Jamila Minnicks is a writer tied deeply to her roots, embodying the spirit of her ancestors to chart the past, confront the present, and imagine the future. Her debut novel, Moonrise Over New Jessup, was the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction-winner. Established by Barbara Kingsolver in 2000, it is awarded biennially to the author of a previously unpublished novel of high literary caliber that exemplifies the prize’s founding principles—fiction that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships.

A period novel set in the all-Black town of New Jessup, Minnicks’ debut is “both a celebration of Black joy and a timely examination of the opposing viewpoints that attended desegregation in America.” For this week’s PEN Ten, she spoke with PEN America Literary Programs and Emerging Voices Program Director Jared Jackson about Moonrise Over New Jessup (Algonquin Books, 2023). (Amazon, Bookshop)

1. How does your writing navigate truth? What is the relationship between truth and fiction?
The words truth and fiction seem at odds because fiction is, by definition, a product of our imagination. But bell hooks told us: “To be truly visionary, we have to root our imagination in our concrete reality while simultaneously imagining possibilities beyond reality.” 

Historical fiction is the concrete reality of our past meeting the imagination of our pen. Some people and events had volumes written about them; some are memorialized in oral tradition; and some are all but lost to the stars. To me, imagining the possibilities beyond reality means building carefully-constructed evidence- and research-based narratives to represent lives we would otherwise never know. It’s allowing our honest, accurate, and complete history to enrich the stories of the people in our stories, which, by extension, gives readers the chance to explore the far reaches of our past.

2. Your debut novel Moonrise Over New Jessup is set in an all-Black town. The protagonist Alice Young has a mix of emotions upon discovering it and seeing how “Negroes of every shade came together like dusk in a fall forest.” What made you choose this setting for the novel, and what did you wish to convey by Alice’s reaction to the community within it?
This is a story of independence in a lot of ways—what it means, what it looks like, and how we experience it. Alice is all Alabama when she descends the bus—she’s smart, resilient, creative, dynamic, resourceful, and she knows her own mind. But she is also in the midst of a full range of emotions when she arrives in New Jessup—grief over the recent loss of her father, worry about her sister, stress after the encounter with her landlord, uncertainty about how to get to Chicago after leaving behind the only home she’s ever known. In a place like New Jessup—where residents seem to be free of segregation laws designed to restrict every human experience for Black people—the deep wounds she is dealing with meet that first drop of an antiseptic that is both shocking and healing at the same time. 

When she sees a Black woman in red heels walk through the front door of a café, “freedom from segregation” and “freedom to be truly free” collide in her life. “Freedom from segregation” connotes escape, juxtaposes her ability to grieve and worry and work and move about the world in relation to a strict legal and factual framework designed to uphold white supremacy. “Freedom to be truly free” is the freedom to be smart, resilient, creative—to experience vulnerability and to know her own mind—and to be encouraged to do so. Once the shoeshine man confirms the latter is the reality in New Jessup, the weight of it all—that she and her family could have been thrived right in Alabama; the grief for her daddy and longing for her sister; the escape from her landlord; the front doors they seem to take for granted in this place—all hits her at once. The realization of lost opportunity meeting the shock of possibility is enough to crumple her to tears. 

“Our language reflects our history, our culture, our trophies, our scars, and our dopeness. I write to preserve our language because it is one way that we can really connect our past to our present.”

3. The novel’s prose is vivid, rhythmic, and breathes language that feels solely authentic to Alice, and that of the South. “Over some seconds, her soft confidence warmed and soaked through me. Slowly, like the way a pat of butter melts over cornbread fresh out the oven,” she says early in the novel, describing her sister Rosie calming her nerves as she makes her way down a tree she’s stuck in. Can you describe the process of finding Alice’s voice and how it transmits the world she inhabits?
Black people have been telling stories since before time began. This is a story about Alice’s life—her trials, triumphs, vulnerabilities, and secrets. Her audience was always going to be her family—blood relations and kin by skin. People who know the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feel of the world she describes. Once I began writing, the holiday table scene that sparked my curiosity about Alice’s smile gave way to a new vision in my imagination—one where Alice is telling her story. And I envision her telling her tale around a dying fire as the family sits too entranced by the night sky, and memories of a good time, to start cleaning up after a cookout. People are tired yet satisfied, and the high moon encourages reverie, which is why the novel begins the way it does. In this sacred space, where she is surrounded by her kin, the only language she would use to tell all of her secrets is the language that she knows. She’s not workshopping a piece or worrying about craft choices and grammar mandates. It’s not the time for putting on airs. She’s speaking to her family as only she knows how.

Our language reflects our history, our culture, our trophies, our scars, and our dopeness. I write to preserve our language because it is one way that we can really connect our past to our present. Alice didn’t just fall out of the sky and land in New Jessup—she was raised by loving parents who did the best they could for her and Rosie. Her family taught her hard lessons, sacrificed for her, loved her, teased her, and gave her a strong foundation for becoming the woman she becomes. Every word she utters reminds us of the experience and intelligence she gleaned about the world well before she ever stepped in town. Alice brings herself to New Jessup. Her words are the history of her.

4. How can writers affect resistance movements?
Writers document and correct the record, both past and present. Language is a powerful choice of weapon because it preserves our history and frames our resistance.

The language we use matters. Places founded as Black towns and settlements still exist as living neighborhoods and cities today. Anti-Black violence and institutional racism has decimated many of these places, but language is a weapon for preservation or erasure. It is a powerful tool for seeking justice or perpetuating injustice.

I asked Robert Jones, Jr. to blurb Moonrise Over New Jessup because I am a huge fan of his work, and he graciously agreed. Our friendship developed text-by-text as Brooklyn-born and raised Robert fully immersed himself in the life of New Jessup, Alabama. He finished reading on a Sunday around four o’clock and my FaceTime rang, just as I was preparing to pack my bags for a trip to Alabama. Robert was on my phone wearing shock all over his face! With barely a hello, he said, “What am I supposed to do now? Just leave New Jessup?!?” We talked for a couple of hours about the themes and scenes and the people who had become kin to him. Knowing our history fortifies us from within and gives us the imagination needed to continue fighting for social justice.

That’s my goal. Art should make us feel deeply about ourselves and our history and our future. It should keep the beauty and the injustice of our full experiences alive. It should arm us with the tools we need to continue the fight for freedom and equality. It should introduce us to people and places that challenge, and strengthen us, and remind us that our time on this soil is sacred.

5. The themes of truth, commitment, and promise are firmly placed in the novel. Were these ideas you set out to explore or did they surface organically as the story developed?
These themes are all derived from a central belief that Black people deserve better. Black towns and settlements were built upon this foundational belief, yet it is the question of Black social progress (Who defines it? How is it defined? How can we achieve it?) that has as many answers as there are people in the diaspora.

This story began with getting to the bottom of Alice’s smile. What was in her eyes? What did she really think about Brown v. Board of Education and why? This was a family sitting around a well-apportioned holiday table. Food was abundant, and it was draped with a beautiful cloth. People were well dressed, passionate, and unafraid to speak their minds. In that environment, who was she? She certainly did not seem stifled, but that she chose not to enter the commotion. Why not? 

It didn’t take long for the scenes in my imagination to change from the holiday table to her family sitting and enjoying the night sky. That’s when Alice became a storyteller willing to tell her tale. So I suppose it was organic because this was when Alice demonstrated how her commitment to family was absolute, even when aims seemed to have fully conflicting means. During the course of writing and revising, Alice demonstrated how she became someone able to distinguish her love for Alabama, and its Black Belt soil, from the sin in the hearts of man. I had to interrogate a million questions to truly understand the spice behind her smile. But envisioning Alice as a storyteller felt like the most organic and true way to get her story on the page.

“Blackness is on my skin, in my soul, and in my pen. I write because I want to know my people better, and when I learn something, I want everybody to know my people better, too.

6. How does your identity shape your writing? Is there such a thing as “the writer’s identity”?

My elders and ancestors deserve to be centered in honest narratives about their lives, and it is my privilege to write their stories. I am a writer, and I wrote Alice and the people of New Jessup to represent my ancestors. And in that field of ethereal mist, it felt like an untold number of ancestors was lining up, asking to have each of their individual stories told, too. It was overwhelming to consider even the hundreds of stories that I cannot tell because I cannot know, let alone the millions of untold lives my ancestors have lived in the United States. Our stories are not the same today as they were yesterday, or as they will be tomorrow, and to think of capturing the entirety of even one life, let alone the millions of lives I don’t have the earthly time to tell, had me out there thinking, “If not everybody, then who?”

Blackness is on my skin, in my soul, and in my pen. I write because I want to know my people better, and when I learn something, I want everybody to know my people better, too. The fight for Black freedom and social progress in the United States dates back to our first footprint on this soil. Knowing how my ancestors lived, what they fought for, who they loved, how they died, is remarkably mooring. As Toni Morrison said, “My world does not shrink because I am a Black female writer. It just got bigger.”

But I don’t dare tell other writers where to draw inspiration or with whom to identify. I do think that, if we choose to put our communities on the page, we should render them in fully-dimensional and honest ways.

7. What is the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words? Have you ever written something you wish you could take back?
Daring is a matter of perspective. Some refer to Moonrise Over New Jessup as “uncomfortable” or “challenging” or “provocative.” I wonder who is uncomfortable or challenged or provoked by a story about Black people being in loving, honest community with one another? And why? New Jessup invites everyone to meet the world through Alice’s eyes. Is writing about a true piece of Black history, or centering Alice’s story, or writing so that Black people recognize ourselves on the page, daring? Perhaps. I suppose it’s all a matter of perspective.

There may be some editorial or stylistic changes I would make to my early work. Your writing practice and ability matures as you continue to write. But my goal is to celebrate the complexities of Blackness in my writing, so I’m proud to have it all out in the world.

8. Moonrise Over New Jessup was the winner of the 2021 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. How did you approach effectively writing about social issues—political power, desegregation, and organizing—while also crafting and balancing a lyrical, heartfelt narrative?
It all started with Alice. All politics is local, and the idea that a Black settlement like New Jessup was a place where she could thrive just for being who she was—where she could rise and shine surrounded by Blackness—was an intriguing place to start. What made New Jessup, and the places that inspired it, somewhere that Black people could actually make a way out of no way, and then build over the span of generations? It’s only after experiencing 1957-1961 New Jessup, Alabama through Alice’s eyes and voice that we can begin to understand the world as she saw it. 

Witnessing real-time organizing efforts, discussions about political power, and desegregation on the micro level gave rise to several interesting questions and observations. For example, it’s 1958 when Raymond is fast-talking about his ambitions to Alice when she counters with an incredulous comment about the possibility of a Black president. Even Raymond has to shrug off that idea. That moment really brought depth to the initial skepticism harbored by the Black community towards Barack Obama’s candidacy for president in 2008. It was interesting to remember how impossible Obama’s win felt in 2008, let alone, to consider it by 1958 standards. The swell of joy and pride that overwhelmed so many of us—from elderly to young—when he was sworn into office feels ancestral because that doubt ran deep. Taking the “all politics is local” approach to writing Moonrise Over New Jessup really brought home ideas of the past as prologue, and enhanced the profound impact of those moments in history when we exceed what the ancestors ever believed possible.

“Storytellers capture the entire starry night and distill it into something for readers to digest. Stories tell us about ourselves and our ancestors in ways that help us to understand our existence more clearly. They are how we preserve our language and our history.”

9. What advice do you have for young writers?
Write with intention and intelligence and a curiosity about what fascinates you. Your art will find its readers, who will appreciate your unique pen.

10. Why do you think people need stories?
Storytellers capture the entire starry night and distill it into something for readers to digest. Stories tell us about ourselves and our ancestors in ways that help us to understand our existence more clearly. They are how we preserve our language and our history. They provide perspectives about life that we don’t confront on a regular basis and remind us of the various ways we have loved and resisted. We need stories to hold us together and to tear us apart. To challenge and entertain us and to show us just how unique we are in the world. Everyone has a story—even, and maybe especially, our grandmamas and big mommas and ma’dears and the Alices in all of our lives—if we just pay attention. Being a storyteller can be an awesome power and an immense responsibility because fiction can lead us closer to, or further away, from truth depending on who is telling the tales.

Jamila Minnicks‘ work has been published, or is forthcoming, in CRAFT literary magazine, Catapult, Blackbird, and The Write Launch, among others. Her piece, “Politics of Distraction,” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Jamila also earned a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and she was awarded a Tennessee Williams scholarship for the 2022 Sewanee Writers’ Conference. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan, the Howard University School of Law, and Georgetown University Law Center, and she lives in Washington, DC.

The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series.