Novelist's 'Disgruntled' Heroine Is Drawn From Her Own Childhood
Growing up in West Philadelphia, novelist Asali Solomon felt like an outsider. "The lifestyle I was leading was different from what other people were leading," Solomon tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "Like, my parents taught us to revere Africa — people at school made fun of Africa."
The family celebrated Kwanzaa, the kids were discouraged from saying the Pledge of Allegiance, and the family didn't eat pork. ("The reason for that was never quite explained to me," Solomon says,"... but it was part of a thing at the time that I think people were taking from black Muslims.")
Solomon drew on her childhood experience when she created Kenya, the main character in her new novel Disgruntled.Kenya, the daughter of parents who were Afrocentric black-nationalists, excels at her neighborhood school in West Philadelphia — but her success sets her apart. When she's sent to a mostly-white private school, she worries that she's not measuring up; she wants kids to see her as the brilliant black girl, "heir to those brave children in the south who'd shined their shoes each morning only to get kicked and spat on in their fight for a good education."
Disgruntled is rich with perceptions about race and class. It also explores the impact of divorce, and what it's like to have a parent use politics and philosophy as a justification for irresponsible behavior. And finally, it describes the alienation of a child who has had an adult philosophy imposed upon her — a scenario Solomon knows well.
"It is very hard to be a child living a righteous lifestyle and explain that to your friends and still be a part of things," she says.
On her parents' connection to the community
They would talk about "the community" and that meant black people. More closely it meant working-class black people in Philadelphia, or just black people in Philadelphia. I guess the thing that is funny about it [is] that was one of those things that I didn't think was particularly exotic until much later when I realized that other people don't go around talking about "the community" and what we needed to do for "the community." But ... what it meant was that we were a part of this entity and we should always be bearing in mind how we were representing that entity or what we were doing for that entity.
On her mother's feminism
My mother, as far as I can remember, has been a feminist and that was another thing that I didn't realize was slightly unusual in a household like mine. But also, I think a lot of working-class black women and educated black women — my mother is educated, both my parents went to college — are feminists, but wouldn't articulate as such whereas my mother would. ...
She would always say things like, when people talk about "When we get married," she'd say, "If you get married," and talk about a lot of things as a choice. Or she would always tell this story of a friend of hers who was raising a child on her own and somebody would say, "Oh, you need a husband," and the friend would say, "No, I need a wife." So she was very conscious of the hierarchy of gender and these kinds of things.
On a real-life incident that inspired her to write one scene in the book
One time my mom ... sat me down, we were sitting there, and she said, "You know your father and I aren't married." And I was like, "Really?" And she was like, "Yeah." And I'm struggling because I'm thinking like, my mom is the one who told me not to say "illegitimate." It doesn't matter, but at the same time it kind of does matter.
She was lying. This was some kind of weird prank just to see what [I] would say.
And so I think what I'm doing in the book is thinking about [how] in that moment I felt so like something dropped away, even though I had been taught not to feel that way. I had been taught not to be invested in this foolishness. But that's part of why it's there, because it was a part of this learning process that Kenya undergoes about her parents and about the mythologies of her childhood that fall away. And I could draw on that one bizarre moment of my mom's sense of humor.
On Solomon's experience attending an affluent private school
It was alienating in a lot of ways, but I certainly got an excellent education. I guess it took me a long time to understand the mix of feelings I have about that. It's something I've written about a lot and thought about a lot because [Bryn Mawr's Baldwin School] was a great school, aesthetically it was beautiful, I got to do so many things, but I always felt just kind of cold and out of it there.
I and a lot of the other black students were just marginal because we were black. We would never be at the core of the social experience of that school, I felt, because we were black.
There were things that could clearly explain this, like people really would ask me questions about the city, like, "Were there pools of blood on the ground?" and people would say things that were subtly or not-so-subtly racist. And class was a big issue. A lot of the kids were wealthy.
We weren't poor, but we weren't wealthy. We didn't have a lot of money — and that was something that was always there. I was very nervous about people coming to my house, which, in a lot of cases, they were not even allowed to do, because they weren't allowed to come to West Philadelphia.
But I think that recently I was thinking about how to articulate it. And I would say that in that situation I and a lot of the other black students were just marginal because we were black. We would never be at the core of the social experience of that school, I felt, because we were black. ... I didn't go to high school there, but I imagine that would've only increased as people got into dating, because [we] weren't going to be dating out there.
On the trade-off of attending a school where you feel marginalized
The thing that's difficult about "good schools" where you feel alienated or socially marginal, is that depending on who you are as a person, you can make it out of that and write fiction about it — about the pain that you experience. But a different kind of person won't necessarily get the benefit of the education because they're so broken as a person by that experience. So that's a kind of risk there. For me, I was definitely affected in ways that were negative and positive. But I think partially my ability to communicate about it in this way really means that it was a positive.
Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.