At Haverford College, Professor Asali Solomon’s reputation precedes her. She’s known as one of the professors you just have to take a class with or else you’ll miss one of the best opportunities on offer on campus. I had the privilege of taking her Advanced Creative Writing class this past semester, in which I read some of the work that influenced her most recent novel, The Days of Afrekete. It tells the story of Liselle and Selena, two Black women who meet at a predominantly white college but who go on to lead wildly different lives. Before her most recent book, though, she gained a reputation for poignant storytelling and incisive social commentary in the short story collection Get Down and the bildungsroman Disgruntled. We talked about her three books in this interview, which has been edited for clarity, as well as about Philadelphia politics, Steely Dan, and the first time she saw herself in a work of literature.
Michael McCarthy: One aspect that struck me about The Days of Afrekete when I first read it was just how balanced it was. It was really impressive to read because it moves forward and backward in time almost every chapter, and it also shifts perspective from Liselle to Selena. How did you approach those challenges?
Asali Solomon: A lot of that has to do with editing and drafting and going over it and having a visceral response to where different things should be. I will say it was actually more balanced between Liselle and Selena, and my editor thought it should be more Liselle’s story. We never actually articulated why that was, but I wanted it to feel balanced.
But in terms of how to pull that off between time shifts and characters, it was a very painstaking editing process. It involved me, copyeditors, and—because sometimes things are introduced that you talk about later, so you have to make sure that comes before it—what I call information management. So I’m glad if it feels organic or poetic in any way.
MM: I remember in class you once talked about short stories—and I suppose this would apply to a novel, too—not needing to have a likable protagonist. Do you consider either Liselle or Selena to be an unlikable character?
AS: No. I mean, I consider Selena to be more likable than Liselle. I consider that Liselle seems like she’s an okay person in that you could probably have a nice meal with her or whatever. I think she makes a lot of dubious decisions. The thing about unlikable characters is that, first of all, likability is subjective, so there’s really no such thing, barring the American Psycho character, as unlikable. But I do think that when people talk about that, what they mean is somebody whose choices aren’t transparently relatable or somebody who has a lot of negative or fussy feelings about different things without some righteous cause. People talk more about this in regards to women characters than they do male characters. But I think that if characters are making decisions that make a lot of sense, then it’s not very interesting to read about them. I think people need to have dilemmas, and they need to have dilemmas that are somewhat complicated and not straightforward, at least in fiction for adults.
MM: Do you hope your readers will find the dilemmas that Liselle has “relatable”?
AS: Not necessarily relatable. Do I need for them to be like, “That’s just what I went through!” No no no. My interest is just that they get interested in it. That’s all.
And that’s also the thing about unlikeable characters. You don’t need to like a character, but you do need to care about what happens to them—not even because you want to see them win. You just have to be pulled into the story.
MM: One other feature of the novel I was struck by was the chapter length. It goes from longer chapters to shorter chapters, one that’s only one sentence long. Was that a deliberate balancing act or something that emerged organically?
AS: I have a strange relationship to chapters and chapter formatting. In our class, we read excerpts from Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks, and in a sense, that’s what I’d like to do with every book, just have a series of vignettes. In my previous novel, Disgruntled, there were no chapters, just separations between different scenes, then the book was divided into four parts. This time, I thought that the chapter structure was closer to vignettes because the chapters were so short. I thought there was something interesting about having a chapter that was just the line, just playing around with the form of chapters.
MM: Speaking of Maud Martha, I found in my research an interview in which you called the book the “answer to all questions.” Would you stand by that?
AS: Yes, I’d stand by that. It’s just about all of the things that I think people are writing about. I think it has a philosophy of living, it has a philosophy of art, it has a philosophy of disappointment and humiliation, it has a philosophy about finding joy in life. I think people should read many, many more books than it, but if you’re looking for the answer to all your questions, just know that it’s there.
MM: So I assume Gwendolyn Brooks is a pretty conscious influence in your writing.
AS: It’s interesting because Gwendolyn Brooks only wrote one book of fiction, which is Maud Martha. I don’t actually think of her as an influence because, though I love her poetry, I don’t think of her poetry as a strong enough influence on me compared to Maud Martha. But everything I write, I’m just trying to write towards Maud Martha.
MM: I was surprised by the ending of The Days of Afrekete. When did you know how the book was going to end?
AS: Pretty early on, I knew the ending would leave us in a place where we know both the characters were there in the same space, but we weren’t going to find out anything else. Part of it had to do with the ending of Mrs. Dalloway, a book that goes and goes—I took the last line from it: “And there she was: Clarissa.” Now you’ve learned all you need to know about Clarissa. The idea was to take us through the things that had let them to the day. It’s not as if nothing happens or nothing changes. Disgruntled had an ending that a lot of people felt was abrupt, which I guess I like or prefer. I like the rhythm of it. I feel like these stories are complete in their own ways and in the goals that I had in telling them.
MM: What, to you, constitutes a good abrupt ending?
AS: Just that not everything is tied up. With this book, people would say, “Well, what happened to Winn?” That’s just so not the point. The only point of that plot is to put pressure on Liselle, to spin Liselle into a kind of crisis in terms of trying to reevaluate what her life has been about. But I don’t really care that much what happens to Winn.
MM: The Days of Afrekete involves politics quite deeply, but it seems more interested in interpersonal connections between individuals. Do you see this as an inherently political novel or as a book that just so happens to include politics?
AS: I think all books are inherently political. Even things that are stridently apolitical–that’s a type of politics. I don’t think of it as anything separate or even willful. A big part of what I write is often that these intimate interpersonal relationships are shaped by our political world. And by political here, I mean issues of identity and power. So that’s how I think about it.
But a big part of this is that Liselle’s fear of trying to make a life for herself as a Black queer woman leads her to, more or less, have an alliance with Winn. And that’s inherently political.
MM: You come from a family that was politically engaged, especially your grandmother Mamie Nichols, a famed Philadelphia activist. Was she a conscious influence in any of your work?
AS: My grandmother is a conscious influence in my work in that she’s one of the most effective and powerful people I ever knew. But I don’t think of her in terms of characters. Really more so if I’m trying to achieve something hard or if I do something good, she’s just so much a part of anything good that I do. In that way, I think she’s an influence.
MM: Do you see her activism and your writing as twin projects?
AS: (Laughs) So, I think that, like, trying to figure out what’s crucial about life and your environment and trying also to change it in some meaningful way—that’s her way. I feel like what I’m doing is chickenshit compared to what she was doing. The kind of ways that she would touch lives, or the people she held—when you tell people that you’re her granddaughter, the expressions that come over their faces are just so . . . yeah.
So in my Generation-whatever, chickenshit way, yes, it’s a version of her work. I’m hoping that my kids take it back to her level of activism. My mom is also a really strong activist. She’s also a really big activist-leader in areas of public education. She’s retired now, but she’s busier than she’s ever been. She’s at the center of these campaigns that are changing the base of school funding. Both of them have this idea that they’ll see something that’s going wrong and go, “I know if I can get in there, I can fix that.” My generation doesn’t have that at all. I think subsequent generations have more of it. In as much as I’m a person who will talk candidly and make art about some of these issues, I guess that does come from them.
It also comes from my father, who’s a songwriter, not by trade but by passion.
MM: Did you ever see or consider a life where your career would be in that kind of activism?
AS: No, because activism is in a large way not following rules, and I was a big rule-follower, a good student. I wasn’t going to get in trouble. And frankly, growing up, my generation really thought that a lot of the problems that my grandparents and my parents were engaged in were on a different trajectory. If I’d known then what I know now, I don’t know, maybe I would have devoted my life to making sure abortion stayed legal, but we really thought things were on a different trajectory and that we had the luxury then to make really good art about it.
And it’s true that, no matter what’s going on, you need to have people who are making art about something. That’s true. Or else we wouldn’t have known about some of the worst things that had ever happened or we wouldn’t have thought about them in the same way. But I do think that the ’80s and ’90s were a very different kind of era in terms of thinking about crisis or threat.
MM: Humor plays a big role in The Days of Afrekete but also in your work generally. Most of the time when I hear people speak of humor, it’s to release tension, but one thing that I found in The Days of Afrekete was that it creates tension, too. I’m thinking here of the bussing joke Winn makes that makes a deep impression on Liselle. In what ways have you used humor in this book to create tension?
AS: That’s a really good reading. Somebody made that joke at one of the first jobs I had, and it was one of the best things that I had ever heard. I don’t necessarily strategically deploy humor at all. Any purpose of humor in my work that people find has to be found by somebody other than me. I will always make a joke if there’s a good joke, and I will always say things that I think are just stating the truth that people find funny.
Laughing is one of the most unambiguously positive things you can get from art. It’s just something that I always like working with and is always a goal. It’s just one of the best things that you can do for other people reading your work, to make them laugh.
I was interviewing the writer Kiese Laymon earlier this year, and he was saying that humor was a way into talking about certain kinds of topics. I think that’s true as well. It allows you to convey certain kinds of information and ideas, allows you to put certain ideas in the air, that otherwise wouldn’t be out there.
MM: So it would be accurate to say that you see humor, at least in part, as a form of truth-telling.
AS: Yeah, it is.
MM: Do you find the jokes that you put into and/or find in your books are rather political?
AS: Only in that humor is a really effective way of talking about political issues. Earnestly addressing political issues is very rarely something that I respond to well. Part of what any writer is doing is writing the kinds of things that they would want to read, as Toni Morrison famously said. I really think that in terms of getting at the most crucial and foundational issues about interactions between humans, humor is one of the best ways to address that. I also respond in writing to complex humor, like humor that’s embedded in, say, rage or absurdity. My mentor Elizabeth McCracken says that humor makes the sad things in your work sadder just as sadness actually makes the humor funnier.
MM: So it’s a reflexive relationship between the two.
AS: Yeah, they’re not unrelated. Tragedy and humor, obviously, we know are related. Something doesn’t become less serious or less great because there’s a lot of humor in it.
MM: You lived away from Philadelphia for quite some time, but you still found that it was a topic, a locale, a setting that you could return to repeatedly. What do you think it is about Philadelphia, including but not limited to being from here, that keeps you coming back to the city?
AS: One thing I should say is that when you go away from home—and you’re a writer—a lot of times if there’s anything interesting to you that happened there that seems related to where it was, you really start to reflect on it in a different way. You also start to learn that if you thought everywhere was the same in some way, you find that there are these very specific things about Philadelphia.
A number of things happened. One, I was really writing about a lot of things that happened to me that seemed to be shaped by this location. The main thing was that I went to elementary school in West Philadelphia, and then I wound up going to a prep school on the Main Line. That was an occasion for feeling very dislocated and doing a lot of study of what those discrete environments were like.
Philadelphia is a big city. It has a fairly large Black population, and that’s very significant. When I was growing up, it was also extremely tribal in a way that was dangerous. Specifically I mean there were a lot of white neighborhoods you couldn’t go into. You would get hurt. Also, I grew up during the height of the crack era.
But because Philadelphia has such a large Black population, that population was very diverse. A lot of the reading I did in college and in grad school even wasn’t really reflecting a lot of the characters I met in Philadelphia. I learned a lot about California-style health food from my aunt and uncle in West Philly. They were the first people I knew drinking room-temperature spring water out of jugs, eating soybean-type things, but that wasn’t the kind of thing you’d learn about out in the world, so that interested me.
I also started reading Edward P. Jones, and what he does with working class Black Washington D.C. is to completely mythologize it just by being so specific about where something is or who someone is. I was like, I could do this for Philadelphia, just a way of making where you’re from into literature. I think there are specific reasons for me to have done that with Philadelphia, but anyone can do that with anywhere.
MM: Do you think the sense of dislocation you felt moving between the Main Line and West Philadelphia informed your characterization of Liselle?
AS: It’s funny because this is a lot of the story of Disgruntled. But Liselle’s sense of dislocation comes from having a lonely childhood, being queer, and then trying to locate herself on this majority-white college campus. A lot of the stuff I wrote previous to The Days of Afrekete is really about middle school students, and that is a moment of feeling dislocated from yourself. Anything layered on it is even more extreme. Maybe there’s still a hint of that, but I’m doing it less consciously with Liselle.
MM: Do you think that Philadelphia is a city that hasn’t been mythologized enough?
AS: No, it’s not that. I just think it could be more mythologized. I also think that there are definitely differences between big cities, but there are things you can read about in Philadelphia that you could think about with a lot of other big cities as well. This is more me trying to think about all the stories you can tell about a place. You can tell almost every story about every place.
(Laughs) Maybe not the Hamptons.
MM: We’ve been talking about your influences: Gwendolyn Brooks, Virginia Woolf, Edward P. Jones. These are often writers that you teach. What do you think aspiring writers have to learn from the writers you so often teach and are influenced by?
AS: I teach a lot of writers. Lynda Barry is somebody I think a lot of young writers should read, either her workbooks or her novel Cruddy. Another book that was really influential on The Days of Afrekete was Two Girls, Fat and Thin by Mary Gaitskill, which is a really troubled, disturbing novel that I think a lot of people should read.
What I try to do with teaching—and teaching creative writing—is give people a reasonable array of different approaches to writing and also different stories so that hopefully, at the end of the semester, everybody saw some part of themselves in something. Whether that means seeing their identity reflected or their writerly sensibility reflected, that’s the goal. It’s like if you were teaching people architecture, and you showed them a lot of different chairs. It’s meant to expand their imagination about what can be accomplished in a story and the kind of things you can write about.
MM: Do you remember when you first saw yourself in a work of literature?
AS: That’s a really good question. That’s funny. The book I felt the most strongly about at a young age was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I certainly did not see myself in the book at all. I probably felt more reflected in novels by Judy Blume or whatever. When I got a little older, my mom started inundating me with ’80s Black women writers. It wasn’t about kids, though, and it all seemed quite serious.
But yeah, I don’t know. This is really weird. That’s a really good question. More so I felt interested in somebody’s sensibility than saying, “That’s about me!” I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of writers experienced things like that because a lot of writers watch other people and make stories out of them.
MM: If I can hazard a thought, do you think moving between two different worlds, West Philadelphia and the Main Line, could have been in some figurative, imaginative way reflected in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’s moving between the world of twentieth-century England and this fantastical realm of Narnia?
AS: That’s an interesting idea, but I read that before I moved. Back then, I was just moving between the worlds of Lea School and my house, which was not far. As a child, though, I did like to think about other places and other realities. But it’s definitely true that the idea of travel and confusing moves back and forth held my imagination for a long time. I probably read all of the Narnia books before I changed schools, but the fact they stayed alive within me maybe relates to what you said.
MM: Moving back towards teaching, do you think that teaching creative writing has affected your own writing?
AS: I do think that it helps keep me aware of decisions I make or conscious of different kinds of dynamics that come out in writing. It helps keep the vocabulary of fiction writing present for me in a way that would be a little different if I were only teaching literature courses. I learn a lot through reading student work. Some of the things I learn are more about who the students are in a given time and place. Not the students individually, just like students and young people right now. Probably, a lot of what it does is subconscious, but because I often have to articulate my ideas about writing, it’s good for refining what I think about how it works.
MM: Vice versa, in what ways do you think your writing affects the way you teach creative writing?
AS: I’m able to talk to students about what some of the real difficulties, dilemmas, and decisions are as a writer. It would be really hard for me to teach effectively without having an active writing practice because the thing you forget when you’re not writing is how hard it is to write. That’s a really important part of writing and teaching writing. People get jobs and get institutionalized at MFA programs and they issue declarations, sort of from on high, about people’s work when they haven’t been writing themselves. The problem with that is that it’s actually a miracle that someone takes a blank page and fills it with words. Staying in touch with that by writing is extremely helpful to me as a teacher.
MM: Does the blank page ever intimidate you?
AS: It doesn’t really intimidate me that much because I don’t seek it out. I’m writing if I feel like there’s something going on creatively. I went through this big writer’s block when I was trying to write this novel. The explicit advice from my mentor was just to get over it. I also realized that a blank page is just vanity. There are things you can write, and you’re just upset that they’re bad. But it’s your job to go ahead and write badly until you find what you’re supposed to be doing.
MM: That might be some of the best advice I’ve heard about confronting the blank page.
AS: I don’t really believe in that kind of writer’s block. It may be that you get into a situation where you really are giving it a lot and you just keep writing stuff that sounds terrible to you. That’s a slightly different situation. But if you’re thinking, “I have nothing,” you always have something. You just don’t want to commit it to paper. You just have to. It’s part of the process.
MM: Would you say you feel more at home in the short story or the novel? Both?
AS: It’s funny because I had to write a novel kicking and screaming. The reason I did it is because the conventional wisdom is that novels sell better than short stories. Say you’re a writer with some talent and you want to sell your first stories. A lot of times, what will happen is a publishing company will buy, if you’re lucky, your short stories with the promise of a novel. I felt pushed into writing a novel. It was really difficult because if you write realism, you can’t get away with minimum plot like you can in short stories. I didn’t like plot because plot is superficial. You actually have to signal there that this is made up. I had a really hard time with that. And then whatever, I wrote a novel. Then I thought I was definitely going to go back to writing stories.
But stories are hard! The reason why they’re hard is that, yes, you can write one story. Everybody if they really tried, everybody on the Earth who had some time and learned how to read, could write at least one awesome story. The question is can you write ten, right? They’re such a complete world, and it’s a very unforgiving form. So with a novel, it’s more forgiving. With a story, you can’t have a part in the middle that’s bad but it’s a good story. You can say that about a novel. People will frequently say, “The ending wasn’t great, but it was good.” The discipline required to write a story, just when I sat down to write fiction after writing a novel, felt massive. I got these ideas from The Days of Afrekete, so I’ll end up writing them.
Right now, though, I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to do. It might be stories. When I started writing stories, I didn’t think, “Oh, I’m gonna be a published writer.” I wasn’t thinking about that at all. I also didn’t feel any time pressure, and indeed, I had all the time in the world. I didn’t have a job and kids. I was in school. Now, it seems like a massive mental commitment to write a collection of stories. But I definitely would like to return to them at one point.
MM: I’ll end on this series of questions. Is your favorite band still Steely Dan?
MM: What was it like to have Donald Fagen read Disgruntled?
AS: How do you know about that?
MM: The interviews are on your website.
AS: Oh did I say that? It’s so funny. That, and being on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, was the peak of my career. (Laughs) Yeah, that was great.
MM: You mentioned that you’re thinking about what may come next. Do you want to elaborate on that?
AS: No. It’s funny. When I was writing Disgruntled, I was happy to tell everybody everything when I really had nothing. Now, though, I feel like the more you talk about something you’re doing the more it disappears in real life.