Connecting Our Past to Our Present: An Interview With Jamila Minnicks

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I met Jamila Minnicks while we were both marooned on a Tennessee mountaintop in the summer of 2021. We were not really marooned. There were a lot of people on that mountain—so many that it was only my good luck that we struck up a conversation while walking back from a party. It turned out that we both lived in the DC area, and to my intense delight, those nebulous “Yes, we should definitely hang out” phrases turned into us actually having dinner. Minnicks is brilliant and funny and a wonderful storyteller. Her ability to quote Toni Morrison is very impressive, and her ability to capture the nuance of an interaction is exceptional, both over a meal as well as on the page.

Minnicks’ debut novel, Moonrise Over New Jessup, is the Winner of the 2021 PEN/Bellwether Prize (selected by The Barbara Kingsolver). Moonrise tells the compelling story of Alice Young, who steps off a bus—somewhat by chance—in the all-Black town of New Jessup, Alabama. The year is 1957. As the book progresses, we get to watch Alice put down roots, build a life and raise a family, and navigate questions of loyalty and love. Minnicks was kind enough to talk with me about the writing of her book—color, dialogue, what it means to “research” one’s home—and the importance of communities.

—Eds.

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The Rumpus: I love the parallel timelines within Moonrise Over New Jessup and how Alice’s role as a newcomer to New Jessup allows us to be introduced to the town through her eyes in a way that’s organic and informative—had you always conceived of the book in this structure or were there other ways you’d considered/approached telling this story?

Jamila Minnicks: We all experience life according to the benefit of prior influences. Over time, our experience with the world shapes our impressions of it, and Alice is no different. She braids a bit of her past with a bit of her present throughout the narrative the way my folks have been telling stories since long before I was born, which was how family history was passed to me growing up. So using parallel timelines was the most intuitive way to tell her story—particularly from the first-person POV—because it demonstrated the interconnectedness of her past life and her present life.

Alice comes to New Jessup and she’s all Alabama—she’s smart, dynamic, creative, resilient, and she knows her own mind. She was raised by a loving family who taught her to farm, hunt, cherish her education, and fight for herself and what she believed—all in a place where the law of segregation tried to suffocate Black folks’ every breath. Braiding the narrative of her life was a way to provide much more depth to Alice so that we can fully appreciate her, what she brings to town, and why she loves New Jessup the way she does. Without the benefit of her background, her story would have been incomplete. All of the selves she has been exist within her, so by introducing her to the town in this way, she brings herself—the sister and daughter; herself the farmer and hunter; herself the observer and the fighter; herself the student and caretaker; herself the nature enthusiast and master of needle and thread—and all of her selves, to New Jessup.

Rumpus: Why were you interested in telling this story of a community like New Jessup ?

Minnicks: Towns and places like New Jessup did exist, and many still do. History, and our future, demand that we recognize, protect, and continue to build toward thriving in these places.

Between the late 18th and early 20th centuries, it is estimated that more than 1,200 Black towns and settlements were founded in the US. We pushed and pulled each other up the rough side of the mountain, coalescing around the creation of communities where we shared experiences and resources and culture. Men, women, and children downed trees or otherwise forced unyielding land to yield. We built schools and churches first because education and fellowship were the bedrock for our pursuit of social advancement. New Jessup embodies some of the larger communities that we built for ourselves—places with multiple schools, hospitals, banks, grocery stores, hotels, churches; places where Black people owned acreage and the community employed city planners to manage growth. Where Blackness was the center of everything from our celebrations to our disagreements.

Alice’s story examines ideals about social progress through many lenses of Blackness. My interest was ancestral because the range of Black stories deserves to be heard and considered. I graduated from the Howard University School of Law, and started my legal career at Black law firms. I attend Black churches, visit Black hairdressers, and I’m loved by my family more than a million people deserve to be loved. This book is my love letter to the elders and ancestors who, for generations, strove to make a way out of no way for themselves and the future generations.

Rumpus: Can you talk a little bit about how you capture the voices of your characters? I find writing dialogue baffling, and I so enjoyed getting to hear how the different lived experiences of each person shaped or showed up in their speech. Do you have a particular process?

Minnicks: Dialogue is such a joy to write! Not only does it convey information, but it allows for characterization of people and events that tell us about the tale and the teller. In this way, it also serves as a barometer of the tale-teller’s credibility—an element of storytelling I gained full appreciation for when I practiced law, taking witness testimony in depositions and in court or listening to opposing counsel spin their yarn. Dialogue is much more than just talking back and forth; our words and our silences and glances all influence the human connection. Much is said when we consider the entirety of how people interact.

To me, the two most important considerations when writing dialogue are voice and audience. Here, it was a question of whether Alice would say whatever she was saying to the people around her. This is the story of her life—her trials, triumphs, vulnerabilities, and secrets, so her audience was always going to be her blood relations and kin by skin. These are people who know the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feel of the world she inhabits and describes. During the course of writing, I envisioned her telling her tale around a dying fire as her family rested after a cookout—too entranced by the night sky, and memories of a good time, to start cleaning up yet. People are tired yet satisfied, and the high moon encourages reverie, which is why the novel begins the way it does. In this sacred space, where she is surrounded by her kin, we get to know her and how she would interact with the folks, and the world, around her.

Our language reflects our personal history and culture. I try my best to preserve language because it is one way we can connect our past to our present. Alice didn’t just fall out of the sky and land in New Jessup—she was raised by loving parents who did the best they could for her and Rosie. Every word she utters reminds us of the experience and intelligence she gleaned about the world well before she ever stepped in town. Alice brings herself to New Jessup. Her words are the history of her. Knowing her, her audience (and mine), and her history allowed me to render their dialogue as fluidly and realistically as possible.

Rumpus: I kept thinking of the word “lush” while reading this—every detail does so much work to build the world of New Jessup. What kinds of research were involved in both the drafting and the editing of this book?

Minnicks: I performed a great deal of research, and did a lot of living life. There is a fair bit of source material about Black towns and settlements available—griots write and tell stories; Black mayors and community leaders are doing the tireless work of maintaining these communities and moving them forward into future generations. Historians have penned books, newspaper articles, scholarly journals. Old films, photographs, and other archival materials are available in museums and online, and my legal background was helpful for some of it.

I often shy away from the word “research” regarding the “living life” influences on my work because research implies a clinical, and terminal, relationship with Alabama. Alabama is ancestral soil for me, and my folks still living there, and forever of there, show me love in ways I may never deserve. So the word “research” in this context is too sterile to capture phone calls with my family, afternoons on the porch, sitting down to a meal, walking the land, the surprisingly strong arms of an elder’s embrace, or the long pause in a story that may never be filled. These are heart memories that deserve the respect of remembrance, so my goal is to do Alabama justice on the page—what I see, who I hear, what I taste, what I smell, who I know. Moonrise Over New Jessup comes from deep appreciation for the place I love, my observations of the world, and from being a member of my community. There is inspiration all around us if we just pay attention.

Rumpus: I was struck by the use of color throughout the story. Could you speak more to how you incorporated this?

Minnicks: I rarely get asked whether the use of color is intentional, so I’m glad you brought it up! And you’re right—it was.

When Alice gets on the bus from Rensler, destined for Birmingham and then parts unknown, she is experiencing a multitude of feelings—grief over the death of her father, longing for her sister, stress after the encounter with her landlord, and uncertainty about getting to Chicago after leaving the only home she’s ever known. As she experiences vulnerability in real-time during that bus ride, her world fades “to black and white.” The first thing that brings her back is color. That red shoe clicking up the sidewalk. And then, more color comes into view as she realizes that the bus has stopped in a place where people who look like her seem to be thriving.  Color returns to her world as New Jessup becomes fully realized, and throughout the novel, the vibrancy and sophistication of the color in her world only deepens because she has found a place where she can thrive. Color is beautiful and complex.

Color and observation through language were another way I tied her life before New Jessup to her life in town. It provided continuity as she relates it to the things she notices from the natural world that she would have noticed coming up. She didn’t just drop out of the sky—she was raised by a loving family. She is who she is because of her life experiences.

Rumpus: What does the word “community” mean to you, both in the context of New Jessup and in the context of life as a writer?

Minnicks: Community is a space for safety, encouragement, grief, and growth. We may be tested, bumped, and bruised along the way, but it is a place where, like Mandela said, “[We] never lose. [We] either win or [we] learn.” Within true community, we can experience our deepest vulnerabilities because we know that we are safe to fail, encouraged to thrive, and needed to be part of something greater than our little selves. There is something remarkably mooring about knowing that we are not alone.

My family’s commitment to community empowerment is deeply rooted in our DNA. It is what led me, first, to law school, and then, to writing—because with considered and empathetic use of my voice and my pen, both professions allow me to advocate for my people. On the very first day of classes at the Howard University School of Law, and every day thereafter, we were reminded of Charles Hamilton Houston’s words: “A lawyer is either a social engineer, or a parasite on society.”

Writing is a wonderfully lonely enterprise for me. I enjoy the solitude and quiet of early morning writing—“the edges of the day” as Toni Morrison called it—when my imagination is free and words are most malleable. But when it came time to show my work to the world, close friends and family suffered through early drafts of my very first pieces, and read multiple drafts of Moonrise Over New Jessup. My people dreamed with me that, “Maybe Barbara Kingsolver(!) would select my book for the PEN/Bellwether!” And after Barbara Kingsolver actually called to award my book the prize, there was more than one FaceTime dance party in the middle of the day.

Entering into this writing community has felt the way I envision Alice must have felt getting off of that bus—I never knew such an incredibly supportive and encouraging group of book people existed in this world. I have made meaningful connections with writers, editors, Bookstagrammers, historians, designers, marketing and publicity professionals, and readers—all dedicated to ensuring the existence of and supporting work that uplifts Black voices and the richness of Black history in meaningful ways. I am extraordinarily grateful to those who agreed to speak with me, mentor me, and champion my work, and hope to one day pass along some semblance of the wisdom and good favor I’ve received. That’s the ultimate power of community to me—sometimes, you reach toward a helping hand, and sometimes, you reach to offer one.

Rumpus: Who are some writers and thinkers that have nourished you in the process of writing Moonrise?

Minnicks: I will inevitably fall short of paying proper homage to my literary heroes. Toni Morrison, Deesha Philyaw, Alice Walker, Margaret Walker, James Baldwin, Robert Jones, Jr., Langston Hughes, Jason Mott, Isabel Wilkerson, Zora Neale Hurston, Imani Perry, Clint Hill Smith, Kiese Laymon, Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, Maurice Carlos Ruffin, Maya Angelou, Sonia Sanchez, Chinua Achebe and Ralph Ellison each, not only for the gloriously unmatched depth of their poetry and prose, but also because they dedicate their gifts and talents to the full history and culture of Black people. From them, I learned to write about my community with curiosity, intelligence, and intent, and that Black writers can learn from one another, care for one another, and champion one another. Barbara Kingsolver writes fearlessly, with unparalleled intimacy and heart, and Claire Messud teaches how to smolder with her pen. Sonia Segovia allows the landscape to be its own experience with her writing, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s works feel like holding one long breath.

There is an even longer list of thinkers and scholars who are my blood relations and kin by skin. But conversations with my mama got me started, and I’ve been really blessed with a lifetime of family and friends to continue guiding me along this path.

Rumpus: Where can our readers find you on tour or what are some of the events that you’re most excited about?

Minnicks: My tour schedule can be found on my website, and there are also links to the RSVP for the events. I’m over the moon about the entire tour and looking forward to honoring Alice, New Jessup, and the people and towns they represent.

 

 

 

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Author photo by Samia Minnicks