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Jabari Asim on his latest novel 'Yonder' and the power of historical fiction

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

In the new novel "Yonder," the Stolen live in the antebellum South. They live under the rule of their tyrannical captor, a man named Cannonball Greene, who is referred to as a thief. They work in the plantation fields of Placid Hall during the day. And at night, they think about philosophy and love and freedom. The story is told from the perspective of multiple enslaved men and women. There's William, his love Margaret, Zander, who is trying to teach himself to fly, and Ransom, a preacher. "Yonder" is written by Jabari Asim, who joins us now. Hi. Welcome to the program.

JABARI ASIM: My pleasure.

PFEIFFER: Many novels over more than the past century have used fiction to address slavery. So you are coming to this with an existing large body of work. What did you want to add, particularly now, when race is such a contentious issue again? What did you feel like you could add to that body of work?

ASIM: Well, a couple of things. One thing I was not concerned about was timeliness or relevance or connection to our current racial difficulties. But, you know, there is this conversation - literary conversation around slavery, like you said, and I think it's really increased in recent decades. And there has been comments made occasionally that enough has been said. Enough about slavery. Why are we still telling stories about slavery? And I don't think we've even begun to scratch the surface of the stories we can tell about it, and I think it's really important to document it.

You know, fiction has a long reach, sometimes a longer reach than nonfiction. And so I think it's important for fiction writers to turn their attention to this topic and not be discouraged by comments that we've said enough about it. At the same time, like you say, I was aware of a lot of the work that had been done, and so I was looking for ways that I could tell the story differently.

PFEIFFER: And it is such a character-driven story, with some people hopeful, some people feeling defeated, all of them living these excruciating lives but really hoping and dreaming of freedom. I wonder if you - did you have three - maybe two or three favorite characters, ones that you felt like you could use in the best way to tell the story?

ASIM: Sacha, that's like asking me if I have a favorite child (laughter).

PFEIFFER: Right. Right (laughter).

ASIM: But it was very - Preacher Ransom, who sort of travels through the other characters' stories as this itinerant minister, had a sort of wry personality to me. And I really enjoyed his duels with William as the novel progressed.

PFEIFFER: Yes. And the preacher is basically trying to make them think about a life that could be different than the one they live now.

ASIM: Right. And like you say, there's different viewpoints. There's William, who has - who prefers not to think too much about the possibility of freedom. And, you know, he doesn't think that's the best use of his energy, that he needs to concentrate on the day-to-day. And his best friend Cato is thinking about, you know, what if we were free? What would that be like? And William's response is, let's get back to work, right? So those are a sampling of the viewpoints that Preacher Ransom is up against as he tries to introduce this idea of another life.

PFEIFFER: That makes me want to have you read an excerpt from a chapter written from Cato's perspective. He's talking to William, who said he doesn't want there to be an afterlife.

ASIM: OK. (Reading) When this is over, I want everything to be just beginning, I told him, a whole other life waiting for us. What if it's this all over again? One life is enough. I just want to belong to myself, to feel what that's like. What would you call a Stolen who's no longer stolen? Just free, I suppose. William rose, moved past me and stood in the doorway of the cabin. How do we even know there's such a thing as free people like us? - I mean, really free. Have you ever seen one?

PFEIFFER: Your book is set shortly before the Civil War and the freeing of slaves. Of course, your characters can't know that those historic events are just around the corner. But some of them spend a lot of time imagining freedom, which most of them have never experienced. How did you put yourself in the mindset of people who want to be free but don't know exactly what freedom is?

ASIM: Well, I was struck by a couple of different notions, I guess. And one was, like you say, these people were so confined to this one area that they had very little knowledge of what was happening beyond the borders. They knew about places like Canada and places like Africa, but they really had no idea where they were or how far away they were. So they're reduced to speculation.

Many times in their conversations, this - the word yonder kind of fills in for any mysterious space beyond where they are. So they speculate a lot about what they think might be yonder. So it can mean the hereafter. What happens when we die? It can mean going up north in terms of yonder. And sometimes in the book, it just means what's over that hill? What's beyond that tree?

And part of my inspiration or source material for that was the slave narratives of a man named Lewis Clark. And he had some passages in there about myths that he'd heard about Canada, which turned out to be untrue, he later learned. But there were actually stories that his captors told about Canada to make it a really horrible place, a place you don't want to go to. And he talks about, you know, what happens when you find out, oh, none of that was true? So I want to - I wanted to entertain some of that within the book, have them speculate and say what they'd heard about places beyond the plantation's borders.

PFEIFFER: Would you read another section?

ASIM: Sure.

PFEIFFER: This one is on Page 154.

ASIM: (Reading) Preacher, she said, what if God is a thief? I want God to be bigger than thieves, I told her. I want God to be bigger than all of this. And is he? I don't know. Margaret looked into my eyes, first one and then the other, as if her staring might give greater clarity to my words. Yet you believe, she said. Yes. What good is it in that? Maybe none, but there's no harm in it, either. You got a strange faith, preacher. It's a strange world, is it not? She considered this. A half smile formed on her lips, suggesting she was satisfied. Indeed it is, she said.

PFEIFFER: What's your message there?

ASIM: I just wanted - so on one level, I want the novel to work as a philosophical novel. I think that Black people's capacity for philosophical inquiry is often downplayed in the culture. So to me, on a certain level, most of these characters are engaged in philosophical speculation. What's our place in the cosmos? What is the cosmos? One character, Cato, says, when we wake up in the morning, we don't just ask ourselves, why were we born? We ask, why were we born here, in these circumstances?

So I think these are things that enslaved people had no choice but to think about and to think deeply about. And so I wanted to have characters have that kind of dialogue just to show they're thinking about these things. They're talking about these things. And, of course, even those of them in leadership positions like the preacher don't necessarily have all the answers.

PFEIFFER: Jabari, you've said in the past, I always write with my ancestors looking over my shoulder.

ASIM: Mmm hmm.

PFEIFFER: How does that play out for you in your writing?

ASIM: It's a literal thing. I mean, I have big pictures - big photo reproductions of my ancestors within two feet of me even as I'm speaking now. And I've written all my books that way. I sit their pictures, you know, on the little tripod on the back of the picture frame. Sometimes I even put them right on the desk right next to me because I take it very seriously.

I sort of am motivated by this idea that my ancestors endured what they endured because somewhere down the line, they could see someone like me. They envisioned me leading a life very different from theirs, one full of space and air and privilege. So I feel like I have a responsibility to honor that legacy of labor and sacrifice by doing the best I can and to take what it is that I do very seriously. And so with them so close and their eyes so close, it helps me do the work.

PFEIFFER: Jabari Asim is the author of the new novel, "Yonder." Jabari, thanks for a really interesting conversation and a really beautiful novel.

ASIM: I was glad to be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE OH HELLOS' "DANSE MACABRE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.