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The Colgate Maroon-News

The Oldest College Weekly in America. Founded 1868.

The Colgate Maroon-News

The Oldest College Weekly in America. Founded 1868.

The Colgate Maroon-News

Living Writers: Jocelyn Nicole Johnson Shares ‘My Monticello’

Colgate University welcomed author Jocelyn Nicole Johnson on Thursday, Nov. 2, as part of Colgate’s “Living Writers” program. The event took place in Persson Auditorium from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m., where Johnson discussed her works and writing process before opening up the floor to several audience questions.

The Colgate Living Writers program consists of two courses – ENGL 360 and first-year seminar AHUM 160 – and a lecture series, open to both students in the course and members of the public. This year, one of the books chosen for the program was Johnson’s “My Monticello,” a short story collection for which she has won numerous awards, including the Library of Virginia Fiction Award, the Weatherford Award and the Balcones Fiction Prize. The collection draws on a variety of sources and perspectives to depict her characters’ lives in distinct but relatable ways, forming stories at once separate and thematically intertwined.

“One thing I love about story collections [is that] they resist the idea of a single story,” Johnson said about the reasons for this characteristic of her work.

In her talk, Johnson spoke about her personal story’s influence on her writing. As a child, for example, Johnson lived in Virginia during the school year and South Carolina — where her parents were from and most of her family still lived — during the summer, giving her a “dual sense of home,” a notion that informs her and her writing even in the present day.

“The purpose of ‘My Monticello’ was to further explore place and home,” Johnson said.

Johnson also shared that many of her stories are based on events in the news and her community. For example, her short story, “Control Negro,” centers on the story of a University of Virginia student named Martese Johnson, who was injured and detained by police on Mar. 18, 2015, ostensibly for carrying a fake driver’s license (which, in fact, he was not). The story is composed as a letter from a professor to his son, whom the professor has been raising from afar as an experiment to test the American Dream: Can an African American child, raised with the systemic advantages of American Caucasian males, succeed just as well as them and escape institutional oppression? Ultimately, the son is brutalized much the way that Martese Johnson was, poignantly illustrating the continued obstacles that we face in our supposedly just and equal society. Similarly, Johnson’s novella, “My Monticello,” documents a hypothetical future in which reverberations from the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va. in Aug. 2017 eventually ignites national outbreaks of racialized violence and chaos.

In Johnson’s view, drawing so heavily on current events and her own experience in Charlottesville is a natural part of the writing process.

“All fiction from every genre is inspired by our real experiences living,” Johnson said.

Many students stayed after the talk for a chance to have Johnson sign their copy of “My Monticello.” The Colgate community seemed to greatly appreciate Johnson’s book and the ability to learn more about the author and her work.

First-year Bella Caruso, discussing her experience at the talk, noted how skilled of a speaker Johnson was.

“Her presentation was good and kept the audience hooked,” Caruso said. “[I’ll take away] a lot of detail about her writing process.”

Ainhora Zori, the Spanish language intern at the W.M. Keck Humanities Resource Center, appreciated the chance to connect “My Monticello” to its author.

“When you read the book you don’t see the author, [and] you know nothing about her life, and at this event you’re able to get to know her and understand a little bit more of her book,” Zori said.

Chiara Grandin, an Italian language intern, was also present and found Johnson’s Living Writers presentation to be especially powerful.

“The fact that she was reading and then commenting […] on her life story was really moving,” Grandin said.

First-year Everett Shinn, a student in the Living Writers course and an aspiring writer, likewise found Johnson’s talk to be a moving experience.

“I got inspired by some of her short stories for my own writing […]. Her first short story is about someone witnessing someone else’s life and reflecting on it and trying to apply it to the universal, and I think that’s a really interesting idea that I might try out myself,” Shinn said.

Whether students, aspiring writers or simply admirers of good literature, it seems as though everyone at Johnson’s presentation went home with much to think about — which is, perhaps, the ultimate goal of a book and its author.

“Stories can help us think about things differently, so we can shape the world,” Johnson said poignantly towards the end of her talk.

For those whose appetite for books, writing and shaping the world has not been sated by Johnson’s talk, the Living Writers program will host another presentation next week featuring Katie Kitamura and her novel, “Intimacies.”

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