The PEN Ten: An Interview with Robert Jones Jr.
1. What was the first book or piece of writing that had a profound impact on you?
The first book that I recognized as Literature—with a capital L—in that it made me think about style, the inner lives of the characters, plot, the writer’s intention and craft, and in general made me think about writing as art, was Terry McMillan’s first novel, Mama. I bought it from a Black-owned bookstore in Harlem back when it was released in 1987. I was 16 years old. I remember feeling as though I was reading something important and “adult” for the first time, something that testified to my experiences as a Black poor person in a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Right after finishing that book, I made my first attempt at writing a novel.
2. How does your writing navigate truth? What is the relationship between truth and fiction?
I think about what Toni Morrison said about this. She said that her novels are truth, not fact. How can something be true, but not factual? The best fiction reveals the answer to us by running parallel to reality, highlighting or uncovering things we might have missed because we were preoccupied, apathetic, traumatized, or in a state of complete denial. Fiction, for me, is not synonymous with falsehood; it’s much more nuanced than that. Fiction is the deliberate crafting of myths such that they are revelatory about human conditions, human behaviors, human constructions (of which history is one).
It’s like a mirror: The reflection you see in the glass is technically not you—meaning the real, physical you is only on one side of the glass—but it is you enough that it allows you to see yourself with unparalleled clarity. That’s what I hope The Prophets is: a mirror. I did tons of research, so there is a factual basis to some of what I wrote. But I also arranged those facts so that they might illuminate truth. And that latter thing is what might be able to free somebody.
“How can something be true, but not factual? The best fiction reveals the answer to us by running parallel to reality, highlighting or uncovering things we might have missed because we were preoccupied, apathetic, traumatized, or in a state of complete denial. Fiction, for me, is not synonymous with falsehood; it’s much more nuanced than that. Fiction is the deliberate crafting of myths such that they are revelatory about human conditions, human behaviors, human constructions.”
3. What is one book or piece of writing you love that readers might not know about?
I don’t think Kola Boof’s The Sexy Part of the Bible has gotten enough attention or acclaim. Boof writes with such high moral character and complete clarity—and with a deep, abiding love of Blackness—that her work can be startling in the best of ways. Some might call it offensive at first glance, but I believe it deserves a more rigorous analysis—not just for its craft, which is so beautifully embedded in a Sudanese aesthetic, but also for its sociopolitical apologia.
4. When did you first call yourself a writer? How did it feel? Has your perception of what it means to be a writer changed between then and now?
Honestly, I haven’t fully embraced that idea that I’m a writer—even though I’ve been writing since I was a child, have two degrees in writing, worked as a writer for 10 years, written for numerous publications including Essence magazine and The New York Times, and wrote a novel. I’ve been thinking about why that might be. This may be inflammatory to say, but I think the United States, as an empire, despises writers. Perhaps, it despises all artists—particularly ones it cannot control—because as James Baldwin said, “Artists are here to disturb the peace,” by which he meant the status quo. So in this country, art is often treated as secondary, if not completely unnecessary to human development and achievement. This becomes a cultural attitude where art is regarded as frivolous, and an emphasis is placed on “practical” professions that earn particular kinds of wages.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt safe enough to call myself a writer because of the social pressures that demand that labor be physically strenuous, particularly for male/masculine people, and a salary earned through a peculiar and mechanized blood, sweat, and tears. And with that comes guilt for even thinking that I’m a writer. A society that only wishes to produce soldiers and laborers is ill-prepared to cultivate artists. It’s a miracle that artists have been able to self-actualize under such conditions. So many have sacrificed so that I could have the room to write. Maybe it’s time I honored that and called myself by my name.
5. What advice do you have for young writers?
I say this particularly to young Black writers and those who are writing from places of marginalization: Whatever the obstacle, keep writing. No matter who tells you to stop, no matter the reasons they give, keep writing. When your inner opponent tells you that you are unworthy, keep writing. When you are working and working and studying and studying and parenting and parenting, and you don’t have a moment to spare, keep writing. If it’s just a word, a sentence, or a paragraph a week, keep writing. Write over and over and over again. And then revise and revise and revise. Don’t worry about the clock ticking. There is no time but your time. This isn’t a race; it’s a journey. You have only one obligation to the universe: to never give up.
“In this country, art is often treated as secondary, if not completely unnecessary to human development and achievement. This becomes a cultural attitude where art is regarded as frivolous, and an emphasis is placed on ‘practical’ professions that earn particular kinds of wages. . . A society that only wishes to produce soldiers and laborers is ill-prepared to cultivate artists.”
6. Which writers working today are you most excited by?
Mercy! There are so many! Edwidge Danticat (Everything Inside), Jacqueline Woodson (Red at the Bone), Marlon James (Black Leopard, Red Wolf), Jesmyn Ward (Sing, Unburied, Sing), Kiese Laymon (Long Division), Maisy Card (These Ghosts Are Family), Deesha Philyaw (The Secret Lives of Church Ladies), Mateo Askaripour (Black Buck), N. K. Jemisin (The City We Became), Bryan Washington (Memorial), Ocean Vuong (On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous), R.O. Kwon (The Incendiaries), Brit Bennett (The Vanishing Half), Raven Leilani (Luster), Maurice Carlos Ruffin (We Cast a Shadow), De’Shawn Charles Winslow (In West Mills), Brandon Taylor (Real Life), Namwali Serpell (The Old Drift), Maaza Mengiste (The Shadow King). . . I could go on and on. And that’s just the fiction writers!
7. What was one of the most surprising things you learned in writing your debut novel, The Prophets—be it research, the details of the narrative, or yourself as a writer?
The long journey of writing The Prophets has been full of surprises. The first surprise is that I actually finished it. When I started it, I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to write it, much less finish it. I read so much literature and scholarship, listened to some oral histories in preparation for it, but I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to honor all that I had learned in a work of fiction. And when I say I was afraid, I’m not speaking metaphorically. Writing this book scared me because I’m trafficking in issues that some people feel are sacrosanct and shouldn’t be scrutinized or sacrilegious and shouldn’t be shared. I think maybe that’s the other surprising thing: not the fear, but that I was able to push through it.
Also surprising—it’s true what writers say: The characters are alive. Whether they are spirits hovering above you or parts of your own subconscious making their way to the surface, these characters talk to you and tell you what ain’t working and how it ought to be.
8. Where do you write? Some writers have rituals or talismans they keep close by when they write. Do you? If so, how did you prepare to write each day, and what did you surround yourself with while writing The Prophets? Why?
It’s frustrating, but I have to write just about everything by hand first. (Shoutout to left-handed writers!) It’s frustrating because I often can’t write as fast as the ideas come to me, and so I sometimes lose things. Also having to transcribe handwritten notes is grueling and time-consuming work. I mention that because I like to do most of my writing outdoors, either on the stoop of my home, on mass transit in NYC, at Belvedere Castle in Central Park, or in a secluded spot in New York Botanical Garden. I don’t like noise, but I do like being surrounded by people and nature when I write.
I have two talismans watching over me. One is of the Egyptian god Thoth. He is the god of wisdom, writing, hieroglyphs, science, magic, art, judgment, and the dead. It was gift from author Jenny Offill, who was my workshop instructor during my last semester in the MFA fiction program at Brooklyn College. The other is Ṣàngó, a Yoruba Orisha, who represents justice, lighting, and dance, and was crucial to certain enslaved Black communities’ rebellion strategies. It was given to me by a writer friend I used to work with at Brooklyn College, Audrey Peterson. Looking at them every day while writing really helped me to remember why I was writing and that I should never surrender to hopelessness or doubt.
“[Writing the book] showed me my limitations and forced me to grow. It showed me myself—with every flaw and every beauty—and encouraged me to confront all of it. Fourteen years of smiles and guts and laughter and anger and hope and insecurity and doubt and triumph. And love. Lots of love.”
9. Writing is an intimate process. The Prophets, which was years in the making, now also belongs to readers. How do you prepare for that? What does it mean to you?
I’m not sure how to prepare for that. I’m not sure what the reaction will be to The Prophets or how it will be received. I know that each individual who reads it will bring all of their own lives and experiences to the text, and that my intentions become immaterial to how the work is interpreted and felt. It is somewhat terrifying to think about how readers might react to it, but it’s also an honor to be able to offer someone something that they might see value in receiving. I don’t know. I’m a bundle of nerves, really. Ask me again in a year. LOL!
10. In a note to the reader, you explain that representation of Black queer love in precolonial African societies and American antebellum text is both limited and incomplete, often clinical and violent, which left you to ask: “What about love?” At its heart, The Prophets is a love story between two enslaved men. Toni Morrison said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” You did that—with clarity, beauty, and generosity. I wonder, what did the process mean to you? What does the product mean to you? And does one matter more than the other now that it’s complete?
I give praise to the process. This was grueling, frustrating, but ultimately rewarding work. It taught me both patience and persistence. It taught me how to listen. It showed me obstacles and forced me to strategize ways to overcome them. It showed me my limitations and forced me to grow. It showed me myself—with every flaw and every beauty—and encouraged me to confront all of it. Fourteen years of smiles and guts and laughter and anger and hope and insecurity and doubt and triumph. And love. Lots of love. Loving yourself through this is the hardest part because the instinct is to hate yourself so that you can be prepared for the hate others might direct at you for daring.
The product itself? I can say I did my very best. Whether I achieved something of note or not is for the readers and critics to decide. That makes me feel naked and vulnerable. But that, too, is part of the process. Aren’t we all naked and vulnerable, and all the stuff we do—the pomp, the circumstance, the hate, the wars, the materialism, and the lies—is manufactured just to hide this simple fact? The process reveals. Praise the process.
Robert Jones Jr. 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, Essence, OkayAfrica, The Feminist Wire, and The Grio. He is the creator of the social justice social media community Son of Baldwin. Jones was recently featured in T Magazine’s cover story, “Black Male Writers of Our Time.” The Prophets is his debut novel.