Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Her West Philly childhood is stranger than fiction

A child of black nationalists in West Philadelphia, Asali Solomon suffered through her share of bizarre public-library Kwanzaa celebrations. Instead of Thanksgiving, she got Umoja Karamu.

Asali Solomon, in front of Henry C. Lea School in West Philly, where she went. She then attended the Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Asali Solomon, in front of Henry C. Lea School in West Philly, where she went. She then attended the Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)Read more

A child of black nationalists in West Philadelphia, Asali Solomon suffered through her share of bizarre public-library Kwanzaa celebrations. Along with Thanksgiving, she got Umoja Karamu.

It made her an outsider at Henry C. Lea School, and it didn't help her social standing when she transferred to the Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, either.

Everyone's childhood has its own particular angst, but Solomon's, at least, provided inspiration for her debut novel, Disgruntled. It was released in February by Farrar Straus Giroux, and she'll read from it on Thursday at 7 p.m. at the University of the Arts' Connelly Auditorium (211 S. Broad St., Philadelphia).

Solomon, a professor of English at Haverford College, said Disgruntled in some ways closely tracks the arc of her own childhood - her antiestablishment parents, her sense of marginalization, and her journey through the public and private school systems.

Her protagonist, Kenya, attends Lea, then transfers to the mostly white prep-school Barrett, under the watch of her mother, Sheila, a librarian raised in the Richard Allen projects. Her father, Johnbrown, is an amateur philosopher who idolizes Julian Carlton, a servant of Frank Lloyd Wright who burned down the architect's home, Taliesin, and murdered his mistress, children, and household staff with an ax.

Kenya's home life rapidly disintegrates, as her parents and their acquaintances each introduce a new degree of peril and unpredictability. Part of the agony of childhood is a lack of control over one's circumstances; as Kenya begins sleepwalking, she finds that she, too, is one of those uncontrollable characters - a match, perhaps, waiting to be lit.

And that, said Solomon with a laugh, is where the autobiographical threads unravel: "Anything that's really interesting is not true. Anything that's actually dramatic didn't happen in my life."

Solomon, now 42 and a mother of two boys, actually came from what she calls "Philadelphia royalty."

Her grandmother was revered Point Breeze activist Mamie Nichols; her uncle was Richard Nichols, the manager of the Roots.

"My parents were very reverent of Africa. They didn't really believe in certain types of American rhetoric, the idea of the American dream as something that was available to everyone," she said.

But they did send her to Baldwin, which became a springboard to Barnard College, the University of Iowa and then University of California-Berkeley. In 2006, she published the short-story collection Get Down, to critical acclaim, including a "5 Under 35" nod from the National Book Foundation.

In 2010, she and her husband, historian and Haverford professor Andrew Friedman, returned to Philadelphia. They now live about five minutes from where she grew up.

The lessons of her childhood, likewise, are never far off.

For example, in Disgruntled, she mentions authors including Toni Morrison and Alice Walker.

Asked if they influenced her writing, she said, "It's very hard for me to talk about the influence of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and other black women writers, because when I was young . . . my mother talked about those writers so that I thought they were the canon. So influence - it's like, 'Did the sun influence that plant?' "

She takes inspiration, on a more conscious level, from poet Gwendolyn Brooks, whose novel Maud Martha is a study of mundane, middle-class existence. Likewise, much of Disgruntled chronicles the grind of daily life.

"So much of the novel is about something almost happening, and there being something maddening about this life where something is always almost happening," Solomon said. "That's the counterpoint to Johnbrown's obsession with Julian Carlton, and why it on some level interests Kenya: Something happens."

She also picked up the trick of anchoring her fiction in real places from Edward P. Jones, whose short-story collections take readers wandering around Washington, D.C.

"He'll mention train lines and streets, and it acquires this feeling of mythology. And I was like, 'I could do that!' " she said. "I'm always hoping a reader will feel recognition or connect in some way."

Besides, she added, it's a way of putting her hometown on the map, and inserting Philadelphia into the literary consciousness.

Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon, associate professor of urban theater and community engagement at Temple University, said writers such as Solomon are doing important work in taking back the narrative of African American life.

"It's always refreshing when you have writers coming up and talking about the communities they know," she said. "We have to tell our own stories, because if we don't, we leave it to others to interpret our lives."

It's a step toward prying African American writers out of the pigeonhole some editors and readers might otherwise restrict them to, she said. In that sense, she added, even getting a novel like this published is an achievement.

"The stories that editors are willing to print [by black writers] are usually tied to certain expectations of blackness: stereotypes and images of the 'hood," she said.

"And yet we know that our lives are full and rich, and they run the spectrum. There's not just tragedy and depression and hard times. There's also good times and middle-class life and education," she said. "She has the ability, because she's lived that life, to tell all of that."

It is not lost on Solomon that, as her novel was being published, racial tensions were bubbling to the surface from Ferguson, Mo., to the Main Line, where a police-stop of a snow shoveler smacked of racial profiling.

But, in many ways, she said, the issues her disgruntled characters cope with are timeless.

"I get feedback from all sorts of people that are like, 'This is exactly what happened to me - only, I was a poor, white student from the South at a fancy college,' or, 'I was the only Jewish person in the neighborhood,' " she said. "I think there's a feeling of marginalization that's universal."