Because we'd both been invited to a small, impromptu holiday gathering, I first met Asali Solomon about a year ago over drinks and a game of Jenga. The mutal friend, a doctor, had previously mentioned to me that her friend, Asali, was also a writer and that we should meet. I remember thinking something mildly sarcastic along the lines of Ah, yes, all writers should meet. But really, I should've known better- my friend is a bit of a rock star who also happens to be married to one. Of course Asali would be great. The Jenga block tower had not even crashed down once before I realized something along the lines of Oh, Asali is a real writer.
Forgive my unfinished novelist identity issue. I promise you, Asali was not bragging. She was subtle in her answers, but the truth tends to find its way through. And it can get much more detailed after a Google search. The West Philadelphia native and Haverford College professor's first book, Get Down, a collection of short stories, garnered much acclaim when it was published in 2008. This year her novel Disgruntled, a coming-of-age tale set in Philadelphia in the late eighties and early nineties, has recieved even more attention for its humorous and compassionate portrayl of the complex life of its protaganist, Kenya Curtis. The young daughter of Black nationalist parents, Kenya is forced to navigate her identity in a predominately white suburban school, the dramatic break up of her family, and some distinctly Philadelphia-complicated situations and tragedies.
Your second book, and first novel, Disgruntled, has been out for a few months now. How has the reception been? What was one of your favorite moments?
The reception of Disgruntled has been extremely out-of-this world great. It’s not only that it’s gotten good reviews and some good crowds at events, but also people have said meaningful things to me about it. Like they either got what I was trying to do or they thought I was trying to do something better than what I actually was trying to do. It’s also that so many people have told me that they found the book to be a page- turner, which is amazing. I mean it’s a politically minded bildungsroman of a little awkward girl; the feedback that it’s a page-turner makes me extremely happy.
Two favorite moments: I was interviewed by Terry Gross on “Fresh Air.” I listen to “Fresh Air” anytime that I’m near a radio around 3pm or 7pm. Sometimes I listen at 3pm when I’m cooking and then listen to the same interview again at 7pm after the kids go to bed and I’m washing dishes. I had occasionally fantasized about what I would say if Terry Gross interviewed me. And then out of nowhere she interviewed me. And in answer to the question I always get, I was right there with her in the studio. She offered me her hand lotion and we had a great time. I made her laugh. It was incredible.
Finally, anyone who has known me for a number of years knows that my all time favorite band is Steely Dan. This has been the case since I was about nine. I love soul music, “neo”-soul, I love hip hop, I want to charter a bus in which forty year-old women can follow Kendrick Lamar around the country but I LOVE Steely Dan. Anyway, I happen to have a colleague who is a good friend of Donald Fagen’s. The colleague got me backstage at a Steely Dan show a couple of years ago. And then, because Donald Fagen reads, he passed him Disgruntled. Well apparently, Donald Fagen really liked Disgruntled. Really. And so in many ways, my work is done.
From interviews, and from reading Disgruntled, it is my understanding that you are still living a version of the divide you write about- you live in West Philadelphia but teach at Haverford College just outside of the city. Does that equation make sense to you? What are your current thoughts about this crossing of boundaries, so to speak? Or, with the gentrification of West Philadelphia, is my question too simple?
I am living, I think, a superior remix of that divide, in living in West Philadelphia and teaching at Haverford. When I was young and attended private school in the suburbs, I did not feel in control of those boundary crossings and what they signified. I often felt less-than for living in the city and had a romanticized view of life in the suburbs. In the intervening years, I have seen what I think is a greater truth of the suburbs and it is not a romance. As it is now, I choose to live in the city, in West Philadelphia, and there are so many wonderful things about that. There’s a lot of hard, ugly stuff as well, but for me those things are more welcoming than the suburbs.
The city of the future is, well, the city ; it’s heterogeneous, it’s environmentally forward thinking, it has good restaurants and museums and theaters and just places to live your life. In West Philly because of the mix of black working class life and post-hippie whiteness, I can walk to the barbershop, the yoga studio and catch up with the #BlackLivesMatter-themed Peoplehood Parade (for example) in Clark Park. There’s a YMCA and a venerable children’s floor of the local public library where you might see Chinese or French or West African folks getting books with their kids. The suburbs can certainly be pretty, smell better than downtown, and the parking is amazing. I like working there, especially since the students of Haverford come from all over the country. But for me, the suburbs blossomed as havens for white upper class flight and still serve that purpose in many ways, even when the people fleeing to them are not white. Some other downsides: walking and biking out there are pretty hazardous. The dominance of cars is almost anti-human. The restaurants are not good! The only reason, I think, to live out in the suburbs is “good schools.” (Certainly they’re not as much a haven from gun violence as they once were). But I don’t necessarily think a good school for my children is one that is overwhelmingly white. And let’s fix these city public schools.
I will say this, though. It seems as though the children of white/middle class flight have come back to reclaim the cities their parents fled. I think this is probably the case in cities all over the country that suddenly have hipster districts for people who reject the notion that adulthood and family life means living someplace where you have to get in a car to go everywhere. If these people stay in the city, I suspect the US will eventually look more like European countries where the cities are much whiter and wealthier and the suburbs are more black and brown, geographically alienated poor folks.
APIARY is committed to promoting a range writers from all corners of Philadelphia- to capturing the varied rhythms and stories of this complex, beautiful city. What are some of the best ways that the literary world can be more inclusive? More welcoming of new stories?
“Literary world” is a scarily big phrase. But I do spend time thinking about canons and publications and prizes that come out of New York City. I think often the priorities of gatekeepers are misogynist, racist and elitist. There have been a number of exceptions in terms of nominees and winners of big awards in the past decade; four of the short-listed nominees for poetry for the National Book Award were people of color. Robin Coste Lewis, a wonderful black poet, won. But I’m pretty sure a quantitative analysis of the field of prestigious publications and awards for the past 10 years would render that win and others like it a statistical blip. I think the goal in whatever you do: on your syllabus, in your magazine, in your prize nominations, should be to stop thinking of readers and writers as marginally welcome visitors to a planet ruled and populated by privileged straight white men. Privileged straight white men are not better writers than anyone else. It’s just that they’re writing about what many literary gatekeepers want to read: straight white men. And they’re writing about it in a way that gatekeepers understand from their time in MFA programs. It’s also important for folks whose identities are underrepresented in the “literary world” to remember all of this when they become powerful gatekeepers. Sometimes they get drunk on expensive wine and accolades and forget!
What's the best advice that you give to aspiring fiction writers?
Write rather than talk about writing. Make friends with people who can read your stuff and give you feedback and encouragement; never let them go. Take classes if they are available to you, as it will force you to write (rather than just talking about writing). Of course you should read. If you feel overwhelmed by the question of what to read to prepare for your career as a writer, the way I once did the day I announced as a kid that I was going to “listen to jazz", the Internet has tons of blogs where people tell you in detail what they are reading. But other than that, get off the Internet. Reading the latest infuriating posts about bullshit life in Amerikkka will not get your novel or story written. It may just send you to hide under your bed. And it is too cramped and dark under there to write your fiction.
As a writer, what are you most proud of?
My mom once told me that I would one day write a novel. (I was fairly young, which I think makes her a kind of stage mother). But anyway, I assured her that I would not because I didn’t think I had any worlds inside myself. But apparently I did. I’m tickled that I created something so real people could get lost in it. I’m proud of every joke in my fiction. The shenanigans of Johnbrown made my father burst out laughing on an airplane. And though this is not the core of his reputation, he’s a pretty funny guy, my father.
Anything else? What is a question you wish I'd asked?
The answer to all questions is the novel Maud Martha, by Gwendolyn Brooks. I try to mention it in every interview. Some other questions might be answered by the memoir Soldier by June Jordan, Two Girls Fat and Thin by Mary Gaitskill, and the novel Cruddy by Lynda Barry. Another loosely related question might be answered by two movies about Philadelphia, the unnecessarily great “Creed,” and the excellent but horrifying documentary about MOVE, “Let the Fire Burn.” That should do it.
Learn more about Asali here: http://www.asalisolomon.com/