Sadeqa Johnson wasn’t expecting to find an idea for her next book when she and her family took out-of-town guests to visit the Richmond (Va.) Slave Trail in 2016. But there they encountered the story of Mary Lumpkin, an enslaved woman who had been the wife, and eventually the heir, of the city’s biggest trader in enslaved Black people.
“I like to say that the story really chose me,” said Johnson of her fourth novel, Yellow Wife, published Tuesday. “When I went out on that slave trail, the story was waiting for me and I just said yes to it.”
Named one of the most anticipated historical novels of 2021 by O, the Oprah Magazine, Yellow Wife features a mix of historical and fictional characters in the story of the fictional Pheby Delores Brown, an enslaved woman who’s chosen by a Richmond trader notorious for his cruelty, to function as his wife. Forced to assist him in the sale of human beings in exchange for her own and her family’s safety, she dreams of helping others to the freedom she’d once been promised herself.
Johnson was born in South Philadelphia and grew up in Logan, graduating from George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science. She now lives in Virginia, just outside Richmond. The book publicist turned award-winning author also works with students in the creative writing MFA program at Drexel. She spoke with The Inquirer about having to self-publish her first book, getting to work with Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, and why she considers writing about enslaved people a privilege, not a burden.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Beyond your extensive research, is there something very different about writing about Pheby and her family, or do you see similarities between your first historical novel and your previous books?
I love to write about love. So for all my main characters, there’s some sort of element of love. I like women who have to struggle because I think that’s what life is about. My female protagonists, they always have to overcome something, and it’s usually a pretty big thing.
Did you always want to be a writer?
As a girl, I used to pass the library on my way to school every day, and most days I stopped at the library afterwards. I had a really tight relationship with my librarian at the Logan branch. She knew me very well, and she would help me pick out books. And so I was always a very, very strong reader. I remember being in seventh grade [at Holy Child on Broad Street], and I would stick my book behind my textbook. I have no idea what seventh grade math is because I read through all of it.
But in high school, I wanted to be an actress. So I went to Freedom Theatre on Broad Street for acting classes. When I moved to New York for college, I thought I was only going to be there for two or three weeks, I would get my big break, and next thing you know, I’ll be on The Cosby Show. It didn’t work out that way. I graduated [from Marymount Manhattan College]. And it was while I was in college and taking theater classes that I started to kind of fool around with my writing. I started [writing] poetry. And then I was writing plays. And then from there, I started my first novel, right after college.
So you wrote your first novel just as you were starting in publishing?
When I got my first job, at Scholastic, I started to fool around with a novel that never saw the light of day. But then the next novel I started, also when I was at Scholastic, that was Love in a Carry-On Bag.
>> Inquirer Live hosts Sadeqa Johnson at 11 a.m. Friday, Jan. 22, in conversation with Ellen Gray. Click here to register.
And in those days you were doing publicity for other authors.
Because I love to read, I was looking for a job that had something to do with what I liked. And so I ended up in publishing. I had two interviews at Scholastic, one in marketing and one in publicity. I only picked the job of publicity because it paid $2,000 more a year than the marketing job. After Scholastic, I went to G.P. Putnam’s, and I worked there for a few years.
I loved it. It was really cool to be behind the scenes and figure out how to promote other authors. I worked with J.K. Rowling on the first three Harry Potter books, which was a joy. I have my first three [of Rowling’s books] autographed, and they have a special place in my bookshelf, nobody can touch them. My kids can’t read them. They’re up really, really high.
I worked with Ruby Bridges and Walter Dean Myers and Virginia Hamilton and other authors at Scholastic. It was a really good experience.
And yet you ended up self-publishing your own first novel.
All the time I’m writing Love in a Carry-On Bag, I’m building connections. I‘m thinking that once I have this book done, it’s going to be 1, 2, 3. I had my first son and decided that I was going to stay home, and I was going to be an author now. And so I got an agent, a really prominent agent. And one by one, every single editor turned me down. It got to the point where I was distraught.
It wasn’t all me. It was around the time when Borders crashed, and editors were leaving publishing, self-publishing was on the rise. The industry was changing, and at that point there was just no room for me, I guess. And so my husband and I decided to start a publishing company called 12th Street Press, because I grew up on 12th Street, 12th and Somerville.
We ordered 3,500 copies and literally went up and down the East Coast, every book festival we could find, in the hot sun selling books in 98 degrees on street corners. But it worked, because I won the Phillis Wheatley Award for Love in a Carry-On Bag, and from there I was able to get a two-book deal from St. Martin’s Press for Second House from the Corner and Then There Was Me.
Books that deal honestly with slavery are important. But they can also be harrowing. What was it like for you to be writing about enslaved Black people? Was it harder, psychologically, than your other books?
It felt to me like I was connecting to my ancestors, like I was giving them a voice, that I was paying homage to them, that I was showing my appreciation for all of the things that they’d been through so that I could be right here.
That is the way I approached writing Yellow Wife. This was a gift that I was given, that they chose me, but also that I can give back to them by bringing their voices to the world.
Sadeqa Johnson will be the guest on Inquirer Live at 11 a.m. Friday, Jan. 22, in conversation with Ellen Gray. To register for this virtual event, go to inquirer.com/SadeqaEvent.