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LaShonda Katrice Barnett on Hot Lesbian Sex Scenes, the Black Press, and Her New Novel ‘Jam on the Vine’

LaShonda Katrice Barnett on Hot Lesbian Sex Scenes, the Black Press, and Her New Novel ‘Jam on the Vine’

Author: Mel Morrow

February 19, 2015

“I wanted Jam to feel like a story, not a classroom, and a story where the hand of the writer is almost rendered invisible; this will always be the primary goal for my novels.”

LaShonda Katrice Barnett is a modern-day Renaissance woman with her finger on the pulse of American issues and her pen busy bringing them to light in various genres and formats. Holding an M.A. in Women’s History from Sarah Lawrence College and a Ph.D. in American Studies from the College of William and Mary, she has shared her knowledge through national and international lectures, and with undergrads at Columbia and Brown, to name a few. A former host of her own jazz radio program on WBAI (99.5 FM in New York), Barnett has interviewed over one hundred women musicians, work she draws from as the editor of I Got Thunder: Black Women Songwriters on Their Craft (2007) and forthcoming volumes Off the Record: Conversations with African American & Brazilian Women Musicians, and Drop the Mic: Women Hip Hop & Neo Soul Artists Sound Off on Creativity & Commerce. Currently a full-time writer and resident of Manhattan’s upper west side, Barnett is the author of a trilogy of plays, The Appropriate Ones, and the lush, gorgeous debut novel Jam on the Vine, an unparalleled love story between Ivoe Williams, co-founder and editor of the first southern African-American newspaper (from which the book takes its title), and her former-professor-turned-lover and co-editor, Ona Durden. 

I want to get to the juicy bits, but first, you include a note in an early draft of your manuscript in which you mention that you drew inspiration for Jam on the Vine from your students’ questions about how African-American people survived slavery and formed communities. Your answer is “the black press,” which you dub “the greatest tool for racial self-help,” “America’s unsung bulwark of democracy,” and “the impetus” for Jam. Will you please say more about this?

To my mind, more than any other institution in American history, the black press has brought defining aspects and understanding to the concept of black American culture. From the period of post-Reconstruction (and in a few rare cases even before then), the black press has understood that African America is a nation within a nation. Then and now, black newspapers are on the scene taking the stories that involve and have significant impact for African-Americans, leaving a record, and as such creating and maintaining a history and making tomorrow possible by providing life-sustaining information to the black public.

How do your characters make abstractions like “democracy,” “freedom,” “love,” “community,” “justice,” and “identity” accessible, concrete and important to all different kinds of readers?

In the true business of living, none of us compartmentalizes those things. They are abstractions perhaps in a classroom, or in a seminar on American history or political science, but mostly, we live our lives expending effort to keep our humanity—our dignity, loves, hopes and relationships—better than intact; on a good day, we want these attributes of life to glimmer and shine.

The historical era I chose to write about automatically brings to mind some of the “abstractions” you list—justice, democracy, freedom. My job then was to bring characters (and readers) as seamlessly as possible into the reality of living during this era, which is of course the mark of good historical fiction. With Jam on the Vine, I set out to write realistically about black people in full possession of their humanity during a nadir in our country’s history, Jim Crow. I didn’t court thoughts of themes while writing because I wanted the story to unfold organically, which I don’t know is possible if you privilege the “abstractions” or the themes. I wanted Jam to feel like a story, not a classroom, and a story where the hand of the writer is almost rendered invisible; this will always be the primary goal for my novels.

The Williams family is creative: Ivoe writes; Aunt May-Belle makes medicine; Lemon has a green thumb and can whip up a feast from virtually nothing; Ennis is a metalworker and gifted storyteller; Irabelle plays clarinet; and Timbo has social artistry down pat, uniting and mobilizing people for positive change. What role does creativity play in your characters’ survival and successes in Jam?

One of the marks of privilege in America then and now is the wherewithal to maintain a static identity. You see this in the history and fiction of the Gilded Age: wealth becomes synonymous with certain family names and a certain lifestyle that is unchanged throughout the generations. To be an Astor, a Chase or a Vanderbilt carried (and still carries) with it a particular privileged trajectory in life. During the Progressive era, when most of Jam is set, this is even more so. However, that was not the reality for 99.9% of black Southern families. Identity in flux is as much a part of black history in America as slavery. It is even reflected in the name-changes of our culture: Negro, Colored, Black, African-American. I think during the period of Jim Crow, African-Americans more than any other American group understood that normal day-to-day living required creativity, an improvisatory approach. Short shrift is always given to the creative mindset necessary for mere survival, but it is a mindset that has been critical to black America, and that may or may not be accompanied by talent for writing or music or effective union-organizing, like some of the members of the Williams family.

Also part of the black experience, as rendered through the family in Jam, is navigating your talent, knowing how to marshal it. There are several places throughout the novel when the Williams clan draws upon a particular talent and it’s perceived as trespassing the limits of their race. An article Ivoe publishes brings trouble. Irabelle confronts danger because of her clarinet. And sometimes, it doesn’t come from the outside. Lemon’s community turns their back on her and her delicious jams when they decide the Williams family has gone too far. I don’t know that the grief Timbo experiences for his union work is worse coming from the white men on his job, or from his wife, Roena.

You have a rich background in jazz, including the jazz radio program you hosted on WBAI and interviews with over a hundred women musicians, many of which informed your books I Got Thunder and Off the Record. Indeed, there is a jazz motif throughout Jam, from Irabelle’s clarinet, to Ivoe and Ona harmonizing on current events in their newspaper, Jam! on the Vine, to the reinvention and self-discovery themes with which each Williams improvises their own unique variation. Why jazz, and why is Jam a newspaper instead of a jazz ensemble?

I wrote a four-hundred page doctoral thesis on three jazz women vocalists—Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone and Cassandra Wilson—and I didn’t want to write fictively about jazz music, which I love more than anything in life outside of my relationships and my poodle. I am enormously inspired by jazz, and writing a novel in shifting close third lends itself beautifully to the spirit of a jazz jam session and the emphasis on “voicing” that I tried to bring to Jam.

Jazz is pervasive in the novel as an aesthetic rather than as subject matter. James Baldwin said, “I think I really helplessly model myself on jazz musicians and try to write the way they sound.” Players in the jazz tradition understand that cultivating your own sound is critical. I embraced this mindset while working on the novel. I was very conscious of each character having a distinct voice, a cadence or syntax distinguished from the others the way you could discern a trumpet from a clarinet or trombone during a jam session. I’m always delighted with authors who can write long conversational scenes in which there are no directives on who said what—no character is named and you don’t miss it because you know the “voice” of each character based on the careful cultivation of personality through language that the author has employed.

Also, a popular black female literary trope in fiction by blacks and non-blacks is the female jazz or blues singer. We find Lutie Johnson in Ann Petry’s The Street (1946), Ida in James Baldwin’s Another Country (1962), Ursa Corregidora in Gayl Jones’ Corregidora (1975), Shug Avery in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982), and Lindy Walker in Bebe Moore Campbell’s Singing in the Comeback Choir (1997)—but this isn’t to suggest that these singers are each portrayed the same. Rebecca Rotert’s recent novel Last Night at the Blue Angel features a hard-working, albeit self-destructive, jazz singer protagonist, while Amy Bloom’s recent novel Lucky Us—a breakneck-paced story that riffs upon and expands the territory of “family saga” in bold, exciting ways—features a jazz singer who is able, in the ways that count, to provide a man possessed of a floundering heart with stability and true love—a love that she also extends to his children.

If Jam! on the Vine were an ensemble (as opposed to a newspaper), then it would follow that Ivoe would be a jazz singer, and that’s not a story I was interested in telling, partly because such memorable ones have already been created. (This is why Irabelle is an instrumentalist and not a singer. I also wanted to disturb the notion, developing at that time in American popular music, that mastery over musical instruments was a strictly male domain.) If I ever wrote a novel about a singer, she’d be a black country/folk singer because there has been so much resistance in the music business to grant black women this platform or to celebrate them in this particular musical idiom along with Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, etc. Can you name one famous black woman country singer? Exactly. And yet, the blues is the matrix for country music! There are numerous historical personages of black country/folk singers who I could draw from if I wrote this novel, most significantly Elizabeth “Libby” Cotton.

One of my favorite lines in the book is when Lemon says to Ivoe: “it’s like she the oak tree and you the ivy—[you] just wrapped yourself all around her.” The line itself is a lovely homage to Paul Laurence Dunbar, author of the poetry collection Oak and Ivy, a book about committed love that figures prominently in Ona and Ivoe’s relationship. There are also thorny characters who make trouble for the Oak and the Ivy. Indeed, the backlash Ivoe faces for a committed lesbian relationship comes from fellow members of the queer community who aren’t quite “passing” as straight for survival, but who aren’t exactly public with their bisexuality either. Is this tension a riff on lesbian and bisexual invisibility—on Du Boisian “double consciousness—and/or a commentary on queer community history?

I try to steer clear of commentary. I don’t think it has a place in a story. It’s important to note that the same-sex desire unfolding in this book all happens before 1926, much before a visible (public) subculture in black gay communities develops. There is no bar culture. When Ivoe and Ona dance, for example, they do so in their own living room, with the exception of the final chapter because in Paris, everybody dances with whomever the hell they please! As a couple, Ivoe and Ona’s social life hinges primarily on race; they are club women and race women, which, in conjunction with the newspaper, grants them very public lives, but their sexuality and love for each other, while ever present, is private.

One of the reasons I wrote the scene you quoted is because I wanted to show how a non-queer person sometimes struggles with the language to define an expression of love, a sexual lifestyle they find so completely foreign and in some cases even threatening. Lemon’s analogy enables her to abandon thoughts of defining that love with a negative term. What you see instead is that Lemon reaches into her own language set for descriptors of what those feelings of love are like for Ivoe. I wish this for every parent of gay children—to be able to consider the love feelings and to not twist them into dark, unfortunate things, because they absolutely aren’t. Love never is.

How does your experience writing lesbian erotica—besides, of course, the steaminess of the sex scenes!—inform your portrayal of Ivoe and Ona’s long-term, monogamous relationship?

Sixteen years ago I tried my hand at lesbian erotica in a book of short stories entitled Callaloo, and while the stories have plots, I think the steaminess was prioritized over character development! [Laughter.] With that book, I was celebrating my own sexuality, and owning it in a way that I hadn’t before, which meant to my twenty-two-year-old-self writing about sex as boldly as I could. Many of those characters felt no emotional responsibility towards each other at all. [Laughter.] …They were sleeping together immediately and cohabiting on the third date. When I read them now, I find them not so bold and kind of sweetly naïve. With Jam, I was more concerned with the fullness of Ivoe’s relationship with Ona, which is loving, supportive, adventurous, true, rare and honest. If all of those things are in place, I can’t fathom that hot sex wouldn’t also be there. Is it possible to have vanilla sex with someone who totally sees you—the way Ivoe and Ona see each other—or between adventurous, trusting lovers who have so much shared history? I don’t think so. Thank God. I’m also deeply inspired by longevity between people—which is to say, not by ordinary people who collect the years as a matter of convenience, but rather by extraordinary lovers like Ona and Ivoe, who do more than pay bills together and acquire material things. I’m turned on by lovers who seem to inspire each other to do great things, magical things; which is to say that I think the hotness of the dildo scene is not the dildo but the sex in concert with what Ona and Ivoe are accomplishing together on that trip.

In his 1937 review of Their Eyes Were Watching God in New Masses, Richard Wright criticized Zora Neale Hurston for what he viewed as oversimplification in her representation of African-American life, accusing her of placating white audiences in her fiction. Years later, responding to W. E. B. Du Bois’ rejection of—and decades of critical dialogue about—“the burden of representation,” Touré writes in Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?: “Throwing off the burden of representation can give an artist space to discover who they really are apart from the dictates of community and the past and the confining strictures of worrying about the white gaze.” What’s your stance on the “burden of representation” as a queer African-American writer who has lived in the north and the south? 

First, let me say that I disagree wholeheartedly with Wright. Zora Neale Hurston earned a B.A. in anthropology and completed two years as a graduate student in anthropology at Columbia. Her depiction of black culture in Their Eyes Were Watching God is not only poetic and beautifully informed by anthropological theorization, but also significant because the novel represents a paradigm shift in black women’s writing up to that point. Janie has a vibrant sexuality; prior to 1937, most novels about black women side-stepped sexuality altogether or offered a muted or tragic sexual experience. Hurston’s Janie is also the quintessential insider/outsider perspective that Bronislaw Malinowski—the father of functionalist anthropology—introduced in his theorizations. There is nothing oversimplified about that positionality—being both an insider and an outsider. I can speak to this because in some black circles, for example, my own blackness makes me an insider, but my lesbianism makes me an outsider, too.

The second part of your question on the “burden of representation” is tricky for me. I am inspired by African-American history and find good company among my ancestors and the fascinating historical figures I encounter in the research process. It is an honor to fill my leisure learning about the complexity and richness of black lives and a privilege to bring my imaginative self to that process. I wouldn’t want to play it down for anything, and I can’t imagine ever looking upon it as a burden. If anything, my process is healing. Any student of black history will tell you that our ancestors got a raw deal when they were on the planet. In my novels, I have the power to correct some of that and to shed a little light on the dark (pun intended) past.

Jam is a historical novel, but the articles Ivoe writes for Jam! on the Vine could easily be about the current epidemic of incarceration and police brutality. What’s your secret for blending fact with fiction, and for making historical events resonate with modern readers from disparate backgrounds and life experiences?

I don’t think there’s a secret, but the truth is that to describe African-American life is to concern one’s self with a changing sameness. Black history reveals this again and again. Vigilante police force and the disproportionate incarceration of black men is not merely happenstance; these democratic crises have roots dating back to post-Reconstruction and Jim Crow. I couldn’t write about this time period and about the black press and not address these issues because they were prevalent then as they are now.

Will you give us a teaser for your new writing project?

I’ve got a great outline and have written four chapters for God’s Follies, a historical novel set in Gilded Age-era Manhattan that draws on early Broadway theatre culture and the heist of the century, pulled off by three women: two immigrant women—Guadeloupean and Jewish—and a Midwestern actress. It’s an atypical love triangle, the heart of which is money. I’m wrapping up a new chapter titled “Our Plum,” and I’m having big fun channeling Edith Wharton!


This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.
Image: LaShonda Katrice Barnett via
Mel Morrow photo

About: Mel Morrow

Mel Morrow holds a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and is the Marketing Coordinator for Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She skates under a hilariously dirty derby name for the Midwest Roller Derby Collective, of which she is a founding member. She is an avid reader and writer who enjoys riding her bike around Milwaukee and lounging with her two naughty Old Lady cats.

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