“They hung that name on you at birth, but Virginia was never your home.”
This opening line of Jocelyn Nicole Johnson’s short story, “Virginia Is Not Your Home,” stands in stark contrast to the life of its author. A longtime writer and visual arts teacher who specializes in elementary education, Johnson does calls Virginia home, and she’s spent two decades helping her students there see the world through new and surprising lenses. Similarly, the stories in her debut collection, My Monticello, work to reflect and refract that world, pushing her readers into wonderfully unsettling realities that don’t come with easy answers.
The eponymous novella from her collection, for example, was born after white supremacists invaded Charlottesville in 2017. Told from the perspective of a descendant of Sally Hemings, “My Monticello” zeroes in on the end of a civilization, and how Johnson’s characters seek refuge at Thomas Jefferson’s sprawling plantation. It is one of the most harrowing and expertly crafted novellas I’ve ever read, and it, along with the rest of the stories in Johnson’s collection, will leave you to reckon with your own place in the world.
Recently, Johnson and I had the chance to talk online about My Monticello, creating community, and acts of hopefulness.
The Rumpus: As you’ve been teaching visual arts in Virginia for a long time, would you say that you have any favorite visual artists whose work informs your approach to writing or your writing style?
Jocelyn Nicole Johnson: Not really. I’m a museum wanderer. We have a really good museum in Richmond, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. And my husband and I both like to wander through the exhibits and let certain things pull us toward them. The last really great exhibit I went to at VMFA was called “The Dirty South,” and it examined Black artists in this super broad, stylistic timeframe. It had a lot of wonderful soundscapes in it, and it had these artists who I knew and who I’d taught before. From Harlem Renaissance artists, like Romare Bearden, to Kerry James Marshall, an artist who does these Black figures that I love, and it all fit my desire to wander from things I was familiar with to things I wasn’t familiar with.
Rumpus: I know you’ve been a fellow at workshops and residencies like Tin House, VCCA, and Hedgebrook. Can you talk a little bit about what these writing communities mean to you and how they stand out?
Johnson: I’ll say first that I’ve been writing for a really long time. I love writing, but I started to approach it more seriously around 1999-2000. My husband and I weren’t married at the time, but we were able to travel around the world for a whole year, and we had this super-dorky blog for our family that we called Ultra Smooth. My husband would take photographs while I would write accompanying essays. But after we returned, my husband wound up signing me up for a writing class here in Charlottesville, and it was a creative nonfiction class with this writer, Lauren Winner, who wrote this book, Girl Meets God. It was great because, after the first thing I turned in, she told me I needed to get an MFA. She was really excited about my writing, which made me think about it differently. I knew I wanted to write, but this was someone saying, You should put more care into this. You should put more thought into the craft. It was the first time that I had someone who really gave so much attention in this way, line by line, sentence by sentence. Every single sentence mattered, and I really liked that.
That’s the kind of teacher I try to be, too. If you can demonstrate to a kindergartener that you’re taking something totally seriously, they pay attention to that. But this started me on this path of trying to take some kind of writing workshop or class each summer, and it was all based around what was mostly accessible and what would let me in. I was lucky enough to start this all before things got really competitive, like it is now.
Tin House was back in 2007, and Colson Whitehead was there. Aimee Bender was my teacher, and I love her cool, surreal stories. After that, I tried to find something every year. Tin House was huge for me, and Hedgebrook was fantastic. I think I applied to Hedgebrook three times, and when they accepted me on the third time, it was fabulous.
Rumpus: I was curious, as well, if you have a regular writing community in Virginia?
Johnson: I do. One I’ve done for a long time, and one’s a little bit newer, and that’s great because you have people who have read all your things, who have a sense of you as an individual and who are nice to you and want to see you succeed. They’re people you’re friendly with. It’s like being in a band, you know? You have to get along and keep the band together over time.
The other way I get feedback and create community is through crowdsourcing. It started a long time ago, when there were these sets of tiny, online communities that you could send out your stories to, out into the ether, and strangers could just critique them. I don’t remember what any of them were called, but I got into them for a while. I could critique other people’s stories, and I would do it with care, and they might critique mine in turn. I would learn these completely random things.
Rumpus: I also wanted to speak about how you use second-person point of view in stories like “Virginia Is Not Your Home” and “Buying a House Ahead of the Apocalypse.” I’ve always been drawn to second-person POV stories for as long as I can remember, so I was curious about what made it essential for you.
Johnson: It’s so funny. I didn’t even think about “Buying a House Ahead of the Apocalypse” as having that point of view. It’s a list; it’s a person talking to themselves. But certainly with “Virginia Is Not Your Home,” the story just kind of came out that way, and then I had to think about what that point of view was doing and how it was working.
In “Virginia Is Not Your Home,” the “you” is a very specific “you.” These things are happening to a young woman, and then she’s an older woman, so you see how she’s really dealing with her life and telling her life story with these caveats. She has a slight awareness of how things are coming to an end as she’s advising herself. It’s weird.
Rumpus: I know that you write a lot about parents and children, so I was curious if you could speak about what it’s like to incorporate those fears and anxieties and those behaviors you see, both as a parent and as a teacher, into your stories.
Johnson: Even if I start with a premise that belongs to a real person, it almost immediately transforms on the page. When you start putting in that specificity, it becomes something different immediately, so I feel pretty free of that, even when I begin with real things.
I will say this: everyone is someone’s kid. Everyone’s first formative relationship, even if it’s the absence of that relationship, is so defined by who’s around us. Even when I don’t think I’m going to write about parenthood at all, it’s there in every story I write because I’m creating a character. I’m thinking of someone, and they have a history, but their most formative history is with their family. The collection has this History with a big “H” because it talks about Monticello and Thomas Jefferson, and it talks about current events, too. But I also think there are these smaller family histories behind each person. Even as fraught or as distant as History can feel, we all know our own family history and how we think about our siblings or our parents or what we’ve gone through and how it affected us. And that’s something that, as a grownup and certainly as a parent, you can relive from your childhood. You can watch your child do as you did.
Rumpus: What were the most difficult details about your time and history in Virginia to include in the book? Was there anything that you wanted to research in particular so you could get the details absolutely correct?
Johnson: There were plenty of things I didn’t know. For example, in “The King of Xandria,” I’m writing about a Nigerian immigrant, but I’ve not been to Nigeria. I’ve not emigrated to the United States. I really wanted to make sure I was thoughtful of the details of that character, though, because this guy is so different from me in so many ways. Even just the process of coming to the US is beyond me, so I crowdsourced out to an immigration lawyer. I asked if what I wrote was plausible and what would make sense. And it helped having friends who immigrated from Nigeria. This isn’t to say that the details I included are perfect; it was just so I could have nothing glaring or standing out to the reader. Because ultimately, it’s a story about parenthood, about dislocation, and while these things could be true about the character I created, there are these lenses of experience that are different from mine.
Rumpus: This was especially acute in the title story, where you trace how the group travels from their neighborhood that’s been taken over to Monticello itself. The mapping alone here was masterful.
Johnson: Thank you. One thing that really helped was that I’m a native Virginian. I was born here, and the stories are set here because I know these parts of Virginia. I put a ton of Charlottesville into the collection, especially. In the novella, for example, First Street is a place that I walk down with my kid, and it leads up to the street I live on. So, even though the characters are wholly imagined, I’ve been fortunate to be able to include details like the kind of ice-cream truck this neighborhood sees, and the faces of the students I wave to while I’m walking by.
With the novella, it was definitely inspired by what happened in Charlottesville in August 2017. There was this huge performance of white supremacy, of violence. It was a message sent out to say, You’re not safe here in Virginia, in your own community. But when I started the story, and when I started to place the characters in Monticello, I made the main character and her grandmother the descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, and I had to be thoughtful of that. I knew I needed to learn more about Annette Gordon-Reed and her book, The Hemingses of Monticello. I read Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. It’s actually interesting because he has this list in there and, for the novella, I borrowed his Notes’s form and how they’re divided up by sections.
One nice thing about this is, because these are all contemporary stories and not historical fiction, I only needed to understand these places and histories as my character might understand them. I was free to understand them as myself, Jocelyn, a tourist who’s gone on tours at Monticello, and who’s walked through the University of Virginia. I could know these characters as people who were living in relation to the past.
Rumpus: Having Naisha, the main character in the novella, relay both this personal history and the docents’ stated history of the plantation makes for a good balance between the estate’s grandeur and how the characters actually experience it. How that information is relayed to the reader is just fantastic.
Johnson: One nice thing about Monticello is that the foundation there has so much good research, and during the pandemic I could visit and research online there. At one point, I had a brief panic because I didn’t want there to be any physical inaccuracies to give readers who didn’t want to deal with the emotional truth of the story a way to discredit the story. I wanted to make certain that the factual details of the house were accurate. There was one draft of the story where I talked about the house’s doorknobs, but there are no doorknobs there. There are these weird key rings instead, and I had to get rid of the doorknobs.
Rumpus: That must make for a weird Post-it note to attach to your laptop for the next morning.
Johnson: Exactly. At some point, my editors were like, “We’re not sure anyone will care.” But I was like, “We need to get rid of those doorknobs!”
Rumpus: I’m always curious as to whether writers are plotters or pantsers, or some weird combination in between. Do you feel like you had to read any particular authors in order to figure out how to make certain stories or the novella work?
Johnson: I think that, with a debut, everything you’ve ever read goes into it in a way because it’s defining what your tastes are and what appeals to you, what you’ve chosen before and what you’re projecting. I kind of blindly go like I’m in the museum again, but everything gets folded in. So, something like Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s—who is really nice, by the way; I got to meet him really briefly in Charlottesville at a book festival—Friday Black, my stories spoke toward those stories. Just seeing all that creativity and examining what you can do in a collection has been really interesting. He talks about grief and consumerism and racism in that collection. I read his eponymous story, “Friday Black,” on Black Friday. I actually read that before his opening story, which is a doozy if you haven’t read it.
Rumpus: “The Finkelstein 5”?
Johnson: Exactly. Wow. But yeah, I did read Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia as I was writing the novella, and I did reread Richard Wright’s Black Boy. I first read Wright as a kid, and I remember he had these amazing vignettes throughout. And looking at a character like [“The King of Xandria’s”] Mr. Attah, Wright starts his narrative with this bad act of setting these curtains on fire, and I love how you got such a good sense of the humanness of this character from that.
With Mr. Attah, he’s a really strong person who’s trying to be in the world, but there’s also the force of the world on him and his son and his daughter. I think that’s always a challenge when you’re talking about race and racism, or about sexism, or about any force that’s pressed onto your characters in relation to what their force is in the world. I really hoped to play with that. Or Cornelius Adams in “Control Negro“: he’s trying to exert this very particular force onto the world, but he’s also had a pretty intense and obscene force pressed onto him. I’ve had all kinds of readers respond to that story, but that force that is pressed onto him, the force of racism, tends to be normalized because we’re all used to it, whereas the force he exerts is magnified.
Rumpus: It’s so interesting to watch how these characters act against their own best interests while they think they’re acting in favor of their own best interests.
Johnson: I think that what seems like bad behavior (and what is bad behavior) also has a sense of survival in it. It forms in relation to these really hard things, this trauma, and it allows characters to work through these really hard things.
Can I say one more author? Octavia Butler. I read Kindred, which is a story of someone going back in time, into the slavery of their descendants, and it used the science fiction conceit to talk about racism and class and survival. But after I finished that collection, I got into The Parable of the Sower, which I had never read. It’s gotten all of this notoriety recently because people think Butler has predicted where we are now, but she wrote this essay for Essence Magazine called “A Few Rules for Predicting the Future.” What I love about it is that she talked about this idea of whether or not the ending of a book is hopeful or if it’s depressing, and she mentions that, by looking at how things are and by trying to predict what could happen naturally from where things are now, that in itself is being hopeful. It’s an act of directing our attention to where it should be. Retrospectively, I think that that’s what I want to be doing.
Rumpus: The fact that you didn’t resolve outright the ending of “My Monticello,” the fact that the reader knows that this horrible group of racists is coming for the group at the estate but that we don’t know what’s going to happen to them, is also an act of hopefulness. That creative decision alone forces us to look closer.
Johnson: That was purposeful. My family calls me a “Debbie Downer,” but I think it would feel really silly to write a story about the problem of racism and white supremacy in America and have this group of a few dozen survivors on a mountain being victorious. I wrote this before the Capitol was stormed, and we’ve moved not father away but closer to what my fears were when we watched the events in Charlottesville unfold. I think it was my way of saying, It is not up to these characters to resolve this, nor should it be. It’s up to us to figure out what needs to happen, to learn how to move forward.
Photograph of Jocelyn Nicole Johnson by Billy Hunt.