Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Meet: Jabari Asim, author of A TASTE OF HONEY

Note: The winners of Uptown are Dani and Ellie. Congratulations ladies!

Count on me to do things backwards. I'm starting out Women's History Month with a profile of a male author. But I'm actually excited because this blog is a little too female-oriented. I try to keep a balance. But just so's you knows: not everybody I approach wants to be profiled or is interested in online promotion. Anyway, I am thrilled to introduce you to Jabari Asim. You gotta love a guy who wrote Who's Toes are Those AND The N Word!

He is also editor-in-chief of The Crisis—the magazine of the NAACP—and former editor at and frequent contributor to the Washington Post. His writing has appeared on Salon.com and in Essence, the Los Angeles Times, and other publications.

His answers here sealed my interest in his latest work, a collection of interlocking short stories. Please read our Q&A and then go get the book. It's out today! Pick it up at your local indie, if you're lucky enough to still have one. Or you can get it everywhere: at Barnes and Noble or Borders or Amazon.

White Readers Meet Black Authors: Describe your work for someone unfamiliar with it. You've done nonfiction, fiction and children's books, right? Wow! What's your writing style like? What subjects/themes do you explore?

Jabari Asim: I’ve done three nonfiction books for adults, all of which address themes of race and American culture in some way. Not Guilty, an anthology I edited in 2000, collected the thoughts of a select group of black male intellectuals on matters of law and justice. That book was inspired by the 1999 acquittal of the police officers who shot Amadou Diallo to death. I followed that with The N Word, which traced the epithet through American popular culture from roughly 1619 to 2007. I wanted to explore the relationship between language and white supremacy and also look at the effect of racist ideas on blacks, whites and other Americans. What Obama Means attempts to look at ways in which our popular culture (books, movies, newspapers, music, sports, etc.) prepared for us a moment in which we could even take seriously the idea of a black presidential candidacy. (Check out his interview with Stephen Colbert.)

My first children’s book, The Road to Freedom, was a novel for middle-schoolers about a boy and his father trying to reunite their family after Emancipation. I’ve also done a picture book called Daddy Goes To Work, in which a little African-American girl accompanies her father to his job, and four board books for babies. My most popular book is called Whose Toes Are Those? Many people don’t connect it with the man who wrote The N Word, which occasionally leads to some amusing encounters.

A Taste Of Honey, my latest, is fiction written for an adult audience. Set in a small Midwestern city in the sixties, it looks at the effect of social and political change on a somewhat insular black community.

I strive for the qualities Edmund Wilson once called for in good writing: cleanliness, precision, ease and force. Like most writers, my success rate varies. I’m fond of lyricism because I started out as a poet. As I’ve progressed, I’ve worked increasingly toward a leaner, simpler aesthetic. I’m not there yet. As for subjects/themes, everything I write—and I do mean everything—is inevitably shaped by my experiences as a husband and father. Those are the only things I wanted to be even more than I wanted to be a writer, and I’ve been fortunate to experience both.

WRMBA: I'm curious, why did you choose interrelated short stories instead of a novel?

JA: I originally started writing the stories as a diversion while working on The N Word. That book took me six years and often required immersing myself in some depressing, hateful stuff. A Taste Of Honey allowed me to cleanse my palate if you will, while exercising my writing muscles. Janet Hill, who was then an editor at Doubleday, purchased the book based on a few of the stories. The idea of linking the stories emerged during conversations with her.

WRMBA: People ask me this question a lot, so I will pass it on: What was it like transitioning from nonfiction to fiction? Will you continue writing both?

I don’t really consider myself as someone who transitioned from nonfiction to fiction. My first appearances in major publications were short stories. I had one in In The Tradition, a 1992 anthology of young black writers edited by Kevin Powell and Ras Baraka, and another in Brotherman: The Odyssey of Black Men in America, edited by Herb Boyd and Robert Allen. The nonfiction actually came a little later. I’m committed to continuing to do both while dipping my toes into poetry every once in a while.

WRMBA: What's your goal(s) as a writer? Do you set out to educate? entertain? illuminate?

JA: I do feel an obligation to inform when I write, although the information I convey can be as simple as “this is how it was” or “this is how a particular group of people lived at a certain point in time.” In A Taste of Honey, for example, I wanted to examine black love (I’m very much a romantic) as I have often perceived it. My parents have been happily married for more than 60 years, and I’ve been ecstatically married for almost 25. That may be why I tried occasionally to function as a fly on the wall in A Taste Of Honey, providing intimate glimpses of domestic life both happy and horrific. For me, the larger motive also reflected a desire to offer snapshots of black family life in an urban community during the dawn of the civil rights revolution. Of course, no reader is going to stick around long enough to glean any lessons if the material isn’t entertaining. I tried to leaven my stories with humor wherever possible.

WRMBA: What's next for you?

JA: I’m at work on a couple of nonfiction projects that are too shapeless to describe in detail yet. I have a picture-book under contract with Little Brown. I’m also working on a novel that again looks at black romantic love during a specific historical period. I suppose I will always focus on love in some fashion.

WRMBA: Where can people find you online?

JA: I blog at Amazon.com and Goodreads.com, and folks can also follow me on Twitter and Facebook.

WRMBA: What's the best book (or whose the best writer) that not enough people know about?

A wonderful question. My answer is a tie: Mat Johnson and Ricardo Cortez Cruz. Both are terrific writers with unique styles.


Anonymous said...

est is definitely piqued. I have to get A Taste of Honey. I dig that Mr. Asim mentioned Mat Johnson as under the radar as I'm getting acquainted with his work after "meeting" on Twitter.

Eve Proper said...

I've been looking for some good picture books for a friend with a little one, and "Whose Toes" and "Whose Knees" look adorable. Thanks!

Tyhitia Green said...

Okay, I'm so buying his books. ;-) Thanks Carleen and Jabari

evelyn.n.alfred said...

He's going to be coming to Baltimore soon. I'll have to go listen to him read.

Carleen Brice said...

This is why I love my blog readers! Thanks so much y'all for checking out his work!

Andromeda Jazmon said...

Just put Taste of Honey in my shopping cart! I have a gift card I've been waiting to spend so this is perfect. I love Asim's writing. Thanks for posting this!

suga said...

Lovely interview. My book club, Booktini, is meeting to discuss this tomorrow *looks at the time* er, um, I mean, later today lol Was doing a little research on the book/author so I can lead the discussion. Will be printing and sharing.


suga said...

Lovely interview. My book club, Booktini, is meeting to discuss this tomorrow *looks at the time* er, um, I mean, later today lol Was doing a little research on the book/author so I can lead the discussion. Will be printing and sharing.