Anita Gail Jones

On Writing About Historical Events, Talismans, the Importance of Sharing Black Stories, and Her Debut Novel ‘The Peach Seed’

Cover of Anita Gail Jones: On Writing About Historical Events, Talismans, the Importance of Sharing Black Stories, and Her Debut Novel ‘The Peach Seed’

In the opening pages of Anita Gail Jones’ debut novel, The Peach Seed (Henry Holt and Company, 2023), we meet widower Fletcher Dukes when he comes across his lost love Altovise Benson in a Piggly Wiggly in Albany, Georgia. The chance encounter begins a story that flips the pages of history from the 1960s Albany Movement to the shores of the slave trade in Senegal, through the Jim Crow era, and to the early years of Barack Obama’s second presidential term in a sweeping epic of families, history, and the evolving challenges of Black identity.

The first time Anita and I spoke about her novel was in a tavern north of San Francisco. Soon after we settled in, a rock band began playing near our table. Despite the din, I was able to glean the genesis and impetus that led her to write this multigenerational tale. A more recent conversation with Anita took place in a quiet corner of a local bookstore where I was able to dive into the broader journey behind her novel, one that draws deeply from her own well of family history and traditions.

 

Tania Malik: From the first scene of the novel, we are immersed in the shared history of two of the central characters, Fletcher Dukes, and his lost love, the one who got away, Altovise Benson. Why did you choose this point of reconnection to begin the story?

Anita Gail Jones: Fletcher and Altovise were based on a relationship my sister Betty had with her boyfriend in high school. They were destined to be married. That’s as far as it went in terms of similarities, but I thought this idea of high school sweethearts not getting together, not marrying when everybody thought they would—what happens if later on they come back together? It’s a chance for some really good trouble. And we don’t have a story if we don’t have trouble.

TM: Let’s talk about the title. In the novel, a peach seed—and not pit—is carved into the shape of a monkey and becomes a talisman passed down from father to son. How did this idea come about?

AGJ: I actually own a carved peach seed monkey that a cousin gave me and my sister when we were young. We called it a “peach seed” because he called it a “peach seed.” When I was doing research for the book, I came across this man in Michigan who had a whole website on peach pit monkeys. We became friends across the miles, discussing the history of carving peach seeds and other kinds of seeds. He took great issue with me calling it a seed instead of a pit because technically the seed is inside the pit. So, I had to come up with an answer for why I chose “seed” in my title. To me, the idea of a “pit” plummets you into an abyss, whereas a “seed” brings images of growth. And greenness. But I also knew that if I ever was lucky enough to publish, I could not put a book out there about Black people with “monkey” in the title because of all the sad, sick connotations between those two things.  

TM: When we first met you talked about The Albany Movement of the civil rights era. I had heard of the Selma March of 1965 but not of this movement. Why did you want to include this period of history in particular?

AGJ: It was its own intense movement in Albany, Georgia, that was recorded as a failure. Dr. King came down from Atlanta to help but later admitted that the focus was too broad. The idea was to protest, get arrested, fill up the jails, and then you have leverage to come to the table and talk about making changes. The chief of police at the time, Laurie Pritchett, was savvy in that he studied Gandhi and other non-violent protests just like King did, so he could plan to deal with the protestors accordingly. And that is what really took the wind out of the movement. He strategically did not put people in jail within a 50-mile radius of Albany. The jails never filled up. The leverage was never there. What ended up happening is they wore the protestors down. The same people were arrested over and over. There’s only so much you can take after a while, all the protesting and the being arrested, your family not knowing which jail outside of Albany you’ve been taken to, and all of that. It was considered a failure because it did not desegregate Albany as they had planned.

I was born and raised in Albany. My sister Betty was almost thirteen during the movement. I was seven, so I don’t have any memory of it. She wanted to work in the movement but our parents said no. She was very upset, but being a good girl, she did not go against their wishes. She’d say, “You know, Anita, that’s the story that hasn’t been told.” Sadly, we lost her in a plane crash in 1997. When I started the project, her words were ringing in my head. I said maybe there’s a place for it. Maybe I can elevate that story as one of the pieces of this broader story. I went back to Albany in June 2011 for the 50th anniversary of the movement and met all the folks who had participated and were now in their seventies and eighties. I think it is ridiculous to call it a failure as it laid the groundwork for further civil rights work.

TM: One of the storylines follows a Muslim woodcarver, Malik Welé, from when he is sold into the slave trade in 1796 and to his life in America. I’d love to know more about your research.

AGJ: Malik’s story is all invention. It’s not my story as we don’t know who our ancestors were because it was part of a plan that we were not to know. When it became clear that this story would be told from the point of view of men, I added Malik. The challenge lay in where to place him on the continent as Africa is vast. Given the predominant middle passage trade, I narrowed my focus. I was following a carving theme and my research led me to the Fulani tribe, renowned for their skilled carvers. As soon as you can latch onto some kind of a safety raft out in that vast ocean of your research, you are so grateful. I jumped on that raft, and it took me up to Northern Senegal.

I had to learn what that life might have been like for Malik. I found a paper online by an American who had done a lot of research on the Fulani. He lives in Africa and was willing to Zoom with me. One of my burning questions was, as a devout Muslim who prays five times a day, how do you do that when you are chained to the bottom of a ship, disoriented and suffering? How do you hold on to that faith and not feel forsaken?

The other thing we talked about was the oppressor’s strategy to confine disparate people who don’t share a language. They can’t talk to each other; they can’t plan anything. United by a terrible situation, unable to communicate verbally, it came to me that they would connect to each other through their eyes. That led me to my premise: strong love rises through tyranny. 

TM: What struck me is how you turned your narrative lens to capture stories of Black men. Why do you think it is important that we tell the stories of Black men in a different light?

AGJ: It became clear to me early on that I want to elevate the Black male voice, especially the southern Black male voice. Black men take a beating in the culture and literature. It actually started with a question for my dad who passed away in 1999. He was born in 1921 in southwest Georgia. He was from what is known as “the greatest generation” but because of the color of his skin, he was not able to realize the promises made to that generation. I wanted to know how he managed to be a leader in spite of that—a leader in his home, in his church, on his job, in the community. He was a leader when the government, by way of actual laws and policies, treated him less than human.

James Baldwin said that anyone observing Black men in the South during the Civil Rights Era would have to say they were heroes; that they were heroes more in small ways than large ways, and more in private than public. I wanted to explore that. Baldwin. Yeah. He always comes through. 

TM: It’s the little everyday things.

AGJ: Right. The everyday things and how they show up for them. We shouldn’t have to be doing this, but we still have to defend the Black man who is always considered to be either in prison or a deadbeat or on drugs. When I think about my father, Mr. Silas Jones, showing up every single day, working his job, showing up for his kids. That’s why I did it. 

TM: Getting back to the peach seed monkey carving. You have said that objects possess powers. Can you expound on how you find that talismans can alter lives?

AGJ: I’ve always been very sentimental about objects. It is interesting to contemplate the power that an object can hold, the history of that object, how it came to be, and how that connects you with its origins. I was maybe around nine when my cousin gave my sister Betty and me each a little peach seed monkey. When Betty was killed in a plane crash, I found her peach seed monkey inside a music box in her Michigan apartment. I had not seen it since we were young.

She and I never discussed them over the years. Yet here it was in pristine condition. Mine had lost its tail somewhere along the way. Hers, with its beautiful rhinestone eyes, was totally intact, even though she was gone. I felt all the power of that little object resting in my hand and how it connected me to Betty. When I started thinking about the book, the little monkey jumped into the mix and said, you’re going to put me in this story.

TM: I am curious about why you went with the carving of a monkey with its often racist connotations in connection with the Black race?

AGJ: The monkey is such a beautiful animal. You cannot find a single storytelling tradition in any culture that doesn’t talk about the monkey in some way. In the same way that I wanted to elevate the voices of Black men, I wanted to celebrate the beauty of the monkey, in spite of what white folks have tried to do with it.

TM: Objects have power but so do words. The slave trade violently changed the course of generations. One of the characters in the present day says to use the word “enslaved” instead of “slave.” What is the difference you are trying to highlight?

AGJ: To call someone a “slave” is to identify them as that. But to say an “enslaved person” is to put the emphasis, the bad emphasis, where it belongs: on the system. That’s how I see it. As you say, words are powerful and the way we speak about ourselves starts to shape how we feel about that thing. I purposely put that in the conversation between Fletcher and his sister because I think it’s important for us to start thinking of those things.

TM: The peach seed monkey, your father’s story, the Albany movement—what draws you to weaving personal history into a narrative?

AGJ: I don’t know how you cannot be inspired by personal narrative. It’s what made you who you are. You are not writing a memoir, but you’re calling upon all those things that are a foundation. To build something out of it. For example, I’ve often been asked if it’s difficult to write from the male point of view. And it was not at all for me because I wasn’t even thinking of it that way. Like Fletcher, my father was the last of twenty children. My father had a lot of his nieces and nephews who were more like brothers and sisters to him because they were close in age. My dad and his siblings raised me; their voices are so strong in my life even though all of them are gone. And now our generation is stepping up as elders. And we talk about it a lot. We are the elders now, but we hear the voices of our elders in our heads.

TM: The story is effervescent with the kinship of the Black communities in the Deep South. What is it about this sense of community that inspired you?

AGJ: There’s such a desire in this culture of ours to relegate people to one story, especially in Black America. I saw this as an opportunity to show how many stories one family can have. Once again, we’re not talking about those grandiose kinds of stories. We’re talking about the everyday stuff; the stuff that happens around the table. I was always looking for chances to show that. I’m not trying to wash over or diminish the horror of the lynchings, the beatings, all the terrible stuff. It’s there obviously, and in the book too. But let’s not forget that joy had to exist. Even in slavery. Which also speaks to the strength of the people, that they will hold onto their humanity, their love, their joy whenever they can. In those tender moments inside their cabin, after the day’s work is done, and they have their table, they have their rituals, they have their love. 

TM: This is your debut. What was your journey from idea to publication?

AGJ: I’ve always written in some form, starting with journaling. But I took a serious approach to writing in the early nineties when I took a creative writing class at The College of Marin [a local community college]. I was trying to improve my craft and not really saying one day I’m going to publish, but thinking maybe this could lead somewhere. Why do we find it so hard in the beginning to call ourselves writers and say I’m working toward publication? I don’t know why we can’t do it, but it’s too scary at first.

I got a Hedgebrook residency, and that validation really propelled me. Years later, I set aside the manuscript I worked on there when I got the idea for The Peach Seed. Through family and other commitments, I always found time to write. I could not afford the luxury of inspiration. It took fourteen years for me to finish the book and get it published. What sustained me through that whole period was the fact that the work changed. It got stronger. Just like a child gets stronger when you nourish them. So that’s what kept me in it. But I was still shocked that it took that long.

After years of querying agents, getting rejected, working some more, I said what should I do to set my query letter apart? I’m not a salesperson, but what I do know about sales is that before the ink is dry on the contract you just signed, they want to know what else you have. I put in my next query that I have another manuscript in the wings and we could be talking about a two-book deal. That is the gist of what I said. When I landed my agent, he didn’t talk about that at all. But in his query letter to editors, his last line was: Anita is working on her second book.

The lesson there is to look at your life, your work, find out what you think you can put in a letter that can make it stand out. And you may be surprised by what you find you can include.

TM: I recall you saying that you are an oral storyteller. How did that inform the writing of your novel?

AGJ: Back in the day when you said you were a “storyteller” it meant you told stories out loud to people. Now “storyteller” can mean many things, so I say I’m an “oral tradition storyteller” because I want people to know that I’m not talking about some other kind of storytelling. My storytelling is performance, and telling a story to a group of people changes each time based on who’s listening. I’m always looking at the malleability of a story.

The biggest way the storytelling came in handy was when I was stalled in my writing. I would do one of two things: I would just leave it for a while and come back to it, or I would dictate it into my phone like it was a story, the audiobook version of it. I needed to hear it in order to fix it. I would tell the story to myself on the phone and then listen and say, oh yeah, that’s clunky right through there or that’s not moving smoothly.

The visual art, the traditional storytelling, and the writing, they inform each other all the time. It’s continuous cross-pollination. 

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Anita Gail Jones is a visual artist, storyteller, and writer born and raised in Albany, Georgia. She is a Hedgebrook Writing Residency alumna, and was a 2018-19 Affiliate Artist at The Headlands Center for the Arts. The Peach Seed, her debut novel, released on August 1, 2023 by Henry Holt & Company, was selected as a 2021 Top Ten Finalist in the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, for ELLE magazine’s 65 of the Best and Most Anticipated Books of 2023, ESSENCE magazine’s 15 New Books We Can’t Wait to Read This Summer, and by Georgia Center for the Book as one of ten 2024 Books All Georgians Should Read. The paperback will be released on July 30, 2024. Anita lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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