“By the time you read this, you may have figured it out.”

Brown Baggers book club met Thursday, February 16 at noon to discuss My Monticello by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson. This is Johnson’s debut publication: a collection of five short stories and one novella. The book explores race, familial relationships (especially intergenerational ones), and most of all, home and belonging. Because Johnson is a local author and all of the stories are set locally, either in Virginia at large or squarely in Charlottesville, we were able to identify specific landmarks within the book, which allowed us to enter deeply and personally into the work. More than one reader said, “I took it personally.” Most of the group found this to be difficult to read, probably in part because of our ties to this town. We had to ask ourselves, would other book groups around the country or world read this book and have the same experience? Would we feel the same if we did not live here? By asking these questions, we are participating in Johnson’s exploration of how identity is tied up with place. Is our response to this book hinged on our experience living here? How much does our residency influence who we are as a person, to the point that it could even affect how we digest a piece of fiction? 

We talked about our experiences, both lived experiences and experiences we’ve had through books, about the “dark side of a place.” Our city has darkness, and unthinkable acts of violence and hate continue to happen here. Other cities experience this too. Is there a “dark side” to every town, or is it more truthful to say there is a dark side to every person? Can a “side of town” be any certain way without the people who live, work, play, love, and fight there? Or without the powerful people who aren’t there, but influence it nonetheless? One reader distilled the idea of this book well when she said it shows how racism affects one man. As much as this book is about a town, a city, a country – it is about individuals. 

This book was described as well written but devastating. Other words our group used to describe the book were: over the top, true and honest, upsetting (because of its realness), provocative, sad, fantastic, shocking, upsetting, and reflective. One reader said that reading the book was like reading the news, each story dipping into grabby headlines about race relations, and in that way, it was exhausting. Others thought it was just okay, more drab, and still others found it to be a book that announces its intentions very plainly, right on the surface, but doesn’t have the intellectual, subtle craft of a more literary novel.

To read how another book group discussed this book, revisit our Books on Tap book club blog about My Monticello. For more information about Brown Baggers, email Krista at kfarrell@jmrl.org

Other resources:

An interesting interview between Jocelyn and her alma mater, JMU

Jocelyn in conversation with Venita Blackburn; a virtual event hosted by a local bookstore in DC

An introduction to dystopian literature 

A deep dive into dystopian literature

Upcoming titles for Brown Baggers:

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