SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Robert Jones Jr. says "The Prophets," his debut novel, came to him in whispers from people whose stories haven't been told and whose history has often been wiped from the record - Black queer people who were enslaved in America. It is a love story set inside a tragedy - Samuel and Isaiah, two Black men enslaved on a plantation in Mississippi who find love with each other. Robert Jones Jr., a born New Yorker who has written for Essence and The New York Times, joins us now from New York. Thank you so much for being with us.
ROBERT JONES JR: Thank you so much for having me, Mr. Simon.
SIMON: Can you tell us about these voices you heard, the whispers that you heard?
JONES: You know, a psychologist might say that's your own conscience speaking to you, but I wanted to be a little bit more spiritual in my thinking about it and imagine that it was my ancestors sort of pushing me toward writing this story, toward being a witness to their testimonies that have not made it into the official record.
SIMON: Yeah. Well, help us understand what went into this. It is an extraordinarily vivid novel written with heart and imagination, yet there's also an awful lot of scholarship and investigation in here, isn't there?
JONES: Yes. How it all began was as an undergrad, I took Africana studies as a minor. I was a creative writing major. And in reading all of those wonderful texts by Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass and so on, it struck me as a little odd that it's not until we get to the Harlem Renaissance that the idea of a Black queer person emerges with the works of Wallace Thurman and then later on James Baldwin. So there was sort of a question for me - is, well, where are they? Where were they during antebellum slavery, for example?
SIMON: The story is mostly set in Mississippi, but it ranges widely, really, around the world. Why was it important to you to set scenes in Africa?
JONES: There is this notion in many Black communities that queerness or homosexuality or whatever term you wish to use is the result of some sort of colonial trauma and that it wasn't until European interference through war, through religion and such that Black people engaged in this thing we call queerness. But that is patently false.
What my research showed was, in fact, that what Europe brought with them to Africa was homophobia through the violence and the religion. In many of the communities that lived in precolonial Africa, queerness was just as normal as heterosexuality. It was just a part of the landscape, and there was no need to single it out or call it by a different name. It was love, it was sex, and that was just that.
SIMON: Samuel and Isaiah are able to kind of create their own landscape, their own territory in the barn. What are they able to make there?
JONES: A safe space, a place of peace, of longing fulfilled because it functions as a place where they labor. So it is safe because if they're in there working, taking care of the animals and such, then no one has to worry about what else they're doing. But in their own autonomy, they're able to take back some of their humanity by showing each other the gentlest and kindest versions of love. That is almost a holy place for them.
SIMON: Yeah. I have read that you grew up in a household that on your mother's side was Nation of Islam, on your father's - Southern Baptist. Well, there's a mixed marriage for you. How did that work out?
JONES: Well, the fabulous thing about it is that my mother, Joan, is one of the freest people that I know. She outright rejected both. You know, I realized that I was queer at a - quite a young age. I was about 4. And because my mother had already taken the bumps and the bruises from the family for her claiming her own autonomy, I had a path that I could walk down to reject both of those things and claim my own.
SIMON: I bet seeing all that sharpened your gifts as a writer in many ways, sharpened your powers of observation and empathy and identification.
JONES: That may be true - that along with the fact that I always loved reading. My dad gave me my first comic book at the age of 4, and that was it. It was a "Wonder Woman" comic book, and I am the hugest "Wonder Woman" fan in the world. And her character in particular was one that was about love and peace and humanity, and maybe some of that rubbed off on me because I would then rewrite the stories and put myself in them as Wonder Woman's sidekick. And so I - that's where my love of reading and writing kind of emerged.
SIMON: "The Prophets" really dazzles. But you come back to the realization that, like any great force of nature, love finds a way.
JONES: It's really important that in the midst of sorrow, the greatest art is conceived. I think about the enslaved people on the plantation who were forced to pick cotton or chop cane or pull indigo or whatever it was and the melodies and the harmonies they created out of that pain, which to outsiders it looked like, oh, look; they're having a great time. And it's, no, they're giving their sorrow a voice because otherwise, that machete that they're using to chop that cane may come across your throat. They're doing this to prevent themselves from degrading themselves like you have degraded yourself by putting them in this position. So it was very important for the core of this book to be hope and love.
SIMON: Robert Jones Jr. - his highly acclaimed debut novel, "The Prophets" - thank you so much for being with us.
JONES: Thank you so much for having me. This was a joy.
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