“Disgruntled” Author on Girls in Literature, Alienation, and TolstoyApril 29, 2015
2001–02 AAUW American Fellow Asali Solomon referenced Leo Tolstoy when describing the plot for her debut novel, Disgruntled. Tolstoy said, “All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town.” Solomon had a slightly different take: “A stranger comes to town, and the stranger is you.”
Disgruntled is a fresh coming-of-age story that engulfs the reader no matter where she or he may be on life’s journey. Everyone can relate, in one way or another, to protagonist Kenya Curtis and the immensely awkward, difficult, and often confused way that she proceeds through childhood and adolescence. Initially set in West Philadelphia, Disgruntled paints a picture of elementary schooler Kenya, who constantly analyzes how her family’s political lifestyle is different from that of her peers.
When Kenya’s sleepwalking forces the family to move to her grandmother’s house, her new school reveals an entirely new way in which to be different. Searching always for solid ground and a better understanding of her own heart, Kenya flings herself from her mother’s house to her father’s remote, polygamous farm and back to Philadelphia. Her soul-searching directs the reader throughout the novel.
On the locations and narrative, Solomon said, “One of the impulses people have when you write a book that seems close to you is to emphasize the biographical part. Anything dramatic [in the novel] didn’t happen to me!” More affecting than the dramatic events, though, is the undercurrent of Kenya’s constant unease. At school, at home, with friends, with family, and even by herself, Kenya had few clear moments of contentedness. Solomon confirmed that “the shame of being alive” is a theme throughout the novel. This, she said, is the “feeling of alienation that is kind of coming from you but also associated with a place where you are but don’t want to be. That place could be your own body.”
Kenya is the spine of this novel, living each day with a strength and depth that let her walk relatively unscathed past a crumbling milieu. Solomon said that she has always written about female characters, predominantly young women. But she dismisses the idea that writing about young women is a subversive choice. “I think the choice that I have made, perhaps, is that I try to write in a way that indicates that the experience [of a being a young, black woman] has all of the depth and texture and intellectual concerns as anybody else’s experience. I think that often people hear that this is a coming-of-age novel about a young black girl and come up with a set of preconceived notions that are very limiting.”
Solomon has certainly struck a chord with Disgruntled. It earned rave reviews with NPR’s Terry Gross and the LA Times. Solomon feels both grateful for the success of the novel and well positioned in her career. She currently is an assistant professor of English at Haverford College and writes when she’s not teaching. Solomon earned a doctorate in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and a Master of Fine Arts in fiction writing from the University of Iowa. In earning her master’s, she said, “I moved from someone who would produce scholarship to someone who would produce fiction writing. My Ph.D. also gave me a really great grounding in terms of literature and the trajectory of English and American literature, so I feel like I have a rich background both as a professor and a writer.”
Her AAUW fellowship came during her doctoral dissertation and allowed her to get it done quickly. The project was about black women’s artistic representation in literature — great groundwork for her future novel.
Once her schedule settles down and she has time to think and write further, we will certainly be keeping an eye out for the next novel by Asali Solomon!
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