Photograph by Ron Nichols
In February, a crowd gathered in The Diana Center for a most unusual book launch: a “mixtape release party” featuring author Asali Solomon and pianist Jason Moran. Moran played songs such as “One Nation Under a Groove” and “To be Young, Gifted and Black” while Solomon, reading selections from her new novel, Disgruntled (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), introduced her audience to a charismatic and beleaguered young protagonist named Kenya Curtis.
Growing up in 1980s Philadelphia as the child of black nationalists, Kenya doesn’t quite fit in at her public school; none of the other black students have to celebrate Kwanzaa or call their fathers Baba. The mostly white, suburban private school she attends later presents fresh social challenges. She counts the number of other black girls (12) in the new school. She refuses to return the beaming smiles of the lunch ladies, “the only black adults in the building besides the cleaning ladies.” Solomon’s readings at the launch granted a vivid sense of this startling, searing book, which investigates multiple ways of relating to race, to history, and to the surrounding world—a world that may or may not see you as one of its own.
A reading accompanied by music was an appropriate format for this particular book launch; music features prominently both in Disgruntled and in Solomon’s earlier work, Get Down (2008), a short-story collection. It also reflected Solomon’s music-infused early life—her father is a songwriter, and growing up, she harbored an “irrational attachment” to her Walkman. “Music,” she explains, “is a way of describing a personal and historical moment, particularly in youth.” Hearing Moran perform songs from her childhood had the surreal effect of “almost physically pushing me back into moments that I both lived and created.”
Solomon’s Barnard experience was key to her development as a writer—and to the development of Disgruntled in particular. During a fiction-writing class, she submitted a piece based on her background as “a black student from the city who attended a majority white school in the suburbs.” Professor Elizabeth Dalton told her: “That’s your novel.” (Later, Solomon adds, she discovered that Dalton had made a similar comment to Edwidge Danticat ’90, who became an award-winning author, a precedent she found encouraging.) Dalton, now a professor emerita, also gave Solomon “some kind of excessive grade, A+,” which she never forgot.
In addition, Solomon studied with writer Thulani Davis ’70, then a visiting professor. After reading a piece based on Solomon’s experience as the child of black nationalists, Davis encouraged her student to pursue the topic. “So between the encouragement of professors Dalton and Davis in terms of the material,” Solomon says, “voilà, Disgruntled.” Solomon also cites Mary Gordon ’71, Millicent C. McIntosh Professor in English and Writing, for her support—and her honesty. “She was a great fan of my work, but also critical,” Solomon says. “I still remember the stories she liked and the ones at which she winced. I still wince.”
In her Pan-African studies major, Solomon focused on literature and on “what was essentially literary analysis of black popular culture.” And outside the classroom, Solomon received the “great encouragement” of writing prizes. She entered contests yearly and often won: “I felt like queen of the world getting money to do something I loved so much.”
After graduation—well aware that, Barnard prizes aside, fiction tends to draw a limited amount of income—Solomon got a PhD in English at the University of California, Berkeley. Later, seeking both professionalization and time to write, she pursued an MFA in fiction at the University of Iowa. For Get Down, a collection of short stories about eccentric Philadelphians, Solomon won a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, and was selected as one of “5 Under 35” by the National Book Foundation.
Now an assistant professor of English at Haverford College, Solomon teaches fiction writing as well as 20th-century African American literature, African American satire, and other subjects. Her dual focus on writing and literary study can lead to productive cross-pollination: “I sometimes talk about craft in literature courses,” she says. “The other day I was talking to my African American-lit students about Native Son, and asking them to think about Wright’s choices as a writer, rather than as a political theorist.”
Transitioning from short- to long-form fiction writing, Solomon faced craft questions of her own. “In stories,” she notes, “you don’t have to have a single dull scene connecting yesterday to today,” but not so with novels, which require plot. “And plot is artificial,” she says. “Real life has no plot.” Yet the life she plots for Kenya in Disgruntled feels real indeed.
As for upcoming projects, Solomon is planning a novel about a “fateful dinner party” that evokes Mrs. Dalloway. “And there will be more short stories about West Philadelphia,” she adds. “Oh yes.”