Robert Jones Jr., THE PROPHETS

Robert Jones Jr., THE PROPHETS

Zibby Owens: Welcome, Robert. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your amazing, hugely successful, powerful book, The Prophets.

Robert Jones Jr.: Thank you so much for having me. This is such a pleasure.

Zibby: How are you doing with the success of this book? What do you think? Did you ever expect? Tell me about it.

Robert: I did not ever expect. I actually expected the opposite, that people would either ignore it, find it far-fetched, be offended by the topics it broaches. I did not expect the success and the acclaim that it has experienced thus far. It is so hard to internalize it because I had been so preparing myself for the bad or the negative that the positive surprised me. I think I’m still in a state of surprise, but ultimately grateful.

Zibby: I like doing that too, sort of prepare for the worst and then everything is a pleasant surprise. For people who might not be familiar with The Prophets or Son of Baldwin, for that matter, would you mind first just talking a little about what The Prophets is about? Then what inspired you to write it?

Robert: Awesome. The Prophets is about Samuel and Isaiah, two enslaved men on a plantain in Mississippi during the 1800s who are in love. The book examines how that love transforms, inspires, angers everyone around them whether that be fellow enslaved people or the plantain owners and the family that owns these enslaved people. There’s a thread in it that goes back to precolonial Africa to give a precursor to Samuel and Isaiah’s love and origin point for how long-lasting and historical that sort of love is. It is something that took me fourteen years to write precisely because I could find no template to draw from. In all of my studies — I was an Africana studies minor in undergrad — I could find no examples of blackness and queerness prior to the Harlem Renaissance and wondered, where were they? Did they just pop up in 1929? Where were black queer people? Found only references that sort of alluded to sexual assault or some sort of depravity. My question was, what about love? The great Toni Morrison said if you cannot find the book you wish to read, then you must write it. I set about writing what would eventually become The Prophets.

Zibby: Wow, fourteen years. It’s finally here. Do you ever get tempted to go back into the file on your computer and just keep tinkering around a little bit more?

Robert: If it was not for my agent, PJ Mark at Janklow & Nesbit, and my editor, Sally Kim at Putnam, I could’ve tinkered with this for another fourteen years. The writer almost never knows when it’s done. You just revise and revise and revise because that’s your training. Writing is revision. You will keep revising until you have written fourteen years’ worth of books. They stopped me said, “Okay, this is done.”

Zibby: It’s time.

Robert: We can move forward.

Zibby: I love Sally Kim, by the way. She is one of my all-time favorite editors. She’s amazing. So awesome.

Robert: A dream.

Zibby: Also, Son of Baldwin, you’ve built this enormous online community. Here’s just a little thing about it for people who don’t know, but I want to hear it from you. “Son of Baldwin is specifically interested in critical analysis and in leading and participating in conversations from the queer perspective, intersections of ability, age, body type, class, gender, gender identity, sex, sexuality, and others.” Of course, this is now cut off. “White supremacist, capitalist, patriarchy are considered.” Then of course, there’s a lot more. This is a big undertaking. Tell me about this.

Robert: Son of Baldwin started when I was first introduced to James Baldwin. I’m late to the game. I did not really know about James Baldwin until my freshman year of college when I was assigned an essay by him called “Here be Dragons” and was so blown away by the clarity and the brilliance and the beauty of that essay that I devoured and sought out all sorts of works by him and discovered that he was also black, queer, raised in New York City, and a writer, all of the things that I am. I adopted him immediately as my spiritual godfather. I was devasted to learn that he was dead because I was hoping to find him and talk to him, but he was dead. I said, shoot. Then I watched a documentary where his brother said some of James Baldwin’s last words were, “I hope that someone finds me in the wreckage.” It broke my heart because I thought, why isn’t he more popular? Why aren’t we discussing his works more? This was about 2006. I said, I know what. I’m going to start a blog. It’s going to be centered around James Baldwin and all the things he talked about politically. In about 2007, 2008, I created the Son of Baldwin blog. Moved it to Facebook in 2009. The rest is kind of history because just by word of mouth, people started participating. The audience just grew and grew and grew into what it is now.

Zibby: Wow. I read, though, James Baldwin in college. I graduated college in 1998, not to date myself here. I did a whole class on African American literature. He was prominently featured. He’s not lost to history.

Robert: I just was wondering why he wasn’t more popular. At the time, we would talk about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Those were the big names. I’m like, why isn’t he that big? Obviously, part of that reason is because the queerness always makes certain people uncomfortable. Lately in the last maybe five to seven years, his memory, his work has really returned to form. I’m really, really glad about that.

Zibby: Isn’t it amazing? I love what you just said about finding a spiritual godfather. There are all these people who have come before us and who are out there now who maybe we just wouldn’t have heard about or don’t cross paths with. Then it somehow validates our entire lives, whether there’s something about them that’s similar or a sensibility or something. It’s just like, wow, I am not the only one like me in the world. How amazing is that?

Robert: That is what drove me, utterly. He confirmed my right to be. I bow down to James Baldwin. I adore him still. He has a huge influence on my thinking and my writing.

Zibby: When you were writing fiction, how did you even start to attempt this project? This book is amazing in that it has different — dialectic is the word. You have different speaking styles for different characters. You have first person, third person. There is some that feels biblical. It’s a lot of different tones and speakers all interwoven to create this masterpiece, essentially, of different threads. How did you sit down one day and you’re like, I’ll just start this thing? What proceeded it?

Robert: My first semester of grad school in the MFA program at Brooklyn College, Stacy Derazma was my fiction tutorial instructor. She gave us a project. She said, “It is your job to go out into the world and find objects a character that you’re thinking about would possess.”

Zibby: That’s so interesting.

Robert: Because serendipity is real, I found a pair of shackles in the garbage on the street in Brooklyn.

Zibby: Stop. Seriously?

Robert: A pair of shackles. When I lifted them up, they were heavy. I said, oh, this person is enslaved. Oh, my goodness, I am going to have to write about a black queer character in antebellum slavery when there is no template for that. This is my sign that I’m supposed to be doing this. I set about sketching who the character who would’ve been held by these shackles was. That character eventually became Samuel, one of the main characters. I just basically sketched out what he looked like, what he smelled like, what he liked, what he disliked, who he loved, what he thought about, all of those sorts of things to build him into a person. Then I went about writing the book, which was initially going to be told solely from Samuel’s point of view. Then I realized that Samuel didn’t have enough information to really span the breadth of what I wanted to discuss in this book. I said, maybe Samuel and his love interest, Isaiah, will tell the story together. Then I said, no, that’s still not enough. I need something broader.

Then I realized the center and the heart of the story was actually that Samuel and Isaiah were in love, so that love needed witnesses. From that epiphany, I said, now these other voices are going to need to speak. Whether they affirm this love or they want to destroy it, they need to be able to tell their point of view. Then from a dream that I scribbled down some words in the middle of the night, the ancestors spoke. They said, you do not yet know us. I said, now the ancestors want to be able to talk to me. They want to be able to talk to these characters. They want to talk to the reader too. I have to now incorporate them in. Then they led me across the Atlantic to precolonial Africa to talk about the precursor to Samuel and Isaiah. I thought, how am I going to work to get all of these disparate pieces to work cohesively? Thanks to help of Sally Kim and PJ Mark, we were able to make it congeal.

Zibby: Wow, that is quite a story. Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe you found those on the street. It almost has this Greek chorus to it. Have you heard that a lot? I’m sorry.

Robert: No, it is totally that. It totally has that Greek chorus. In my mind, I’m thinking of how black women in church often sing gospel in harmony. That is kind of how I hear the voices of those ancestral interjections, as a harmonious, gospel sort of tone but with West African tenor, if that makes any sense.

Zibby: Did you do any travel? Did you go back to anywhere to investigate? Africa or anything like that?

Robert: I had the great fortune of having visited Africa before, so I just retrieved those memories of what it was like to be there, what the air smelled like, what the people looked like, what the comradery felt like. It felt like a homecoming, like that was the place that I actually belonged, like I belonged to that landscape. I took that feeling and tried to interpret it in a literary fashion.

Zibby: Very cool. A lot of the scenes in this book, I have to say, were very tough to read in terms of the graphic nature of the torture and depravity and just awful — I wanted to close my eyes at certain scenes, which is tough when you’re reading. What was it like to write scenes like that? Was that hard for you?

Robert: It was physically painful. When I would be describing a scene, my skin would start to burn a little bit. It would hurt almost as though I was becoming the character. I had to often stop and take walks and visit with my nieces, nephews, and nibblings.

Zibby: What’s a nibbling?

Robert: Nibbling is a child of my sibling that is non-binary.

Zibby: No way. I’m so out of it. I’ve never heard that before.

Robert: I have a nibbling who is non-binary. I took breaks. Partially, that’s part of the reason why I took fourteen years to write this book. It became a conscious effort to say to myself, if I’m going to expect the reader to get through this, I’m going to have to give them something beautiful. I’m going to have to give them something deeply loving to balance out the hatred and the torture. I decided early on that the love would be imbued, as much as I possibly could, into the book so that there was some sort of balance.

Zibby: You speak so reverently about love. Tell me about the role that love has played in your life.

Robert: When I think about the fact that I’m here as a black queer person writing and reading and going to school and walking down the street and all of these things, I can’t help but feel grateful to all of my ancestors who endured, because I must have been the outcome that they were hoping for, that endured whips and untold brutality and untold degradation to ensure that a me could exist. If that is not love — they didn’t even know me. They dreamed that it might be. That is the ultimate form of love. This was my attempt to testify on behalf of that love and to witness for it and to pay homage to it.

Zibby: That’s beautiful. That’s really beautiful. What are some of the loving examples you have in your life now or that you’ve seen actually role modeled to you?

Robert: One of my best friends in the entire world, we’ve been best friends since third grade, Arlene Solavargas, one day when we were fifteen years old in high school, I picked her up from school. We went to adjacent high schools. I would walk to her school, pick her up, and we’d walk home together. She stops me and she goes, “Bobby.” That’s what my family calls me. “You see that guy right there?” I’m looking at him. I’m like, “Yeah.” She’s like, “That’s going to be my husband.” I said, “.” That’s my nickname for her. “He’s just an average-looking guy. You’re so beautiful.” Low and behold, they started dating shortly after that and have been together ever since.

Zibby: What? That’s crazy.

Robert: They have modeled for me what it means to be in love. She knew from the moment she saw him that that was her soulmate, her eternal love, the love of her life. He felt the same way about her. They have been together ever since. A marriage and a three children later, they are still together. We are still friends. Her children consider me their uncle. I have never seen romance like that in my life. It is just absolutely beautiful. Then in my own family, the way my grandmother loved me was unbelievable. She died when I was very young. I was seven. She told my mother, she said, “Bobby’s going to miss me.” The truth of the matter is, to this day, I still cry when I think about her on her birthday, on the day that she died all through my life. There have, of course, been examples of people who did not love me, who did everything in their power to try to tell me that I was unlovable. Thanks to the glory of the love of people like Arlene and my grandmother and other members of my family, I withstood and I’m here.

Zibby: It’s so funny. Talking to you, you’re so kindhearted and peaceful-seeming. I’m not explaining this very well. You seem gentle to me despite the brutality in the book. Then I saw the article in The Paris Review, “Let It Burn,” where you referenced your past article called — I’ll just say blank — “I Don’t Give a Blank About Justine Damond,” which got you in heaps of trouble, apparently, which I’m sort of shocked to even hear because you seem like someone who would care about not crushing a ladybug on the street. I might be wrong. I’ve only known you for like twenty minutes, but that’s the impression I’m getting.

Robert: It is absolutely true that I even have a problem with killing a fly or a cockroach. Something about that bothers me. What also bothers me just as much is injustice. I cannot stand to watch another video of a black person being murdered on camera and the murderer just as though they were swatting a fly, that it utterly doesn’t matter. That angers me beyond my capacity to contain anger. I don’t want to be an angry person, but I can’t help but be angry when I see what happens to black women, what happens to black queer people, what happens to black people in general, what happens to anybody who’s marginalized in a society. It angers me deeply, and so I write with the spirit of that when I’m writing pieces like “I Don’t Give a Blank about Justine Damond,” which is really rhetorical. The truth is, I do give a blank about Justine Damond, but I’m trying to let the society know you only care because it’s a white woman. If it was a black woman, you wouldn’t care. I’m trying to turn it on you and say, here’s your mirror. This is what it’s like when you disregard our lives. This is what it feels like. It worked because so many white people got angry but did not see the connection. It’s so bizarre. Americans have an inability to self-reflect. We always think of ourselves as innocent. I really wish Americans would wake up from that dreaming. I really do because America has the potential to be a nation that’s transformative and that’s a model for how the world should work, and it is not. It has not been since the beginning because it’s a nation that’s origins begin with genocide and enslavement and the degradation of women. This is unseemly. I really want us to grow into what it actually means to be humane. We haven’t earned the right to be called human beings yet because we’re so cruel to one another. Why?

Zibby: I totally agree about the cruelty. I can’t understand it. It baffles me how evil people can be. I feel things very deeply. I’m getting the sense that you feel things very deeply. When someone is hurt, it hurts me whether I know them or not or whatever. I know this just sounds ridiculous, but the ability of somebody to go out and intentionally hurt somebody, especially based on their sexuality or their race or anything, it makes me cry. It makes me sick to my stomach, honestly, is what it does, as it does to so many people. It’s hard to process, in a way.

Robert: It is. It is very difficult. Truly, I think of myself as a nonviolent person. I don’t like engaging in violence. I was a bullied kid and had to fight. I had no choice because I had to fight back to defend myself, but I didn’t like the feeling of hurting somebody else even though I felt justified because I was defending myself. I don’t like it. I also don’t like to be pushed to the point at which I have to do that.

Zibby: I get it. I’m sorry you’ve had those experiences in your life. I’m glad that you’ve had people to pull you through and to show goodness to you so that you were able to channel all of it into art and now have it be sitting on my desk. It’s amazing, really. Truly, congratulations. It’s amazing. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors out there?

Robert: Yes, and particularly authors who are writing from sort of a marginalized existence. Everything in the world, everything in this country is probably going to tell you that your endeavors are not necessary or that writing is a frivolous endeavor or that art is secondary to other concerns. You will have to fight past that and all the obstacles that the society is going to put in your way for you to, for example, take care of yourself. I had to work three part-time jobs in undergrad and two part-time jobs in graduate school and then still had to find the time to write as a full-time worker in the workforce.

Zibby: And you graduated Phi Beta Kappa. That’s insane. You’re a genius.

Robert: Thank you. You must continue because writing is one of the most valuable professions, one of the most revered and necessary art forms in existence. It is the writer who pushes the society to be better. Other artists do that as well, so I don’t want to take that away from them. The writer is, as James Baldwin said, here to disturb the peace, which is to say, disturb the status quo so that people’s lives can be easier, so that mechanisms that are here to oppress and to dehumanize are dismantled, and that we could look at each other in the face and say, even if I don’t like you as a person, I don’t agree with your religion or your whatever, I could still look at you in the face and say, you are a human being, so I respect you because you are here and you exist. Writers help us imagine those sorts of worlds and push us in that direction. I tell the aspiring authors don’t give no matter what. Listen, I’m going to be fifty years old in April. This is my first novel. I could’ve given up because all of the lists are “Twenty Under Twenty” and “Thirty Under Thirty” and “Forty Under Forty” and make me feel as though my contribution as a fifty-year-old doesn’t matter. Keep going even if you’re eighty-nine when you publish it. Be eighty-nine and publish it. Keep going.

Zibby: Can you please publish a list somewhere of “Fifty Under Fifty”? It has to be a little older, though, so you can be included. You should publish “Amazing Fifty-Year-Old Authors” or “Fifty and Forties.” You start that. Make that a thing too.

Robert: Got it.

Zibby: Thank you, speaking as someone in my forties. Robert, thank you so much. Thank you for your literary contribution and for taking the time to speak to me about your life and letting me pry into your past.

Robert: Zibby, this was so fantastic because you asked questions that no one else asked me. It made me think about myself as a person and what I want philosophically to happen in the world. Thank you so much for having me. Thank you for those wonderful questions.

Zibby: You’re so welcome. Have a great day.

Robert: You too.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Robert: Bye.

Robert Jones Jr., THE PROPHETS