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During times like these we're grateful for the solace and escape of a great book. We're grateful also for your support. We hope you and yours are all safe and sound, and we hope you love these books as much as we do.
During times like these we're grateful for the solace and escape of a great book. We're grateful also for your support. We hope you and yours are all safe and sound, and we hope you love these books as much as we do.
(G.P. Putnam's Sons, 9780593085684, $27)
"I am at a loss for words. How can I even begin to describe the breathtaking language Robert Jones, Jr. has gifted us in his debut novel, The Prophets? How can I begin to explain how he achieves a feat so marvelous it almost seems impossible? Well, that's the key word: almost. From his innovative restructuring of the Bible through the lens of America's history with slavery to characters that leap off the page with colorful grace and dignity, Jones masterfully weaves a narrative that serves as a warning from the past, a prophecy for the future, and a testament to the present. His writing defies all great American novels that have come before, and in doing so becomes one of the greatest I've ever had the pleasure of reading. I can't wait for everyone to be as spellbound by this book as I am; it will stay with me forever."
|(photo: Alberto Vargas/RainRiver Images)|
Independent booksellers across the country have chosen The Prophets (G.P. Putnam's Sons) as their top pick for the January 2021 Indie Next List. The Prophets explores the forbidden union between Isaiah and Samuel, two men on a Deep South plantation, and the betrayal that threatens their existence.
Jones was born and raised in New York City. He received his BFA in creative writing with honors and MFA in fiction from Brooklyn College. He has written for numerous publications, including The New York Times, The Paris Review, Essence, OkayAfrica, The Feminist Wire, and The Grio. He is the creator of the social justice community Son of Baldwin, and was recently featured in T Magazine's cover story "Black Male Writers of Our Time." The Prophets is his debut novel.
Where did the idea for this story come from?
I had always wanted to write a story with Black queer characters at the center of it and had even written a short story or two as a teenager. But I never thought I would write about Black queer love during the antebellum slavery period until I was given an assignment during my first year of graduate studies. I had to find material objects that a character in a story or novel I was thinking about writing would possess. I found a pair of shackles(!) on the street near a pile of garbage bags and knew immediately that the character floating around in my head (who would eventually become Samuel) was enslaved and I would have the task of writing something that I had never read before, which was terrifying because there was no template. However, Toni Morrison's words provided inspiration: "If there's a book that you want to read but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it."
This story centers on the relationship between two enslaved young men on a Deep South plantation, Samuel and Isaiah. How did you craft their characters?
I spent a great deal of time thinking very deeply about what it meant to be Black during slavery. One of the things I came to understand was that despite the horrors inflicted upon my ancestors, it was never their humanity that was up for debate. What was truly debatable, if not outright abandoned, was the humanity of the enslavers. I had to then imagine how what we now call queerness would have affected the already gruesome status quo; how the enslavers and the other enslaved people might have reacted to yet another identity that would marginalize the already marginalized. Kimberlé Crenshaw's concept of intersectionality was extremely helpful here. Once I internalized that idea, it was just a matter of visualizing Samuel and Isaiah (by looking through the remaining 19th century photographs and art depicting enslaved Black people) and then listening very carefully to hear the whispers and watching very closely to see the signs, not dismissing either as fanciful flights, wild imagination, or coincidence, until I could get their voices and perspectives--and, most importantly, their love--down on the page as best I could.
Why center the story on them?
For my undergraduate degree, I majored in creative writing and minored in Africana studies. I had read tons of literary works and yet could find none where the Black queer love was front and center, or present in the cultural or historical landscape prior to the Harlem Renaissance of the 20th century. Where I did find references, it was only in the context of sexual assault or some other form of depravity. And my question was: What about love? I knew early on that the writing that would eventually become The Prophets would be an answer to that question, which meant that Samuel and Isaiah had to be the beating hearts of the story.
Can you talk about the process of writing this book? And what was your research process like?
I started thinking about the writing that would eventually become The Prophets during my final year of undergrad, but didn't actually put pen to paper until my first year of grad. My writing was sporadic because I was working two part-time jobs and attending grad school full-time. I had to write whenever and wherever I had the time, which was generally on public transportation during my commutes to and from school and work, at the witching hour when I had the strength to wake myself up, on my breaks at work (and sometimes during work to be honest). I wrote on whatever scraps of paper were handy to me at the time: receipts, paper bags, loose-leaf paper. I just had to make sure to write down the thoughts as they came to me so I wouldn't lose them.
In terms of research, I read just about every slave narrative I could get my hands on. I read works on race theory and Black queer theory. I read fictional works that dealt with slavery or queerness. I read works by sociologists who researched the impact certain colonial religions had on expressions of queerness in colonized societies. Most importantly, I listened to oral histories that gave the clearest picture of how Black queerness existed in the African landscape prior to European interference. Thankfully, most of this research was already assigned to fulfill my obligations as an Africana studies minor, and so the scholarship was very accessible.
This book features a number of different perspectives. What made you decide to incorporate so many voices for this particular story? How did you tap into them?
I was initially going to tell this entire story from the point of view of either Isaiah or Samuel. Each time I set out to do so, I felt like something was lost, incomplete. What I realized was that Samuel and Isaiah needed witnesses for their testimony, witnesses to both absolve and indict, to testify and to lie. That meant I needed to let other characters have their say. I found Morrison's Paradise and Ayana Mathis's Twelve Tribes of Hattie very helpful in this sense, as the structures of those books helped me to imagine how I might be able to let each character speak their piece in The Prophets.
I did a lot of meditation to hear the voices of each of the characters. I also drew on my personal family history, recalling summers spent Down South and my Southern family elders, remembering how they spoke, walked, laughed, cooked, danced, and worshipped.
One theme in this book is of generational trauma and its impact. What drew you to this idea?
Oddly enough, it was not a conscious decision to write about generational trauma. That seems to be inherent in the subject I chose to write about because where there is oppression and violence, there is trauma. And untreated trauma is bound to be passed down through the generations until it is addressed and healed. What became fascinating to me, though, is how the vast majority of us have chosen to deal with our traumas in the absence of a medical, political, social or moral imperative to take healing them seriously. What I found surprising was that for many people, trauma doesn't inspire sympathy or compassion for other people's suffering, but rather many people feel their traumas give them permission to cause other people suffering, but call it by some other, less implicating, absolving name which allows them to maintain their "innocence," thus their moral authority. The ability of human beings to rightfully fight against being oppressed while wrongfully oppressing other human beings is as fascinating as it is frightening. The Declaration of Independence side-by-side with antebellum slavery is one of the most acute examples of this cognitive dissonance; how marginalized cisgender people treat transgender people is another.
Biblical references are featured throughout the narrative. Can you talk more about why you incorporated them?
I grew up with at least one foot in the Christian church. Even when I did not attend church (and I didn't attend often), the influence of Christian doctrine played a huge role in how I was shaped. Whether it was corporal punishment, toxic masculinity, misogyny, or anti-LGBTQIA+ bigotry, these things were introduced to be by Christianity. I learned not just to hate others, but to also hate myself--and to believe all of that hatred was actually "love" as dictated by the figures of Jehovah and Jesus Christ. As I started writing The Prophets, it became clear--because of my upbringing, because of what I had learned through my research--that there was no way I could write about anti-Blackness, anti-queerness, and antebellum slavery without confronting Christianity's significant role in all three. To this very day, Christianity holds itself up as the chief moral arbitrator while low-key, if not high-key, regarding Black people, Brown people, women in general, poor people, LGBTQIA+ people, and disabled people as somehow inferior and unworthy — unless we can be more in line with and supportive of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Despite the concrete denial of this reality, I wanted to explore it and see where it would take me.
Is there any one thing you'd hope readers take away from this book?
What I most hope readers take away from this book is that we should make conscious efforts to do less harm to one another. There is only so much a human being can take in terms of oppression before they become justified in whatever their response to that persecution is. And wouldn't we prefer cooperation to catastrophe? I used to think the answer to that question was obvious and simple until almost 74 million people in the United States boldly voted for the latter. I hope this book can, in whatever small and insignificant ways, chip away at that number.
What is the role of indie bookstores in your life?
RJ: I love booksellers! I actually used to work at the Scholastic Bookstore so I understand how challenging, how underappreciated, and how rewarding the work of booksellers is. Indie bookstores are where my love for comic books (and thus my love for storytelling) was nurtured. Like libraries, indie bookstores serve a crucial role in the distribution of collective knowledge in the communities they serve. These sites become meeting places where one can listen to and engage writers and thinkers. The pandemic has unfortunately altered this, but I'm so happy that many of the independents have transitioned to virtual spaces and continue these necessary conversations and interactions. I have a particular and special love for the Black-owned indie bookstores, where works by Black artists are showcased in ways that push back against mainstream marginalization or minimization. It was at a Black-owned bookstore that I discovered Terry McMillan and James Earl Hardy, which led me to Toni Morrison and James Baldwin. I'm forever grateful.
Do you have anything to add?
Please be kind to yourself and others. Tell a struggling writer not to give up because what they are working on is a necessary intervention and a blessing for the world. Reading helps develop empathy; read more. Support independent bookstores.
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(Bloomsbury Publishing, 9781635575422, $26)"I am a well-adjusted adult, but I still cried when I finished this book because I loved it so much. While the western is generally a conservative genre built upon racist and sexist values, Anna North has managed to stay true to the classic in style and theme while creating a powerful and progressive story. Ada is an incredibly compelling narrator with clear passions and talents, and watching her grow into herself and achieve her goals is wonderful. Outlawed is about the many different ways to be whole and to own your power, even in a world that tries to hold you down. It's an exciting and extraordinary novel."
(Tin House Books, 9781951142247, $26.95)"Paraic O'Donnell leavens the dark foreboding of a truly sinister, otherworldly mystery with distinctively clever storytelling and a decidedly marvelous cast of characters. You are in the best of hands with Inspector Cutter and Gideon Bliss on the case, along with the intrepid and resourceful reporter Octavia Hillingdon. Beautifully done!"
(Pamela Dorman Books, 9781984881663, $26)"I read Ashley Audrain's debut, The Push, in two days because I literally couldn't stop. What does it mean to be a good mother? What if you don't emotionally connect with your child? How much emotional trauma is passed down from mothers to daughters? The Push examines four generations of females as well as the ways having children impacts one marriage. I loved this book."
(Custom House, 9780062916365, $28.99)"Johnson's latest novel has all the heart and soul fans of Be Frank With Me enjoyed, coupled with a retro setting at a divorce ranch in Reno during the Great Depression. Funny? Check. Heartwarming? Check. A rollicking, all-round good read? Check! Do yourself a favor and read it. Then share it with someone you love."
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(Counterpoint, 9781640092341, $26)"This is a story about family, about history, and about love. The characters are like you and me; their stories are intertwined just as ours are, with a past and a hoped-for future. Author Jamie Harrison wields a mighty pen with precision and care, peopling her book with a myriad of interesting characters living believable lives. Her narrative is insightful and moving, and she has that rare gift of making a fictional story sound like the real thing."
(St. Martin's Press, 9781250245496, $27.99)
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(Doubleday, 9780385546775, $26.95)"The Liar's Dictionary is an enormously charming novel about putting the world into words. Its two logophilic heroes, separated by a century, are unforgettable characters; I loved spending time with these word-curious creations. You'll be utterly transported by this playful and seriously funny book."
(Grand Central Publishing, 9781538719367, $28)
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(Sourcebooks Landmark, 9781492682721, $26.99)
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(Delacorte Press, 9780399182280, $28)
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(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 9780358380887, $26)
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(William Morrow Paperbacks, 9780062674975, $17.99, trade paper)
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(Quirk Books, 9781683691686, $15.99, trade paper)
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(Penguin Books, 9781984878632, $17)
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(Picador, 9781250785664, $16)
"Cleanness is a trance-inducing read. I started this book and was immediately swept up in it, and before I knew it, hours had passed. Greenwell describes human relationships in raw, beautiful detail while also exploring the power dynamics at play. If Cleanness is not one of my favorite books of 2020, it will have been a spectacular year for books."
(Harper Perennial, 9780062963680, $17)
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(Algonquin Books, 9781643750859, $15.95)
"Young Claude is being raised by his grandma in Chicago's changing South Shore, and folks in his life--his parents, friends, neighbors--are disappearing. There's little he can count on besides his grandma, her friend Paul, and his not-quite girlfriend Janice. The violence that was once at a safe distance is now on their doorstep, with corrupt and racist police coming from one direction and the Redbelters gang from the other. It's hard not to imagine Claude wanting to escape, too, but trouble is likely to follow, even to college in Missouri. Told in episodic bursts and filled with emotional resonance, Everywhere You Don't Belong is a powerful coming-of-age debut that will stick with you."
(Harper Perennial, 9780062938572, $16.99)
"Highfire hooked me from the first pages. Vern, a grumpy dragon languishing in the Louisiana swamps, believes he's the last of his species. Squib, a 15-year-old boy, is just trying to stay out of trouble and earn some money doing odd jobs. The intersection of these two one-of-a-kind characters sucks you in like a whirlpool. I loved reading about the absurd circumstances they found themselves in. This book has all the earmarks of a great hand-seller for the dead of winter, when we all need something new!"
(Vintage, 9780525657224, $16.95)
"I finished The Resisters in a day. I don't know how a book can be so devastating yet so miraculously wonderful at the same time. I was completely captivated by the family whose story Jen tells. The world she creates--set in near-future AutoAmerica--is so believable an outcome of what we see around us today that it feels as much prescient as imagined. A sort of cautionary tale, The Resisters is not only a book to love, it's a book that's important. I'm in awe."
(Bloomsbury Publishing, 9781635570113, $17)
"This book has completely consumed my life for the past few days! Secondhand takes us on an adventure through the world of recycling and reuse culture. This is an honest look at how the things that clutter our homes don't just disappear when we bring them to a secondhand store or recycling center. This book wants us to be a part of the reuse movement, to take notice of fast fashion, single-use items, and easily replaced electronics and make conscientious decisions as consumers. I hope many people read Secondhand and, in the spirit of the book, pass it on to others."
(Picador, 9781250785695, $17)
"Like Joan Didion or Renata Adler, Ben Lerner or Sally Rooney, Anna Wiener writes with dead-on specificity, scalpel-sharp analysis, deep sensitivity, and an eye for the absurd. She headed west into the modern gold rush that is the tech boom and now returns with gleaming ingots of insight, weaving tales of a strange land where boy-CEOs ride ripsticks and hoover up your data. An essential and very human look at the forces shaping who we are and how we behave."
(Grove Press, 9780802148575, $16)
"I eagerly snatched this book up, hoping it would offer a magic cure-all for the 4:00 a.m. insomnia that plagues me on a regular basis. Instead, I found solace and comfort, if not in a full eight hours, in the fact that I wasn't alone in staring into the dark in the middle of the night, brain on a carousel, getting pissed and feeling miserable. About most everything. It all makes sense now: I'm not an anomaly or a sleepless loner, I'm part of a larger pattern, a cycle created by the culture of a certain generation--Generation X. Why We Can't Sleep gives hope and validation and takes away some of the worry. Although this book is specific to Gen Xers, I think their Baby Boomer parents and their Millennial children will also benefit from reading this fascinating generational study."
(Ember, 9780525707820, $10.99)
"This dark Anastasia retelling gives the lost princess a monstrous new tale that is as gruesome as her realistic history. With the power to manipulate certain elements, Affinities are regarded as demons in the kingdom of Cyrilia. Ana has been a smudge on the royal family's name due to her affinity for blood and now must prove her innocence after being framed for the king's murder. Ana realizes that not only must she hunt down her father's murderer, she must also fight for those who have been deemed monsters. Amélie has crafted a world full of diverse and complex characters coping with oppression, tragedy, and the painful decisions that come with fighting for something bigger than oneself."
(Inkyard Press, 9781335910028, $10.99)"With its charming mixed media epistolary style and compelling story, Dear Haiti, Love Alaine is a novel that demands to be read. Once you've met Alaine, you'll need to see how her tale ends up. At once endearing and poignant, this illuminative book is important and I am so happy it exists. I can't wait to see what the Moulite sisters write next!"
(Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 9781534439429, $11.99)
"In this spine-tingling young adult novel, Nora Walker is the last in a long line of witches but has never found her magic. She lives a quiet life across the lake from a camp for wayward boys. With the arrival of each full moon (and only at the full moon), she ventures into the darkest, most dangerous part of the woods, where she finds lost things. This time, the lost thing she finds is a boy. Very atmospheric and full of surprises."