot of images and gaps in logic, and the things that you simply need to be told.
Rumpus: How important do you find it to provide movement to your characters, to let them explore boundaries of their physical and social communities?
Solomon: The characters in my book are looking for some sense of fulfillment and some of them feel shut out of what they imagined to be happiness by virtue of grace or virtue of class. So for them, figuring out where they can find a home is more complex. If you take Johnbrown, who grows up in the suburbs with parents who view being black as a kind of obstacle or shame that they need to overcome through being very upright, that’s not his home. Sheila has middle-class aspirations but a pretty well developed political sense, so where can you find a home when you have these different circumstances? That’s a part of explaining that. The other thing is that I write, and I think a lot of other people write, about the experience of feeling like an outsider. A lot of what fiction is driven by is how outsiders negotiate observing different scenarios, which gives us an insight into the workings of these different cultures and subcultures.
Rumpus: So this idea of home can obviously call to a physical dwelling, but here it seems to go beyond that into the variance of family structures and the balance of secrets. Where do you think the value exists in revisiting past residences and what can be gained from such a return?
Solomon: I definitely did that. I was away from Philadelphia for twenty years and when I left to go to college, my thinking was like, ‘This town is too small to hold me! I need wider horizons!’ I went to college in New York and after that I more or less went to places that were less and less cities. I lived in the Bay Area and people are very fond of it, but in terms of cities compared to New York it was getting smaller and smaller. Finally I was too de-skilled to ever live in New York City again, but I had lived in some really small places that were kind of dire in some ways. Philadelphia seemed about the right size and there was a very practical side to that. But in the time that I’d been away, I had been writing a lot about it. It was a way of sorting out growing up and it became a backdrop for figuring that out. And depending on where you’re from, if you wrestle with it, it can be good to go back or just to give into whatever your memory tells you is true about it as well. It’s never real; it’s the city of your mind.
Rumpus: How has writing a fictional version of Philadelphia altered your view on the city now?
Solomon: I think a lot of cities are changing and are becoming gentrified. In this current moment, there’s a sense of the city that I wrote about being a disappearing city. It’s not so much the writing about it that’s changed my feelings, but it has made me think a lot more about what it was and what it might be. Rather than being something that’s about Philadelphia in a continuum of what Philadelphia is now, somebody was telling me this is kind of an archive for a previous era. In some ways I think that rather than my writing changing my opinion of the city, perhaps the changes in the city have made me think about my writing differently.
Rumpus: After you’ve had some distance but still remain familiar with a place, how do you remain in awe of it?
Solomon: One of the things that you can find out in being away from where you’re from is what was interesting or unique about it that you thought everybody did. In being away from that, you realize that wherever you’re from has its own geography and mythology, and its own peculiarity and its own grotesqueness. In my case, when I was younger I thought that the state of Pennsylvania was like Philadelphia, which is to say a sort of urban and heavily African American but very segregated place. I thought that everywhere in the state you could just walk down the street and hear people blasting LL Cool J in their Jeep. I went to a summer program, which was called the Governor’s School for the Arts, and it was in Erie, Pennsylvania. The kids were from all over the state and I was completely blown away, I had no idea. I thought the whole state was like Philadelphia! So when you’re younger and you encounter these things, you think, ‘Well that’s interesting’ and then sort of double back later to say ‘Actually that’s odd.’ The way I grew up, these aspects and traditions, they were very odd.
Rumpus: That’s similar to how we look at family structure, too. You grow up in a particular type and think, ‘This is how it’s done.’ Where does your identity as a daughter and a parent feature in your identity as a writer?
Solomon: My parents were really big book people. People ask me, ‘How did you know you wanted to be a writer?’ And recently I’ve been putting the responsibility of this one my mother. When the children of actors go into acting and they’re interviewed, they always say, ‘Oh, I just wanted to do this; my mom told me not to go into Hollywood.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah right, you know your mom drove you to all of your auditions!’ My mom would always talk about characters and books like they were people who were alive. My parents were really into literature, but my father also was and is a songwriter, so creating things is a part of my family. I’ve written about my parents in ways that are not very explicit or recognizable. The parents in this book are close to my parents in some of their political beliefs, but they’re not close to my parents in that they implode or are both on these really complicated journeys of self-discovery that are not necessarily good for their daughter. My parents have showed up at a couple of readings and still my mother could raise her hand and say, ‘Could you talk about the difference between fiction and nonfiction?’ so that I could say that my parents are not the parents in this book. But I think that I am a person in the same way that I think a lot about where characters come from and how that affects their current home. I think a lot about family and how that continues to shape who you are.
A book that I haven’t really thought about in a long time but it strikes me now is one I read when I was way too young. It was a book by Anne Tyler called Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, and that book is almost exclusively one that’s a family saga about how no one got over being in a family. My family was in no way something that a person had to survive, but that concept really interests me. The fact that you think you’re making these completely independent decisions at the age of forty-seven but actually it’s shaped by something that happened to you when you were seven in your house. As a parent, I can definitely see that my perspectives have shifted. I’ve been writing about seventh grade since I started writing and now that I’m a parent I have no choice but to give that up until my kids are in seventh grade again. The other thing that shifted is that I don’t have any time! You just can’t have everything all the time, but that’s how it is.
Rumpus: You have a focus on form and structure that does more than just divide the book; it mirrors the stages of maturation from a young child into an adult. Did you imagine this story with such an outline originally as a novel, and how did you see the form playing into the prose?
Solomon: The way that I came at it was more as episodes. As it continued, I got really interested about the idea of breaking it up into these sections and then I found it very fun to name these sections. One thing about the form of it is that it was extremely loose and organic, in that I never had chapters. I would just keep writing and then put two asterisks. Then toward the end I thought the editor was going to tell me to break it up into chapters, so I started doing that but it felt really weird. So the only boundaries are those sections and section headings, and I like that.
Rumpus: You also write short stories; have they influenced your work in the novel-length narrative?
Solomon: What happened was that I was terrified to write a novel and I wrung my hands about it for a really long time. Ultimately the way that it informed me was that I’m really interested in scenes and being able to make the most out of them as opposed to letting something slide on plot. That’s the thing about short stories—they have to be potent. They can’t be thinned for them to work; the characters have to be potent and the prose should be potent and the emotion should be potent. Back when I went to Iowa, everyone was trained in fiction by short stories. That’s one of the things that’s good about that, but one of the things that’s bad about it is when it’s time to write a plot for something that can be over ten pages. You’re getting thrown in the deep end. I think now in the end it seems good, but for a long time I was in the wilderness of thinking I couldn’t do it.
Rumpus: And now here it is.
Solomon: And here it is. I mean for a while I kind of had writers’ block and I consulted a mentor about it, and her advice was suck it up.
Rumpus: That’s easily the best advice I’ve heard in a while!
Solomon: Right? And to your earlier question, things didn’t really get in gear until I had my first child and I realized how rare time was, so I was actually able to do the work. I was like, ‘Oh, I really don’t have very many more years to ring my hands over this, so I need to get it together.’
Rumpus: Do you envision an ideal reader for your stories?
Solomon: One thing that comes to mind is that I really want someone who gets all the jokes; that’s really important to me. And I think that it has been very gratifying that I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from people who have sort of a similar demographic or biographical experience, like black people who were raised by Afrocentric parents but somehow found themselves in these elite prep schools. That’s a particular bizarre class that I thought me and my sister were the only people in America dealing with, and it turns out now that’s a certain kind of story people have and they responded very strongly to the book. That’s a nice ideal reader, somebody who has had some of my experiences.
Beyond that, it’s very gratifying for me when people who read the book are people who have very different backgrounds but also felt something very keenly about Kenya’s displacement. I met one of Haverford’s former students, an Indian-American male student who grew up in Baltimore who really connected strongly with it. And the fact that I could communicate across the specificity to other people who felt some sense of that displacement, I find that pretty gratifying.
Ideal readers are also people who can really appreciate the prose, who can actually look at it and think, ‘This is a mind at work that’s not just spouting stuff that happened to her.’ And one of the other things that has happened here is that there are people who remember a lot of the specific cultural stuff, which basically just means they’re a little bit over forty. It’s nice that I could do that for some people.
Rumpus: Do you have any methods for providing just the right amount of plot development without becoming overly indulgent in the exposition?
Solmon: I think that a lot of that comes from drafting and editing. My tendency is actually to compulsively start writing back-story but not to the end that the reader understands it, rather because I find it interesting. The thing about letting readers come to their own conclusions is that you have to think that there are different readers who will get different things out of what you write. There will be some things that you absolutely can’t compromise on in making a point as clear as possible, so you don’t want to make others impressionistic. But there are other things where it might be useful to have people disagree about something. I’m comfortable with that, with really being aware of different readers getting different things. And that also comes from some of the room that’s allowed for in writing something that’s not a mystery, for example, where you really need your reader to be on the same page as you.
Rumpus: There’s a line that speaks to this need for understanding, that’s so important not only to the theme of the work but for the reader to have as a takeaway message: “It was Kenya’s business to say no as much as she could.” Why do you see it as important for fictional characters, specifically minorities and marginalized parties like women or persons of color or those in the LGBT community, to not only have the power of choice but to have that choice be no?
Solomon: All the groups you’ve mentioned are people who are negotiating for power. They’re often told no and told they have no choices in their own matters. This line comes as a response to the utter lack of control Kenya has had over these tumultuous changes in her life, so she’s thinking, ‘Here’s this area where I’m finally going to be in charge of what happens.’ And I think there’s also a line that’s similar to that, with regard to hanging out with her friends, but it’s the same thing. It’s a protection in that sense against the social rejection she experiences trying to hang out with them. Sometimes there’s very little social power and very little ability to negotiate your own life, so if there’s a chance to say no then it’s a way to assert yourself, to assert your own power and your own integrity.
Rumpus: What conversations are you hoping Disgruntled and your work might stir?
Solomon: Somebody asked me, ‘What message do you hope that your work sends?’ and I said I’m always hoping that it makes people more human. I think that’s what I want to do. Any kind of conversation would be interesting. A lot of times people have been invited to speak at private schools and then there’s conversations about black students and private schools and I think that’s only one small conversation that one could have after reading the book. I will say that the interesting thing to me about that is that issues of schooling and community are in a way very central to issues of racial and economic inequality in the country, so if we think about why we’re sending our kids to private school or whether to do so, those discussions can lead to bigger discussions about the future of race and the future of racial inequality in America. And then, of course, to important conversations about early ‘90s rap.