A debut collection of fiction, these five short stories and novella shape the dust of the past. My Monticello pulsates the contemporary moment’s terror and uncertainty, during which the vestiges of United States chattel slavery grasp the grooves of our fingerprints. As you make your way through this debut collection, think about the living and the dead. Who and what are we the product of, and what is the future of this current birthing? I want us to exercise patience as we wait for the arrival of answers. Are we okay with not knowing?

I lived on the coast of North Carolina for a couple of years—the last port of the Confederacy. Spanish moss lined narrow roads, and heavy humidity lined my shoulders. In one pocket of my mind, I would create images of the Black people who lived there in decades past. In another, I remembered the Black people nearby, in the present, walking across the street, inside graves. How many bodies have disintegrated beneath us? Autumn brings with it travels into the unknown. These are pathways of ownership: entering wild terrain outdoors, exploring a muscular bloodstream, and waves of memory within. 

And there it is, across the field: My Monticello by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson. A debut collection of fiction, these five short stories and novella shape the dust of the past. The collection pulsates the contemporary moment’s terror and uncertainty, during which the vestiges of United States chattel slavery grasp the grooves of our fingerprints. Johnson turns this legacy over repeatedly by assembling a cast of characters, human and non: bias and disillusionment in the homebuying process—a possible reminder of an attempt at precarious wealth—the trials of the working class, a punitive lack of safety in the classroom, a plantation cemetery, the clinical social distance of racial experiments, conflicted family systems, and, of course, Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and the Monticello plantation. As you make your way through this debut collection, think about the living and the dead. Who and what are we the product of, and what is the future of this current birthing?

“As you make your way through this debut collection, think about the living and the dead. Who and what are we the product of, and what is the future of this current birthing?”

Scroll, listen, swipe, turn—however you consume books these days. Would you like to experience the home buying process in a global crisis? Check. In case you need reminders as you recall the legacy of discrimination and financial strife, travel through a playful listicle in “Buying a House Ahead of the Apocalypse”. Vote, march, pray. In the historical title novella—set to be a Netflix film, anthologized in Best American Short Stories 2018 edited by Roxane Gay, narrated by LeVar Burton, and praised by Colson Whitehead—a white militia terrorizes a group of people, one of them being a descendant of Jefferson and Hemings. This time they want her land, not her body. Watch. Scream! Hold your tongue. Hear the birds cry? Try again. 

In My Monticello, I’ve had the pleasure of observing a set of transient spells, an entryway into the power of narrative perspective. For instance, Johnson favors the second person and the inclusive first rather than the third, attempts to telescope intimacy and desire. Note how commands redirect a father’s movements as he outruns shame and a secret in “The Kind of Xandria“. The stories are declarations on how to be, where and when can we roam, leave, and perhaps exist. A tour through an upbringing, small worlds past with bodies and documents marked by memory, inspires future possibility in “Virginia Is Not Your Home“. That sighting on the right? “Something Sweet On Our Tongues”, featuring limits on your bodily autonomy, constricting mouths and voices during a lesson in grade school etiquette. 

“In My Monticello, I’ve had the pleasure of observing a set of transient spells, an entryway into the power of narrative perspective.”

What are the lengths we go to prove societal good, and for whom? In “Control Negro“, a family system unravels as an academic makes his son the subject of a study on racism. My Monticello asks us to contemplate our definition of ethics. And at what point do the terrors of a private, selfish life outweigh the gains of outward success? In what ways does informing the readers and the academic’s son of intent at the offset both strengthen and absolve harm? What traits do we assign to authority figures in and outside the family? 

In pondering these questions, I want us to exercise patience as we wait for the arrival of answers. Are we okay with not knowing? Johnson reminds us of the importance of pacing ourselves through italicization, line breaks, and simple clarity: I want, I want, I want. This repetition is noticeable in the title novella, and elsewhere, too. I tracked this word—want—across the collection, across characters and narrators speculating about one another, across the inner folds of intention. I thought about the persistence of desire, how it unfurls itself through pain. Even more, I’m reminded of pain’s movement below surface-level happenings, waiting to erupt and compound charged events. As a reader, what do you consider a charge?

“I want us to exercise patience as we wait for the arrival of answers. Are we okay with not knowing?”

Across geographic sites in the Virginias—Charlottesville, Alexandria, Lexington, the plantation, the classroom, the body, the body within a body, the mind—across thought patterns, throat sounds, voices breaking, whispers, water sipping, swallowing, digesting—across images of ghosts and other beings in the present moment, Johnson builds pieces of familial and societal contradiction, asking, will we accept this manifestation?

By Ashley Lee

ASHLEY LEE is an artist from the Midwest.

JOCELYN NICOLE JOHNSON is the author of My Monticello, five stories and a novella all set in Virginia, forthcoming from Henry Holt on October 5th, 2021, and selected by National Book award winner Charles Yu as his most anticipated book for the year. Johnson has been a fellow at TinHouse, Hedgebrook and VCCA; her writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Guernica, The Guardian, Kweli, Joyland, Phoebe, Shenandoah, Prime Number Magazine, and elsewhere. Her short story , “Control Negro”, was anthologized in Best American Short Stories 2018, guest-edited by Roxane Gay who called it “one hell of a story” and read live by LeVar Burton as part of PRI’s Selected Shorts series. A veteran public school art teacher, Johnson lives and writes in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Shadow Forward: A Review of My MonticelloMy Monticello by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson
Published by Henry Holt & Company on 5 October 2021
Genres: Contemporary, Debut, Historical fiction, Literary fiction, Novella, Short stories, African American
Pages: 224
Format: Hardcover
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five-stars

A young woman descended from Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings driven from her neighborhood by a white militia. A university professor studying racism by conducting a secret social experiment on his own son. A single mother desperate to buy her first home even as the world hurtles toward catastrophe. Each fighting to survive in America. Tough-minded, vulnerable, and brave, Jocelyn Nicole Johnson’s precisely imagined debut explores burdened inheritances and extraordinary pursuits of belonging. Set in the near future, the eponymous novella, My Monticello, tells of a diverse group of Charlottesville neighbors fleeing violent white supremacists. Led by Da’Naisha, a young Black descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, they seek refuge in Jefferson’s historic plantation home in a desperate attempt to outlive the long-foretold racial and environmental unravelling within the nation. In “Control Negro", hailed by Roxane Gay as “one hell of story,” a university professor devotes himself to the study of racism and the development of ACMs (average American Caucasian males) by clinically observing his own son from birth in order to “painstakingly mark the route of this Black child too, one whom I could prove was so strikingly decent and true that America could not find fault in him unless we as a nation had projected it there.” Johnson’s characters all seek out home as a place and an internal state, whether in the form of a Nigerian widower who immigrates to a meager existence in the city of Alexandria, finding himself adrift; a young mixed-race woman who adopts a new tongue and name to escape the landscapes of rural Virginia and her family; or a single mother who seeks salvation through “Buying a House Ahead of the Apocalypse". United by these characters’ relentless struggles against reality and fate, My Monticello is a formidable book that bears witness to this country’s legacies and announces the arrival of a wildly original new voice in American fiction.