If you didn’t know Jabari Asim was from St. Louis, a quick look at his first novel, “Only the Strong,” makes it clear. An Arch dominates the cover of the book, which is set in “Gateway City.”
The fictitious name lets him add details such as a destructive race riot after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And it means he doesn't have to worry whether streets or places exist where they are placed in the book. Still “Only the Strong” is true to St. Louis. The action takes place in North Gateway circa 1970. Delmar is very much a dividing line, though corporate interests are recognizing the need to have partners on both sides of that street and the Central West End is somewhat integrated.
Interwoven through the three parts of the book are the stories of Ananias Goode, a crime boss working to become a civic leader; Dr. Artinces Noel, a pediatrician and sometime romantic partner of Goode; and Lorenzo “Guts” Tolliver, Goode’s former enforcer who has gone straight – mostly. The guys at Tolliver’s cab company, the folks in Fairground Parks, the hot-shot pro baseball player, the shop clerk, the politically influential minister, the sign painter and pie lady all add texture to the story.
The book contains a mystery that works well, but the real reason this book not only reads beautifully but stays with you is the wealth of characters. You want to know what happens to these folks. Indeed, you want to know more than Asim provides.
Given that the setting is clearly St. Louis, are these people real? Asim says most are composites. “Guts Tolliver,” he said, “is based on a man I observed as a child but didn’t actually know and never exchanged words with.” That observation must have been acute. Asim says he largely drew on memory, interviewing his parents for little things, after all, he was 8 years old in 1970, when the story takes place.
A St. Louis base
Asim is one of six children and the only one living outside the St. Louis area. His professional writing started in St. Louis. He joined Sylvester Brown at the cultural tabloid “Take Five;” wrote for the St. Louis American; was a copy editor for the opinion pages at the Post-Dispatch (full disclosure: I was on the team that hired Asim for that job); and eventually was book editor there. In 11 years at the Washington Post, he was a syndicated columnist and deputy editor of the book section.
Asim is now associate professor of writing, literature and publishing at Emerson College in Boston, where he also heads the MFA program. He is the editor in chief of “The Crisis,” the journal of the NAACP.
On his website, Asim says he is an author, teacher and occasional thinker. So what did he think about how St. Louis was reflected in national news reports during the crisis in Ferguson?
“I recognized it,” he said simply, noting that “Taste of Honey” -- his book of short stories also set in Gateway City -- begins with the killing of an unarmed black man by a policeman.
“It was always part of the fabric of life in north St. Louis,” he said. “I was socialized as a very small child to fear policemen, to be nervous when they were near and to be aware that they were predators. My parents are octogenarians now but that’s how they raised me because they wanted me to come home at the end of the day.”
He said what happened was not a total surprise.
“I think the only unpredictable element was which one of those communities that have been exploiting African Americans through the law enforcement system, which one would be the one that lit the powder keg,” Asim said. “There are a number of those communities and we all knew them. We all knew to avoid driving or walking in those communities at an early age.”
His hope for change comes from the “intelligent activism” he’s seen come from young leaders.
Lack of media diversity
He also sees a need for change in publishing and elsewhere in the media. Writers of color have difficulty getting their work published and recognized.
“I think I can name maybe two African-American editors at major publishing houses,” Asim said. The same isn't quite true for children’s books, “if not for the presence of Asian-American women in editorial positions, I probably would not have any children’s book. They get having books that reflect children of color.”
As for the press, “The New York Times doesn’t have a single African-American cultural critic and they have about 20 [critics],” he said. The importance of that is reflected in the response when he asked a fellow editor at The Washington Post why they never had an African-American economist review books on the economy. “Well, that’s why we have you,” he was told.
Asim was the cultural editor, so, he had no control in that area. “That’s sort of emblematic of how it is in newsrooms. You don’t have people of color in decision-making positions.”
The New York Times, whose summer reading list was criticized for have no authors of color, is another example: “None of their book critics is African American so they tend to overlook us.”
Asim will be giving book reviewers more opportunities to crtique his work. Next up is his eighth children’s book. “Preaching to the Chickens” is about the life of civil rights activist John Lewis.
“I’m working on another novel, but it’s not remotely close to being sent to an editor yet,” Asim said. That novel is not a sequel. “I have a novel percolating about North Gateway. My ambition is to tell that story of that community decade by decade all the way to the present. But the novel that I’m more than a third of the way through will be a departure from the Gateway City stuff because I think it would be good for me and for readers to visit some other landscape for a while.”
His wife, Liana, is an actor and solo playwright and the two have collaborated on a couple of scripts that are looking for a home.
He says he’s able to write so much because he’s learned to relax while maintaining discipline. “I am going to sit in front of the computer a couple hours every day. I also do it because I have to, I can’t image not doing it.”
Books by Jabari Asim
- What Obama Means: ... For Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Future (2009)
- The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn't, and Why (2007)
- Not Guilty: Twelve Black Men Speak Out on the Law, Justice and Life (editor) (2001)
- A Taste of Honey (2009)
- Fifty Cents and a Dream: Young Booker T. Washington (2012)
- Girl of Mine (2009)
- Boy of Mine (2009)
- Whose Toes Are Those? (2006)
- Whose Knees Are These? (2006)
- Daddy Goes to Work (2006)
- The Road to Freedom (2000)