Q&A With Jamila Minnicks

We asked 2023 Texas Book Festival Author Jamila Minnicks a few questions about herself and her featured Festival title Moonrise Over New Jessup.

TBF: Why did you write your featured book? (What was your inspiration? Where did the idea start?)

JM: “My mother made sure that we had a complete picture of what it was like for her to grow up in Alabama. De jure segregation ruled the Jim Crow south during her youth, and she lived on the Black side of Demopolis, Alabama. She taught us that Demopolis was a place where my great-great grandfather Preston was one of the founders the home church where my family still worships today; where she vied with the same girl from first through twelfth grade for class valedictorian; where my grandfather, Daddy John, and his four brothers all built “big white houses on the corner” of the same block—each helping the other to construct their homes by hand; where my grandmother, Mama Bea, taught my mother to hold up her head, “high, but not to have her nose in the clouds,” and wrapped my mother in a big hug every day before she went to school. My mother talked about boyfriends and high school dances and fig trees bearing fruit in the yard and shooting a rifle with such precision they called her Annie Oakley. Demopolis was a community where people did for each other, shared nickels and dimes; a place where my great uncle O’Connor once claimed to push his Oldsmobile to “forty-five, forty-five miles per hour.” My family was certainly aware of the ever-present hostilities and dangers they faced. But Demopolis was a place where my family could be self-reliant and serve to better our community.

I grew up reading Moja Means One to M.C. Higgins the Great to classics by Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Sonia Sanchez and Gwendolyn Brooks. When I announced that I wanted to be in the Air Force, my mother took me to meet living Tuskegee Airmen at the Chicago Air and Water Show, and I sat in the red-tailed plane they had on display. When I wanted to become a lawyer, she introduced me to Judge Ann Williams, the first Black woman to serve on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. My mother taught me to find people wherever I was, to build community, and to tell our complete stories.

When George Floyd’s murder circulated the internet, he became, to many, another unfortunate hashtag. I did not know George Floyd, although he could have been my older brother. But he was a part of my community, nonetheless. A man who had lived more life than the story of violence, destruction, and death portrayed and turned him into a body, a symbol, and deprived him of his life as a son, grandson, father, and friend. Even as he lay dying and calling out to his mother. And I started thinking about how the stories of our lives are so full, yet so quickly one-dimensionalized, minimized, then erased.

So I set out to write a short story about a fictional Black family around a holiday table debating what Black social progress really looked like during the time when the modern civil rights movement was taking shape. In that dynamic, Alice’s voice started to get lost ten minutes into writing. She was always a woman married to a man involved in The Movement. But she had her own opinions and motivations and magic, and Moonrise gave me the opportunity to explore her full, meaningful life in a novel. Moonrise also gave me the chance to consider New Jessup with its struggles and triumphs outside the traditional narratives of oppression and degradation. But this is Alice’s story because, without Black women like my mother, my aunts, my grandmother, there is no full accounting of our history.”

Jamila Minnicks’ novel Moonrise Over New Jessup (Algonquin Books, 2023), won the 2021 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, is a finalist for the 2023 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, and was longlisted the 2023 Crook’s Corner Book Prize. Her short stories and essays are published in The Sun, CRAFT, Catapult, Blackbird, The Write Launch, and elsewhere, and her piece, Politics of Distraction, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Jamila’s work has been supported by the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

Jamila is a graduate of the University of Michigan, the Howard University School of Law, and the Georgetown University Law Center. She lives in Washington, DC. You can see Minnicks at the 2023 Texas Book Festival this November 11–12!