Applause echoed within the walls of The Haven as local author Jocelyn Nicole Johnson took the podium downtown Friday evening. She received a star’s welcome from a group of 150 people gathered to support the long awaited release of her first novel, “My Monticello.” New Dominion Bookshop hosted the intimate event in conjunction with WriterHouse, a local writing community. Doors opened at 6:45 p.m. and The Haven’s benches were full within minutes.
Johnson’s first book, composed of five short stories and a novella, hit shelves last week. “My Monticello” has already received a great deal of praise, including being named to Esquire’s best books of fall 2021 and a nomination for the prestigious Kirkus Prize. Not to mention, the novella will be adapted to film for Netflix.
“These fictions are, in a way, a love letter to my native state,” Johnson said.
Born in northern Virginia, she went to high school in the Shenandoah Valley and earned her degree from James Madison University. She currently lives in Charlottesville and taught art to elementary school students for 20 years. Virginia is home to her, yet she acknowledges that her identity as a Black woman is not always welcome. The Haven’s short distance from the Robert E. Lee statue’s former location served as a reminder of this reality.
From an early age, Johnson took interest in writing, and she remained an active writer from at least fourth grade throughout her teenage years. She did not take any steps toward publishing her work until 2017, when she submitted a short story called “Control Negro” to Guernica. To Johnson’s delight, Guernica decided to publish the story and Roxane Gay selected it for Best American Short Stories — Gay guest edited the prestigious annual collection in 2018.
“‘Control Negro’ was kind of the place where I realized I was making what the collection is about,” Johnson said at Friday’s event. The renowned short story — fittingly, the first in her novel — is about a college professor who uses his son for a research experiment on racism without anyone knowing.
Meanwhile, the story “My Monticello” tells how a descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings flees to Monticello, Jefferson’s plantation, with a group of mostly Black and Brown survivors in the face of a white supremacist attack.
“There’s this idea of displacement,” Johnson said. “There’s ways in which I sometimes don’t feel welcome and my characters sometimes don’t feel welcome.”
The titular novella relates the reclaiming of place, asserting Monticello, and Charlottesville at large, can — and should — belong to the very people it rejected throughout its history.
Both literary works grapple with the idea of home broadly, while weaving in specific details and events to Charlottesville. For instance, a Black U.Va. student is handcuffed and assaulted on the Corner in one incident recounted in “Control Negro” — calling to mind Martese Johnson’s brutal arrest by Alcoholic Beverage Control officers in 2015. “My Monticello” again subtly features the University in the title novella, as the main character Da’Naisha Love is a fictional U.V.a. student who descended from Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. The plot draws heavily on the Unite the Right rally that fell on Charlottesville in 2017, showing just how prominently the University figures into the troubled local history.
“The dark history of U.Va., Charlottesville and Virginia in the context of race is something that we cannot forget,” said University alumnus Aqura Nicholson, who attended the event. As a 2016 graduate of the University, Nicholson vividly remembers when fellow U.Va. student Martese Johnson was thrown to the ground by ABC officers on the Corner in 2015. Therefore, “My Monticello” is very personal to her.
The crowd gave Johnson a standing ovation when she finished speaking, and attendees wasted no time lining up to get their copies of her book signed. Pre-signed and unsigned copies of “My Monticello” were for sale by New Dominion Bookshop on-site — Johnson happily inscribed personal messages in eager readers’ books and posed for photos. The remainder of her book tour will be mostly virtual, besides another local event at Monticello itself Wednesday, boldly putting into practice the novel’s overarching theme of reclamation.