“Jam on a Vine” is LaShonda Katrice Barnett’s first novel.
The story’s main character, Ivoe Williams, is loosely based on civil rights activists Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Charlotta Bass. The novel picks up Williams’ story at age 9. By the time she enrolls in an all-black university, in 1905, she has begun to get involved in politics and, like Wells, is developing a voice of her own.
While working at a college newspaper, Williams becomes aware of issues well beyond the college campus — “she has to go beyond herself in a very deliberate way,” Barnett says — and eventually moves from Austin, Texas, to Kansas City, Mo., where she and her life partner start a black press called Jam on a Vine.
Barnett let the characters, especially Williams as a young investigative journalist, dictate when to weave historical nonfiction moments, like blacks mobilizing and refusing to sit at the back of a trolley, into the fictional narrative of her own novel.
Since its release, “Jam on a Vine” has drawn several comparisons to Alice Walker’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Color Purple,” an acknowledgment that draws a prideful giggle from Barnett.
In some ways, your career kind of parallels (Walker’s) in that you’ve written short stories, fiction and nonfiction; you’re a music scholar; and you kind of bring that all together in this particular novel.
I guess what I draw on the most in “Jam on the Vine” is my background as a scholar. My graduate degrees in women’s history and American studies. … I can’t tell you how much being a historian serves me as a writer.
Knowing a little about you, I can see where the story of (your main character) Williams came from, but what made you decide to set it at the onset of the 1900s?
I have an affinity for historical fiction … and also because I was thinking about the fact that in all of the Jim Crow narratives — the stories that I’ve read, the novels that I’ve read by blacks and by non-blacks — I had never encountered a story like Ivoe’s, which is to say a story in which, yes, African-Americans are being victimized, but they are not trumped by their victimization. They are nevertheless able to carve out interesting and creative and fulfilling lives.
How did you decide to balance historical fiction with what is reality?
That was not a decision I made beforehand. That was the magic of “Jam,” and I can see now — with the new novel I’m working on — it’s the magic of this novel as well. I am a copious outliner. I love to outline, so I did go into “Jam” with an outline, but I wasn’t quite sure how much I would rely upon history in the narrative. … I knew I wanted to start with this 9-year-old girl, but also tell the stories of her family, so while the novel is a coming-of-age story, it’s also a family saga. I knew I would have to draw upon some history in dealing with both African-American men and women because she has a father and a brother, so I would need to know a little bit about what black men were facing.
Your story is very relevant today.
What I had a hunch about, even before I began the novel …, was that no matter what story I told, I would be dealing with changing the sameness of African-American life, because that’s what you discover when you start studying the history of any marginalized group. … We’re still fighting for some of the same things we were fighting for 100 years ago, and that’s clear if you pick up an American history book and think about what you’re reading. In many ways things have changed for the better, but we still have so far to go, and that was clear to me every day that I sat down to work on this novel.