When I first learned that I would be attending Hay Festival, I was overwhelmed with joy because the Festival had previously hosted Toni Morrison, one of my central literary heroes and a writer who has had a tremendous impact on my writing. However, unlike Morrison, I would not be able to attend the Festival in person due to the pandemic. And it would have been so nice to be able to visit Wales.
I appreciated very much that the Festival selected Jess Brough as my partner in conversation. Jess has a very deep understanding of my work, especially my debut novel, The Prophets, and was able to speak to some of the more overlooked aspects of it – in particular the ways in which gender and gender identity are viewed in a more holistic sense, rather than in strict binaries, throughout the novel. I also liked how she linked the novel, set in the United States in the 1800s, to contemporary politics, highlighting the legacies of some of the most dogged issues the United States, and much of the rest of the world, continue to face.
One of the benefits of digital engagement is that conversations are accessible to many more people than in-person events. And while there are occasional tech issues and there’s really nothing like face-to-face conversations, there is also something quite wonderful about having these discussions from the comfort of your own home.
In fact, the conversation between Jess and I felt so warm, natural, and spontaneous that I forgot to read the excerpt from my novel that I had planned to do during the discussion. Another good thing about online discussions is that mistakes can be corrected in the editing. Ha! And so, here is the excerpt that I had planned to read:
“They praised every daisy and then called every blackberry a stain. They bled the color from God’s face and gave it a dangle between its legs and called it holy. Then, when they were done breaking things, they pointed at the sky and called the color of the universe itself a sin. And the whole world believed them, even some of Samuel’s own people. Especially some of Samuel’s own people. This was untoward and made it hard to open up, to feel a sense of loyalty that wasn’t a strategy. It was easier to just seal yourself up and rock your own self to sleep.
Isaiah had widened him, given him another body to rely upon, made him dream that a dance wasn’t merely possible, but something they could do together, would do together, the minute they were free. A dreadful thing to get a man’s hopes up that way. Hope made him feel chest-open, unsheltered in a way that could let anything, including failure, make its home inside, become seed and take root, curl its vines around that which is vital and squeeze until the only option was to spit up your own innards before choking on them. Foolish Isaiah.
But how tender his affection.”
Robert Jones Jr is the creator and curator of the social justice, social media community Son of Baldwin, which has more than 275,000 members across platforms. He has written for The New York Times, Essence and The Paris Review. Watch his event of Thursday 27 May 2021 again on Hay Player