Novelist's 'Disgruntled' Heroine Is Drawn From Her Own Childhood Asali Solomon's novel is about a girl growing up in West Philadelphia whose parents were black nationalists. "My parents taught us to revere Africa," she says. Originally broadcast Feb. 5, 2015.
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Novelist's 'Disgruntled' Heroine Is Drawn From Her Own Childhood

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Novelist's 'Disgruntled' Heroine Is Drawn From Her Own Childhood

Novelist's 'Disgruntled' Heroine Is Drawn From Her Own Childhood

Novelist's 'Disgruntled' Heroine Is Drawn From Her Own Childhood

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/490487353/490648145" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Asali Solomon's novel is about a girl growing up in West Philadelphia whose parents were black nationalists. "My parents taught us to revere Africa," she says. Originally broadcast Feb. 5, 2015.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. Today we're going to listen to Terry's interview with Asali Solomon, whose novel's about a girl growing up in the '80s the daughter of black nationalist, Afrocentric parents. The book, "Disgruntled," is now out in paperback. Its main character, Kenya, feels like an outsider in her neighborhood school in West Philadelphia because she's such a dedicated student. But when she's sent to a private school, she's an outsider because she's one of the few African-American students. She feels guilty she's not measuring up to the model she thinks she's supposed to be portraying, the brilliant black girl, heir to those brave children in the South who'd shine their shoes each morning, only to get kicked and spat on in their fight for a good education. Many of the suburban white students assume everyone in Kenya's neighborhood is on welfare.

The novel's rich with observations about race, class, the impact of divorce on a child and growing up with a father sometimes uses his politics to justify irresponsible behavior. "Disgruntled" is Asali Solomon's first novel. Her previous book, "Get Down," is a collection of short stories. In 2007, she was named one of the National Book Foundation's 5 under 35. She teaches English literature and creative writing at Haverford College. Terry spoke to her last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Asali Solomon, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'm going to ask you to read from the very beginning of your novel.

ASALI SOLOMON: OK, thank you. So here we go.

(Reading) In the first grade at Henry Charles Lea School in West Philadelphia, when Kenya told kids that she celebrated Kwanzaa, no one knew what she was talking about. By the third grade, led by the tiny tyrant L'Tisha Simmons, the kids were calling her an African booty scratcher and chanting to a conga line rhythm, you don't get no presents. You don't get no presents. In fact, she did get presents on the last morning of Kwanzaa, seven days after Christmas. By the fourth grade, Kenya was down to one friend. It wasn't just the Kwanzaa problem. And anyway, she could have lied about Kwanzaa like she suspected Fatima McCullers did - Fatima, whose dad had dreadlocks and who always said Christmas and Santa Claus with a wavering inflection.

It was also that she couldn't eat any pork, including the bologna sandwiches that were the everyday fare of the lunch room - something to do with her father muttering that white people forced slaves to eat hog guts. Though, as far as Kenya could see, white people loved bologna enough to give it both a first and a second name. It was that she wasn't allowed to watch "Gimme A Break!," "Good Times," or "Diff'rent Strokes" because according to her mother, watching black people on TV acting the fool was worse than not watching any at all. It was that she was forbidden to actually speak the Pledge of Allegiance and had been directed to mouth it with her hand not actually touching her chest. It was that she had to call her father Baba. And when she'd asked if she could call him daddy like other people, it had triggered what seemed like days of lectures, during which Kenya learned to hate the phrase other people. It was that while her parents said grace like normal people, they directed it to the creator instead of God.

GROSS: And that's Asali Solomon reading from her new novel, "Disgruntled." Does any of this describe how you were raised?

SOLOMON: So yeah, some of the things - we celebrated Kwanzaa. I don't know that my parents, like, specifically forbade us to say the Pledge of Allegiance. But there was something about that. Like, we should not be saying the Pledge of Allegiance. Like, it was a farce. We didn't eat pork, although the reason for that was never quite explained to me. Like, even much later I was like, why didn't we eat pork? Well, it's not good for you. But I think maybe my parents didn't like it. But it was part of a thing at the time that I think people were taking from black Muslims. And it was also true that when I went to public school in West Philadelphia, I was not in the majority. Like - but the lifestyle I was leading was different from what other people were leading, you know? Like, my parents taught us to revere Africa. People at school made fun of Africa. So a lot of things like that were true.

GROSS: Did your parents consider themselves black nationalists or Afrocentric?

SOLOMON: Yeah, they - I think they considered themselves black nationalists. But the phrase black nationalist, I think, implies a level of action that doesn't necessarily describe them. So it was that they thought about themselves as being a part of an entity that was black people in America - right? - as opposed to just thinking of oneself as an American and thinking of oneself as necessarily kind of in opposition to kind of mainstream America. And as for being Afrocentric, I mean, they named my sister and I - they gave us African names. We celebrated Kwanzaa, which is not an African holiday. It's an African-American holiday. But it is based on a reverence for and a connection to Africa. So in that way - yeah.

GROSS: You know, one of the things I just really enjoyed about reading your novel is I'm always so interested in what it's like for the children of parents who have carved out a way of being different, who are consciously, like, rejecting mainstream culture and have this kind of alternate philosophy, whether it's Afrocentrism or being, you know - not that these two are the equivalent of - or being a hippie or, like, rejecting religion...

SOLOMON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Or being politically radical or whatever - you know, to have, like, their own culture or counterculture. And for the children, who didn't choose that and who might feel different from the other children in their school or their neighborhood, to grow up in that - and what it makes them feel - peculiar or different, as a result of - and your book is just filled with insights about that, I think.

SOLOMON: Right. And I think that depending on the things your parents ask you to do - the kind of sacrifices they ask you to make - it can be empowering to know that, you know, the reason you feel like you're not at ease can be explained by these things - versus - I think almost everybody feels like, at a certain point, particularly during the process of coming age, that they are not at ease. They don't fit in but have no (laughter) reason for that. Oh, there must be something wrong with me - you know, kind of a thing. So there can be something strengthening about it. But also, you know, when all you really want to do is fit in, then it can be very difficult.

GROSS: And I was thinking about that reading your book. Like, in the reading that you did, you mention the shows that the mother in the book didn't want the kid to watch...

SOLOMON: Oh, yeah, that was - I forgot. So that was a thing in our house, as well.

GROSS: ...Because black people are acting like fools on it...

SOLOMON: Right.

GROSS: ...Better not to see anything. And then one of Kenya's parent's friends says to Kenya, why are you watching "The Muppets?" There's no black Muppets...

SOLOMON: Yeah, right (laughter).

GROSS: Like, you shouldn't be watching this.

SOLOMON: Yeah.

GROSS: And it just made me think about how consciousness-raising, when you're doing it with children...

SOLOMON: Right.

GROSS: ...Also comes with all these prescriptions of things that you can't do that are going to...

SOLOMON: Right.

GROSS: ...Like, remove you from other people of your age and from the popular culture of the time, even if the racially conscious perceptions about that culture might be accurate. But it's still - you're just a kid...

SOLOMON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...When parents are telling you that.

SOLOMON: No. And I mean, you know, I went to kindergarten and definitely told some people Santa Claus didn't exist. And (laughter) you know, I - yeah, those television shows - I mean, it wasn't so much that I was forbidden to watch those television shows. But, you know, it was kind of frowned upon to be watching a lot of those television shows. And I - you know, I had a breakdown for each of them, why they were nefarious, you know? And it is very hard to be a child living a righteous (laughter) lifestyle, you know, and explain that to your friends and still be a part of things.

GROSS: The parents in the novel are always referring to the word the community and all the things they need to do for the community. Did your parents use that expression? And what did it mean in your family?

SOLOMON: They did. They - you know, they would talk about the community. And that meant black people. And more closely, it meant working-class black people in Philadelphia or, you know, just black people in Philadelphia. I mean, I guess the thing that was funny about it is that was one of those things that I didn't think was particularly exotic until much later, when I realized that other people did not go around talking about the community and what we needed to do for the community. But again, what it meant was that we were part of this entity. And we should always sort of be bearing in mind how we were representing that entity or what we were doing for that entity.

GROSS: In the novel, the main character's parents and a group of the parents' friends form a group called the Seven Days. And it's inspired by a Toni Morrison novel called "Song Of Solomon." I want you to explain the connection between the Toni Morrison novel and the Seven Days group.

SOLOMON: So in "Song of Solomon," Milkman is the main character of the novel. And it's basically a quest novel, where Milkman is kind of trying to find himself. He has a best friend named Guitar, who joins a radical group called the Seven Days. And the Seven Days - essentially, when they hear of a black person who's been murdered, they go out and murder an equivalent white person in an equivalent way.

And, I mean, I think what Morrison was trying to do in that novel is explore the lure of violence. Like, it seems like a good way to assert black humanity, in a way, and a good way to get back at oppression. But by the end, I think, you know, the novel seems to come to the conclusion that that is crazy. And it will drive you crazy. And by the end of the novel, Guitar is quite insane and possibly trying to murder Milkman. The Seven Days in the book is a group where Johnbrown and Sheila, who don't agree on a lot in terms of...

GROSS: Those are the parents...

SOLOMON: Yeah - who often don't agree on things like what they're reading, have both read and love this novel. And they have this idea for a group called the Seven Days. And originally, Johnbrown really wants it to be a combination of sort of service to the community and acts of anarchy and not violent but kind of aggressive acts. But it becomes that the parents and their friends do these acts of community service, you know, one day a week, kind of like the Seven Days. So that's the connection there.

GROSS: Was service an issue in your family? Was that emphasized in your family?

SOLOMON: Yes, it was. I mean, my parents worked hard. So they didn't have tons of leisure time. But it was more of a thing - like, going to marches, going to rallies. There were different kinds of things that they did. My mother started a group called Sisters Remember Malcolm. And she and some friends of hers had this organization that every year would throw a commemorative program honoring Malcolm X. And this was in the days when Malcolm X was a lot less well-known than he is today. We also - I mean, one of the things in the novel that's based in truth is that we did go around giving Kwanzaa programs. I would call it the Kwanzaa von Trapp family.

(LAUGHTER)

SOLOMON: Because we would go - you know, we'd been to the library. We'd go to schools. And, I mean, it was torture. I mean, ironically, now I do this at my son's day care but - go around doing that. So there were things that we did, yeah, for the community.

GROSS: Do you still celebrate Kwanzaa with your children?

SOLOMON: I do. I mean, in my house - I married a Jewish man. And we celebrate everything except Christmas.

(LAUGHTER)

SOLOMON: So we celebrate - but it's like - I mean, this year, it was like 15 days of madness, you know?

GROSS: (Laughter).

SOLOMON: It was just like it doesn't stop. But yeah, we celebrate Kwanukkah (ph).

GROSS: (Laughter).

SOLOMON: But, yeah.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Asali Solomon. And her novel is called "Disgruntled." Let's take a short break here. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Asali Solomon. We're talking about her novel "Disgruntled."

The father in your novel sees himself as a radical force for social change. And he sees himself as a philosopher. And he's writing his great text, which is called "The Key." And he describes it as a contemporary work of black philosophy that would also be a way of living for non-black peoples who were enlightened. It would draw on classical thought, as well as West African and Native American ways of knowing. It would unite Du Bois, Ellison, Cleaver, Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X - very, very ambitious work. But the father is really a mix of radical politics, philosophy and a lot of B.S.

SOLOMON: (Laughter). Yeah.

GROSS: (Laughter) Because, you know, he's never going to finish this work.

SOLOMON: No.

GROSS: And the work is really - what's the right word to use to describe it?

SOLOMON: Bombastic?

GROSS: That's good.

SOLOMON: I mean, just...

GROSS: Confusing.

SOLOMON: Confusing.

GROSS: A mess.

SOLOMON: Yeah, a way of not living his life.

GROSS: And of not being responsible to the people in his life.

SOLOMON: Right.

GROSS: Because there's always this, like, great text that's more important than we are...

SOLOMON: Right.

GROSS: ...That he's working on.

SOLOMON: I mean, the father is - it's funny because more than necessarily being a type of a black father, he's definitely a type of a man (laughter), you know, in a lot of ways. And actually, I didn't realize this - I was writing it. And then in the middle of writing it, I reread the novel "Middlemarch." And there's a key in "Middlemarch," right? So, Dorothea, who's one of the protagonists in "Middlemarch," marries this older man who she reveres for his mind. But he's always, you know, in his library writing "The Key To All Mythology" - I think it's called.

And I think that sort of impressed me, like, this thought that, you know, their lives should be sacrificed for this thing that was never going to see the light of day that no one really cared about, but, you know, was meant to be so meaningful. And Dorothea had to, like, bring him tea. But she wasn't allowed to talk to him at certain times of day. So I think I was sort of thinking about that when I thought of "The Key." But yeah, it becomes a way of him just sort of being involved with his own mind and revering his own mind versus living with other people and taking their concerns into account.

GROSS: Were you exposed to people like that, who thought of themselves as being great minds and great philosophers? And you would assume that they were a genius because you never got to see the work? Do you know, like...

SOLOMON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...It's easy to be brilliant when nobody sees the brilliant thing that you're working on.

SOLOMON: Right.

GROSS: I've known that person.

SOLOMON: Yeah. You know, it's funny. I can't think of anybody I've known like that personally. The one thing that - and this is not - my father is not Johnbrown by any stretch of the imagination. But he was a songwriter. And it was not his vocation, it was his passion. And he spent a lot of time in the living room playing the piano. And then at one point, he had a studio in the basement. And so he spent a lot of time doing that. But I don't think of it in this way - like, he was working on some nonsense that, you know, he thought was going to change the world or anything like that. But I think the image of a male figure in the house, like, working away on something separate from other parts of the house may have come into that.

GROSS: Books play a really interesting part in your novel because there's a group that's inspired - a group the parents form that's inspired by a Toni Morrison novel. The father is hard at work on this philosophical tome that he'll never finish. No one will ever read it.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: It's not going to amount to anything. And the mother is introduced to Audre Lorde. And Audre Lorde, who's a lesbian, feminist author - let me just quote what the mother says to the daughter in this. She says, (reading) I'm not going for that gay stuff. But everything else that this sister said is all right by me. And the father says, (reading) oh, she's probably just an FBI informant.

SOLOMON: (Laughter) Right.

GROSS: And the mother says, (reading) well, she's certainly informed me about why I'm not ironing your shirts or pouring your cereal anymore.

SOLOMON: Right.

GROSS: That strikes me as such a kind of - I've heard that argument, you know? Like, you read a book. You change your mind. And you argue about who you're going to be after that and what you're going to do or not do. And I'm wondering if you were exposed to that as a child - to that kind of argument based on ideas - on new ideas - that the adults were getting exposed to that were changing their sense of who they were and what they wanted out of life. And you were maybe seeing this but too young to really grasp what was going on.

SOLOMON: Yeah, I mean, so I don't remember anything like that. There's a funny thing in there which is that my mother, as far as I can remember, has been a feminist. And that was another thing that I didn't realize was slightly unusual in a household like mine. I mean - but also, I think a lot of working-class black women and educated black women - my mother is educated - both my parents are - and went to college - are feminists but wouldn't articulate it as such. Whereas my mother would pretty much articulate it as such. She would always say things like - people talk about when we got married. She'd say, if you get married, you know, and talk about a lot of things as a choice. Or she would always tell this story of a friend of hers who was raising a child on her own. And somebody would say, oh, you know, you need a husband. And then the friend would say, no, I need a wife. So she was very conscious of the hierarchy of gender and these kinds of things.

GROSS: You mentioned that if you said, when I get married, your mother would say, if you get married...

SOLOMON: That's right.

GROSS: ...And make it clear you had a choice. You didn't have to get married.

SOLOMON: Right, right.

GROSS: I hope I'm not giving away too much here - the child in your book, Kenya, finds out her parents actually never got married - that the father felt like, I don't need the government in our relationship. I don't need a certificate to tell me how I feel or what I should do. And I'm interested in why you created the couple not being married and if that was an issue around you when you were growing up.

SOLOMON: So a funny thing is that one time my mom - I don't know what we were doing. I don't know. She sat me down. We were sitting there. And she said, you know, your father and I aren't married. And I was like, really? And she's like, yeah. And I'm struggling because I'm thinking, like, well, my mom is the one who told me not to say illegitimate. It doesn't matter. But at the same time, it kind of does matter. She was lying. This was some kind of weird prank. (Laughter) Like, you know, just to see what you would say, you know - (laughter) and so I think what I'm doing in the book is thinking about - in that moment, I felt like something dropped away, even though I wasn't - I had been taught not to feel that way. I had been taught not to be invested in this foolishness. But...

GROSS: But it could've been true in the sense that it would've fit into...

SOLOMON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...A larger philosophy. I've certainly known plenty of people...

SOLOMON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Who decided not to get married, in spite of the fact that they were having children, or got married only because they were having children or after they had children.

SOLOMON: No, in...

GROSS: But you never know how the children are going to feel about that.

SOLOMON: Well, so I mean - and then the other - so it did take me a while to figure out, for example, that, like, the anniversary of my parents' marriage and my birth date didn't really line - like, my mom's pregnant when they got married. Like, you can see it in the pictures. Like, but, you know, for years, I'd been looking at those pictures without the recognition of that. But neither of my parents would've - they probably would not have had children without getting married. I mean, they came from households that were - my mother's parents were not at all traditional people.

But I think my grandmother could be kind of a hardliner about certain things like that. I mean, again, my grandmother was, like, the original black working-class feminist. You know, she didn't need to learn about these things in classes - about equality, about being forthright, about telling men and people exactly what she thought. But I think she believed that you should get married. And my father's parents actually never married. But I think he would've felt like he was doing a disservice to his mother by not marrying a woman who was pregnant with his child. And they claimed they wanted to get married anyway. That's what they always say.

DAVIES: Asali Solomon's book "Disgruntled" is now out in paperback. After a break, we'll hear more of her story. Also, Kevin Whitehead will review some previously unreleased Charlie Parker. And John Powers tells us about the new comedy "War Dogs" starring Jonah Hill. I'm Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. We're listening to Terry's interview with Asali Solomon, the author of "Disgruntled," a novel about race, class, identity and the impact of divorce on a child. It's told from the point of view of a girl named Kenya, growing up in the '80s in West Philadelphia the daughter of black nationalist, Afrocentric parents. "Disgruntled" is now out in paperback.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: So one of the family issues in the book that really breaks up the family is that the father in the novel ends up having an affair with one of the mother's good friends...

SOLOMON: One of the Seven Days.

GROSS: ...Who's also a member of the group the Seven Days. And this woman gets pregnant with Kenya's father. And so Kenya's father makes this offer to Kenya and her mother that they could just expand the family and welcome in, you know, this other person and this other person's baby. Would you read that passage from your novel?

SOLOMON: Sure. So this is Johnbrown, the father, talking to Sheila and Kenya after Sheila discovers he's been having an affair.

GROSS: And Sheila is...

SOLOMON: The mother - Kenya's mother.

GROSS: Kenya's mother, yep.

SOLOMON: (Reading) With your permission, Sheila and Kenya, I'd like for Cindalou and the baby to move in here. I'd like for us all to be a family. What did you say? Sheila asked. She dabbed at her mouth with a napkin and looked genuinely as if she hadn't heard, as if she was asking for a small clarification. Did you say cream or sugar? Lemonade - you want me to pass the lemonade? Well, Cindalou and I have been going to some events at the Yoruba temple, and - oh, you actually go out of the house? Glad to hear that. And I don't think the temple is for me. I mean, organized religion is organized religion. But some of the families in the traditional African - get back to the point. So you want to move that bitch and her bastard up in here where I pay the mortgage? I'm not understanding what this has to do with the temple because from what I know about traditional West African polygamy - Lord Jesus have mercy - the man supports the family. No, brother. I make the money. And here she laughed. What you're proposing is pimping. And I am not a whore.

GROSS: Thank you for reading that. And that's Asali Solomon reading from her new novel, "Disgruntled." I love the way - he's gotten this woman pregnant. He wants to, like, move her in, with this new baby, into the family and basically be polygamist. And he's got this philosophy that's going to justify it. It's not like he was philandering. You know what I'm saying?

SOLOMON: (Laughter).

GROSS: He was being disloyal or unfaithful. It's like, no, no, it's like African tradition of polygamy. And it's - you know - I - there's the hippie version of that, too. (Laughter).

SOLOMON: Oh, yes, of course, of course.

GROSS: There's the white hippie version of that.

SOLOMON: Yeah, that's not - that's not specific to - I mean, you know, this scenario is specific to black people. But I don't think that impulse to sort of, like, rationalize your behavior with, you know, some greater philosophy is, you know - I think that's a universal desire. But I also want to say, just as a side note, that, apparently, is my father's favorite scene in the book.

GROSS: Really?

SOLOMON: He thought that was hilarious.

(LAUGHTER)

SOLOMON: He laughs just talking about it. So I'm glad I got a chance to read it.

GROSS: But I'm interested in hearing why you wanted a scene like that - why you thought that the next step for this character who's writing this great philosophical text that's, in some ways, just removing him from any responsibility 'cause he's always busy writing this great philosophical text - why the next step would be this elaborate philosophical justification for his philandering.

SOLOMON: Yeah. I mean, Johnbrown's activism and his philosophy has an interesting relationship to his personal story, which is that he had these distant, mean, snobby parents who wanted him to be, you know, respectable middle-class in this way that, ultimately, is racially self-loathing. And it hurt him. And so a lot of what he does is reasonable on some level, you know, considering racism and police brutality and these kinds of things. But on some levels, it's extended acting out against his parents. And so he feels justified in making these moves that are kind of self-serving through this political, you know - through a sort of political rationalization. And so it starts with this extended acting out against his parents. And it continues with this kind of thing, you know - acting out in his family life in the family that he's built.

GROSS: Did you know people who tried to justify breaking monogamy with, you know, elaborate philosophical...

SOLOMON: I don't know anybody personally. But I have certainly heard that - you know, certainly heard that it's not natural, you know? I mean - and so, like, you keep saying the hippie version. But, you know, it's not natural for men to be monogamous. And so I've heard people talk about them in sense of thinking about African families and people who are not sort of properly interested in what that polygamy looks like, which is what Sheila points out - but just generally thinking, like, well, you know, I - mixing just their desire to - with something that's broader, you know, and more profound.

GROSS: The daughter in your novel - the main character, Kenya - ends up going to a private school in Philadelphia's Main Line that's in Bryn Mawr?

SOLOMON: That's right.

GROSS: And - As you did.

SOLOMON: Right.

GROSS: And for her, it's this - it's a kind of life-changing experience, both in terms of this new form of alienation that she's never experienced before - but also, she gets a terrific education there. And how - like, what was going to a predominately white private school like for you?

SOLOMON: So it was obviously alienating in a lot of ways. I mean, I certainly got an excellent education. But I guess it took me a long time to understand the mix of feelings I have about that. It's something I've written about a lot and thought about a lot because the school - it was a great school. It was, you know - aesthetically, it was beautiful. We got to do - I got to do so many things, you know? But I always felt just kind of cold and out of it there. I often felt just kind of cold and out of it.

And there were things that were clearly - you know, that could clearly explain this. Like, you know, people really would ask me questions about the city. Like, were there pools of blood on the ground? And people would say things that were either subtly or not-so-subtly racist. And class was a big issue, right? A lot of the kids were wealthy. And we weren't poor, but we weren't wealthy. We didn't have a lot of money. And, you know, that was just something that was always there, you know? I was very nervous about people coming to my house, which, in a lot of cases, they were not even allowed to do 'cause they weren't allowed to, like, come to West Philadelphia.

But I think that - recently, I thought - I was thinking about how to articulate it. And I would say that in that situation, I and a lot of the other black students were just marginal because we were black. We would never be at the core of the social experience of that school, I felt, because we were black. And that sense only would increase as - I mean, I didn't go to high school there. But I imagine it would have only increased as people got into dating 'cause they weren't going to be dating out there, you know?

GROSS: Well, in the novel, the girl's thinking everybody's doing everything possible to separate her from the white boys.

SOLOMON: Right.

GROSS: And you get the feeling everybody in her family...

SOLOMON: Right.

GROSS: ...As well as people in the school - 'cause her parents don't want her dating somebody who's white.

SOLOMON: Yeah. Well - but then the other part of it is that there were black boys - and this was the case, you know, when I went to Baldwin - there were black boys sort of on the scene, you know? But they were not interested either. You know, I mean, there was this phenomenon that would occur when I went to school dances that I think I've documented pretty extensively, where you would have a sprinkling of black students. But the black boys did not want anybody to know that they were black. They would - you, like, by asking a black girl to - like, if you asked a black girl to dance, that would be like admitting that you were black. Obviously, they were black. It was, you know - but they couldn't ask a white girl to dance because there was something off about that. So they would often ask, like, sort of ethnically indeterminate girls...

GROSS: (Laughter).

SOLOMON: ...To dance, you know what I mean (laughter)? You know - but this kind of weird politicking that would go on. So it was - yeah. So, I mean - and so, like, I imagine - so in middle school, you know, there's not so much dating. And it's not really such - so much about a kind of sexual hierarchy. There are other things. But it's very difficult to fit in when you're just different and, you know, you can't afford or your parents won't buy the same things that everybody else is wearing. You're not going on ski trips. And, you know, it's just - everyone just thinks of you as different because you're black. But they're never saying it.

GROSS: Do you think you were exposed to ideas and books that you wouldn't have been exposed to had you stayed in a neighborhood public school?

SOLOMON: Yes, definitely. I mean, that's just - you know, I remember reading "Jane Eyre" in sixth grade. And then later, you know, I read it in high school. And I already read that. And I started taking French in fourth grade. I mean, sure - that definitely happened.

GROSS: And that's a good thing?

SOLOMON: Yeah. It was a good thing. It was a good thing. But it's very - I mean, it's - the thing that's difficult about, quote, unquote, "good schools" where you feel alienated or socially marginal is that depending on who you are as a person, you can make it out of that, you know, and write fiction about it (laughter) - write fiction about the pain you experienced in that. But a different kind of person won't necessarily get the benefit of the education because they're so broken as a person by that experience. So that's a kind of risk there.

GROSS: So your name, Asali, is a Swahili word for honey. So your parents intentionally gave you an African name. When it came time for you to name your children, how did you decide what level of symbolism you wanted those names to have?

SOLOMON: So they both have African names. I have a son, Adebayo - his name is Yoruba. It's apparently a somewhat popular name in Nigeria. A funny story about that is I have a British friend who said, oh - and it means born at a joyful time - and he said, oh, to us, it means bratty, overpaid, you know, football player (laughter), you know, 'cause in Europe - in England - like, apparently there are football - soccer players named Adebayo. But Oncale means ancestor. That's Swahili. And they both have my last name for their middle name. And their last name is Friedman. It's a Jewish name. So it's kind of all in there.

GROSS: Great.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: It's been wonderful to talk with you. Thank you so much.

SOLOMON: Thank you.

DAVIES: Asali Solomon speaking with Terry Gross - recorded last year. Solomon's novel "Disgruntled" is now out in paperback. Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews recordings of some previously unknown Charlie Parker performances. This is FRESH AIR.

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