Jocelyn Nicole Johnson with her novel, “My Monticello” [Photo credit: Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello]
The day before October 5, 2021, the official publication date of her debut story collection, “My Monticello,” fifty-year-old Jocelyn Nicole Johnson
, a public-school art teacher from Charlottesville, Va., was a virtual guest on Good Morning America
. Host Robin Roberts beamed at Johnson through the screen. How did it feel, she wanted to know, for Johnson to be publishing her first book after so many years and to such extraordinary acclaim? The book had already received an avalanche of advance praise, and Netflix had announced that it would adapt the title story in the collection for film
“I’m just over the moon,” Johnson said. “I can’t believe it. I’m really humbled that people are paying attention.”
“My Monticello” includes five short stories, including Control Nego, which was included by Roxanne Gay in the 2018 “Best American Stories” anthology, and a novella-length work, the eponymous “My Monticello,” which follows the fate of a diverse group of mostly Black and brown people from Charlottesville, some descended from slaves, who flee the city in the face of societal collapse, environmental disaster, and a violent mob of white supremacists. Sweet Briar English and creative writing professor Carrie Brown, who helps organize the Common Read program for the College, says that “in a beautifully imagined literary stroke that is both ironic and deeply satisfying,” the refugees seek shelter in Thomas Jefferson’s famous house on the hill, Monticello
The novella has its roots for Johnson in the Unite the Right! white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in 2017. Johnson, who grew up in Virginia and has lived and worked in Charlottesville for many years, intended the collection as a love letter to the place she calls home but also, especially in the wake of the events of 2017, an exploration “of the ways I didn’t feel at home, didn’t feel welcome.”
Praise for the book has been universal. A finalist for The Story Prize, the L.A. Book Prize for Debut Fiction, and the PEN/Faulkner Award, among others, it has been named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, a Washington Post Notable Work of Fiction, Time magazine’s Ten Best Books of 2021, and winner of the Weatherford Award for Best Books about Appalachia.
Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Colson Whitehead hailed its arrival: “A badass debut by any measure, nimble, knowing, and electrifying.”
Megha Majumdar, New York Times bestselling author of “A Burning,” called “My Monticello” “…a magnificent debut that holds so much in its gaze ― great love and great oppression, tremendous individual courage and systemic racism, futures of joyful justice and futures of extremism. This breathtaking, artful book is a gift.”
Brown, a novelist and professor of English and creative writing, said she believes “My Monticello” will resonate with students at Sweet Briar on many levels. “Writers working on their first, serious stories and learning their craft, readers learning to see how fiction enlarges our understanding of people and events both distant and painfully nearby, young people everywhere trying to understand their place in the world and in history,” she said, “all of them will find something meaningful in these stories.” Also, Brown said, “Sweet Briar’s own complex, painful origins as a plantation built by slaves is a story proximate to that of Monticello’s. The book reflects racism’s painful past in this country but also its present, and it offers us an opportunity as a community to talk about circumstances that continue to trouble us today.”
In a profile of her in The New York Times, Johnson said that she has been writing since she was a young girl, though she did not always seek publication. “I enjoy writing, but it’s not all enjoyable,” she said. “You can see what you want it to be, but it takes a lot of time and experience — and luck — to get your writing to where you want it to be. You often fail. You come up against your own limitations.”
Despite the novella’s difficult subjects and the frightening landscape that it evokes, the courage and generosity and moral certainty of its well-named protagonist, Da’Naisha Love, a young, Black UVA student descended from Jefferson and Sally Hemings, is “utterly redemptive,” Brown said. “Da’Naisha will break your heart. She is unforgettable.”
In an essay, “How Writing ‘Vengeful Fiction’ Can Make You a Better Person,” Johnson describes how she transformed “a lifetime of witnessing vitriol and violence toward Black people” through writing fiction. “The long lead-up to [the 2017] rally and its deadly conclusion felt like watching a slow-motion train crash. You point, you holler, you brace, but it keeps on coming. It crashes and keeps crashing. Afterward, on the news, I watched the rally’s smug leadership claim a sort of victory, while I felt newly exposed,” she explains. “When I began to write the novella a year later, I wielded the shards of their hateful performance, recasting each one. It felt like I was saying, I’ll battle you, but not in the park below your beloved monuments to the Confederacy, and not along the downtown mall where my local indie bookshop sits. I’ll take you on, but at a time of my choosing, on a ground built of my words.”
She was “Writing against their vision of America,” she said.
“I figure I write this vengeful fiction as a condition of my birth. Here I am, an artsy, nerdy Black woman who was once an artsy, nerdy Black girl, always slightly out of place. I write toward retribution even though I believe in tenderness too, in protecting a space for all of us to grow. I write vengeful fiction even though I recognize the connections between everything and everybody, even though I know the imperfection of my own point of view. I write these stories because I feel compelled to call out the bully, even when the bully is me. I write because the experience of slight, of history, all of it has to go somewhere.”
Johnson will visit Sweet Briar in person on Thursday, October 6, 2022. Between now and then, Brown said, there will be opportunities for the community to engage with the book. Copies were distributed to students during the last week in March and will be mailed to incoming students over the summer. Several faculty, staff members, and students will participate in a panel discussion at the Student Leadership Conference on April 30 to discuss issues the book raises, including the complex legacy of leaders, specifically Founding Father figures such as Thomas Jefferson; the role of public monuments and historic sites in shaping conceptions of the past and visions of the future; the web of social factors that lead to a sense of shared identity and belonging in any given environment; and the role of literature in exploring different perspectives and illuminating the nature of human experience. Johnson also recorded a video of herself reading an excerpt from her book.
Members of the Common Read Committee, which selected the book, include students Jameshia Howard and Rachel Davis; Assistant Professor of History Dwana Waugh; Associate Professor of Environmental Science & Agriculture and Director of the Center for Human and Environmental Sustainability Lisa Powell; Associate Professor of Art History Kimberly Morse-Jones; Visiting Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing Erica Trabold; Librarian Lore Guilmartin; and Director of Strategic Initiatives, Foundation and Corporate Relations Lea Harvey ’90.