A Q&A With Robert Jones Jr., Author of January’s Indie Next List Pick

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Independent booksellers across the country have chosen The Prophets (G.P. Putnam’s Sons) as their top pick for the January 2021 Indie Next List.

Credit: Alberto Vargas RainRiver Images
Credit: Alberto Vargas RainRiver Images

The Prophets explores the forbidden union between Isaiah and Samuel, two men on a Deep South plantation, and the betrayal that threatens their existence.

“I am at a loss for words,” said Gage Tarlton of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. “How can I even begin to describe the breathtaking language Robert Jones Jr. has gifted us in his debut novel? How can I begin to explain how he achieves a feat so marvelous it almost seems impossible? Well, that’s the key word: almost. From his innovative restructuring of the Bible through the lens of America’s history with slavery to characters that leap off the page with colorful grace and dignity, Jones masterfully weaves a narrative that serves as a warning from the past, a prophecy for the future, and a testament to the present. His writing defies all great American novels that have come before, and in doing so becomes one of the greatest I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. I can’t wait for everyone to be as spellbound by this book as I am; it will stay with me forever.”

Jones 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, The Paris Review, Essence, OkayAfrica, The Feminist Wire, and The Grio. He is the creator of the social justice community Son of Baldwin, and was recently featured in T Magazine’s cover story “Black Male Writers of Our Time.” The Prophets is his debut novel.

Here, Bookselling This Week and Jones discuss The Prophets.

Bookselling This Week: Where did the idea for this story come from?The Prophets cover image

Robert Jones Jr.: I had always wanted to write a story with Black queer characters at the center of it and had even written a short story or two as a teenager. But I never thought I would write about Black queer love during the antebellum slavery period until I was given an assignment during my first year of graduate studies. I had to find material objects that a character in a story or novel I was thinking about writing would possess. I found a pair of shackles(!) on the street near a pile of garbage bags and knew immediately that the character floating around in my head (who would eventually become Samuel) was enslaved and I would have the task of writing something that I had never read before, which was terrifying because there was no template. However, Toni Morrison’s words provided inspiration: “If there’s a book that you want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

BTW: This story centers on the relationship between two enslaved young men on a Deep South plantation, Samuel and Isaiah. How did you craft their characters?

RJ: I spent a great deal of time thinking very deeply about what it meant to be Black during slavery. One of the things I came to understand was that despite the horrors inflicted upon my ancestors, it was never their humanity that was up for debate. What was truly debatable, if not outright abandoned, was the humanity of the enslavers. I had to then imagine how what we now call queerness would have affected the already gruesome status quo; how the enslavers and the other enslaved people might have reacted to yet another identity that would marginalize the already marginalized. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality was extremely helpful here. Once I internalized that idea, it was just a matter of visualizing Samuel and Isaiah (by looking through the remaining 19th century photographs and art depicting enslaved Black people) and then listening very carefully to hear the whispers and watching very closely to see the signs, not dismissing either as fanciful flights, wild imagination, or coincidence, until I could get their voices and perspectives — and, most importantly, their love — down on the page as best I could.

BTW: Why center the story on them?

RJ: For my undergraduate degree, I majored in creative writing and minored in Africana studies. I had read tons of literary works and yet could find none where the Black queer love was front and center, or present in the cultural or historical landscape prior to the Harlem Renaissance of the 20th century. Where I did find references, it was only in the context of sexual assault or some other form of depravity. And my question was: What about love? I knew early on that the writing that would eventually become The Prophets would be an answer to that question, which meant that Samuel and Isaiah had to be the beating hearts of the story.

BTW: Can you talk about the process of writing this book? And what was your research process like?

RJ: I started thinking about the writing that would eventually become The Prophets during my final year of undergrad, but didn’t actually put pen to paper until my first year of grad. My writing was sporadic because I was working two part-time jobs and attending grad school full-time. I had to write whenever and wherever I had the time, which was generally on public transportation during my commutes to and from school and work, at the witching hour when I had the strength to wake myself up, on my breaks at work (and sometimes during work to be honest). I wrote on whatever scraps of paper were handy to me at the time: receipts, paper bags, loose-leaf paper. I just had to make sure to write down the thoughts as they came to me so I wouldn’t lose them.

In terms of research, I read just about every slave narrative I could get my hands on. I read works on race theory and Black queer theory. I read fictional works that dealt with slavery or queerness. I read works by sociologists who researched the impact certain colonial religions had on expressions of queerness in colonized societies. Most importantly, I listened to oral histories that gave the clearest picture of how Black queerness existed in the African landscape prior to European interference. Thankfully, most of this research was already assigned to fulfill my obligations as an Africana studies minor, and so the scholarship was very accessible.

BTW: This book features a number of different perspectives. What made you decide to incorporate so many voices for this particular story? How did you tap into them?

RJ: I was initially going to tell this entire story from the point of view of either Isaiah or Samuel. Each time I set out to do so, I felt like something was lost, incomplete. What I realized was that Samuel and Isaiah needed witnesses for their testimony, witnesses to both absolve and indict, to testify and to lie. That meant I needed to let other characters have their say. I found Morrison’s Paradise and Ayana Mathis’s Twelve Tribes of Hattie very helpful in this sense, as the structures of those books helped me to imagine how I might be able to let each character speak their piece in The Prophets.

I did a lot of meditation to hear the voices of each of the characters. I also drew on my personal family history, recalling summers spent Down South and my Southern family elders, remembering how they spoke, walked, laughed, cooked, danced, and worshipped.

BTW: One theme in this book is of generational trauma and its impact. What drew you to this idea?

RJ: Oddly enough, it was not a conscious decision to write about generational trauma. That seems to be inherent in the subject I chose to write about because where there is oppression and violence, there is trauma. And untreated trauma is bound to be passed down through the generations until it is addressed and healed. What became fascinating to me, though, is how the vast majority of us have chosen to deal with our traumas in the absence of a medical, political, social, or moral imperative to take healing them seriously. What I found surprising was that for many people, trauma doesn’t inspire sympathy or compassion for other people’s suffering, but rather many people feel their traumas give them permission to cause other people suffering, but call it by some other, less implicating, absolving name which allows them to maintain their “innocence,” thus their moral authority. The ability of human beings to rightfully fight against being oppressed while wrongfully oppressing other human beings is as fascinating as it is frightening. The Declaration of Independence side-by-side with antebellum slavery is one of the most acute examples of this cognitive dissonance; how marginalized cisgender people treat transgender people is another.

BTW: Biblical references are featured throughout the narrative. Can you talk more about why you incorporated them?

RJ: I grew up with at least one foot in the Christian church. Even when I did not attend church (and I didn’t attend often), the influence of Christian doctrine played a huge role in how I was shaped. Whether it was corporal punishment, toxic masculinity, misogyny, or anti-LGBTQIA+ bigotry, these things were introduced to be by Christianity. I learned not just to hate others, but to also hate myself — and to believe all of that hatred was actually “love” as dictated by the figures of Jehovah and Jesus Christ. As I started writing The Prophets, it became clear — because of my upbringing, because of what I had learned through my research — that there was no way I could write about anti-Blackness, anti-queerness, and antebellum slavery without confronting Christianity’s significant role in all three. To this very day, Christianity holds itself up as the chief moral arbitrator while low-key, if not high-key, regarding Black people, Brown people, women in general, poor people, LGBTQIA+ people, and disabled people as somehow inferior and unworthy — unless we can be more in line with and supportive of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Despite the concrete denial of this reality, I wanted to explore it and see where it would take me.

BTW: Is there any one thing you’d hope readers take away from this book?

RJ: What I most hope readers take away from this book is that we should make conscious efforts to do less harm to one another. There is only so much a human being can take in terms of oppression before they become justified in whatever their response to that persecution is. And wouldn’t we prefer cooperation to catastrophe? I used to think the answer to that question was obvious and simple until almost 74 million people in the United States boldly voted for the latter. I hope this book can, in whatever small and insignificant ways, chip away at that number.

BTW: What is the role of indie bookstores in your life?

RJ: I love booksellers! I actually used to work at the Scholastic Bookstore so I understand how challenging, how underappreciated, and how rewarding the work of booksellers is. Indie bookstores are where my love for comic books (and thus my love for storytelling) was nurtured. Like libraries, indie bookstores serve a crucial role in the distribution of collective knowledge in the communities they serve. These sites become meeting places where one can listen to and engage writers and thinkers. The pandemic has unfortunately altered this, but I’m so happy that many of the independents have transitioned to virtual spaces and continue these necessary conversations and interactions. I have a particular and special love for the Black-owned indie bookstores, where works by Black artists are showcased in ways that push back against mainstream marginalization or minimization. It was at a Black-owned bookstore that I discovered Terry McMillan and James Earl Hardy, which led me to Toni Morrison and James Baldwin. I’m forever grateful.

BTW: Do you have anything to add?

RJ: Please be kind to yourself and others. Tell a struggling writer not to give up because what they are working on is a necessary intervention and a blessing for the world. Reading helps develop empathy; read more. Support independent bookstores.