Grazia Book Club: A Stunning Debut Set For Netflix

You won't be able to put down Jocelyn Nicole Johnson's 'My Monticello'

My Monticello

by Maria Lally |
Updated on

In the summer of 2017, the town of Charlottesville, Virginia, was targeted by White nationalists for a rally. ‘Ostensibly in defence of Confederate statues,’ remembers the author Jocelyn Nicole Johnson, who lives in the town. ‘They showed up wielding machine guns or emblems of past genocides. One rally participant killed a local counterprotestor. Many others were injured.’

The ‘Unite the Right’ inspired Johnson, who had been a teacher at an elementary school for 20 years, to write her first novel.

After the rally, she told Grazia, she began learning more about her local history, including ‘the legacy of inequality and racist violence toward Black people that went back to the days of America’s founding fathers – men like Thomas Jefferson, our third American President, whose plantation home, Monticello, sits 10 minutes from town.’

The book is set in an American future and narrated by Da’Naisha Love, a young Black student who, along with a group of multiracial neighbours, has fled her Charlottesville home due to violent white supremacists rampaging through their neighbourhood with guns. The group head for Monticello, the plantation home once owned by Thomas Jefferson: a man who famously called slavery a ‘moral depravity’, yet owned several hundred slaves throughout his lifetime – many of whom helped build his home.

After Jefferson’s wife died, he fathered several children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. Da’Naisha, we discover, is a descendent of Jefferson and Hemings, and while seeking refuge at the house, we see her question her relationship with it.

‘The name of the book, My Monticello, comes straight out of the narrator’s mouth,’ says Johnson. ‘Da’Naisha utters these words fearfully, defiantly and, at some point, lovingly, as she slowly claims her ancestral home as a descendant of an American President who designed Monticello, and an enslaved woman who worked there in bondage, and whose family helped to build and maintain it. I wanted to explore some of the ways Black Americans contend with complicated inheritances, of often not being included, centred, or believed.’

One thread that runs throughout the book, which is being turned into a film for Netflix, is of community, with the residents of Da’Naisha’s neighbourhood First Street pulling together to survive. Something Johnson says was inspired by her own street and her years spent in the classroom.

‘Da’Naisha uses some of her teacher training to hasten the motley crew of neighbours to work together for their common survival. This foundation allows them to recognise their connectivity, and ultimately to become family to one another. As a long-time public school art teacher, I wanted to highlight the ways in which community can be cultivated, just as hatefulness can be cultivated.’

[My Monticello by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson is out now](http://Publisher ‏ : ‎ Harvill Secker (4 Nov. 2021)

Grazia's Book Club gives its verdict

‘This short novel has a hugely inventive premise that slides around from the present to the past. The author is like a butterfly, who alights upon an issue, draws out the nectar for her readers and then moves on, tying the story together with a very capable and assured hand. A future classic in the making, perhaps?’ Tina

‘For such a short book, My Monticello manages to evoke countless emotions. There is humour, grief, trepidation and hope. Beautifully written and thought provoking, the author leaves the reader with many questions about the past and the future.’ Michaela

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